In his brief but delightful introduction to What Are Intellectuals Good For?, Scott McLemee offers a précis of the Scialabbian moral/political universe: “Reconciling the skeptical pragmatism of Richard Rorty and the geopolitical worldview of Noam Chomsky is not a simple project. Rarely do you find them treated as two sides of one ideological coin. But that seems like a reasonably accurate description of Scialabba’s sense of the possible. If he were to write a manifesto, it would probably call for more economic equality, the dismantling of the American military industrial complex, and the end of metaphysics.” This does indeed sound reasonably accurate, and it serves as a reminder that McLemee is one of the few contemporary writers and reviewers who belongs in Scialabba’s league. For regardless of whether one agrees with Scialabba’s judgments on matters moral and political (and, often enough, I don’t, even though I’d endorse that hypothetical manifesto in a heartbeat), one has to be impressed with Scialabba’s uncanny ability to inhabit the books and writers he reviews. Scialabba’s work in What Are Intellectuals Good For? is remarkable for its range, yes, and his prose is notable for its precision and clarity. But what’s most impressive, I think, is the scrupulousness fairness that Scialabba brings to the task of reviewing. Almost every essay in this collection allows the reader some degree of imaginative sympathy with the books and writers under review, even when Scialabba himself turns out to be largely unsympathetic to the material he’s writing about. That’s because Scialabba, like McLemee, always offers a reasonably accurate précis of the material he’s writing about before he gets around to taking issue with it. It’s easy enough to do, of course, when you’re writing about someone who sees the world as you do; but George Scialabba does it as a matter of course. I wish I could say the same of all reviewers; and though it’s a standard to which I hold my own review essays, I know very well that I’ve sometimes honored it in the breach.
And yet, in a fascinating passage at the outset of his essay on Christopher Hitchens, Scialabba acknowledges the temptations of the partisan review:
All the someone in question has to do is begin thinking differently from me about a few important matters. In no time, I begin to find that his qualities have subtly metamorphosed. His abundance of colorful anecdotes now looks like incessant and ingenious self-promotion. His marvelous copiousness and fluency strike me as mere mellifluous facility and mechanical prolixity. A prose style I thought deliciously suave and sinuous I now find preening and overelaborate. His fearless cheekiness has become truculent bravado; his namedropping has gone from endearing foible to excruciating tic; his extraordinary dialectical agility seems like resourceful and unscrupulous sophistry; his entertaining literary asides like garrulousness and vulgar display; his bracing contrariness, tiresome perversity. Strange, this alteration of perspective; and even stranger, it sometimes occurs to me that if he changed his opinions again and agreed with me, all his qualities would once more reverse polarity and appear in their original splendor. A very instructive experience, epistemologically speaking.
“Farewell, Hitch” is the most recent of Scialabba’s essays reprinted in What Are Intellectuals Good For?, dating from 2005; but unlike so many other farewells to Hitchens written after 9/11, Scialabba’s essay manages to be measured and circumspect—and all the more devastating as a result. Surely Scialabba’s rigorous honesty, his willingness to predicate his review on that very instructive experience (epistemologically speaking), accounts both for the circumspection and the devastation.
The other admirable thing about Scialabba is his unpredictability. How do you know when you’re dealing with the work of a hack? When you can anticipate its every move, mentally writing the review talking point by stock phrase before you actually read it. Scialabba’s reviews are basically the opposite of that. As if it’s not hard enough to reconcile the skeptical pragmatism of Richard Rorty and the geopolitical worldview of Noam Chomsky, Scialabba also finds ways to reconcile the polemics of Alexander Cockburn and the jeremiads of Victor Davis Hanson. You wouldn’t think that someone like Scialabba, who admires Chomsky and Cockburn as well as antifoundationalist stalwarts Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, would file friendly reviews of Hanson’s and Heath’s Who Killed Homer?, Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue, and Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer’s Against the Grain: The New Criterion on Art and Intellect at the End of the Twentieth Century. But you’d be wrong. Reading George Scialabba is always illuminating and often surprising, and I mean that as high praise. Late in the collection, Scialabba cites Leonardo Sciascia’s response to the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini: “Pasolini ‘may be wrong,’ Sciascia replied, he ‘may contradict himself,’ but he knows ‘how to think with a freedom which very few people today even aspire to.’” That’s precisely my response to What Are Intellectuals Good For?, and may even offer an answer to the collection’s titular question: to think with a freedom which very few people even aspire to.
The case of Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue is instructive, epistemologically speaking. Scialabba largely—indeed, almost entirely—agrees with Bernstein’s fierce critique of multiculturalism in academe and out, even to the matter of the title, which suggests an ominous parallel between multiculturalism and the Reign of Terror. Actually, Scialabba offers a parallel to another, more recent reign of terror: “Emasculated text books, the frantic pursuit of an artificial inclusiveness, neglect or even suspicion of intellectual mastery, subtle or unsubtle disparagement of classical ideals and achievements, reflexive accusations of racism, sexism, and elitism– it sounds a little like an earlier Cultural Revolution; though this time, fortunately, the promised hundred flowers have turned out to be not poisonous but only plastic.” I imagine that those plastic flowers are Scialabba’s way of admitting that the death toll attributable to multiculturalism and political correctness is rather lower than that of the French or Cultural Revolutions. Be that as it may, Scialabba also agrees with Bernstein’s antidote to multiculturalist terror: “Real educational equality consists in everyone’s being held—and, if necessary, helped—to the same high standards. Which standards? Bernstein makes a modest and pragmatic case—which is therefore much more persuasive than the neoconservatives’ strident and dogmatic case—for Americanism and Eurocentrism.” If it’s hard to imagine a Chomsky/Cockburn fan endorsing a modest, pragmatic version of the neocons’ espousal of Americanism and Eurocentrism, well, see “illuminating and surprising,” one paragraph above.
Part of Scialabba’s disdain for the multiculturalist wing of the academic left stems from his aversion to what one might call the diversity-management bureaucracy. That much is understandable. But reviewing these 1990s culture-wars reviews today, I get the sense that Scialabba, like Russell Jacoby and Paul Berman, was a little too eager to believe the worst of the academic left (with a few salient exceptions, like Rorty and Fish). In a 1992 issue of Dissent, Richard Rorty had written, “One of the contributions of the newer [the radical-academic] left has been to enable professors, whose mild guilt about the comfort and security of their own lives once led them into extra-academic political activity, to say, ‘Sorry, I gave at the office.’” Scialabba is fond of this line, and cites it twice—once in his review of Dictatorship of Virtue and once in his review of Against the Grain. There’s good reason to be fond of it, I suppose. It gently deflates all those self-satisfied claims about the political urgency of intellectual work, and Moloch knows, some of those claims needed deflating. But in retrospect, I think there’s reason to wonder whether Scialabba’s healthy skepticism about the self-satisfied claims of the academic left didn’t lead him to be rather too generous to some writers and not altogether fair to others.
For Scialabba’s take on Bernstein’s take on multiculturalism didn’t rest wholly on his aversion to the diversity-management bureaucracy; it rested also on his conviction that the conservative critics of the academic left had chosen their targets well. Here’s how Scialabba puts it in his review of Against the Grain:
In its crusade against the politicization of contemporary culture, The New Criterion is—on the whole, in the main, and not to put too fine a point on it—right. Notwithstanding the importance of legal and social equality for women, homosexuals, and members of racial minorities, most of the cultural strategies employed in the service of these ends have been—again, on the whole; and with many exceptions, not always duly acknowledged by conservative critics—misguided and counterproductive. Multiculturalist pedagogy; the promotion of “cultural diversity” through arts administration, philanthropy, and public policy; academic departments of Women’s Studies and Afro-American Studies; the project of “critical theory”; and in general, the greatly increased weight—in teaching and research, hiring and funding, programming and grant-making—given to explicitly political considerations: altogether these things have done more harm than good. They have undoubtedly made possible some valuable work and attracted some people to culture who would otherwise have been lost to it. But they have also generated a really staggering amount of mediocre and tendentious work. And not only do these ideological priorities make for less accomplished artists and scholars; they also make for less effective citizens. Attempting to turn one’s professional enthusiasms and expertise to political account can distract from—can even serve to rationalize the avoidance of—everyday democratic activity, with all its tedium and frustration.
The following sentence cites Rorty’s line about academic leftists giving at the office.
This is a pretty overwhelming bill of particulars, and even at this late date it’s hard for me to resist the temptation to argue with it line by line. (How, for instance, has the promotion of “cultural diversity” through arts administration, philanthropy, and public policy done more harm than good?) But I will resist, and confine myself simply to noting an important feature of Scialabba’s account: it is one thing to argue that the politicization of culture is bad for culture, leading to the overvaluation of mediocrity and agitprop; it is quite another to argue that the politicization of culture is bad for politics, making for less effective citizens. Somehow, Scialabba manages to imply that our fellow citizens would be more deeply engaged in and by politics if more people heeded Hilton Kramer’s formalist call for “a return to connoisseurship i.e., ‘the close, comparative study of art objects [and literary texts] with a view to determining their relative levels of aesthetic quality.’” Scialabba likes Kramer’s conception of connoisseurship, and that’s fine by me. But however impatient I might become when inundated with mediocrity and agitprop, I have a hard time believing that there is any strong connection between connoisseurship and citizenship. (I will, however, return to aesthetics and politics at the end of the essay.)
Because he believes that cultural politics are bad for culture and bad for politics, Scialabba also agrees with Russell Jacoby’s complaint that the culture wars are a distraction from real and important business. Again, in retrospect, it’s clear that there was some merit to the complaint: of all the forms of AIDS activism in the period, surely the protests against the Paul Verhoeven flick Basic Instinct were among the least important. And yet almost everyone on the American left who complained about the “distraction” of the culture wars spent a good deal of time writing books about them. Ah, they were a powerful distraction indeed.
At this point, though, it might be instructive to do a side-by-side comparison between Scialabba’s assessment of Dictatorship of Virtue and that of Louis Menand, who reviewed it for the New York Review of Books in October 1994. Like Scialabba, Menand agrees that Bernstein has a case: “I think it was inevitable,” Menand writes, “that new groups entering the professional culture would ask, about the standards and the mores and the ‘great books’ they found already in place there, ‘Why are these things good for us?’ And I think that a culture that cannot answer this question reasonably and persuasively, or see that there are indeed other ways of doing things and other books to talk about, is not a culture entirely worth defending. But I agree with Bernstein that this questioning has been the excuse for the promulgation of a shallow, reflexive, self-righteous political orthodoxy.” But Menand offers a few reasons for skepticism about Bernstein’s book that seem not to have occurred to Scialabba at the time. I quote at length, because Menand lays out a principle that subtends this entire discussion:
Was it legitimate for Clarence Thomas to “play the race card” after listening to Anita Hill’s testimony against him? Was Hill justified in feeling “sexually harassed” by the behavior she alleged? Is it inappropriate to raise the subject of race in a discussion of the O.J. Simpson case? Would the first Rodney King jury have let the officers off if King had been a white man? If Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” photographs are objectionable, is it because they depict sexual acts, or because they depict homosexual acts, or because they depict sado-masochistic homosexual acts? Exactly how solicitous are we supposed to be about the self-esteem of sado-masochists?
These are possibly questions a society with a lot of other problems shouldn’t be quite so obsessed with. But we’re obsessed with them anyway, and the consequence is a nearly complete lack of consensus about what’s tolerant and fair and what’s fanatical and “politically correct”; about what’s legitimate criticism or distaste and what’s racist, sexist, or homophobic; about what’s an excellent pickup line and what’s grounds for a lawsuit. It’s not just that people don’t want to get hauled up before some disciplinary tribunal for what they thought was a perfectly innocent remark; it’s also that people honestly don’t want to give offense when none is intended (and also, I suppose, want to be sure that they have given offense when it is intended), and they would like to know just where reasonable people think the line ought to be drawn.
The credibility of a book about multiculturalism depends to a considerable extent, therefore, on the author’s instinct for distinguishing the innocuous from the objectionable—or, perhaps more often, the objectionable from the more objectionable. Readers not already confident of their own instincts in these matters need to feel that the writer sees the merits in the cases he discusses in roughly the way they would see them, and that he won’t excuse offensive behavior just because the response to that behavior is also offensive. I think my attitude toward multiculturalism’s claims to represent a cogent and useful educational and social philosophy is fairly skeptical, but I had a very hard time entering into Bernstein’s sense of some of the situations he describes.
Bernstein is generally interested in cases in which people seem to have overreacted to inadvertent, misunderstood, or trivial affronts to their self-esteem. But his idea of what constitutes overreaction is sometimes hard to credit because his idea of what constitutes an affront seems rather limited. He tells us, in his opening pages, about an editorial run by the Philadelphia Inquirer proposing to decrease the number of poor, specifically black children by offering welfare mothers added benefits if they agree to use a contraceptive called Norplant, which makes women infertile for five years. Bernstein regards this rather eugenicist and racially targeted proposition as “the normal expression of opinion,” and he cannot understand why both black and white reporters became extremely upset about it, and why the paper decided to run an apology. . . .
The reaction to the Inquirer editorial does not seem to me, even on Bernstein’s account, to have been inappropriate. Among other things, the paper decided to require that editorials on controversial topics be approved in the future by the entire thirteen-member editorial board. Bernstein complains that this gives “veto power to the board’s three black members.” True enough. It also gives veto power to any one of the board’s ten non-black members.
I admire the distinctly Menandian deadpan quality of that final sentence. But I admire even more Menand’s sense of how to gauge a writer’s credibility when it comes to matters about which there is no social consensus. And on that count, I think it’s diagnostic that Bernstein directed his criticism not at an editorial calling for the temporary sterilization of black women but at the possibility that three black members of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board be granted veto power over editorials on controversial topics. It’s a handy index to Bernstein’s sense of political priorities. And it’s regrettable that Scialabba didn’t pick up on it, or, perhaps, didn’t have a harder time entering into Bernstein’s sense of some of the situations he describes.
If Scialabba is a bit too generous with Bernstein, he is not altogether fair to Edward Said. Culture and Imperialism, Scialabba writes, is “an inexhaustibly tiresome book.” “The writing is clumsy, stilted, verbose, imprecise, and marinated—pickled—in academic jargon”; worse still, “Said’s polemical manners, here as elsewhere, are atrocious: sneering, overweening, ad hominem. Too often, he innocently misinterprets or not-so-innocently misrepresents other people’s arguments.” I suppose this is plausible enough—I’ve heard similar complaints about Said before. But Scialabba’s distaste for atrocious polemical manners did not prevent him from writing an admiring review of Alexander Cockburn, so perhaps this is one of those cases to which Scialabba refers in his essay on Hitchens. Still, Scialabba is probably right to find Said’s reading of Austen’s Mansfield Park reductive and tendentious. In response to Said’s claim that “the extraordinary formal and ideological dependence of the great French and English realistic novels on the facts of empire has never been studied from a general theoretical standpoint” (a claim which is buttressed in part by making much of Sir Thomas Bertram’s departure from Mansfield Park for his estate in Antigua), Scialabba is withering:
[Said’s] interpretive strategy is bold and ingenious. “How are we to assess Austen’s few references to Antigua, and what are we to make of them interpretively? … My contention is that by that very odd combination of casualness and stress, Austen reveals herself to be assuming … the importance of an empire to the situation at home.” This is the hermeneutics of suspicion a la folie.
In fact, not much more can usefully be said about the relation of Mansfield Park to the British Empire than that the former was written in the latter. “Extraordinary formal and ideological dependence,” my eye. It is just this sort of grandiloquent assertion that excited so many people about Orientalism and that makes Said’s celebrity so depressing.
It was a heady time—I remember it well, that particular postcolonialist moment in which the most urgent task at hand involved finding some way of linking Jane Austen to imperialism, slavery, and genocide. I’m not surprised that Scialabba finds it all a bit overheated. But I am surprised by the final paragraphs of the review, which basically charge Said with giving at the office:
For many people with aesthetic tastes and talents, real politics—anything likely to produce new legislation, not just new curriculum—is bound to seem like fearful drudgery. Since neither accepting irrelevance nor plunging into the pedestrian is an attractive option to most literary people, some have looked for reasons to consider the aesthetic as political. It’s too difficult getting up to speed to debate economics or foreign policy with smart right-wingers. And organizing the unfortunate is appallingly dull. So, since finding evidence (however far-fetched) of the “formal and ideological dependence” of art on social structure appears to provide work both congenial and useful, it is denominated “political.”
This is not such a contemptible evasion. The dilemma it is meant to resolve is a subtle one; to feel it at all is honorable. And Said has, to his credit, plunged into the pedestrian—into the details of contemporary political debate—more than most. But few of his epigoni have the energy to follow him there.
Here the strain is evident. For whatever one’s opinion of Said’s politics—and he had legions of admirers and detractors on that score—it would seem incontrovertible that he had a politics, that he was intimately involved in one of the most explosive geopolitical conflicts on the left for most of his intellectual career, that he was a champion of the Palestinian cause in a United States deeply hostile to such champions (see also Chomsky, Noam). It is simply implausible to accuse Edward Said of evading real politics by finding far-fetched evidence of the formal and ideological dependence of art on social structure. And so Scialabba does not throw that pitch; instead, he sets, winds up, delivers . . . and stops himself at the last moment, admitting that Said plunged into political debate more than most and leveling the accusation instead at Said’s “epigoni.” They’re the ones who are giving at the office, yet for their lapses Said is apparently to blame. This, I think, is not quite cricket.
I’ll close, however, on another note. Because insofar as Scialabba’s culture-wars dispatches argue that the politicization of culture leads to a trivial or attenuated form of politics, Scialabba clearly has a point, regardless of whether I agree with his reviews of Bernstein and Said. So let’s take up matters of aesthetics. In his review of Against the Grain, Scialabba takes issue with the New Criterion’s faith in “intrinsic merit.” Kimball and Kramer write: “We proceed on the conviction that there is such a thing as intrinsic merit, that it can be discerned and rationally argued for, and that its rejection is a prescription for moral and cultural catastrophe.” Scialabba’s response is smart and eloquent—and, in the end, questionable:
Well, then, what is intrinsic merit? “Intrinsic” can’t mean “universally agreed upon,” since no aesthetic criteria are. It can’t mean “independent of inherited, unconscious, or other local determination,” since no beliefs are. It can’t, in short, mean supra-historical and non-contingent, since nothing whatever is. What Fish, Rorty, and other pragmatists contend is that all criteria start out equal and must be justified to those who would be affected by their adoption—that democracy, in other words, is prior to philosophy. Beyond this, as Fish never tires of pointing out, antifoundationalism has no consequences. In any case, if Kramer and Kimball believe there are objective, irrefragable, rationally demonstrable aesthetic and moral criteria, they ought by now to have offered the rest of us a fairly precise idea of what they are, or in whose writings they can be found.
They haven’t, and they can’t. But then, they needn’t. They need only muddle along, employing and occasionally articulating the criteria that have emerged from our culture’s conversation since the Greeks initiated it, and showing that what used to and still usually does underwrite our judgments about beauty and truth is inconsistent with giving Robert Mapplethorpe a one-man show, or Karen Finley an NEA grant, or Toni Morrison a Nobel Prize. More than that, no one can do.
OK, I’ll take Finley off the table—she’s not exactly my cup of chocolate. But Mapplethorpe and Morrison? Really?
It’s hard to tell whether Scialabba is seriously saying that what used to and still usually does underwrite our judgments about beauty and truth is inconsistent with critically acclaiming Mapplethorpe and Morrison, or whether he is simply inhabiting and ventriloquizing the New Criterion worldview as a good reviewer should do. But in either case, I think there are two possible responses.
The first is to take the low road, and deal simply with the political aspect of this judgment, be it Scialabba’s or Kimball and Kramer’s. Mapplethorpe, Finley, and Andres Serrano (for Piss Christ) were, infamously, the basis for Patrick Buchanan’s kulturkampf campaign for the Presidency in 1992, and many leftists might reflexively think that any artist on the wrong side of Buchanan must be on the right side of history—and that anyone who criticizes such artists is therefore objectively pro-Buchanan. But to make that argument is precisely to take cultural artifacts and cultural debates on narrow political terms, and to confirm Scialabba’s sense of why this is a bad thing to do. So I’m going to go with the second response, and demur from this judgment on aesthetic grounds.
Regardless of whether one thinks Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio is “objectionable,” as Menand put it, I honestly don’t believe there can be any serious question as to the aesthetic quality of Mapplethorpe’s work in formalist terms; his photography is exquisite, and I’m willing to bet that quite a number of the people who have employed and articulated aesthetic criteria since the Greeks might agree. Likewise, I see no problem whatsoever with awarding the Nobel Prize to Toni Morrison; I think her narrative talent is on a par with Coetzee, Lessing, and Garcia Marquez, and surely neither the standards of the Nobel Prize nor the history of aesthetics was traduced when they received the award.
But to make this argument is to suggest that the faculty of judgment we bring to art and literature is inseparable from the faculty of judgment we bring to the rest of the world. It is also to suggest that some aspects of the culture wars weren’t distractions at all; on the contrary, they were about nothing other than the employment and articulation of public standards of judgment. And George Scialabba knows all this very well, which is why his many contributions to that conversation, then and now, remain so valuable—even, or especially, when his judgments don’t concur with mine.