Fraudulent journalist, c’est moi

by Michael Bérubé on May 14, 2009

In January 1995 I published a little essay that almost nobody liked.  Eh, that happens sometimes.  It was a review essay on the then-recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals, and I wrote it quite simply because the New Yorker asked me to.  I was a newly-tenured associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I was surprised by the request; to this day it’s the only time I’ve written for the New Yorker.  And then, within about three months of the thing’s appearance, a whole mess of people decided to weigh in on the work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals.  Many of those people came to the conclusion that I had done a pretty piss-poor job of writing about the recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals; the general verdict was that I had basically written a press release, a puff piece on a bunch of lightweights and/or sellouts.  But some of those people weren’t responding to me at all; they had much more important figures to go after, like Cornel West.  And it wasn’t just my little essay they were responding to; my essay was bad enough, sure, but it was compounded by the appearance, in the March 1995 Atlantic, of a much longer essay by Robert Boynton.  That essay was about the work of a couple of other African-American intellectuals, and, like my essay, it drew a loose analogy between contemporary African-American intellectuals and the New York intellectuals of yesteryear, so clearly there was some kind of conspiracy afoot.

By the time Leon Wieseltier had taken to the pages of The New Republic to thunder that Cornel West’s work was “noisy, tedious, slippery . . . sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared,” indeed, “almost completely worthless,” and Adolph Reed Jr., doing his usual contrarian thing, had shot back in the Village Voice that Wieseltier’s essay was a “right-for-the-wrong-reasons attack,” I could see that there was a bona fide pile-on in progress. As even the leftist Adolph Reed Jr. says about Leon Wieseltier’s essay in Even The Liberal New Republic. . . . And so, uncharacteristically, I decided to stay mostly out of the fray—until Sean Wilentz published “Race, Celebrity, and the Intellectuals: Notes on a Donnybrook” in the summer 1995 issue of Dissent.  At the time, I was a little bit pissed off that Wilentz accused me of “liberal racialism,” and a little more pissed off that he wrote,

in 1963, it was possible to open the New Yorker and find Dwight Macdonald there descanting thoughtfully and at length about The Other America.  Now in place of Macdonald there is Michael Bérubé celebrating Race Matters and works by the other new black intellectuals—a case of misjudgment, no doubt, but also a sign about more general trends in intellectual reportage.  Whereas Harrington could count on tough remarks and rebuttals as well as praise, especially from his closest associates and friends, West and many of the other prominent black writers have been treated (at least until recently) to the sort of tumultuous acclaim that suffocates their better intentions.

And

the hype has been picked up by writers for the national media and turned into more disturbing forms of celebrity mongering—the latest example of a trend that has gripped almost every field of artistic and academic endeavor.  And some of the mongering has managed to slip into some unexpected places.  The grandest puff appeared last winter in a group review by Michael Bérubé that turned up in the New Yorker. . . .

Now, I admit that I have a funny reaction when people sneer at me like this and ask who let me into the club; I usually extend my hand to them and say, “it’s such a pleasure to meet you—I’m your replacement, and I have to ask you to leave.”  So part of my reply to Wilentz in the fall ‘95 Dissent included my Deeply Considered Opinion that his essay was “half pot-shot, half rehash, wholly inadequate to the task,” and it closed by asking Dissent “how Sean Wilentz’s piece managed to slip into your pages.”  (In the following issue, Martin Kilson chipped in, writing, “I do not think the Sean Wilentz article . . . warranted publication in Dissent.”  I liked that.)  But seriously, I did think it was a bit rich for me to be accused of celebrity-mongering in an essay that included passages like this:

“The proper starting point for the crucial debate about the prospects for black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities,” [West] writes in Race Matters.  This is a risky position for any progressive social critic, and particularly for any black social critic who appeals for the remediation of black poverty but does not wish to present poor blacks as, yet again, passive “targets” for social reform or as participant-victims of a dysfunctional culture.  West wants to generate concern about the black poor without pathologizing them (or construing the black middle class as greedy wannabes); at the same time, he wants to defend “traditional morality” and traditional institutions, like churches and schools, from that dread culture of consumption without simply reciting the neoconservative mantras—  religion, family values, private associations—of our day.  It’s a tricky double play, and he doesn’t always pull it off.  The fact is that it’s often difficult to distinguish between conservative and progressive critiques of the social corrosiveness of consumer capital.  For one thing, both points of view tend to rely on the idea of some once unalienated human community that has been violated by modernity: leftists can look back at precapitalist gemeinschaft and conservatives can long for the agrarian pastoral with more or less the same ardor.  It’s remarkable but altogether fitting that West’s work turns out to make some common cause with that of the cultural conservative Daniel Bell—who “in stark contrast to black conservatives,” West writes, “highlights the larger social and cultural forces, for example, consumerism and hedonism, which undermine the Protestant ethic and its concomitant values.”

Because the funny thing was that my little essay was not, in fact, totally bereft of “ideas.”  OK, they weren’t very great ideas, and yes, I admit that I opened the piece by writing “Cornel West is Teh ROxxOr Intellectual Of All Times! 1 ! 1”—but even there, I think I deserve some credit for being the first person to use “Teh” in the New Yorker.  (Dwight Macdonald was actually the first to write “ROxxOr,” though few people remember this today.)  But I did try to suggest a thing or two along the way, like this, for example:

What Marxism was to Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, Philip Rahv, and company, black nationalism is to West, Gates, hooks, et al.:  the inspiration, the springboard, the template, but also the antagonist and the goad.  Just as the postwar Jewish intelligentsia largely abandoned radical politics but remained committed to rethinking America’s progressivist traditions (often by delivering scathing critiques of radical politics), the black intelligentsia of our fin de siècle has largely abandoned cultural nationalism while remaining committed to refiguring forms of African-American collectivity (often by delivering scathing critiques of cultural nationalism).  But the new intellectuals have a markedly different relation to the vernacular of their time.  A major part of what the New York intellectuals represented, in cultural politics, was a collocation of the politics of anti-Communism with the literature of high modernism–something that required its inventors to erect a cordon sanitaire protecting “real” culture from contamination by the kitsch, dreck, schlock, pop, and camp that surrounded it.  One cannot imagine, given the past decade’s controversies over black popular culture, the new black intelligentsia adopting the same cultural politics.

And this:

Because non-black audiences are still the ones that have the power to put black artists at the top of the charts, African-American intellectuals’ uneasiness about black commercial and professional success stems in part from the long-standing fear that “crossing over” must entail selling out.  It’s what leads to hooks’ attack on [Spike] Lee—the unstated suspicion that any critical or commercial success with white audiences is, de facto, political failure. [hooks had argued that “Lee’s work cannot be revolutionary and generate wealth at the same time,” so that he is confined to “reproducing conservative and even stereotypical images of blackness so as not to alienate that crossover audience”; specifically, she insisted that his version of Malcolm X “has more in common with Steven Spielberg’s representation of Mister in the film version of The Color Purple than with real-life portraits of Malcolm X.”]

So if black public intellectuals are legitimated by their sense of a constituency, they’re hamstrung by it, too: they can be charged with betraying that constituency as easily as they can be credited with representing it.  On the one hand, they have an unprecedented opportunity to speak from, to, and for a public, since their professional bona fides depend not on their repudiation of vernacular African-American culture but on their engagement with it.  On the other hand, they inhabit an intellectual tradition of extreme sensitivity toward the issue of who represents what to whom—a tradition in which the weightiest term of disapprobation is that familiar bludgeon “Uncle Tom.”

And, finally, this:

Nor is fluency in popular culture a guarantor of popular influence.  In the preface to Making Malcolm, Michael Eric Dyson recounts that when he quoted Snoop Doggy Dogg during a United States Senate subcommittee hearing on gangsta rap he was told by a young black admirer that “for a guy your age, you really can flow.”  He’s right to be pleased by the compliment.  An intellectual generation that responds broadly and sympathetically to popular culture has numerous advantages over an intellectual generation that defines itself against popular culture.  But for cultural critics the danger of popular acclaim is that it can tempt them to pay more attention to the responses of young admirers than to the deliberations of Senate subcommittees.  And it can tempt them to pull their punches, as when bell hooks, in an interview with the rap artist Ice Cube that appears in Outlaw Culture, sounds uncharacteristically tentative about Cube’s misogynistic lyrics and declines even to ask him about his role as a pitchman for St. Ides.  Intellectuals need not be so arrogant as to claim to occupy the cultural vanguard, but in renouncing that role they need not settle for the role of fan, disk jockey, or press agent….

The overwhelming irony here is that black public intellectuals are doing their work—at colleges, in churches, and on cable TV —at a time when the very idea of “the public” has become nearly unthinkable in national politics.  Such has been the signal achievement of the New Right, whose religious wing has built its organizations on the bedrock of home, school, and family while attacking the realm of the public in the name of the people.  Public housing, public education, public health, public ownership, public welfare—to much of the American electorate these terms signify that which is not in the public interest.  Black public intellectuals like West or hooks may have a large public following, but the paradoxical conditions under which they operate dictate that they will have to revivify the nation’s faith in the “public” if their work is going to have broad political consequences.  The measure of their success will be the degree to which they help generate a sense of the public as elastic and capacious as their sense of the intellectual.

Controversies over Snoop Dogg and St. Ides!  Ah, it was another time, you understand.  A long, long time ago. And more than a decade ago, I gave all this stuff its very own file in my office file cabinet, stuffing in all the essays by Sean Wilentz and Leon Wieseltier and Adolph Reed and Ellen Willis and Jon Weiner and Michael Hanchard and then later academic essays by Henry Giroux and Herman Gray and even bell hooks’ reply (she wasn’t very pleased either), and I haven’t looked at it since.

So why am I looking at it now?  Because, dear reader, I recently came across an essay in the Blackwell Companion to African-American Studies, edited by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon and published in 2007.  It’s Hazel Carby’s “The New Auction Block: Blackness and the Marketplace.”  And guess what?  Part of the essay is yet another attack on Ye Olde New Yorker Essay of 1995, written by me.  And this time, my essay isn’t just celebrity-mongering and grand-puff-daddying.  It’s also “paternalistic”—and worse!

But before we get to the worse part, let’s explain the “paternalistic” part.  It has to do with Carby’s belief that Robert Boynton and I claimed to have discovered black intellectuals for the first time in all of recorded history.  The lead-in goes like so:

Marketing the field has led to a preoccupation with the “newness” of African-American Studies, an arena in which scholars continually make “discoveries” erasing the history of any previous engagement with these texts (124).

In the next few years the media would become obsessed with the newness or novelty value of African-American Studies and the originality and rarity of their “discovery” of black intellectuals. . . .  The “traffic between culture and authority” would be apparent in the 1990s, when contemporary black intellectuals were “discovered” and in the process authenticated by the New York literary establishment.  Media investigations into African-American Studies and the role of black intellectuals read like journalistic sorties into the colonial wilderness of the academic outback. (125)

OK, so by this point I’m a member of the New York literary establishment, hacking his way into the colonial wilderness of the academic outback.  All the way from central Illinois. And then comes the bit about how my essay didn’t talk about any, you know, books and ideas:

Bérubé ’s review, instead of being a review of this work, of books and ideas, turns out to be a review of these authors; they are paraded like models on the catwalk of the latest academic fashion shows.  (125-26)

But of course it is not intellectual history that is at stake in this story, it is marketing.  The point is to erase history and to deny an organic relation between contemporary black intellectuals to a past of collective struggle.  (127)

Well, I’m used to this sort of thing by now, so I’m thinking, “yeah, yeah, I didn’t discuss West and Dyson on black nationalism or hooks on feminism, or the relation between contemporary black intellectuals and black popular culture, or the relation between cultural politics and public policy.  And even when I suggested some kind of organic relation between contemporary black intellectuals and a past of collective struggle, I got myself accused of ‘liberal racialism.’  But I knew all that already!  Where’s this ‘new action block’ I heard about in the title?”

Oh, wait, here it comes:

Bérubé ’s and Boynton’s “discovery” of black public intellectuals in 1995 was a fraudulent journalistic invention that ranks with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence.  Their claims of discovery, the assertions of the newness of black, public, intellectual life, allow them to tell and sell their stories.  Boynton wonders how substantial the legacy of his group of black public intellectuals will be, as if he did not already know that two centuries of substantial work by black thinkers in the Americas already exists, and then he questions whether this legacy “will be compromised” by their media popularity: “As public intellectuals gain greater access to mainstream culture,” Boynton asks, “do they become more important thinkers or only better known?”  But while Boynton speculates about the ways in which the work of black public intellectuals could be compromised by the culture industry, he and Bérubé remain totally unselfconscious of the ways in which they are trading in “blackness” in the journalistic marketplace with their newly “discovered,” designer-brand black intellectuals. (128)

Trading in “blackness”—but not in the manner of the old auction block, see.  The new auction block involves people like me and Boynton unselfconsciously engaging in fraudulent journalistic inventions in order to tell and sell our stories.  OK, so now that’s all cleared up.

Well, I don’t know.  I think Boynton’s question about public intellectuals and mainstream culture is a pretty good question for public intellectuals of any color, tint, or stripe, and I’m not seeing how it erases any history.  In fact, I might note that Carby addresses a version of the very same question later in her essay: “In an era in which ideas are of little value, the only possible ‘public’ role for intellectuals is circumscribed by the extent to which they can perform for the market” (132-33).  And I have to say I think Carby’s characterization of my essay as the Second Coming of Columbus is a teeny bit harsh, seeing as how my essay actually says things like this:

Of course, there have been black intellectuals on these shores from 1619 or so, and Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells were about as effective in their day as any nineteenth-century public intellectual could hope to be.  What was lacking, until very recently, was a black public sphere of commensurate size.  Even in the nineteen-twenties, when writers of the Harlem Renaissance set out to theorize about the relation between lumpen black folk and what Zora Neale Hurston wryly called the “niggerati,” black intellectuals were playing to a small crowd indeed.  As Langston Hughes put it, “The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance.  And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.”

Until the nineteen-sixties, America’s nationally known black intellectuals tended also to be its nationally known black novelists—the triumvirate of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, two of whom eventually chose exile over life in their native land.  Meanwhile, within the tiny public arena bounded by segregation, African-American intellectuals like Oliver Cromwell Cox, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, J. Saunders Redding, and Carter G. Woodson were creating African-American history, sociology, and literary criticism in black colleges, black journals like Phylon and The Crisis, or black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Afro-American (published in five Eastern cities).  But as long as segregation prevailed in higher education and in the publishing world it was quite easy for white Americans to believe that—Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin aside—the most important books on race in this country were written by white Americans.

I don’t see how this amounts to a claim to have “discovered” black intellectuals in 1995, and I don’t think Carby does either—as she acknowledges in an aside: “Later in [his] article Boynton is forced to admit”—by whom? one wonders—“just as Bérubé conceded in his review, that contemporary black intellectuals are not, of course, the first generation of black public intellectuals” (127).  So I guess you could say that at some point in her essay Carby is forced to admit, or merely concedes, that Boynton and I did not in fact claim to have discovered black intellectuals. But it didn’t prevent her from leveling the charge of “fraudulent journalistic invention” anyway.

But hey, I understand what’s going on here.  As it is in blog comment sections, so it is in the world of serious scholarship: the person who comes very late to the pile-on has to take the invective to the next level.  So it’s not sufficient, any longer, to accuse me of starry-eyed celebrity-mongering.  Now I have to be accused of crimes that rank with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence—and, oh yeah, the auction block.  Well, ain’t that a shame, since I learned some of what I know about Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper as black public intellectuals from reading and teaching Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood back in 1990-91, and I’ve been an admirer of Carby’s work ever since.  But Professor Carby has indeed re-set the bar at the next level, and perhaps in another decade or so I will learn that my little New Yorker essay was the journalistic equivalent of distributing smallpox-infested blankets to the editors of Phylon and The Crisis.  Only worse, for being totally unselfconscious.

x-posted.

{ 70 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 05.14.09 at 12:50 pm

Berube’s and Boynton’s “discovery” of black public intellectuals in 1995 was a fraudulent journalistic invention that ranks with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans

Wow.

2

Michael Bérubé 05.14.09 at 12:59 pm

Yeah, you know, you keep hoping that someday one of your review essays will be likened to the Moon landing or maybe the building of the pyramids, but it never works out that way. You get stuck with Columbus instead.

3

Matt Steinglass 05.14.09 at 1:10 pm

I’m not sure whether the point here is “I was hip to it before it was cool” or “I was hip to how uncool it was to claim to have been hip to it before it was cool before it was cool.” Or I may be missing a couple of layers of pointless recursiveness.

4

Ginger Yellow 05.14.09 at 1:19 pm

“tedious, slippery . . . sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared”

Sounds like a pretty good description of most of Wieseltier’s output on religion.

5

Michael Bérubé 05.14.09 at 1:20 pm

Matt, I think Kieran got the point. See comment 1.

6

b9n10t 05.14.09 at 1:27 pm

Abstract: this blog post is not about the authors West, hooks, & Dyson as an abstracted collective (black public intellectuals circa 1995). Nor is it about reviewers’ reaction to the poster’s reaction to the abstracted collective as a sociopolitical phenomenon. The post is the author’s reaction to a reaction to a reaction to black public intellectuals circa 1995.

7

Michael Bérubé 05.14.09 at 1:37 pm

More precisely, the post is the author’s reaction to a really belated and kinda remarkable reaction to a reaction to black public intellectuals circa 1995. Me, I thought this here donnybrook was over and done with sometime around 1996.

8

El Cid 05.14.09 at 2:27 pm

I for one am not ready to forgive Berube for having sacked Carthage in the first place while simultaneously and achronically pretending to be both twins who founded Rome.

9

Kieran Healy 05.14.09 at 2:38 pm

I think “comment” 7 is a fraudulent invention that ranks with Lucifer’s rebellion against Heaven.

10

Peter Hollo 05.14.09 at 2:42 pm

Bérubé’s singular sin is to have laid claim to the origination of the acute-accented letter e. The authors can reveal, however, that Bérubé was forced to admit, as recently as 1985, that this form of lettering in fact originated with the French. This fraudulent, unAmerican typographical plagiarism ranks with the etc etc.

11

Bill Gardner 05.14.09 at 2:46 pm

Re: #9

More precisely, note that Berube is only now “belatedly” forced to admit, or merely concede, his responsibility for the Fall of Man.

12

Bill Benzon 05.14.09 at 2:53 pm

Cooties, it’s about intellectual cooties. Bérubé writes this piece in which he says, as the cliché would have it, these black intellectuals are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

So, Wilentz reads it and reacts: “Cooties, it’s full of cooties. Get rid of them. Out damned spot.” And so forth.

Some years later Carby writes about that old essay: “Cooties, it’s full of cooties. Get rid of them. Out damned spot.” And so forth.

What I want to know are, what are these intellectual cooties and how do they work? Because lots of useless argument is generated by some version of the cootie call.

13

Darryl Cox 05.14.09 at 3:19 pm

Well, I see you got sucked or dragged into a variation of the HNIC game. It never ends because what you think folks are arguing about or even find objectionable about what you allegedly wrote or said is not that at all. Not at all. The object of the game always remains hidden from view and, at last report, there is no tell.

14

alex 05.14.09 at 3:32 pm

HNIC? Google says “Hockey Night in Canada” – ?? Is that some twisted counterpart of ‘Mornington Crescent’?

15

Michael Bérubé 05.14.09 at 4:20 pm

Alex, there’s a long tradition in the African-American community wherein only one person watches Hockey Night in Canada. You can check it out in Ishmael Reed’s hilarious novel, Flight to Hockey Night in Canada.

But Darryl’s comment reminds me: on second or third thought, it’s really kind of striking that Carby’s account of the marketing of black public intellectuals in the 1990s doesn’t mention this infamous episode from 1998. As for my being “sucked or dragged” into a version of that game, eh, I was already in it, for better and worse. The reason I got the New Yorker gig, I believe, was that I had written a review of Houston Baker’s Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy for Transition at the request of that very Henry Louis Gates, Jr. fellow mentioned in the above link. Only after I received the book did I realize that it contained a no-holds-barred attack on Gates himself. “Don’t do it,” my wife sagely advised at the time. “You’re being set up — you know what Melvin Tolson used to say — it is the grass that gets hurt when two elephants fight.” To which I replied, “oh, what are they gonna do, strip me of tenure at Illinois?” I wound up writing a 5000-word review essay that concluded (among other things) that neither Baker nor Gates was as good on rap as were people like James Bernard, Reginald Dennis, dream hampton, Lisa Jones, Greg Tate, or Tricia Rose. It appeared in Transition 64 in 1994.

And then I was stripped of tenure! But I got better.

16

Righteous Bubba 05.14.09 at 4:40 pm

17

Eronarn 05.14.09 at 5:12 pm

Ten years from now I’ll write about how reading this blog post was like watching the Holocaust unfold before my eyes.

18

Xanthippas 05.14.09 at 5:15 pm

I think the baseness of the criticism increases in proportion to the amount of success or influence the criticized has enjoyed. So basically, you’ve hit the top it would seem, since having a colonialist attitude is pretty much one of the top-most hysterical criticisms you can level against an academic, right?

19

SEK 05.14.09 at 5:26 pm

Bérubé’s and Boynton’s “discovery” of black public intellectuals in 1995 was a fraudulent journalistic invention that ranks with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence.

What’s with the compound subject and those possessives there? Please tell me this person ain’t no English professor.

20

Bill Benzon 05.14.09 at 5:43 pm

I wound up writing a 5000-word review essay…

Yikes! I mean, the book itself was only a small-format 100-pager and it had a few pictures here and there.

21

mds 05.14.09 at 5:48 pm

Please tell me this person ain’t no English professor.

Hilariously enough, she does hold UK citizenship.

22

alex 05.14.09 at 6:06 pm

Haha! You almost had me there… Keep your jokes then, but I find that attitude very neo-colonialist

23

marcel 05.14.09 at 6:45 pm

Re: Comment 2 above: Yeah, you know, you keep hoping that someday one of your review essays will be likened to the Moon landing or maybe the building of the pyramids, but it never works out that way. You get stuck with Columbus instead.

I’m not sure the example of the pyramids is really one you want to aspire to, in as much as they were built by slaves (see We once were slaves in the land of Egypt. By miraculous power we were freed. or this

24

alex 05.14.09 at 6:54 pm

Umm… no. I think the archaeological community would be fairly clear that the workers on the pyramids were skilled labour, and paid…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_pyramid_construction_techniques

Religion: not a good answer to historical questions…

25

Righteous Bubba 05.14.09 at 6:57 pm

in as much as they were built by slaves

That’s one theory.

26

Michael Bérubé 05.14.09 at 6:59 pm

having a colonialist attitude is pretty much one of the top-most hysterical criticisms you can level against an academic, right?

Pretty much. As I said in the other thread, the only thing I can do now, if I want to respond in kind, is to charge that Carby’s essay reinscribes the hierarchies it seeks to critique. I don’t think I have any other play.

SEK @ 19: Please tell me this person ain’t no English professor.

Oh, yeah, Scott, like you have any right to talk.

Bill @ 20: the book itself was only a small-format 100-pager and it had a few pictures here and there.

And really generous margins.

Last but not least, Bill @ 11, I totally apologize for bringing about the Fall of Man. My bad!

27

SEK 05.14.09 at 7:02 pm

Oh, yeah, Scott, like you have any right to talk.

Hater hater.

28

Michael Bérubé 05.14.09 at 7:03 pm

Religion: not a good answer to historical questions

Yes, I heard recently that its real function is aesthetic. Ergo, and logically therefore, believing that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world is like seeing a review essay as a botched attempt to conquer a continent full of people.

29

Bill Benzon 05.14.09 at 9:08 pm

And really generous margins.

Not only that, but a back cover blurb from none other that Michael Bérubé writing in the Voice Literary Supplement – “. . . . Baker has both seen and spurred a spectacular series of generations shifts among the African American intelligentsia.”

They got you inscribed all over this puppy. You lucky to get out alive. You sure you is you?

30

Ben Alpers 05.15.09 at 12:12 am

All of you writing nice things to and about Michael on this thread are clearly engaging in forms of celebrity mongering, undreamed-of even by Sean Wilentz, that remind me of the Melian Dialogue and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

31

Antti Nannimus 05.15.09 at 12:22 am

Hi,

Geez, there goes another 20 minutes of my life with nothing to show for it.

Have a nice day!
Antti

32

marcel 05.15.09 at 2:08 am

alex @ 24: Umm… no. I think the archaeological community would be fairly clear that the workers on the pyramids were skilled labour, and paid…

And you think an encyclopedia, or rather, a webopedia, is a more reliable resource than the first couple of online Haggadah’s that came up in Google? Give me a break. I don’t think so! No way that the archaeological community knows more than the oral tradition of the revealed word of H*m w*o*e name we dare not spell.

33

Michael Bérubé 05.15.09 at 2:46 am

the revealed word of H*m w*o*e name we dare not spell

Could we please keep David Horowitz out of the discussion, just this once?

Thank you.

34

Righteous Bubba 05.15.09 at 3:19 am

And you think an encyclopedia, or rather, a webopedia, is a more reliable resource than the first couple of online Haggadah’s that came up in Google?

I admit to being impressed by the bondage one.

35

alex 05.15.09 at 7:29 am

Marcel, don’t Poe yourself if you want to be funny…

36

Zamfir 05.15.09 at 9:45 am

I thought alien kosmonauts built the pyramids? Surely Stargate is at least as respectable a source as a “webopedia”? No amateur can put their pet theory in every copy of a movie.

37

JoB 05.15.09 at 10:00 am

The Egyptians built the pyramids under the rule of aliens that posed as Gods!

Aaargh, all this nonsense spread by false prophets on the internet.

38

Zamfir 05.15.09 at 11:18 am

But were they slaves to the aliens, or paid? Perhaps the aliens have not yet discovered the free market economy! Then we can sell our advanced economic knowledge to them.

39

JoB 05.15.09 at 11:36 am

Are you kidding? It were aliens from the planet von Österreich that invented the free market & decided, after long debates in the Federation’s science council to experiment on it on the planet that was gullable enough to build pyramids for other aliens from the Dark Side. You can’t sell if it ain’t yours to begin with! The ancients have been revolving in their Antarctic ice patches.

40

david 05.15.09 at 12:22 pm

“Pretty much. As I said in the other thread, the only thing I can do now, if I want to respond in kind, is to charge that Carby’s essay reinscribes the hierarchies it seeks to critique. I don’t think I have any other play.”

That’s very funny. There is no more hysterical charge than reinscription — mere colonialism is pale in comparison.

41

Michael Bérubé 05.15.09 at 12:48 pm

Wait a second. There were illegal immigrants taking jobs away from Egyptian workers?

42

Darryl Cox 05.15.09 at 12:58 pm

Michael,
Yes, I agree that you were already in the game when the going got tougher but I wonder if you were fully aware of the stakes folks were actually jousting over. I remember the 1998 dust-up quite well but I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I navigated to the reference you cited and saw the name of the person who had written the piece. I’ll bite my tongue for the moment but if we should ever meet, I’ll share with you why I found it ironic.

BTW, the proverb your wife attributes to Professor Tolson is actually derived from west Africa and is generally expressed as, “When elephants fight only the grass gets hurt.” (For those who may not know, Melvin Tolson is portrayed by Denzel Washington in the film The Great Debaters.)

43

kid bitzer 05.15.09 at 1:00 pm

worse than that. illegal aliens in a pyramid scheme.

44

JoB 05.15.09 at 1:06 pm

One of them was named Ponzi!

Illegal aliens enslaving Egyptians carrying an Italian name.

Where was the world going to?

Ah, yes: the banking crisis ;-)

45

JP Stormcrow 05.15.09 at 1:15 pm

“I don’t think I need to tell you that there are jobs that Egyptians will not do. I don’t think I have to tell you that there are. Now, my friends, I’ll offer anybody here fifty copper deben a day if you’ll go build pyramids in Gizeh this season and build for the whole season. So, ok, sign up! Ok, when you sign up, you sign up, and you’ll be there for the whole season, the whole season, ok, not just one day. Because you can’t do it, my friend.”

– Ammon McKhufu

46

Zamfir 05.15.09 at 1:41 pm

JoB says You can’t sell if it ain’t yours to begin with! The ancients have been revolving in their Antarctic ice patches.

There can be only one reply to that.

If there was a problem yo I’ll solve it. Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it. Ice Ice baby.

47

Alarob 05.15.09 at 1:54 pm

Thanks for cluing me in to one more item in the unwritten rulebook, viz.:

As it is in blog comment sections, so it is in the world of serious scholarship: the person who comes very late to the pile-on has to take the invective to the next level.

Main differences between the blogs and academic debate: Academics are usually better spellers, and they’re much better at rationalizing their snap judgments or bad moods as something more authoritative.

48

kid bitzer 05.15.09 at 1:55 pm

#45–

now *that* is funny.

49

JoB 05.15.09 at 2:37 pm

@46 – I meant to say revolting, I think, but I’m not sure – need to work out how much a deben is worth nowadays

By the way: to get on topic again – we shouldn’t speak of Egyptians here, only Nubians allowed

50

alex 05.15.09 at 3:14 pm

See? That’s better… I still yearn to know the answer to the HNIC thing, though…

51

George W 05.15.09 at 3:41 pm

I just don’t have the stamina to be an intellectual. (Probably lack other tools as well.) After reading half a dozen paras I got bored and scrolled through what turned out to the the remaining 2/3 of it — but then got interested enough in the last few sentences to start reading again, backwards. (CSI: Flamewar.) I had to do a word search to determine whether the operative phrase was “new auction block” or “new action black,” suggesting a Robert Downey Jr. joke of some kind (all his best jokes are suggested).

ANYWAYS: get over it dude. It could be worse, you could have been talked into a cameo in The Matrix: Reloaded.

52

Timothy Burke 05.15.09 at 4:53 pm

In some sense, Carby’s line of criticism here is a generic academic argument, common whenever there’s some squabbling over reputation capital. Namely, “you falsely claim that a certain kind of text or idea or phenomenon is new or novel, but you are wrong, it’s got a long history”. For extra credit, you imply that this long history has been truncated not just because your opponent is not as erudite as you are but with malevolent intent, to deprecate something by denying its historicity. And yes, sure, a common schtick in literary studies is to announce or herald a writer’s work and so lay claim to it in some fashion. It seems to me that any self-aware literary critic is going to acknowledge that they’ve done some of that themselves rather than act as if it’s a deadly accusation, as Carby does.

53

alphie 05.15.09 at 5:17 pm

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
-Winston “Emcee WC” Churchill

54

Darryl Cox 05.15.09 at 5:28 pm

See? That’s better… I still yearn to know the answer to the HNIC thing, though…
The least offensive answer is Head-Negro-In-Charge (HNIC). It is a legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow period.

55

alex 05.15.09 at 5:36 pm

Thankyou, a nice round 40-comment trail leads to an answer. At least it was fun along the way…

56

dave heasman 05.15.09 at 6:34 pm

Don’t know if you can spare the time, but in my country calling an honest academic review a “fraudulent journalistic invention” is libel. And I’ve read it in my country.
Libel cases here lose lots of money for the libellers even if they don’t really libel. (Libellees don’t make money, lawyers do).

57

Michael Bérubé 05.15.09 at 6:51 pm

But I liked Hockey Night in Canada better.

Anyway, Darryl @ 42: Yes, I agree that you were already in the game when the going got tougher but I wonder if you were fully aware of the stakes folks were actually jousting over.

I think it’s safe to say I had no whatsoever clue, as Ms. Monie Love once put it. As for the grass-and-elephants proverb: yes, Janet probably said, “you know the proverb Melvin Tolson used to cite.” Half of my first book was on Tolson, and if you’d told me in 1988 that Denzel Washington would someday portray him in a Major Motion Picture I would have said you were mad, mad I say. Denzel — and the film in general — could have done a better job of evoking Tolson (Denzel was basically playing Denzel), but hey, I was just glad to see it.

Alarob @ 47: Main differences between the blogs and academic debate: Academics are usually better spellers.

True! Blog commenters spell “Cornel West is teh rOxxOr intellectual” wrong all the time, usually by spelling Cornel with two l’s. Oh, and I see that Zamfir @ 46 is cookin’ MCs like a pound of bacon.

And Tim @ 52 claims that this generic academic argument is new or novel, but he’s wrong — it’s got a long history, which Tim truncates in order to position his own comment as the “reasonable” response to the author’s reaction to a really belated and kinda remarkable reaction to a reaction to black public intellectuals circa 1995.

58

JoB 05.15.09 at 8:01 pm

‘Head Nubian in Cheops’ is more appropriate here, in context.

(HNOC would have worked better, but – heh – I’m not an academic)

59

Dave Maier 05.15.09 at 8:14 pm

HNOC would have worked better

No, that’s HNO3, a.k.a nitric acid, as in vitriol, like what Dr. Carby is throwing. (Actually that’s sulfuric acid, but never mind).

60

Darryl Cox 05.15.09 at 9:12 pm

Denzel—and the film in general—could have done a better job of evoking Tolson (Denzel was basically playing Denzel), but hey, I was just glad to see it.

I agree but that is one of the risks or problems of aspirational films. The edges are rounded off and unpleasant facts and issues are discarded. Triumph over adversity counts more than revelation of character.

61

JoB 05.16.09 at 8:30 am

Darryl, did Denzel play a part in Milk?

Dave, if you’re called Dr. Carby you’re nometically predetermined to throw vitriol, or so I suppose.

62

marcel 05.16.09 at 10:36 am

Alex at 35: Marcel, don’t Poe yourself if you want to be funny…

I have no idea what this means. Wish I did, though. Tried googling ‘poe’ as slang transitive verb, but came up with nothing.

Probably too late on this thread to get a response. Oh well.

MB – If you check in here, could you, perhaps, hazard a guess?

63

Michael Bérubé 05.16.09 at 11:01 am

I got a bucket full o’ nothing.

64

Cosma 05.16.09 at 12:15 pm

62: I’d guess this.

65

kid bitzer 05.16.09 at 1:07 pm

pretty sure i’ve seen it used as a transitive verb over at pharyngula, where there are a lot of fundy commenters who come to rail at the heathen, and thus a lot of spoof fundies among p.z.’s own supporters.

66

Darryl Cox 05.16.09 at 1:49 pm

Darryl, did Denzel play a part in Milk?
If he did then it wasn’t on screen. Anyway, whoever wrote the screenplay for the film apparently was not aware of the major, in fact, founding role that black activists like the late Bob Covington played in creating the movement for district election of supervisors in San Francisco.

I knew Harvey Milk and liked him. Danny White and I had grown up a few blocks from each other and had been acquaintances since we were teenagers. We also attended the same high school. Harvey and Danny, however, had not been major players in the effort to change the process for electing the city’s Board of Supervisors. This is a minor point in a larger story but San Francisco did have an active progressive political base before Harvey Milk, rest his soul, moved to the city.

67

JoB 05.16.09 at 3:33 pm

Darryl, respect! I actually liked the movie – but found your Denzel-movie comment to be rather fitting of the Sean Penn-version of Milk. Didn’t know that. Thanks.

68

Sean Sakamoto 05.16.09 at 11:11 pm

69

Darryl Cox 05.17.09 at 9:48 pm

but found your Denzel-movie comment to be rather fitting of the Sean Penn-version of Milk.

Well, I don’t think Penn can be faulted for his portrayal of Milk. I do think, however, that Cleve Jones, who was an advisor to the screenwriter, was perhaps a little too interested in settling old scores and, in addition, was really not well acquainted with many key players and the issues driving San Francisco’s community-based political movement.

70

JoB 05.18.09 at 7:49 am

I wasn’t faulting but I thought Penn was the director and the producer so if faulting is to be done he’ll not escape it ;-) Anyway,

Triumph over adversity counts more than revelation of character.

I thought there was some of that in Milk, that’s all. Maybe it was just the ending sequence which got up my nose.

Comments on this entry are closed.