Bald men, comb

by Henry Farrell on August 29, 2007

Or perhaps rather, _Clash of the Titans_; only Ray Harryhausen could properly depict a “stand-off”: of such magnitude – intellectual (and I use the term in its _very_ broadest sense) fisticuffs between Dinesh D’Souza and Alan Wolfe.

Now, D’Souza says Boston College is withholding videotape of a debate on the book he conducted there with the scholar Alan Wolfe — because it shows that the college’s “intellectual emperor has no clothes.” …But the producers of the video maintain that it was an embarrassment for both debaters. “It was uncivil, they talked over each other, they … cast aspersions on each other’s character, they made jokes at each other’s expense, it was a snipe job, it was a street fight, it was a brawl. And frankly it doesn’t meet Boston College’s intellectual standards,” said Ben Birnbaum, the executive producer of Front Row. While it was clear that the taping was intended for an online audience, the written agreement with the debaters left the decision on what to do with the video in the college’s hands.

Boston College’s media people should be warmly congratulated for protecting us from this abomination. On the one hand, not much can be said about Dinesh D’Souza that hasn’t “been said already”:’Souza. On the other, it seems to me that Alan Wolfe doesn’t come in for anywhere near as much flak as he deserves. Not that he’s a D’Souza, or anything like him, but he _is_ Gertrude Stein’s Oakland in human form, a sort of Lowest Common Denominator of liberal wuffle. Wolfe is the source of relentless waves of book reviews, opinion articles, magazine squibs and monographs; in short, of ideas journalism of all kinds except the kind that actually has ideas. I have a friend whose cure for writer’s block is to pick up the latest Wolfe emanation in the _New York Times Book Review_ or wherever it might be, and use it as a class of a purgative. As he reads it, he gets increasingly furious that this sort of guff can _get published_ by apparently serious journals; this anger serves to clean out the system. It may be that sometime, somewhere, Alan Wolfe has said something that is both interesting and true; if so, I have yet to see it (readers who believe that they have spotted insightful Wolfe articles in the wild should of course feel free to link to them in comments).



roger 08.29.07 at 9:17 pm

My feelings about lo-wattage Wolfe exactly. He would have fascinated Mencken, who would surely have tracked his insect like crawl through the media, exuding pap, with high glee. Wolfe is the Roger Rosenblatt of our time.

Well, okay, except that R.R. is still, technically, in existence.


Randy Paul 08.30.07 at 1:52 am

but he is Gertrude Stein’s Oakland in human form, a sort of Lowest Common Denominator of liberal wuffle



Tyrone Slothrop 08.30.07 at 2:12 am

This post makes my brain hurt.


Justin 08.30.07 at 2:32 am

Isn’t the real mistake holding the debate? Once they’ve done that, they have the sunk cost of subjecting an audience to the monstrosity. Then they have to choose between either releasing the video or giving D’Souza a chance to claim victory. Nasty options, both.


Amardeep 08.30.07 at 2:47 am

Alan Wolfe had a nice piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on Tariq Ramadan back when the State Department decided to deny the latter a visa. It wasn’t necessarily an “original” piece of work, but I thought it was well-reasoned and non-wishy washy: Wolfe argued that Ramadan’s interpretation of Islam may be questionable, but denying him a visa on that basis is/was a mark of growing American intolerance. (Unfortunately, I don’t think the piece on Ramadan is available to non-subscribers.)


Dave Maier 08.30.07 at 3:30 am

Wolfe is the Roger Rosenblatt of our time.

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt. Good one.


Navid Nakhaee 08.30.07 at 4:44 am

I live in Oakland and go to UC Berkeley, and the “Gertrude Stein’s Oakland” comment hurt! I love this blog, and I love your posts Henry (and I love my city) but come one



bi 08.30.07 at 7:43 am

Clash of the Titanics?


wufnik 08.30.07 at 8:15 am

How long has it been since anyone regarded The New York Times Book Review as an “apparently serious journal?”


a sentient being 08.30.07 at 10:26 am

Methinks Henry doth protest too much when it comes to Alan Wolfe. My guess is that this whole issue wouldn’t merit a serious blog entry if Henry weren’t envious of Wolfe’s easy access to big time forums.


djw 08.30.07 at 10:40 am

Whether diagnosis of the motivations of this post is correct or not is entirely irrelevent to the seemingly incontrovertable analysis contained therein.


djw 08.30.07 at 10:41 am

Whether your diagnosis….

(why do the typos always show up on the rare occasions I try to be clever or snarky)


Henry 08.30.07 at 12:40 pm

David – my wife’s family come from the Oakland area, and I like the city a lot, but Stein’s line is irresistible (I’d use it if she’d used it about Dublin instead).

sentient being – the unsubstantiated “doth protest too much” sneer is a tough one to counter effectively, if only because contesting it is taken by the sneerer as the provision of more confirming evidence. It’s also one that leads ineluctably to the conclusion that the only legitimate form of criticism is _de haut en bas._
Nonetheless, I will suggest that you take a look at my cv – conveniently available at “”: – for evidence that ideas journalism is not an activity that I engage in often, and is rather obviously secondary to my academic work, which consists of articles specifically written for journals aimed exclusively at fellow specialists. My gripe with Wolfe is entirely as a consumer – it’s a version of the “why is this person on my tv” question. There are plenty of jobbing public intellectuals out there who would do a much better job.


a sentient being 08.30.07 at 12:41 pm

It’s not so incontrovertible to me: All that Henry has declared, evidence-wise, is that he knows more about where Wolfe is published than what he says. It would be an interesting blood sport for this blog for readers to locate one of the CT crew who has blogged the same content as Wolfe on some issue but unfortunately lacked the clout to make it into The New York Times.


a sentient being 08.30.07 at 12:48 pm

Response to 13. (14 came before 13 arrived.)

Henry, if you’re simply bothered as a consumer of Wolfe, why not bring it up with the man himself or the organs that publish him rather than vent your frustration here: Are you planning to organize a cyber-boycott of Wolfe?

In any case, if your aspirations completely corresponded to your CV, why blog at Crooked Timber? You’re never quite sure who you’re talking to here. In a sense CT gives you the worst of both worlds: Not the quantity of exposure of the New York Times but and the quality of exposure from your academic peers.

I’ve always assumed CT bloggers are people who in a moment’s notice would take up a position as a regular Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times or New Republic, if given the chance, and leave CT behind. Am I wrong on this?


Donald Johnson 08.30.07 at 1:07 pm

Sentient being–Your attack on Henry is boring. I couldn’t care less if Henry wants to write for the NYT–it would surely improve the average quality of what they publish if he did. (This isn’t high praise, Henry, so don’t let it go to your head, though in fact I do like your posts.) A lot of us read the NYT, have absolutely no prospect of ever publishing an article there, don’t wish to, and yet are regularly disgusted by the drivel that appears there. I don’t remember any of Wolfe’s contributions, which probably means he wasn’t awful enough for me to loathe him. For that you need a writer of the caliber of Ignatieff.


e julius drivingstorm 08.30.07 at 2:08 pm

“Never argue with an idiot. He’ll bring you down to his level then beat you with experience.” – anonymous.

Too bad we can’t see the debate itself.


rich 08.30.07 at 4:11 pm

“Wolfe is the Roger Rosenblatt of our time.

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt. Good one.”

Yep, best line of the week!!! I click away from McNeil-L to Wheel of Fortune at very first mention that “On the News Hour tonight, blah, blah, blah, Darfur, blah, blah, blah Iraq AND an essay by Roger Rosenblatt.” CLICK.

Let’s not short Richard Rodriguez however. While I CAN wait out the News Hour and THEN click away to the end of Entertainment Tonight at the plaintive wail of Rodriguez’s voice, he’s certainly punching in the same class as Wolfe and Rosenbaltt.


mathpants 08.30.07 at 4:55 pm

methinks Donald Johnson doth protest too much when it comes to sentient being. My guess is this whole thing wouldn’t merit a blog comment if it weren’t for his being envious of sentinet being’s easy access to comment #14.


Henry 08.30.07 at 4:56 pm

sentient being – the answer to the first question is because I’m a blogger. I’m interested in expressing my opinions in a debate with others and seeing how they respond. I’ve no intention whatsoever of “organizing a cyber-boycott” of Wolfe, which would be a preposterously silly thing to do – instead, I’ve said what I think of him, and thems that agree can agree, and thems that disagree, can disagree.

The second question, which seems less rhetorical, misunderstands why I at least started blogging and have continued it (I can’t speak for other CTers, although I suspect that some of them at least would have similar views). I started blogging as a way to talk about things that I couldn’t talk about in my academic work, but that I find interesting. But it was, and remains, a supplement to my main intellectual activity; I am an academic who blogs, not a blogger who is an academic. I put considerably more thought and effort into my academic writing than into my blogposts (and sometimes it shows). I have no particular interest in swapping my academic career for a career as a pundit, and indeed have politely refused various opportunities that would put me more firmly on the pundit track (that doesn’t mean that I mightn’t engage in occasional punditry, just that my be-all and end-all, contrary to your belief, isn’t in becoming a writer at the _New Republic_ or the _New York Times_). Whatever side-ventures I’ve engaged in recently have had a strong academic component (creating a wiki to keep track of academic blogs; starting off a political science papers blog); this emphasis is likely to increase rather than decrease over time.

And there’s pretty good reason why I wouldn’t want to become a pundit. As a blogger, I can write about more or less what I want to. If I get a largish audience for it, fine, if I get a smallish audience for it, fine. But I don’t feel beholden to an imaginary public, nor to a publicly defined role, nor am I in any way financially dependent on appealing to that public (as you may have noticed, we don’t run ads). If I were to become a pundit, I _would_ have to limit the things I write about, because it would have become my day job, and because Serious Pundits in the _New York Times_ can’t write columns about the latest SF novel that they liked. I further wouldn’t have much time to engage in serious research (Paul Krugman seems to be able to pull off the balancing act, but I am not Paul Krugman, and I suspect that even he has made some considerable sacrifices as an academic in order to make enough time to write two columns a week plus ancillary material). In short, blogging at CT is more or less _exactly_ right for me – I can write about non- and quasi- academic subjects that I want to write about, I get an interested audience, at least part of the time, but it doesn’t make me feel like I am sacrificing my research.


a sentient being 08.30.07 at 7:16 pm

Henry, Thanks for the explanation of your position. It’s not entirely persuasive but it’s reasonable. I must say that one reason I don’t blog is that I don’t think it’s healthy to perpetuate the idea that academic culture is one thing and blogging is something else. It only encourages both in their worst tendencies. For example, you have yet to refer any of Wolfe’s substantive views. OK, most of us sort of know them but is this really responsible behavior — even for a blog?

And as for Serious Pundits, come now, Krugman is a very clever guy who can turn anything he wants into a defense of his liberal political economy views. In that respect, he can write about anything because he is able to bring a clear and consistent point of view to it. That’s why people like Peter Singer are also wanted as op-ed writers. A Serious Pundit is like a Philosopher with a short attention span. S/he is not a specialist in the way you suggest. Maybe you’re simply admitting that you don’t have what it takes to be a Serious Pundit, and that’s fine. But it does make one wonder whether participating in CT — either as you or me — is anything more than blowing off steam.


Donald Johnson 08.30.07 at 7:34 pm

19—Damn. Saw right through me, that one did.


Dwight Furrow 08.30.07 at 7:56 pm

“It may be that sometime, somewhere, Alan Wolfe has said something that is both interesting and true; if so, I have yet to see it…”

O.K. I will bite. I don’t carry a brief for Alan Wolfe but some of his work isn’t awful. See this essay on the authoritarian personality and contemporary conservatism.

I can’t quite imagine Roger Rosenblatt referencing Adorno in a critique of conservatism.


Gene O'Grady 08.30.07 at 8:01 pm

It used to be rumored that the Gertrude Stein line is actually about Pittsburgh (her birthplace) rather than Oakland where she grew up. Have no idea whether or not that’s just local patriotism (or irony). For what it’s worth my grandfather was practicing medicine in Oakland in 1935 but I don’t have any strong emotional ties one way or the other.


Henry 08.30.07 at 8:09 pm

sentient being – as it happens I don’t think that I have what it takes to be a Serious Pundit (although I can punditize on a few select issues) – but that’s not really relevant to the question of whether I would want to be if I could. The point I am making is that Krugman faces opportunity costs – writing and researching op-eds, and writing and researching articles both take effort and time. To do more of one is probably to do less of the other.

As for whether blogging is simply blowing off steam … sometimes it certainly is. Sometimes it’s formulating ideas that turn out to be half-baked. Sometimes it’s formulating ideas that turn out to be good. But mostly it’s about engaging in argument, which is something that I happen to enjoy. If others enjoy reading what I write, and responding to it, then great. If people occasionally find something interesting that they hadn’t thought about before in what I write, even better (I grant that this isn’t likely to happen all that often, if at all). But the point is that I don’t usually engage in extemporaneous writing because I hope that it might have World Historical Significance, shape politics etc (if I did, there would be better ways to achieve such significance than by writing blogposts). I do it because argument is worth engaging in as a form of education (I feel that I’ve learned and am still learning from it).


mq 08.30.07 at 9:05 pm

I really don’t understand how anyone can spare indignation, contempt, or whatever for Alan Wolfe in a world that contains Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, etc. Post-9/11, 2001 I had to rewire my disapproval meter completely and Alan Wolfe no longer registers on it at all.


Randy Paul 08.30.07 at 11:45 pm

It’s a shame about Rosenblatt, btw. In 1987 he spoke at a Human Rights Day celebration I helped organize for AI in NYC and he was terrific, giving a moving speech about children in wartime.


will 08.30.07 at 11:58 pm

Gene: Hmmm, one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent neighborhoods is Oakland, where CMU and Pitt may be found. Nevertheless, Wikipedia suggests the Oakland of her quote is indeed the Californian:,_California#.22There.27s_no_there_there.22


will 08.31.07 at 12:03 am

Also: No one liked Wolfe’s Republicans-as-Schmittians piece for the Chronicle?


Ryan Miller 08.31.07 at 12:20 am

Well good for Ben Birnbaum. I went to BC myself, and I could never figure out why the college was so eager to promote Alan Wolfe as one of its intellectual stars. Sometimes what he says makes sense, but he just seems devoid of any kind of actually interesting position on anything.


Gorkle 08.31.07 at 3:55 pm

I’m not a huge fan of Wolfe and there’s a sense that the current Alan Wolfe is a second rate Alan Wolfe.
I remember him as the author of The Limits of Legitimacy. The Oakland remark is nicely done if a tad too clever. Too bad it’s directed at the wrong target. There are countless typists out there who have gain prominence and for whom a wasteland is just a Home Depot visit away from home sweet home. All of this is present company excepted.


Jacob T. Levy 09.03.07 at 12:11 pm

No one liked Wolfe’s Republicans-as-Schmittians piece for the Chronicle?

not really.


Steve T. 09.03.07 at 4:49 pm

Correct, Gene. Gertrude Stein, as an adult, went to look for the Oakland house she grew up in and couldn’t find it. It had been torn down. That’s what “there is no there there” means, and that’s all it means. It’s not a slap at the city, it’s a reflection of the “you can’t go home again” type, so everybody simmer down. And here I am defending Oakland even though I grew up in Berkeley, and Berkeleyites always like to look down on Oaklanders.

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