Late last year, I had lunch with David Horowitz on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s dime, and this world-historical event was noted on this very blog. Alas, not everyone understood what I was trying to do in that little encounter. Moreover, those who did understand my approach, including various CTers, disagreed as to whether I did the right thing. Harry thought I pretty much blew it, whereas Henry thought I took exactly the right tack. Which is fine, really, because as you’ve already gathered, I seem thoroughly incapable of winning universal assent to stuff I say. I’m tempted to blame this on the very structure of language itself, but much of the time it’s my fault; my tactics misfire, I misgauge the occasion. And sometimes people just disagree with me.
But here’s what I was thinking at the time: OK, I’ve agreed to meet David Horowitz. In this context—the Chronicle, as opposed to Hannity & Colmes—this grants Horowitz, and his complaints about academe, a certain legitimacy. My job, therefore, is to contest that legitimacy, and to model a way of dealing with Horowitz that does not give him what he wants: namely, (1) important concessions or (2) outrage. He feeds on (2), of course, and uses it to power the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Massive Persecution Complex he runs out of Los Angeles; and most of the time, we give it to him by the truckload. Liberal and left academics need to try (3), mockery and dismissal, and thereby demonstrate, as I put it on my blog, that when someone tries to blame tuition increases on Cornel West’s speaking fees, that person needs to be ridiculed and given a double minor for unsportsmanlike bullshit.
So when I sat down, I decided to signal my attitude toward the event by taking note of the recent election and saying, “Madam Speaker—this is good. But we’re waiting for Madam President. That’s when the shadow party takes over.” Horowitz missed it completely, replying, “Probably will happen. You’ll notice I’m not depressed. That’s because I’m not depending on legislatures.” Since Horowitz had spent much of the previous three years crowing about his victories in state legislatures and his influence on former House majority leader John Boehner, this was a bit disingenuous. But that’s not the point. The point was that I tried to remark offhandedly—and Chronicle reporter Tom Bartlett got it—that I was sitting down to an “intellectual” debate with someone who had just published, with Richard Poe, The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party. (As Bartlett notes, the book claims that the Shadow Party plans to rewrite the U.S. Constitution.) Now, since Hillary is not in fact a sixties radical, and since the leadership of the Democratic Party has conducted itself as a party of the center-right for at least the past 25 years, I look upon claims that Hillary and Soros are going to rewrite the Constitution the way I look upon claims that Queen Elizabeth and Pope Benedict XVI are conspiring to control the world’s supply of tungsten.
Now you know. So the next time someone says, “Bérubé doesn’t seem to take Horowitz seriously enough,” I’m simply going to reply, “this is about the tungsten, isn’t it?” and I hope my meaning will be clear. Though I don’t suppose that’ll compel universal assent, either. I blame the structure of language. Ah, why must meaning be context-bound, and context be boundless?
And yet, and yet. In Horowitz’s many shell games, one can find—if one has more patience than I do—a couple of interesting questions. For instance: although Horowitz claims to abide by the American Association of University Professors’ definition of “academic freedom,” he is campaigning, as I have often argued, for a definition of “academic freedom” that extends the concept to students, thereby rendering it either incoherent or indistinguishable from some nebulous concept of “intellectual freedom” or “freedom from professorial haranguing.” The AAUP definition, by contrast, is tied to the idea of disciplinary expertise: professors who have spent their adult lives studying a subject should have, in the words of the AAUP Statement, “full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” And it’s not really the case that Horowitz defers to the idea of scholarly expertise, anyway; he’s always complaining that professor X doesn’t have the credentials to teach course Y, as if he is the Arbiter of All Scholarly Knowledge, and some of his beliefs on that score—like his complaint about someone teaching Peace Studies at a Quaker university, for instance, or his conviction (which he conveyed to me at lunch) that film is not an appropriate subject for academic study—are just beyond bizarre, and should be ridiculed at every opportunity.
In his recent debate with Horowitz, which took place at the tail end of the delightful and instructive 2007 CPAC Conference, AAUP President Cary Nelson (my friend and former colleague when I taught at the University of Illinois) decided to press Horowitz on the question of scholarly expertise, but not by noting (as I have) that Horowitz doesn’t have any. Starting by noting that “students don’t quite possess academic freedom because that implies a disciplinary expertise that they don’t yet really have,” Cary went on to argue that scholarly expertise is not simply a matter of one’s doctoral work (the transcript is up on FrontPage, but I caution you: this is David Horowitz’s website, and it features a very nasty color scheme that will hurt your eyes):
I’ve published five books about the Spanish Civil War. I’ve published five books about higher education. I wasn’t trained in my doctoral training about either subject. I educated myself about them by reading books, by talking to people, by conducting hundreds and hundreds of interviews. I eventually became expert in those subjects, published widely about them and am certainly recognized world-wide for having some authority to speak in those areas, not just in my original area of modern poetry.
So if you look at academic careers, they include a certain amount of development and change. People’s interests vary and they become expert in a variety of new areas as their lives move on. So you can’t judge expertise of a faculty member just by what he or she studied as a student. Expertise changes over time.
This is a basic point; but the moment Cary made it, I was struck by how rarely anyone brings it up. I was also struck by the fact that I’ve never tried to make the point myself. Because when I watched the Horowitz-Nelson debate on C-Span a few weeks ago, I immediately thought of the moment of blind panic I’d had the night before I was supposed to appear at a plenary session of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. (This was back in October 2002.) The plenary concerned advance directives and the rights of the “conscious incompetent” patient, and my co-panelists were law professor Rebecca Dressler (who’d served on the President’s Council on Bioethics during its controversial discussions of stem-cell research, and whose 1994 Rutgers Law Review essay, “Missing Persons: Legal Perceptions of Incompetent Patients,” I’d read a few months earlier) and Lawrence Nelson, who’d just argued the case In re Wendland to the California Supreme Court—and lost (28 P.3d 151 (Cal. 2001), for those of you who are interested in this kind of thing). In my moment of panic, I’d decided that I had no business appearing on a panel with these people, and no business talking about bioethics in the first place. I left my hotel room and began to wander around aimlessly . . . whereupon, as luck would have it, I ran into some of the conference organizers in the lobby. They were happy to see that I’d arrived in good time, and suggested that we all go have a drink. “OK,” I replied. “But I have to admit, I’m having severe pre-plenary anxiety about being up there with a member of the President’s Council and the guy who represented Rose Wendland. Exactly who am I supposed to be?” They were mildly amused at this, and someone said, “well, we were hoping that you’d be the Michael Bérubé who wrote Life As We Know It, actually.” “Oh, right,” I sighed. “I forgot about that. OK, can I talk about disability and autonomy?” “I think that would be appropriate,” they said. And so I did.
Now, Life As We Know It was a trade book, and much of it consists of a narrative of my then-young son’s life; but it also contains a discussion of the ethics of prenatal screening, and every once in a while I get a call from places like the Boston Globe or the Toronto Globe and Mail, asking me for an essay on this disability issue or that. (Those essays, especially, have symbiotic relations to my bloggy work: the Boston Globe piece grew out of this March 2005 post, and I discuss the Globe and Mail essay, which is no longer available free of charge, in this recent post.) So it’s not as if I’ve embarked on a second scholarly career in this area. Still, I do work in disability studies, and I do co-direct a Disability Studies Program; tonight through Saturday, in fact, we’re hosting a conference on Alzheimer’s Disease. Nothing in my doctoral training prepared me for any of this, but since the birth of my son Jamie, I’ve tried to educate myself about a wide range of disability issues. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to make Cary’s simple but crucial point: if you look at academic careers, they include a certain amount of development and change. People’s interests vary and they become expert in a variety of new areas as their lives move on.
The point is all the more critical, I think, when you consider the profusion of “interdisciplinary” work over the last two or three decades—and particularly if you admit, as I think most people would, that interdisciplinary work is sometimes done badly, by people insufficiently familiar with the history of the disciplines they’re inter-ing. Actually, if memory serves, there once was a time when cultural studies wanted to consider itself “anti-disciplinary”; I’ve often argued that when people say “anti-disciplinary” or “post-disciplinary” they actually mean “anti-departmental” or “post-departmental,” since the term “discipline” is, on my reading, roughly equivalent to “intellectual tradition,” and it really doesn’t make much sense to position yourself as “anti-intellectual tradition” or “post-intellectual tradition.” Nevertheless, the question remains, and I think it runs parallel to Henry’s question about “scholarly activism”: how can we best understand academic freedom and scholarly expertise over the full course of a scholarly career, when so many scholarly careers now involve interdisciplinary work?