Monthly Archives: January 2009

Speak of …

… I was going to say “the devil,” but then, I wouldn’t want the person in question to claim I had called him the devil.

The person in question is Eric Alterman, with whom I had an infamous spat nearly four years ago after I zinged him in my Boston Globe column for suggesting that it’s outrageous to expect Muslims and Arabs to pay tribute to the memory of Holocaust victims when so much of their suffering is caused by Jews. The occasion was the British Muslim Council’s decision to boycott the ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz because equal time was not given to Palestinian victims of Israeli “genocide.” Alterman and I had a caustic exchange on the Reason blog, Hit & Run, and Alterman also encouraged readers of his blog not only to pepper me with angry emails (about half of the ones I got were supportive), but also to call my then-editor at the Globe, Nick King. At some point, he also made the bizarre suggestion that I attacked him out of a personal vendetta because he had once defended my ex-boyfriend against unfair attacks (huh?); see more about it from John Tabin, who once greeted me at a party as “Eric Alterman’s Zionist white whale.” As I recall, Alterman continued to take gratuitous swipes at me and/or Nick King on his MSNBC blog for at least six months after this incident; here’s a particularly bizarre one.

Well, just the other day, I was recounting this saga to some people at dinner at the NAS conference and joked about how I felt neglected after the Alterman mentions finally stopped. And, lo and behold… here is Eric Alterman in the newest issue of The Nation, describing his suffering at the hands of the “Middle East Thought Police.” Continue reading

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Feminist male-hatred and The Vagina Monologues

Over on Alas, a Blog, in a thread where the comments are limited to “feminists and feminist allies,” Barry Deutsch (Ampersand) deconstructs a speech by Christina Hoff Sommers, a leading critic of feminist orthodoxies (and a good friend of mine, though there are certainly times when we disagree). In particular, he takes her to task for saying that many feminists are anti-male.

Does Christina paint with too broad a brush? Quite possibly. But a couple of things about Barry’s post:

(1) Barry says he hasn’t seen any male-hating attitudes from feminists except for a few people on the Ms. boards way, way back. I’m guessing the late Andrea Dworkin, famous for such aperçus as, “Under patriarchy, every woman’s son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman,” or “Male sexuality, drunk on its intrinsic contempt for all life, but especially for women’s lives…”, does not qualify? Continue reading

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New Russian treason law opposed by Medvedev?

Last month, I wrote about a proposed law in Russia that would make the definition of “treason” disturbing broad and vague, and reminiscent of Soviet-era statutes that outlawed dissent. As I explained, Russian law currently defines treason as “hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation from foreign threats.” The bill, proposed by the government (i.e. the cabinet headed by Vladimir Putin), amended that definition to include “rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood.” The definition of espionage was also broadened to include broad categories of passing potentially sensitive information to foreigners even with no intent to commit espionage, giving rise to concern that the new law would drastically inhibit scientific contacts between Russia and the West.

Well, according to a report in yesterday’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta (link to Russian-language article), the draft law has run into opposition from members of parliament who are close to President Dmitry Medvedev. Continue reading

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Now he tells us

National Review’s Rich Lowry on Bush’s Top 10 mistakes, and two items that drew my attention.

Not reading enough history. Bush has admirably applied himself to an extensive reading program as president, but if he had absorbed more history before taking office — particularly about military matters — he’d have had a better grounding to make important decisions.
….
Underestimating the power of explanation. By temperament and ability, Bush was more a “decider” than a “persuader.” He’s not naturally drawn to public argument, giving his administration its unfortunate (and not entirely fair) “my way or the highway” reputation at home and abroad.

I remember a different tune from Rich Lowry. Here’s my take on it in my own 2002 Reason column “Intellectual Warfare“:

“Maybe we don’t want a presidential candidate who can pronounce Kostunica or recite the constituent parts of Yugoslavia,” wrote National Review Editor Richard Lowry. … Sometimes, especially at National Review, the animus against braininess has overlapped with a crusade for traditional manliness — the idea being that book learning is for wimps.
Appearing on the Fox News show On the Record to discuss a recently released documentary about Bush on the campaign trail, Lowry hailed him as “a more traditional, red-blooded guy” than Al Gore: “He’s tough. He’s manly….He’s not very reflective.” To Lowry, it turns out, even familiarity with “hip” pop culture products such as Sex and the City — a familiarity that Bush, in the documentary, appears to lack — denotes excessive intellectualism and elitism. “Bush probably knows more about NASCAR, which is more tuned into what most Americans care about, than any of these reporters writing about him,” he commented.

And from another column:

In October 2000, at a Cato Institute symposium on the presidential election, National Review Editor Rich Lowry spoke of a “war on masculinity” in America and asserted that Bush appealed to the voters because he exemplified an action-oriented, nonintellectual manly resolve.

Oh yes, that Cato symposium; I remember it well, especially Lowry’s enthusiastic praise for Bush’s lack of bookishness.

Now it turns out book-learnin’ (and a little bit of reflectiveness) can be useful after all.

As Glenn Reynolds would put it: Heh.

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The Y Files on the Top 100 Gender Studies Blogs

An excellent, balanced list of gender issues blogs, with The Y Files in the “Women’s Studies” category:

Freelance journalist Cathy Young posts on a number of issues, but many of her posts are related to issues of sexuality, gender and identity.

Many thanks to Christina Laun for the listing, and I intend to check out some of the other sites on the list.

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NAS conference notes 3: The academy, the military, and gays

A final brief report, for now, from the past weekend’s NAS conference.

I missed part of the panel on the academy and the military, but caught a fascinating talk by Alan Silver, sociology professor at Columbia University, about the issue of bringing ROTC back to college campuses that currently exclude it (and the way this ties into the issue of the existing gulf between the military and academe). A major obstacle to ROTC presence at many “progressive” schools is the military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which bars openly gay men and women from serving. Silver conceded that in some cases, opposition to DADT is merely a pretext for general hostility to the military dating back to Vietnam; but he also argued that changing this policy, and agreeing to a measure of academic control over the programs, would bring ROTC back to the colleges and universities from which it is now banned. (ROTC presence is strongest in Southern schools.) Silver added that the military had always been a locus for asserting equality — for black, Japanese Americans, women, Latinos, and now gays, and while the specifics are different in each case, the principle is the same. He also added that, in order to bring ROTC back to campuses and help bridge the socially harmful gulf between the military and the academy, “the military needs to overcome its own prejudices about the academy, and be willing to have ROTC chapters in an environment where some military actions are disapproved of.”

During the Q & A, a middle-aged female questioner (whose name I know but won’t mention) accused Silver of being willing to “concede too much,” and hectored him for “talking about ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ as if it was this terrible thing” when, in fact, there may be perfectly good reasons for barring open homosexuals from the ranks and it might be just as well to leave that decision to the military. She opined that the real problem was that in certain segments of society, “treason is celebrated,” and added, addressing Silver, “Being from New York, you know this very well.” (Silver chuckled and shot back, “Yes, we’re a well-known nest of traitors in New York”; and later on, another audience member who took the microphone, himself a serviceman who said he had done recruiting in New York, took explicit umbrage at the idea that New Yorkers are unpatriotic.)

On “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Silver replied that “it’s not a compromise, it’s a question of political reality. It’s impossible to bring ROTC back to campuses without these changes, and if it was brought back by fiat, it would be illegitimate.” Next came the truly interesting part.

The two panelists who were actually in the military, and both had an affiliation with the notably conservative Virginia Military Institute — Gen. Josiah Bunting, former VMI Commander, and Brigadier General Charles F. Brower, IV, Deputy Superintendent of Academics and Dean of Faculty at VMI — commented on the issue, and both were unequivocally in favor of repealing DADT. Gen. Bunting pointed out that “the British Army has a policy of admitting gays” and discharging those who unwanted advances, and queried, “Why not do that?” Brig. Gen. Brower said that he basically agreed: “Heterosexual or homosexual, predators should be prosecuted. Treat them all equally.” He added that “there are many homosexuals who are now serving honorably in the military, and anyone who thinks they aren’t needs to get in touch with reality.”

There has been some discussion of whether Obama will repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” At least judging by the NAS panel, such a move won’t meet much opposition from the military.

There was another fascinating question from the audience about whether the disconnect between the military and large segments of American culture — the fact that the career military is now strongly Southern and overwhelmingly politically conservative — should create a concern about “standing armies” as understood by the Founders. (In other words, an army that does not represent the population.) It seems to me that, in this sense, the absence of ROTC from campus should be more of a concern to the liberals but to conservatives.

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Your humble blogger joins the "experts" with a question to Hillary

Hillary Rodham Clinton, our (presumably) next Secretary of State, is facing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today. The New York Times op-ed page has put together a list of questions to Ms. Clinton from ten “experts,” including Foud Ajami, Walter Russell Meade, some guy named Mikhail Saakashvili, and yours truly.

My question:

Imagine we see broad demands for truly democratic presidential and parliamentary elections in Russia. Should the United States join in these calls for new elections, despite their destabilizing potential? What should the American reaction be if the opposite scenario takes place, with Vladimir Putin returning as president in a new “election” and further tightening the authoritarian screws? How would we maintain a functional relationship with Moscow without condoning the further strangulation of democracy in Russia?

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The wages of populism: Joe the Journalist

If you think I’m making too big a deal out of anti-intellectualism on the right… then check out the latest from the Pajamas Media “citizen journalist,” Joe “more-than-15-minutes-of-fame” The Plumber:

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think journalists should be anywhere allowed war (sic). I mean, you guys report where our troops are at. You report what’s happening day to day. You make a big deal out of it. I think it’s asinine. You know, I liked back in World War I and World War II when you’d go to the theater and you’d see your troops on, you know, the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for them. Now everyone’s got an opinion and wants to downer–and down soldiers. You know, American soldiers or Israeli soldiers.

I think media should be abolished from, uh, you know, reporting. You know, war is hell. And if you’re gonna sit there and say, “Well look at this atrocity,” well you don’t know the whole story behind it half the time, so I think the media should have no business in it.


To quote the line I’ve paraphrased before from the Russian comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky: “Words fail. At least, printable ones.”

A very appropriate quote, actually, considering that Mr. Wurzelbacher’s musings strongly remind me of Russian Putinistas who justify censorship of unpleasant news because, heck, you don’t want to “downer” the public.

I know that media reporting on wars often leaves a lot to be desired. But … well, Bill Roggio on the Weekly Standard blog pretty much says it all:

[W]hile embedded as an independent reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan several times, I have seen journalists do some appalling things. I could probably write a book about it, but honestly I’m far more interested in the war itself. Despite what I have seen, I believe the media should have access during conflicts. Shutting the media out would entirely concede the information to al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, etc. who are increasingly developing sophisticated information strategies. Yes, there is bad and slanted reporting coming out of the combat zones, but there also are good reporters out there who can get the story right. The public needs to hear these stories to understand the nature of the war.

The real irony here is that PJTV, a 21st Century, Internet-based news organization is sending a reporter–who doesn’t want reporters to report on war–to report on a war. And apparently Joe would love to return to the days when the news was influenced by the government and seen at the theater.

Precisely.

Could this be the beginning of the end of American conservatism’s fatal-attraction love affair with populism? Or am I being too optimistic again?

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NAS conference notes 2: Barack Obama and the colorblind vision

Remember when conservatives talked about the vision of a colorblind society and about moving past racial preferences?

In the past couple of years, this issue has been out of the limelight. Last November, a ballot measure to ban the consideration of race in public college admissions and other government operations succeeded in Nebraska but was narrowly defeated in Colorado, after a vicious smear campaign that linked the initative to the Ku Klux Klan and questioned the high salary paid to one of the leaders of the anti-preferences movement, African-American businessman Ward Connerly. Several similar measures were kept off the ballot in other states.

What now?

It’s interesting that two speakers at the NAS conference who are strongly associated with the anti-preferences movement — both decidedly right of center — spoke of Obama and his election with unrestrained and unabashed enthusiasm. At the opening session, my good friend Abigail Thernstrom, co-author with her husband Stephan Thernstrom of the classic America in Black and White, called Obama’s election “a historic turning point” and “a racial conversation-changer.” She also noted that a black man’s ability to win a contest for the White House came as no surprise “to those of us who have been following polling data and have long believed in the racial decency of ordinary Americans.” The fact that the leader of the free world is now a black man, Thernstrom said, has to make it easier and more attractive for people to move beyond race and race consciousness — and harder to justify preferences with arguments about the alleged intractability of racism. “The younger generation is coming of age in a racially altered world,” Thernstrom said, and eventually campus politics will have to catch up.

Maybe Abby is an optimist, as someone suggested in the Q & A; to that, she replied she was cautiously optimistic. It is worth noting that Obama has suggested (in vague terms) that affirmative action should refocus on class, not race.

On Friday, one of the luncheon speakers and award recipients was Ward Connerly, the man hailed as a civil rights leader by some and derided as an “Uncle Tom” by others. At the NAS luncheon, Connerly got a standing ovation. (One of the few people who remained seated, and did not applaud, was the AAUP’s Cary Nelson.)


Connerly is an amazing speaker; gracious, warm, energetic. He opened his speech by saying, “We are here in the nation’s capital a few days before an event that will demonstrate something most of us in this room have always believed: that America is a fair country and that the colorblind vision works.”

Connerly noted that he did not vote for Obama, but believed he deserved to win: “He ran the best campaign and made the strongest case. I accept this verdict by the American people, and I wish him success.” (Here, there was a burst of applause from which about half the people in the room abstained; including, I might add, Victor Davis Hanson, who sat on the dais.) “He will be inaugurated only feet away from where Martin Luther King gave his historic ‘I have a dream’ speech. I am sure that the spirit of Dr. King will be smiling on him,” Connerly continued, recalling King’s “deep patriotism.”

After discussing the recent fortunes of the civil rights initiatives, Connerly noted that “the issue is not just getting beyond racial preferences but getting beyond race. The election of Barak Obama confirms that.”

I think Connerly and Thernstrom are right; and I think the kind of conservatism that has a future today is their kind. I’m an optimist, too.

(Ward Connerly photo courtesy of the American Civil Rights Institute.)

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NAS conference notes 1: Culture and politics

I’m back from the 13th conference of the National Association of Scholars, a 21-year-old organization dedicated to combating political indoctrination on college campuses and defending the traditional curriculum. While the NAS has no formal political affiliation, it has a decidedly right-of-center bent, and I thought the conference would offer an interesting glimpse into what conservatives and right-of-center moderates are thinking right now, just before the Obama transition. (Not to mention that NAS conferences are always fascinating and offer a welcome diversity of opinions.)

So, here’s Part 1 of my observations from the weekend. The highlight of the conference, no doubt, was the debate on academic freedom between NAS president Peter Wood and American Association of University Professors president Cary Nelson. Nelson has criticized “politically correct” speech codes and asserted that he opposes “the destructive power of idenity politics”; however, he is also on record as being highly critical of the NAS’s “war on political correctness,” and his speech boiled down to “Sure, the NAS is right about some things, but you guys really overstate the case and despite some individual cases of PC run amuk, there is no problem of a dissent-stifling liberal orthodoxy on campus.” Much of the anti-PC critique, Nelson argued, is made in “ignorance or bad faith,” and is aimed at discrediting, marginalizing, and demonizing left-wing, proggressive faculty. (As an example, he cited the American Council of Trustees and Alumni 2006 report How Many Ward Churchills?; Nelson argued that Churchill, who referred to the 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns” who had it coming to them, was actually quite atypical both because of his “over the top” rhetoric and because of the peculiarities of his fraud-laced career. True enough; but the real thrust of the ACTA report was that Churchill-type ideological extremism was far from unique.)

Nelson lost me when he asserted that, contrary to conservative critiques, women’s studies is no longer a bastion of orthodoxy. The proposition that “women are universally oppressed by the patriarchy,” he claimed, is no longer the dominant assumption in Women’s Studies and hasn’t been in nearly 20 years. That may be technically true; the problem is, to the extent that male oppression of women is no longer the sole dogma of the field, the dogma has changed only to accommodate other left-wing orthodoxies and “oppressions”: for instance, any critique of the oppression of women in Muslim societies must now be mediated by the understanding that such critiques can be used as a tool of Western imperialist oppression of “brown” men. How many WoSt courses would be receptive to discussing the idea that innate sex differences may partly account for the unequal distribution of women and men in some fields?

Then again, Nelson probably thinks that’s fine; indeed, he took a swipe at those who criticize women’s studies for insisting that all gender differences are socially constructed — as if they should give any weight to the patently ridiculous idea that women may innately have less aptitude for math or music! (I didn’t get a chance to ask Neltson any questions during the Q & A, but I did manage to buttonhole him after the session. Is it right, I asked, to exclude from academic discourse the view that there are some biology-related cognitive and behavioral differences between men and women which may affect the gender composition of some professions? Nelson’s initial response was to dismiss any possible validity of this view; finally, he grudingly conceded that it should not be suppressed, and even, in an aside, that Lawrence Summers probably should not have been fired for voicing such a view. He also noted that the AAUP had, under his leadership, criticized the disinvitation of Summers to speak at a dinner at UCLA.)

Nelson also took the NAS to task for ignoring orthodoxies that don’t fit the “left-wing” mold — for instance, sociology departments that elevate quantitative research to the point of excluding students interested in the qualitative method, or economics departments that fail to teach “very timely” skepticism toward the free market. “But the NAS ignores that and focuses on Women’s Studies,” declared Nelson. “You’re like mullahs who condemn heresy but bow 500 times a day toward Wall Street, or the ruins of Wall Street.”

Think that was snarky? Well, things got really interesting when Peter Wood took the podium and opened his speech with a brief discussion of an essay Nelson had published about an earlier NAS conference, in 1997 in New Orleans, deriding the group as a gathering of old men resentful of change and younger losers anxious to blame their failures on left-wing orthodoxy in academe, all of them consumed by bitterness and fear. (I attended that conference, which featured a great speech by Shelby Steele, and that’s not how I remember it.) Wood cautioned that “behind this affable exterior, there is actually a good deal of malice.” A hit, a very palpable hit, which Nelson took with a great deal of equanimity; it takes some chutzpah to accept an invitation to speak from a group you’ve satirized in this fashion.

During the Q & A, several people cited instances of academic orthodoxy they or members of their family had experienced personally; one of the statements, from a very passionate young woman studying at the University of Arizona, illustrates the complexity of evaluating such complaints. “Here are some of the things I’ve heard from my professors,” she said. “The US could stop world hunger if we just spent less on defense. American soldiers are no different from terrorists and essentially pursue the same objectives. China is not a Communist country.” (Is the last of these necessarily an example of left-wing propaganda, or a recognition of China’s moves toward a market economy?) The young woman was also unhappy that in a journalism class, she was required to read The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times for class reports and credit, but was not allowed to substitute The Washington Times; it didn’t help that she repeatedly referred to the latter as “The Washington Post” until corrected by someone from the audience. Now, I will say that depending on the type of journalism class it is, it might be quite appropriate to give only those reading assignments. But a comparative analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Times might be interesting as well.

Nelson’s response to all the anecdotal material was that he couldn’t comment on them without knowing all the facts. The larger issues, though, is that in all too many academic departments, there is an atmosphere in which left-of-center politics are assumed, and equated with virtue. Tthat’s a problem, not just for conservatives or libertarians but for the exchange and flow of ideas. And sometimes, this orthodoxy does blow up in ugly ways — for instance, during the Duke sexual assault hoax case, which went unmentioned at the Nelson/Wood panel.

But meanwhile, what about conservative politics? On the first day of the conference, Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution and National Review Online gave a speech about the importance of classical education, arguing that the study of Western culture and the Greeks in particular is indispensable to an understanding of the human condition and its limitations. Hanson lamented that “the general public has lots all idea of what the West is; they live in it and enjoy the benefits of its daily commerce and its consumer culture, but they don’t have any notion of what its founding principles are.” Hence, he noted, the widespread willingness to give credence to arguments for moral equivalency between Western democracies and totalitarian regimes.

So far, so good; and Hanson reserved some of his criticism for the right, for the rise of vocationalism and the decline of the idea that the liberal arts should give people a grounding in a common culture, shared history and literature, etc. But there is another elephant in that room: isn’t any conservative effort to promote classical culture these days going to come into conflict with the rise of conservative populism, and its frequent appeal to hostility toward the educated “elites.” When I asked Hanson about this, he flatly denied that such a problem existed; the real problem, he asserted, was the elites’ prejudiced attitude toward Sarah Palin, as evidenced by the difference in the treatment she got compared to the coddling of Caroline Kennedy. (That’s coddling?) Hanson also assured me that if he saw a real trend of anti-intellectualism among conservative commentators — for instance, the claim that “instinct is superior to reason” — he would oppose it and speak out against it.

A good portion of Hanson’s luncheon speech the next day, when he was receiving an NAS award, was also devoted to a defense of Palin; he noted morosely that “those of us who are conservatives or moderates are somewhat bewildered by the last election,” and specifically by the attacks on “‘Palinism,’ defined by some as ‘know-nothingism’ or ‘anti-intellectualism.'” Hanson lamented that conservatives like David Frum, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and others “deplored Palin’s lack of knowledge of foreign affairs,” and commented, “All I can say is that it’s very hard to spend your life in Wasilla, be a mother of five and get to be Governor of Alaska and take on the power structure that she did.” (Isn’t that rather like the rationales for affirmative action?) Hanson concluded by saying that Palin represents “conservatives values lived through experience.”

I have no problem with the fact that Palin had no Ivy League degree, and I certainly don’t think that being a certified intellectual should be among the qualifications for political leadership. But the contradiction between conservatives’ attempt to be custodians of culture and the Know-Nothing populism often spouted by Palin’s champions is striking. And unless conservatives address the fact that some people in their camp contribute to hositlity toward the educated, this is not going to change.

Yes, some of the conservative hostility and suspicion toward intellectuals stems from the susceptibility of many in the intellectual class to genuinely pernicious ideas (from communism in the old days to radical race and gender theories today). But the responsibility of educated conservatives — the kind who gravitate to NAS conferences — should be to do what they can to ensure that the marketplace of ideas remains diverse. And when some of their political allies seem just as happy to consign the educated to “enemy territory,” it’s time to beat the alarm.

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