Abecedarians for Academic Freedom
Agitprop, bombast, and caricature—the ABCs of exaggeration—are much practiced but seldom praised. We academics, in principle, prefer the stern discipline of rational argument and evidence over the instantaneous conviction of a damning cartoon. We favor nuance and fine distinctions and disdain the thumping simplifications of propaganda.
Or do we? Sometimes it seems academics want it both ways. We high-mindedly denounce agitprop, bombast, and caricature with approaches that are themselves seasoned with the same ABCs. Some examples.
Beshara Doumani, a professor of history at Berkeley, warns, “Time is running out, and the tragedy of 9/11 has been cynically manipulated to create an environment that is less and less conducive to rational and civil discussion.” This sentence decries a threat to “rational and civil discussion” while bombastically issuing its own. Doumani’s fears are propounded in “Between Coercion and Privatization: Academic Freedom in the Twenty-First Century,” the lead essay in Academic Freedom after September 11 (Zone Books, 2006). The gist of the book is that scholars are being stifled by the government and right-wing advocacy groups playing on public anxieties about domestic terrorism.
There seems very little evidence that this particular kind of stifling has actually happened. After all, Professor Doumani and his collaborators, including Robert Post and Judith Butler, are having no trouble declaring their academic and not-so-academic opinions. An academic who leans leftward has to reach Ward Churchillian-levels of fatuousness to rouse much of a public fuss in post-9/11 America, and even then he stands little chance of his academic freedom falling into jeopardy. Churchill himself lost his position not for sneering at the “little Eichmanns” obliterated in the World Trade Towers but for lying to the University of Colorado about his academic qualifications.
Robert O’Neil, founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, recently wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education broadly sympathetic to the Doumani thesis, but even O’Neil admits that the alleged post-9/11 trammeling of academic freedom didn’t amount to much: [O]utspoken scholars fared much better than one would have expected in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Richard Berthold, at the University of New Mexico, incurred only a reprimand for telling his freshman history class that “anyone who bombs the Pentagon gets an A in my book.” At Columbia University, Nicholas DeGenova got essentially a pass when he called for “a million Mogadishus.” Arthur Butz remained a professor in good standing at Northwestern University after he lauded Iran’s president for Holocaust denial. The moderate and deliberative response to such incidents and others suggests that academic freedom is in excellent health.
[O]utspoken scholars fared much better than one would have expected in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Richard Berthold, at the University of New Mexico, incurred only a reprimand for telling his freshman history class that “anyone who bombs the Pentagon gets an A in my book.” At Columbia University, Nicholas DeGenova got essentially a pass when he called for “a million Mogadishus.” Arthur Butz remained a professor in good standing at Northwestern University after he lauded Iran’s president for Holocaust denial. The moderate and deliberative response to such incidents and others suggests that academic freedom is in excellent health.
This is not to say that academic freedom is an untroubled doctrine. To the contrary, it is much abused. I think of it as a bus that has been hijacked by a gang of hooligans who threaten and beat the passengers, throw some of them off, slice the seats to ribbons, smash the windows, careen across the road, all the while loudly complaining indignantly about the existence of traffic ordinances.
Ordinary scholars trying to get on with legitimate teaching and research are now confronted by the AAUP with a definition of academic freedom that licenses the ideologues who want to use their classrooms to promote their political views, but does nothing to protect faculty members or students from threats, intimidation, and blackballing by other faculty members. The AAUP’s position was published in September 2007 as Freedom in the Classroom, and NAS put up a detailed response on its website. Academic Freedom after September 11 reads in some places like a dress rehearsal for the later AAUP document, and indeed one of the contributors to the volume, Robert Post, was a co-author of the AAUP report.
The use of the doctrine of academic freedom by the campus Left to stifle academic freedom, however, is a story with many chapters. Amy Newhall’s contribution to the volume, “The Unraveling of the Devil’s Bargain: The History and Politics of Language Acquisition,” is a breathtaking example. It concerns the steps taken by area studies faculty members around the country to thwart the intent of Congress in the distribution of funds from Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Title VI is meant to channel federal resources into programs that will prepare students in strategically important foreign languages; students can win scholarships for their graduate education with the proviso that they later apply for government positions. Area studies associations and centers, which have long been hotbeds of leftist academics, have contrived ways to get the funds while hindering students from taking the scholarships. When their antics were brought to light by conservative scholars and some courageous whistleblowers, the bloody shirt of academic freedom was raised again. How dare anyone question the academic freedom of scholars to appropriate government resources to thwart national security programs?
As Newhall sees it, the criticisms of how areas studies faculty have handled Title VI funds have nothing to do with the duplicity of the faculty members. Rather, those criticisms are simply a tactic to silence campus critics of U.S. policy. She writes, “If the attack on Title VI fails, other tactics already in play may be more successful in quieting professors.” The “devil’s bargain” of her title was the willingness of scholars at any point in the cold war or after to harness part of their enterprise to American national security, as though contributing to national security is in and of itself an illegitimate enterprise for academia.
My interest here, however, is not the details of these controversies but the dance of caricatures. The Left likes to pose as the defender of academic freedom and other signal academic virtues; it depicts its critics as mean-spirited and otherwise corrupt opponents of these virtues; and then congratulates itself on having arisen above its opponents’ lowbrow habit of caricaturing others. To be sure, there are plenty of pots and kettles on both sides, but nothing really beats the indignation of the campus Left in righteously denouncing stereotypes while rolling out some of their own.
Gerrymander and Friends
Two new books illustrate—literally—the phenomenon. In The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons (New York University Press, 2007), Donald Dewey offers a rich collection of the classic finger-pointing imagery that has adorned our newspapers. Here is Franklin’s “Join or Die” disjointed snake of American colonies, Paul Revere’s etching of the Boston Massacre below the street sign “Butcher’s Hall,” and Elkanah Tisdale’s 1812 jabberwocky-like “Gerrymander.” Here, too, are some of Thomas Nast’s indelible images of Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies and some less well-known gems by other nineteenth-century satirists such as Bernhard Gillam’s depiction of the 1884 Republican candidate James Blaine as a courtesan tattooed with scandals, and Joseph Keppler’s caricature of Benjamin Harrison swallowed up by his grandfather William Henry Harrison’s hat.
The Art of Ill Will is nonpartisan in its treatment of nineteen- and early twentieth-century cartooning, but when Dewey turns to the political cartoons of recent decades, his taste seems to narrow: Herblock, Jules Feiffer, Steve Breen, Ted Rall, Pat Oliphant, Gary Trudeau, and half a dozen other liberal cartoonists who lampoon Republicans and conservatives. The cartoons themselves are good fun and it’s nice to see these squibs in the company of Nast, Gillam, and Keppler, but the one-sidedness is unsettling. Where are the conservative cartoonists such as the New Yorker’s Peter Steiner and the Investor’s Business Daily’s Pulitzer and Mencken award-wining Michael Ramirez?
Dewey’s rambling seventy-three-page introduction, however, doesn’t offer much explanation for why his collection narrows its range of spite from the 1950s forward to japing at conservatives. At one point, he claims the best cartoonists don’t attack out of partisan animus, but instead go after “an institution that has tolerated idiocies, abuses, or greeds flaunted as patriotism.” Such satire, he claims, implies “not a liberal or conservative viewpoint, but a radical one.” But today’s cartoons “about excoriating the overall system’s costs, decays, and corruptions” are therefore “tinted as liberal.” This is a confusing train of thought in which the same cartoons in successive sentences move from nonpartisan disdain for idiocies to radical viewpoints to liberal “tints.” But such is the dance of caricatures.
Caricatures are a dangerous fascination for those who like to see themselves as having ascended to a moral height from which they can look down on those who trade in ethnic and sexual stereotypes. Another recent book offers what the cover, accurately enough, declares is a “monumental work” on the history of Western stereotypes. Elizabeth Ewen and Stuart Ewen’s Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality (Seven Stories Press, 2006), recognizes that “the impulse to distinguish between the familiar and the alien is an ancient human trait,” but urges the idea that modernity has “pumped up the volume.” The Ewens’ blame falls first on the media for “rendering stereotypes into easily consumable, industrially generated substitutes for intimate knowledge.”
Their book, however, evokes the same vertigo as Newell’s essay on academic freedom and Dewey’s cartoon collection. On every page, the Ewens attack the simplistic categories through which science has attempted to classify human differences and popular culture has disseminated the results. Science has, at various times, attempted to judge moral qualities by examining faces and head shapes, classified races by characteristic skulls, developed tools to measure cranial ratios, propounded the doctrines of phrenology, attempted to trace the history of “degenerate” families, and sought the definitive evidence of criminal propensities in facial features. All this the Ewens cover engagingly—but also with firmly planted condescension towards the largely forgotten savants who pursued these studies: Lavater, Blumenbach, Camper, Gall, Spurzheim, Morton, Lombroso, Bertillon, etc. They are to be condemned, as the Ewens see it, not just because their “sciences” turned out results we now consider false, but primarily because those false results abetted slavery, colonialism, racism, sexism, and the aggrandizement of Western civilization. The last section of the book attempts to trace the survival of these older pseudosciences in minstrel shows, advertising, Hollywood movies, and television.
Typecasting thus invites the reader to join the Ewens in feeling superior to the lightheaded, ill-willed simplifiers who did so much to reinforce the structure of inequality in our society. But while the book mocks stereotypes, it also trades in them. First, the copious illustrations offer glimpses of raw caricatures that would be deemed “hate speech” if copies were displayed in any public space. The historical treatment gives the authors a kind of immunity from this transgression, but surely the caricatures help sell the book, too. The cover features a World War I propaganda poster of a giant ape wearing a Kaiser helmet and brandishing a club labeled “Kultur” in one hand while clutching a swooning bare-breasted maiden in the other. Her foot dangles between the ape’s legs as an unmistakable phallus. The images are taboo and therefore fascinating. But there is surely a bit of hypocrisy in the Ewens’ finger-wagging.
Second, Typecasting is replete with its own typecasting: the mischaracterization of generations of scientists as little more than charlatans seeking to advance a racist, colonialist agenda. Some of the figures the Ewens cite were indeed charlatans, but most were seeking truth with the limited means they had available. Far more often than a reader of this book would suspect, they hit upon productive hypotheses. But it does not suit the political temper of our time to credit Blumenbach’s pioneering study of skulls and the like. The Ewens have typecast the fledgling scientific efforts to study human diversity systematically as wholly lacking moral seriousness and ripe to be parodied as precursors to King Kong movies.
The dance of caricatures in Academic Freedom after September 11, The Art of Ill Will, and Typecasting is performed in a spirit of debunking skepticism towards our own culture. It indicts the West (or America as a stand-in for the West) for its habit of jumping to conclusions about people, but it jumps to its conclusions easily enough. Elsewhere in this issue of AQ, Ricardo Duchesne’s review of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s textbook, The World: A History (Prentice Hall, 2006), dwells on Armesto’s attempt to scuttle the idea that the ancient Greeks were exceptional. Armesto’s book appears to be another entry into the dance of caricatures. He attacks the classicists as though they were phrenologists misreading the marble busts of antiquity to conjure a self-serving but vacuous tale of Greek magnificence.
Armesto comes to his (anti)thesis mainly by way of anthropology, which occasions this comment. It was little more than a century ago that the German-born Franz Boas, fresh from his studies of Greenland Eskimo, immigrated to the United States and brought with him a relativistic Germanic intellectual tradition focused on Kultur. In the spirit of recognizing that humanity divides into communities that have each their own conceptions of existence and ways of being, Boas adorned the English word culture with an s. He was, as far as I can tell, the first to speak in English of a plurality of “cultures.” Pre-Boasian anthropology contented itself with the idea that humanity had “culture,” though in amounts and complexities that varied along a scale from Stone Age hunters to the Civilization of Celsius and Chopin. Boas trained a large family of industrious students who went forth and founded anthropology departments across the U.S., and who popularized his vision of a plurality of cultures founded on such distinct ways-of-being-in-the-world as to defy useful comparison. Two of Boas’s progeny, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, proved extraordinarily adept at marketing this relativism to ordinary Americans.
The Boasian conception of cultures as each its own thing always made generous room for the happenstance that cultures learn and borrow from one another. Boas, who focused mainly on the Indians of the Northwest Coast, found no inconsistency in the idea of a culture as inwardly integrated but also capable of absorbing external influences and fitting them into its own scheme of things. Armesto’s conception of how “The World” works follows in this now century-old anthropological path of emphasizing both the distinctiveness of cultures and their commingling.
Can a model of group differences derived from Boas’s account of the aboriginal communities of hunter-gatherers on the northwest coast—Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Nookta, Tlingit, Bella-Coola, Haida— explain much about the ancient Greeks? Duchesne offers a vigorous rebuttal of Armesto’s attempt to deny the exceptional status historians have long granted the Greeks. Was Greek civilization a radical departure from what had gone before—and what continues among cultures never warmed by the fires of Hellenism? Or should the Greeks be demoted to one culture among the multitude?
The Road to Credulity
Spurred by Duchesne and Armesto, I picked up Marcel Detienne’s The Greeks and Us (Polity, 2007). Detienne is a professor of classics at Johns Hopkins and the author of several previous anthropologically-minded studies of Greek religion and myth. A structuralist, Detienne’s body of work aims to de-familiarize the Greeks. Should we think of Greek myths as easily read allegories of nature? No, says Detienne in The Gardens of Adonis (1972), those myths are full of recondite symbolism expressing an utterly unfamiliar view of plants, animals, food, and sex. Should we think of the Greeks as pioneers of rigorously rational inquiry? No, says Detienne in Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (1974), the Greeks valued leaps of intuition and practical inference over mere rationality. Detienne’s numerous other works continue in this debunking vein, always opposing the Greeks we thought we knew with Greeks whom we never before imagined or met. Detienne’s Greeks thus come across as near cousins to the Nambikwara and other Amazonian Indians in Levi-Strauss’s repertoire.
In The Greeks and Us, Detienne provides an accessible synthesis of his work, and it is an excellent place to make contact with the contemporary scholarly effort to dethrone the Greeks as the first and the exceptional. Perhaps the most important observation is that Detienne’s approach is much more subtle than Armesto’s and is not aimed at relativizing Greek exceptionality out of existence. Rather, Detienne aims to redefine what makes the Greeks exceptional. For example, in Detienne’s view, what’s special about Greek mythology is that “Greece provided the rest of the world with the category of ‘mythology,’” which is to say that the Greeks took the fluid stuff of myth—“proverbs, tales, genealogies, cosmogonies, epics and songs”—and began to construct self-consciously a body of knowledge about myth, culminating in the library of Apollodorus (ca. AD 200) that captured “seven or eight centuries” of mythographic works.
Detienne notes that Greece appears in Western scholarship as “the exceptional place in which there occurred what Hellenists call, quite simply, ‘the transition from mythical thought to positivist abstract thought,’ or more snappily, ‘from myth to reason.’” He does not debunk this view of the rise of philosophy, but he does seek to complicate it. Detienne does this by returning us to the audacious struggle of a few Greeks to develop “new modes of thought that were inseparable from writing,” and that “radically called into question a tradition…no longer credible.”
If I can pause on that sentence, it calls to mind the “symposium” in this issue on the NEA report, To Read or Not To Read, about the decline in reading by Americans. Might the consequences include a partial reversal of the Greek movement from mythical to abstract thinking? An ushering in of new kinds of credulity?
Be that as it may, Detienne’s contribution is to have us see the Greek achievement in creating philosophy as a particular way of responding to the heritage of myth, and one in which myth didn’t just disappear. Anthropological studies from around the world have helped us to see myths in the “concrete circumstances” of other societies, including what Detienne calls their “experimentation with intellectual structures.” To that extent, he relativizes the Greek achievement, but not in a manner that diminishes it.
That’s one small thread from a book I recommend to readers who would like to explore the controversy that Duchesne has opened for us in his review of Armesto.
While we are on the Greeks, let me mention The Landmark Herodotus, a splendid new edition translated by Andrea L. Purvis and edited by Robert Strassler (Pantheon Books, 2007). This is in the same vein as The Landmark Thucydides (Free Press, 1996). Hundreds of beautifully rendered maps, pictures of archaeological finds, line-drawings, vase paintings; a hugely helpful “Dated Outline of Text”; twenty-one appendices by well-known scholars (e.g., Appendix R, “The Size of Xerxes’ Expeditionary Force,” by Michael Flower); crisp marginal captions for each paragraph, and an intelligent index (e.g., insults; oracles). As someone who has long taught David Grene’s translation, Purvis’s voice is drier and plainer. I prefer Grene, but Purvis is perfectly lucid.
As for items of academic interest, for this issue I recommend global puzzle balls. The logo for Wikipedia, though no doubt unfamiliar to most readers of AQ, is a drawing of a jigsaw-like globe missing a few pieces. Such jigsaw globes have been around for a long time, but have usually been built on top of an actual sphere. In recent years, several companies have put out globes made of stiff plastic pieces that snap into a self-supporting whole. For those intent on caricaturing the world’s diversity, I recommend the Rose Art Esphera globe with sixty pieces. The dance of caricatures gains a few players in various intermediate models, but the world at its most complex comes in at 530 pieces (Buffalo Games) or 540 (Rose Art and Ravensburger). I recommend the Ravensburger 540. Good ocean blue, spins on its own stand. But note: if you want to leave out the piece that includes Greece, you end up taking much of Western Europe with it.