Wednesday, June 13

Michael Berube's latest

Over the past few weeks I’ve become aware of a serious problem in the liberal blogosphere. Thanks to the prestigious Golden Winger Awards, presented annually by the even more prestigious Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony, we have a reliable system for recognizing some of the most dedicated and remarkable forms of wingnuttery online and in print — you know, those gems from Hugh Hewitt or Jonah Goldberg that remind us just how much fun it can be to read the work of our compatriots on the right. And yet there is no “high-culture” version of the Kippies with which we can reward America’s leading wingnut intellectuals — no, really now, I mean the “respectable” ones — when they indulge in the kind of discourse we ordinarily associate with or Bill O’Reilly.

The immediate occasion of this reflection is this Wall Street Journal op-ed in which I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is hailed as a “fallen soldier.” The essay is written as a letter to George Bush, and it concludes rather eloquently:

The prosecutor, and the jury and the judge, had before them a case that purported to stand alone, a trial of one man’s memory and recollections. But you have before you what they and the rest of us don’t — a memory of the passions and the panic, and the certitude, which gave rise to the war. And a sense, I am confident, of the quiet and selfless man who sat in the outer circle when your cabinet deliberated over our country’s choices in Iraq, and in those burning grounds of the Arab-Islamic world. Scooter Libby was there for the beginning of that campaign. He can’t be left behind as a casualty of a war our country had once proudly claimed as its own.

Eloquent, I say, and yet somehow . . . what is le mot juste? Ah, yes, I know: batshit insane. Indeed, the more you break it down, the more insane it gets: if Bush fails to pardon Libby, he is leaving behind “a soldier in your — our — war in Iraq.” (Somehow I imagine that Libby will fare better in later life than most of the actual soldiers languishing in Walter Reed and in VA hospitals across the country.) For Libby was engaged in that most noble enterprise of all, helping to blow a covert agent’s cover in order to help the Bush Administration make a fraudulent case for war.

Still, I must admit that there is at least one paragraph in this essay that sounds as if it were written by an undergraduate on an all-nighter:

In “The Soldier’s Creed,” there is a particularly compelling principle: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” This is a cherished belief, and it has been so since soldiers and chroniclers and philosophers thought about wars and great, common endeavors. Across time and space, cultures, each in its own way, have given voice to this most basic of beliefs. They have done it, we know, to give heart to those who embark on a common mission, to give them confidence that they will not be given up under duress. A process that yields up Scooter Libby to a zealous prosecutor is justice gone awry.

If, like me, you’ve graded stacks of survey-class essays, you know the idiom of those first three sentences: From the beginning of time, readers have thrilled to the brave deeds recorded in the Iliad…. And yet, folks, the author of this essay is no callow undergraduate. He is no Victor Davis Hanson wannabe from the depths of NewsMax. He is no Dorito-flecked lieutenant in the 101st Fighting Keyboarders. He is, rather, Professor Fouad Ajami, the Director of the Middle East Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Yes, I know, SAIS is Neocon Central Headquarters. But unlike, say, The Corner, it is serious business. And it is home to some Very Serious People — like Ajami, who sits on the Board of Advistors of the journal Foreign Affairs and counts among his many awards and distinctions a 1982 MacArthur “genius” fellowship in the arts and sciences.

So where, I ask you, is the MacArthur-level Golden Winger for him?

Or take the case of poor Robert Brustein. About a month ago, in response to the latest “study” published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (official motto: David Horowitz with a human face), Brustein published a little screed in TNR’s “Open University.” Before I get to the nut graf (so to speak), let me explain a bit of the context.

Every so often, outfits like ACTA put out these “studies” in which they “demonstrate” that (a) professors hate America, (b) Ward Churchill is everywhere, and (c) professors hate Shakespeare. I am not exaggerating (very much), I assure you. One of ACTA’s recent pamphlets (published in May 2006) was indeed called How Many Ward Churchills? (.pdf) You’d think they would milk the suspense — dear me! just how many Ward Churchills are indoctrinating our impressionable little children? — but apparently ACTA didn’t think its readership would have much of an attention span, since the pamphlet starts on page one with the heading “How Many Ward Churchills?” and proceeds to conclude on page two of a 50-page booklet that “Ward Churchill is Everywhere.” You know, sorta like Elvis.

This year, they’ve come up with a new “study,” The Vanishing Shakespeare (another .pdf). Now, in order to appreciate this kind of work, you have to consider its intended audience. (I’m told that the original title was ZOMG! They Are Killing Shakespeare OH NOES!!, which I think captures the spirit of the thing.) The primary audience, of course, consists of people who know nothing about English literature (or college courses in English literature) except that Shakespeare was America’s greatest writer and that Hamlet’s soliloquy from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is truly sublime. They even open the “study” with the tag line, “Oh! What a noble mind is here o’erthrown,” which, I believe, is very literary. (Although that’s actually Ophelia talking about Hamlet’s “madness,” so it’s a kinda embarrassingly bad literary allusion if you’re trying to suggest that Shakespeare is being abandoned for Dangeral Studies.) And then they follow it up with another very literary reference: “the American Council of Trustees and Alumni researched how Shakespeare fits into English curricula at 70 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities. What we found is, to quote the Bard, ‘the unkindest cut of all.’” Zounds! The unkindest cut! That is extra extra literary. Certainly the authors of this study have brushed up their Shakespeare! Indeed, perhaps English professors are honoring the Bard more in the breach than the observance! That should make everyone concerned with higher education outraged that our college campuses are like the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns, breathes forth contagion on the world, and thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage, is sicklied o’er with care!!!

But there’s a secondary audience, as well — an audience made up of sundry Andrew Aguecheeks who are (a) generally knowledgeable enough about English literature to know who Andrew Aguecheek is and (b) always ready and willing to believe whatever the wingnut culture warriors tell them about Dangeral Professors Today and Why We Hate Shakespeare. Last time around, it worked like a charm — yes, dear readers, believe it or not, ACTA has actually pulled this rabbit out of this old hat before! Back in 1996, when ACTA was known as the National Alumni Forum and was led by Lynne Cheney, they put out the exact same kind of “study”, which was duly reported in the New York Times under the headline, “At Colleges, Sun Is Setting on Shakespeare.” Hey, so maybe that’s why Shakespeare is vanishing! The sun was going down on him in 1996, and now no one can see him! That’s what happens when the sun goes down! That’s why Shakespeare wrote the immortal sonnet, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.”

(One serious aside about these “studies.” They survey English departments to see how many of us require classes in Shakespeare. The funny thing is that most English departments don’t need to have Shakespeare requirements. Believe me, Shakespeare is doing just fine in English departments, and he’s been doing fine for a good long time. In fact, if someone were actually serious about trying to find out about Shakespeare’s place in the English curriculum, s/he would look at the total number of Shakespeare courses offered in English departments. But that’s only if someone were actually serious about this kind of thing.)

All right, now back to Brustein. Brustein starts off like so:

A recent report isued by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni documents what we already know: Shakespeare is no longer valued in our educational system.

In other words, ZOMG! They are killing Shakespeare OH NOES! And look what they’re replacing him with:

The report takes note that abandoning Shakespeare does not mean that our higher education system is abandoning requirements. No, it’s just that there are now more urgent things to include on the reading list. “While Shakespeare and other traditionally acclaimed authors such as Chaucer and Milton are no longer required, many institutions such as Rice, Oberlin, and Vanderbilt require students to study ‘non-canonical traditions,’ ‘under-represented cultures,’ and ‘ethnic or non-Western literature.’”

“And at the University of Virginia,” the report continues, “English majors can avoid reading Othello in favor of studying ‘Critical Race Theory’ which explores why race ‘continues to have vital significance in politics, education, culture, arts, and everyday social realities,’ including ’sexuality, class, disability, multiculturalism, nationality, and globalism.’”

But now for the nut graf. After swallowing the ACTA line whole, and getting the ague in his cheek as a result, Brustein concludes somewhat less eloquently than did Ajami on Libby:

A recent newspaper cartoon shows two young girls walking out of a school. One turns to the other and says, “I have two mommies.” The other replies, “How much is two?”


All right. I may be reading too much into this, but don’t blame me — I learned how to read from guys like Shakespeare. And to my ears, this sounds a little bit strange. It sounds like Robert Brustein, the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theater and Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, the former dean of the Yale School of Drama, a senior research fellow at Harvard, and the theater critic of the Even the Liberal New Republic, has suggested that ACTA’s latest ZOMG They Are Killing Shakespeare OH NOES study has something to do with (a) a young girl who says she has two mommies and (b) another young girl who does not know how to count to two. And again, I don’t want to “interpret” this in a way that violates the “author’s” “intention” (especially since it is a “citation” and not a “use” of the cartoon), but it sounds a little bit like Robert Brustein, the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theater and Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, the former dean of the Yale School of Drama, a senior research fellow at Harvard, and the theater critic of the Even the Liberal New Republic, is making some kind of correlation between Heather Has Two Mommies and children who are unable to count. It almost sounds as if Brustein is suggesting that These Kids Today learn a lot about lesbianism in Our Schools Today but nothing about simple math (and, uh, therefore, Shakespeare). And it sounds as if Brustein is now getting his material from Mallard Fillmore.

If that’s the case, I ask again: where are the Kippies for such as these? For oh! what semi-noble minds are here o’erthrown!