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December 5, 2003 [feather]
L'Affaire Berube, contd.

Last night I posted some readers' responses to my commentary on Michael Berube's Chronicle of Higher Education piece about a disruptive conservative student, including excerpts from Berube's letter calling my comments "fraudulent" and "unscrupulous" (read the whole thing at his web site). That post drew still more commentary--from Tightly Wound, Joanne Jacobs, and Discriminations (scroll down to updates II and III), among others. (UPDATE: There's still more at Discriminations, partially in response to the post you are reading now, here.)

The post also drew mail from readers, including one who writes:

I got hopping mad reading Berube's response to your piece, and I was already steamed to begin with. Some very smart people (including Berube) have opined that complaints about conservative suppression in humanities departments are probably the result of discomfort at hearing dissenting views. In other words, conservatives are used to--no, demand!--consensus. Bullshit. My husband and I haven't voted for the same presidential candidate once in the fifteen happy years we've been married; I know my way around dissenting views.

What we're talking about here is not squeamishness over English professors' obligatory asides about "the current administration«" and how "the monkey running the show disproves Darwin." While such comments are unprofessional, not to mention jejune, I've got plenty of callouses and can tolerate them in silence. I've even refrained from rolling my eyes during a ten-minute diatribe about American "imperialism" in a class on (this one's fun) American colonial literature.

No, these little annoyances are not the issue. The issue is a politicized worldview in literary studies that has taken hold of many scholars and turned them into true believers of such mystical intensity that they've become hostile to reason and evidence, even when such evidence might further liberal causes. It almost seems like a religion, this aimless rage; its very angry god would be Subversion (and its devil, of course, must be Hegemony).

These are some of the classroom scenes I've witnessed:

--In a discussion of English literature in the Age of Enlightenment, the professor and several students expressed dismay at the expansion of capitalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie during this period. After several minutes of snarking about the "elitist" viewpoints expressed by Addison and Steele (!), I raised my hand and inquired mightn't there have been some benefits to these economic changes? Benefits like increased literacy, expansion of representation to lower socioeconomic classes, and more access to publication for women? The professor nodded politely and said, "Interesting." Several students turned around and glared at me, and one spat, "All that did was add more soldiers to the hegemony's army!" Yes, she really said that; I went home and wrote it in my journal. Three cheers for feudalism, I guess.

--In a discussion of Cold War literature the professor repeatedly stated that Soviet expansion was an illusion rigged by a macho and neurotic United States. I've heard smart people argue that the U.S. overreacted to Soviet expansionism, but I'd never before heard someone say that the Soviet Union actually didn't expand. Students all around (most born a good quarter-century after the Warsaw Pact) nodded knowingly.

--The class was discussing the spread of the English language in the former British Empire and the topic of generational differences came up. Someone observed that an earlier generation of postcolonial elites had learned "Oxbridge" English and that later generations learned American English via movies and music. Several people observed that there was no meaningful political distinction to make between the two; both were "hegemonically imposed." I asked if perhaps we weren't glossing over an important difference: Oxford and Cambridge educations were available to elites only, whereas American popular culture reaches more people- that it is, in at least this one sense, populist. At the sound of the word populist the professor visibly sneered and rolled his eyes. The class went silent and several students shook their heads in apparent embarrassment over my naivete.

These are just some recent memories; there are many more in storage.

I also received multiple emails from Berube himself. I quote the first one (the one where he doesn't address me as "lassie") in full:

So you're cowardly as well as dishonest. Very well-- I thought you would do me the courtesy of a direct reply, but I overestimated you. Suffice it to say that the only other person who's pulled this kind of stunt with me is the loony far-leftist Alexander Cockburn at CounterPunch. Your commentary on my essay was indeed unscrupulous (regardless of the link), as is your behavior with regard to my letter to you.

But take comfort in your correspondents and their bizarre little theories about my class. Your business professor from southern Cal (who's really arguing with Powers, and really doesn't have the intellectual wherewithal to do so) and your English professor from Wheaton (who believes that I think conservatives support the AJA camps-- kudos to you for telling him that I wrote to you and said otherwise!) are real prizes. Cherish them. They're your readers, they're your fans. Be proud.

When you think you've scared up the intellectual integrity necessary to reply to me, let me know. I'll be at www.blusparx.com/berube, where I've posted my reply to you.

My apologies to those readers whose comments became grist for Berube's contemptuous mill. Here's my reply, with a small section removed to protect the privacy of innocent bystanders:

Dear Michael (if I may),

It was the discovery that you had posted your response to me on your website several hours before you wrote to me (your site says you posted at 12:37; your letter to me came in at 3:08) that led me to believe there was no obligation to write back to you personally. Your letter to me was an apparent afterthought to your web posting, one that, in failing to mention that it was in fact a copy of what you had already written on the web, mispresented itself as private correspondence. For what it's worth, I often reply to readers by way of posting their letters on Critical Mass. It's not cowardly, it's efficient. The cowardly thing in this instance would have been to pretend that you had not written to me, and to ignore your letter altogether. This way readers can make up their own minds about your essay and mine.

I'm not interested in returning the insults and the condescension with which you have felt free, in multiple unsolicited emails, to favor me. I will simply say that I have long been an admirer of your work, and that it was this admiration in particular that left me so disappointed with your Chronicle piece.

I take your points about reasonable accommodation, and I'm very willing to believe you bent over backwards for this student in precisely the ways you describe. But the snide asides about conservative students and conservative campus activism in your essay make it awfully hard to see your essay in the light in which you clearly mean for it to be seen. In your comments on Stanley Kurtz, on Horowitz, on Accuracy in Academia, and on the absence, as far as you are concerned, of any academic bias against conservatives, you undermine both your claims to tolerance and to be talking specifically about the problem of reasonably accommodating all students.

I concluded by mentioning the work FIRE does to defend the rights of all students; by pointing out how many of FIRE's cases concern conservative students who have been penalized by professors or punished by school administrators for their views; by observing that while Berube did not violate "John"'s rights, his essay did compromise John's dignity, as well as that of conservative students across the country; and by explaining that this had a lot to do with why I reacted to it as I did. I sent that off at 8 this morning. So far, no reply.

UPDATE: Berube has spoken. There's more to be said about the issues that have arisen in our exchange, and about the debate it has sparked in various pockets of the blogosphere, and I'll try to get some of those things said when I don't have the flu and do have some time. For now, it's simply nice to note the improved tone of the exchange.

posted on December 5, 2003 7:18 PM