Diary: The Surge

On Tuesday night, I went to the park across the street from the White House to join a protest against the Afghan "surge" that Obama was about to announce in a speech. Very few people turned out. There were maybe fifty or sixty, to use the full flexibility of the word "maybe." The speeches were sort of awful. I clapped and chanted and whatnot at various appropriate points. But the whole thing was lacking in spirit as well as numbers, and the thought of how hard it was going to be to build an antiwar movement under -- and against -- this president was burdensome.

It must be done. I will do my bit. But it will be like rolling a boulder uphill using plastic spoons to push it, and no getting around that. We must imagine Sisyphus in a suitable mood, because come on, this sucks.

The next day, my column about Cornel West's autobiography was published. The piece has gotten a lot of attention -- far more than I would have expected. I have more or less given up trying to "push" my work over the past couple of years. I just publish and that's that. It's possible to spend a lot of time trying to position oneself in the "market for attention" but I don't think any good can come of it. Instead, after the piece went up online, I was undertaking a marathon reading session to get through, in one day, the 400 page biography of someone who is fairly disagreeable. It was an okay book, and absorbing.

By contrast, while I have admired some of Cornel West's work, his latest was bitterly disappointing. I said so with some vigor. But that created a problem. For many people it seems that only two only two permissable (or at least intelligible) positions about Cornel West are possible. Either you believe that he is a singularly awesome freedom fighter whose every word is a tool in the struggle for human liberation, or else you think he is Al Sharpton plus Cliff's Notes.

Now, I do not believe either of these things, but nuance is not this medium's strong suit. Many people did seem to follow what I was getting at, so I can't complain too much. But there was a little tempest over what a terrible racist I am for having used the expression "to pop a cap in [someone's] ass." Actually that was in the context of making fun of Larry Summers and not Cornel West.

But there are people for whom verbal policing constitutes their entire experience of political activism, and this has given them something to do -- something very much easier than, say, making the argument that Cornel West's work has actually been getting better over time. You can't really blame them for doing the one thing they find convenient and possible.

Somewhat less easy to understand was some of the other discussion that went on. One person cited my reference to David Hume in the piece as "name dropping," which suggests that this person has no idea what the expression "name dropping" actually means. Either that, or that I am pictured as moving among the social circles of the illustrious dead.

Another person said that I wrote a "gossip column for the tweed set." This is no end of peculiar, not to say hopelessly stupid. I know no gossip and can't very well write any. I read a lot of academic books and write about them, but in terms of the personal lives or career dynamics of "the tweed set," my degree of access to inside dope is perhaps best summed up by the Homer Simpson line "Now wait -- Mel Brooks is Jewish?"

Oh well. Both parties had all the courage that goes with writing without signing your name, so I take it for precisely what it is worth.

And now -- while I have been in the middle of writing this entry -- a friend sends me a link which obliges a response.

Well, that's enough of the internet for a while. Now I have to go across town to sit in a room with other people trying to figure out what we can do to mobilize public opinion against the war. I am not optimistic. That doesn't matter very much, though, in the final analysis.
December 3, 2009 4:36 PM | | Comments (14)

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14 Comments

I'm sorry, Scott, but no true friend would send a Proyect link, even to note a mention like that.

I thought the review was great fun, probably a little nicer than necessary.

Well, my feeling in general is that friends would do me a favor by not keeping me updated on online commentary on my stuff. Studied indifference is hard work.

Someone at Crooked Timber posted a link to the excerpt from West's book up at MSNBC. Then someone else who'd gone to look at it said that the column had failed to convey just how awful it was. I accept this as a valid criticism.

You've got my vote, Scott!! I've been an appreciative lurker/reader of your blog and the stuff on IHE for a while, and the West piece was one of the most intelligent, informed, and to-the-point critiques I've read in some time (and not only of West's work). It's a bit frightening to see various camps circle the wagons around one position or another, without apparently seeing or caring about the nuances of what you wrote.

Amazing how so many putative 'intellectuals' shrink from open engagement with actual thought...

Thanks, Beth. Yesterday I was speaking with a tenured professor who broke things down for me in a way that counted for a lot, considering the source. He said:

"Understand that for an awful lot of people in universities, the actual calibre of the work is not that important, and they would never ever think of criticizing anyone so prominent, at least in print. It might be necessary to get him to blurb a book or write a letter of support. So they find what you have done upsetting in ways they then have to find a way to explain."

As the opening page of West's book puts it, this is conversation reconstructed from memory. But that was the gist of it. I found the perspective to be interesting and somewhat educational.

I notice that Proyect has started to back up, saying he has absolutely NO respect for West, anyway, he was hardly going to defend West's book, and besides, he finds "many of Scott’s articles to be very much worth reading and forward them on a fairly regular basis to the Marxism list I moderate."

So that seems to mean he just objects to the 'academic gossip' fanzines you write for.

Again, it is clear that certain words, "gossip" for one, no longer signify what they once did. I am an old man.* I prefer the old meanings.

* I am not actually an old man.

It was so good, though. SO good. Really you at the top of your game.

Is it possible to write the Truth (and write it well) without pissing people off? Uh... nope.

Yipes... I've just noticed a "St. Augustine" in the comment thread of that Proyect post... no need to disambiguate, I hope.

Thanks, Steve, I was wondering about that. Perhaps whoever wrote it was alluding to the bit where West talks about how much he's been influenced by "Augustinian humility"? That seems subtle but not impossible.

Well, it's been a strange week. Of that I am sure.

The linked pages on Proyect's blog seemed to have disappeared.

I'm surprised to see the "unrepentant Marxist" employ his airbrush. Is that his way of saying he's sorry?

Well, there is a kind of cease-fire anyway, and I'm glad for that. But to be honest, I didn't really mind the whole thing all that much.

On my part at least, it involved a passing reference to John Leonard, who died in November of last year, and who was one of Quick Study's primary core of readers. Knowing John was out there reading it (and my column) was always a source of great satisfaction. So having an occasion to tip my hat in his memory more than made up for anything else.

I am still amused that Harvey Mansfield was seen by Larry Summers to be the greater opponent of market liberalism, not Cornel West.

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This page contains a single entry by Quick Study published on December 3, 2009 4:36 PM.

The Focative Case was the previous entry in this blog.

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