As a teacher of writing and literature at Salem State College, I hear a lot of stories. My students, although they may never have ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born, bring hard lessons of endurance to the classroom that seem more profound than any I'd had at their age. For years I've believed that they bring a certain wisdom to the class, a wisdom that doesn't score on the SAT or other standardized tests. The old teaching cliché -- I learn from my students -- feels true, but it is hard to explain. I'm not particularly naïve. I know that life can be difficult. So it is not that my students initiate me into the world of sorrow. It is that they often bring their sorrows, and their struggles, to the material, and when they do, it makes life and literature seem so entwined as to be inseparable.
This past year, for the first time, I taught African American literature: two sections each semester of a yearlong sequence, around 22 students per section. The first semester we began with Phyllis Wheatley and ended with the Harlem Renaissance. The second semester we started with Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright and ended with Percival Everett's satire, Erasure, published early in the new millennium.
The students in these classes weren't the ones I typically had in my writing classes. About half were white, and the other half were black, Latino, or Asian. They were generally uninterested or inexperienced in reading, simply trying to satisfy the college's literature requirement. One day before spring break I was assigning the class a hundred pages from Toni Morrison's Sula, and one student looked aghast. "We have to read during vacation?" he sputtered. I learned from them the whole year.
In the fall semester, I was teaching W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk. As classes go, it had been fairly dull. Du Bois's essays didn't have the compelling story line of the slave narratives that we had read earlier in the semester. We had just begun examining Du Bois's idea of "double consciousness." It is a complicated notion that an African American, at least around 1900 when Du Bois was writing, had "no true self-consciousness" because he was "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others ... measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." In class, I read this definition, paraphrased it, then asked, "Does this make sense to you?"
There was the usual pause after I ask a question and then, from Omar, a large, seemingly lethargic African American, came a soulful, deep-throated "yeah." The word reverberated in the haphazard circle of desks as we registered the depths from which he had spoken. The room's silence after his "yeah" was not the bored silence that had preceded it. The air was charged. Someone had actually meant something he had said. Someone was talking about his own life, even if it was only one word.
I followed up: "So what do you do about this feeling? How do you deal with it?"
Everyone was staring at Omar, but he didn't seem to notice. He looked at me a second, then put his head down and shook it, slowly, as if seeing and thinking were too much for him. "I don't know, man. I don't know."
The rest of the heads in class dropped down, too, and students began reviewing the passage, which was no longer just a bunch of incomprehensible words by some long-dead guy with too many initials.
Every book that we studied after that day, some student would bring up double consciousness, incorporating it smartly into our discussion. Omar had branded the concept into everyone's minds, including mine.
One idea that arises from double consciousness is that, without "true self-consciousness," you risk giving in and accepting society's definitions of yourself, becoming what society tells you that you are. Such a capitulation may be what happens to Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son, a novel we read during the second semester. Native Son is a brutal book. Bigger, a poor African American from the Chicago ghetto, shows little regret after he murders two women. His first victim is Mary, the daughter of a wealthy white family for whom Bigger works as a driver. After Bigger carries a drunk, semiconscious Mary up to her room, he accidentally suffocates her with a pillow while trying to keep her quiet so his presence won't be discovered. Realizing what he has done, he hacks up her body and throws it in the furnace. Emboldened rather than horrified, he writes a ransom note to the family and eventually kills his girlfriend, Bessie, whom he drags into the scheme. In the end, he's found out, and, after Chicago is thrown into a hysterical, racist-charged panic, he's caught, brought to trial -- a very long trial that contains a communist lawyer's exhaustive defense of Bigger that is an indictment of capitalism and racism -- and sentenced to death.
Readers, to this day, are not sure what to make of Bigger. Is he to be pitied? Is he a warning? A symbol? A product of American racism?
During the second week of teaching Native Son, I was walking through the college's athletic facility when I heard my name, "Mr. Scrimgeour. Mr. Scrimgeour..."
I turn and it is Keith, an African American from the class. "Hey, I wanted to tell you, I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" He has missed a few classes, but no more than most students. Maybe he hasn't turned in his last response paper.
"Yeah, I'm going to talk in class more." I nod. He looks at me as if I'm not following. "Like Bigger, I don't know.... I don't like it." His white baseball cap casts a shadow over his face so that I can barely see his eyes.
"What don't you like?"
"He's, like," Keith grimaces, as if he isn't sure that he should say what he is about to say. "He's like a stereotype -- he's like what people -- some people -- say about us."
On "us," he points to his chest, takes a step back, and gives a pained half grin, his teeth a bright contrast to his dark, nearly black skin.
"Yeah," I say. "That's understandable. You should bring that up in the next class. We'll see what other people think."
He nods. "And I'm sorry," he says, taking another step back, "It's just that...." He taps his chest again, "I'm shy."
Keith has trouble forming complete sentences when he writes. I don't doubt that my fourth-grade son can write with fewer grammatical errors. Yet he had identified the criticism of Wright's book made by such writers as James Baldwin and David Bradley, whose essays on Native Son we would read after we finished the novel. And he knew something serious was at stake -- his life -- that chest, and what was inside it, that he'd tapped so expressively. Was Bigger what Baldwin identified as the "inverse" of the saccharine Uncle Tom stereotype? Was Wright denying Bigger humanity? And, if so, should we be reading the book?
To begin answering these questions required an understanding of Bigger. For me, such an understanding would come not just from the text, but from my students' own lives.
That Keith apologized for his lack of participation in class is not surprising. My students are generally apologetic. "I'm so ashamed," one student said to me, explaining why she didn't get a phone message I'd left her. "I live in a shelter with my daughter." Many of them feel a sense of guilt for who they are, a sense that whatever went wrong must be their fault. These feelings, while often debilitating, enable my students, even Keith, to understand Bigger, perhaps better than most critics. Keith, who -- at my prompting -- spoke in class about being pulled over by the police, understood the accumulation of guilt that makes you certain that what you are doing, and what you will do, is wrong. Bigger says he knew he was going to murder someone long before he actually does, that it was as if he had already murdered.
Unlike his critics, Richard Wright had an unrelentingly negative upbringing. As he details in his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright was raised in poverty by a family that discouraged books in the violently racist South. There was little, if anything, that was sustaining or nurturing. Perhaps a person has to have this sense of worthlessness ground into one's life to conceive of a character like Bigger. Like my students, one must be told that one isn't much often enough so that it is not simply an insult, but a seemingly intractable truth.
"I'm sorry," Keith had said. It was something Bigger could never really bring himself to say, and in this sense the Salem State students were much different from Bigger. Their response to society's intimidation isn't Bigger's rebelliousness. Wright documents Bigger's sense of discomfort in most social interactions, particularly when speaking with whites, during which he is rendered virtually mute, stumbling through "yes, sirs" and loathing both himself and the whites while doing so.
Although my students weren't violent, they identified with Bigger's discomfort -- they'd experienced similar, less extreme discomforts talking to teachers, policemen, and other authority figures. As a way into discussing Bigger, I'd asked them to write for a few minutes in class about a time in which they felt uncomfortable and how they had responded to the situation. I joined them in the exercise. Here's what I wrote:
As a teenager, after school, I would go with a few other guys and smoke pot in the parking lot of the local supermarket, then go into the market's foyer and play video games stoned. While I felt uncomfortable about smoking pot in the parking lot, I didn't really do much. I tried to urge the guys I was with to leave the car and go inside and play the video games, but it wouldn't mean the same thing: to just go in and play the games would be childish, uncool, but to do it after smoking pot made it OK -- and once I was in the foyer, it was OK.; I wouldn't get in trouble. But mostly I did nothing to stop us. I toked, like everyone else. I got quiet. I didn't really hear the jokes, but forced laughter anyway. I was very attentive to my surroundings -- was that lady walking out with the grocery cart looking at us? Afterward, when we went in and manipulated those electronic pulses of light and laughed at our failures, we weren't just laughing at our failures, we were laughing at what we had gotten away with.
After they had worked in groups, comparing their own experiences to Bigger's, I shared my own writing with the class. Of course, there were smiles, as well as a few looks of astonishment and approbation. I had weighed whether to confess to my "crime," and determined that it might lead to learning, as self-disclosure can sometimes do, and so here I was, hanging my former self out on a laundry line for their inspection.
What came of the discussion was, first of all, how noticeable the differences were between my experience and Bigger's. I was a middle class white boy who assumed he would be going to college. I believed I had a lot to lose from being caught, while Bigger, trapped in a life of poverty, may not have felt such risks. Also, the discomfort I was feeling was from peer pressure, rather than from the dominant power structure. Indeed, my discomfort arose from fact that I was breaking the rules, whereas Bigger's arose from trying to follow the rules -- how he was supposed to act around whites.
But there was also a curious similarity between my experience and Bigger's. Playing those video games would have meant something different had we not smoked pot beforehand. The joy of wasting an afternoon dropping quarters into Galaga was about knowing that we had put one over on the authorities; it was about the thrill of getting away with something, of believing, for at least a brief time, that we were immune to society's rules. Like me after I was safely in the supermarket, Bigger, upon seeing that he could get away with killing Mary, felt "a queer sense of power," and believed that he was "living, truly and deeply." In a powerless life, Bigger had finally tasted the possibility of power.
My students know Bigger moderately well. They don't have his violent streak; they don't know his feelings of being an outsider, estranged from family and community despite hanging out with his cronies in the pool hall and being wept over by his mother.
What they understand is his sense of powerlessness. They have never been told that they can be players on the world stage, and, mostly, their lives tell them that they can't, whether it's the boss who (they think) won't give them one night off a semester to go to a poetry reading, or the anonymous authority of the educational bureaucracy that tells them that due to a missed payment, or deadline, they are no longer enrolled. As one student writes in his midterm: "Bigger is an African American man living in a world where who he is and what he does doesn't matter, and in his mind never will."
I went to a talk recently by an elderly man who had worked for the CIA for 30 years, an engineer involved with nuclear submarines who engaged in the cloak-and-dagger of the cold war. The layers of secrecy astonish. How much was going on under the surface! -- the trailing and salvaging of nuclear subs; the alerts in which cities and nations were held over the abyss in the trembling fingers of men as lost as the rest of us, though they generally did not realize it.
During the questions afterward, someone asked about the massive buildup of nuclear arsenals. "Didn't anyone look at these thousands of nuclear warheads we were making and say 'This is crazy?' "
The speaker nodded, his bald freckled head moving slowly. He took a deep breath. "It was crazy, but when you are in the middle of it, it is hard to see. No one said anything."
After the talk, I fell into conversation with the speaker's son, a psychologist in training. I was noting how tremendously distant this world of espionage was from the world of my students, how alien it was. And I said that the stories of near nuclear annihilation frightened me a lot more than they would frighten them. In essence, my students saw their lives like Bigger's: The great world of money and power was uninterested in them and moved in its ways regardless of what they did. Like Bigger, they would never fly the airplanes that he, who had once dreamed of being a pilot, watches passing over the Chicago ghetto.
"It's too bad they feel so disempowered," the son said, and it is. Yet there is something valuable in their psychology, too. It is liberating to let that world -- money and power -- go, to be able to see the outlines of your existence, so that you can begin to observe, and know, and ultimately make an acceptable marriage with your life. Some might say it is the first step to becoming a writer.
After September 11, 2001, a surprising number of students didn't exhibit the depth of horror that I had witnessed others display on television. "I'm sorry if I sound cold," one student said, "but that has nothing to do with me." One of my most talented students even wrote in an essay, "The war has nothing to do with my life. I mean the blood and the death disgusts me, but I'm sorry -- I just don't care."
And then I watched them realize how it did indeed have to do with them. It meant that they lost their jobs at the airport, or they got called up and sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. The world doesn't let you escape that easily. Bigger got the chair.
It has been two months since we finished Native Son. The school year is ending, and I rush to class, a bit late, trying to decide whether to cancel it so that I can have lunch with a job candidate -- we're hiring someone in multicultural literature, and I'm on the search committee. As I make my way over, I feel the tug of obligation -- my students would benefit from a discussion of the ending of Percival Everett's Erasure, even though, or perhaps especially because, almost none of them have read it. Yet it's a fine spring day, a Friday, and they will not be interested in being in class, regardless of what I pull out of my teaching bag of tricks. I weigh the options -- dull class for everyone or the guilt of canceling a class (despite the department chair's suggestion that I cancel it). Before I enter the room, I'm still not quite sure, but I'm leaning toward canceling. I take a deep breath and then breathe out, exhaling my guilt into the tiled hallway.
I open the door; the students are mostly there, sitting in a circle, as usual. Only a few are talking. I walk toward the board, and -- I freeze -- scrawled across it is:
Why are we even here for? You already gave us the final. It's not like you're going to help us answer it.
Looking at it now, I think the underline was a nice touch, but at that moment, for a rage-filled second, I think, "We're going to have class, dammit! Make them suffer." I stand with my back to them, slowing my breath, my options zipping through my mind while sorrow (despair?) and anger bubble in me and pop, pop into the afternoon's clear light.
So much for learning. Were our conversations simply for grades? Was that the real story of this year?
When we discussed Native Son, we talked about how easy it was to transfer feelings of guilt to rage at those who make you feel guilty. Bigger's hatred of whites stems from how they make him feel. He pulls a gun and threatens Mary's boyfriend, Jan, when Jan is trying to help him, because Jan has made him feel he has done wrong. In the book, Wright suggests that white society loathes blacks because they are reminders of the great sin of slavery. Is my rage from guilt -- guilt that we haven't really accomplished much this year, guilt that I was willing to cancel a class because I didn't want to endure 45 minutes of bored faces? Pop ... pop.
I dismiss the class and stroll over to the dining commons to collect my free lunch.
Erasure is a brilliant satire, one that contains an entire novella by the book's protagonist, a frustrated African American writer, Monk Ellison, who has been told one too many times by editors that his writings aren't "black enough." The novel within a novel lifts the plot of Native Son almost completely, and it presents a main character, Van Go Jenkins, as the worst stereotype of African American culture, someone without morals, whose only interests are sex and violence. At one point, Van Go slaps one of his sons around -- he has four children by four different women -- because the mentally handicapped three-year-old spilled juice on Van Go's new shirt.
It's clear that Erasure's narrator, Monk, is appalled by the book he writes, and that he's appalled by Native Son and the attitudes about race and writing the novel has fostered. When we do discuss the book in class, I point to a snippet of dialogue that Monk imagines:
D.W. GRIFFITH: I like your book very much.
RICHARD WRIGHT: Thank you.
"So this is a real question Erasure raises," I say. My pulse quickens. I can sense them listening, waiting. "Is this book right about Richard Wright? Is this book fair to him? To Native Son? Has the creation of Bigger Thomas been a disaster for African Americans? Has it skewered the country's view of race in a harmful way?" I pause, content. Even if no one raises a hand, even if no discussion ensues, -- and certainly some discussion will erupt -- I can see the question worming into their minds, a question that they might even try to answer themselves.
La Sauna, the student who never lets me get away with anything, raises her hand: "What do you think?"
What do I think? I wasn't ready for that. What do I think?
What I think, I realize, has been altered by what they think, and what they have taught me about the book, about the world.
There are no definite answers, but my students had helped identify the questions, and had pointed toward possible replies. After we had finished reading Native Son, I asked the class, "How many of you want Bigger to get away, even after he bashes in Bessie's head?" A good third of the class raised their hands, and, like the class itself, those who wanted this double murderer to escape were a mix of men and women, blacks and whites. There are several ways to interpret this, but I don't think it is a sign of callousness, the residue of playing too much Grand Theft Auto. They wanted Bigger to escape because Wright had gotten into Bigger's consciousness deeply and believably enough that he became real, more than a symbol or a stereotype.
I tell them this, how their response to Bigger has influenced my reading. I don't tell them Gina's story.
Gina was one of the students who read the books. She loved Tea Cake and Sula, was torn between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She even visited me in my office once or twice to seek advice about problems with a roommate, or a professor. An African American student from a rough neighborhood, she ended up leaving the college after the semester ended, unable to afford housing costs.
Sometime in March of that semester, Gina came to my office. She had missed class and wanted to turn in her response paper on Native Son. The class had read the essays by Baldwin and Bradley criticizing the novel, and had been asked to evaluate them. Baldwin, Gina tells me, was difficult, "but he was such a good writer."
Did she agree with Baldwin, I ask? Was Bigger denied humanity by Wright? How does she feel toward Bigger?
"I think he needs help," she says, "but I felt sorry for him. I wanted him to be able to understand his life--" I cut in, offering some teacherish observation about how Bigger shows glimmers of understanding in the last part of the book, but her mind is far ahead of me, just waiting for me to stop. I do.
"The book reminded me of the guy who killed my uncle. You probably saw it -- the trial was all over the TV last week."
I shake my head.
The man and an accomplice had murdered her uncle, a local storeowner, three years ago, and the previous week had been sentenced to life without parole. The two had been friends of the uncle's family, had played pool with the uncle the night before, planning to rob and kill him the next day.
"When I saw him sitting there, with his head down, looking all sad, I don't know, I felt sorry for him. I wanted to give him a copy of Native Son. I wanted to walk up to him and put it in his lap. It might help him to understand his life.
She looks at me, her brown face just a few shades darker than mine. She's 19. Her hair is pinned back, and some strands float loose. Her eyes are as wide as half dollars, as if she's asking me something. Without thinking, I nod slowly, trying to hold her gaze. On the shelves surrounding us are the papers and books of my profession, the giant horde that will pursue me until I die.
"My family wants him to suffer -- hard. But I want to talk to him. Do you think that's bad? I want to know why he did it, what happened. I wonder how he'd react if he saw me -- what he'd do if I gave him the book."
I imagined Native Son in the man's lap. The glossy, purple, green, and black cover bright against the courtroom's muted wood, the man's trousers. His hand, smooth with youth, holds its spine. His thumb blots out part of the eerie full-lipped face on the front. As the words of the court fall about him, the book rises and falls ever so slightly, as if breathing.
J.D. Scrimgeour coordinates the creative program at Salem State College and is the author of the poetry collection The Last Miles. This essay is part of his new collection, Themes for English B: A Professor's Education In and Out of Class, which is being released today by the University of Georgia Press and is reprinted here with permission.
Many conservatives believe the firing of University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill will now reduce liberal politics in academia. Many liberals believe that his firing will uphold high standards of academic scholarship. Both are wrong -- because the firing of Churchill reveals a very pernicious kind of exclusionary dogmatism in scholarly research and writing and media reporting. The firing of Professor Churchill for alleged research misconduct ignored evidence to the contrary provided by professors who know his work best, ignored evidence from a committee of scholars who found the investigating committee itself guilty of research misconduct, and ignored all Indigenous evidence and perspectives that are critical of Eurocentric versions of the history of the European invasion of the Americas.
Research misconduct is in the eye of the beholder. Euroamerican teachers and scholars have taught and written for several centuries that Columbus discovered America. That is a more profound and easily provable case of research misconduct than anything of which Churchill has been accused. The Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been here at least 13,000 years and more likely, according to recent DNA research, 50,000 years. This Columbus lie, which is at the foundation of Eurocentric American history, dehumanizes all those who are now called American Indians by discrediting any of their accomplishments as not being human accomplishments. Everyone who has perpetuated this myth over the years should be found guilty of deceit, research misconduct and racism, according to the standards of the investigating committee.
The 1987 edition of the standard American history textbook, American History: A Survey begins by saying, “For thousands of centuries - centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia and Europe - the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works” The book informed its readers that American history “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.” Now that is a very egregious form of “research misconduct.” That statement bears no resemblance to the truth and serves only to continue to misinform and to indoctrinate students in Eurocentric lies.
The committee should have read the 2005 national best selling book 1491, by Charles Mann, for a thorough critique of the statements quoted in American History, and for extensive support for Churchill’s arguments about the history of the Americas. Summarizing research and writing over the last 30-40 years, Mann shows that in 1491 the population of the Americas surpassed that of Europe, that American cities such as Tenochtitlan were larger than any found in Europe at the same time and, unlike European cities, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens and clean streets. I would add that nowhere in Indigenous America in the areas of my research (North and Central America) have any jails been found, so far as I have been able to determine. The earliest American cities were thriving before the Egyptians built their pyramids, and the feats of Indigenous American agriculture were unparalleled anywhere else. The journal Science recently pronounced the development of corn from its ancient noble grass ancestors as probably the greatest botanical achievement of genetic engineering in human history.
The European invasion of the Americas reduced an Indigenous population estimated by many scholars at nearly 100 million or more by 90-95 percent. Shelburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of the University of California at Berkeley spent decades reconstructing the aboriginal population of central Mexico where they determined the population to have been 25.2 million before Cortez’s invasion. Just 100 years later in 1623 only 700,000 had survived the Spanish conquest which destroyed not only millions of people but amazing architecture, art, culture and science, burning nearly all the books in their extensive libraries. The highly regarded historian Richard White has described the results of the invasion of Indigenous America as “the greatest human catastrophe in the history of the planet.”
Most people think the Churchill problem began with his planned speech in 2005 at Hamilton College -- after it was shown that he had written that some of the victims of 9/11 were not entirely innocent (CIA agents housed in the building and some technocrats of Western militarism and financial imperialism according to Churchill's clarification of what he meant in a later press release) and were instead akin to "little Eichmanns." My essay is not intended to discuss the appropriateness or validity of his statement or its clarification, but to discuss the attack on Churchill from the perspectives, perceptions and practices of research misconduct as they apply to American history and American Indians. The truth about the beginning of the Churchill controversy is that it began with the right wing attack on Churchill after Churchill and others protested a Columbus Day parade in Denver in October 2004.
The Historical Context
It should be pointed out here that in 1861 Cheyenne leader Black Kettle had been invited to Fort Lyon to negotiate a peace with the the United States. He did so, ceding much of Cheyenne territory to the U.S. and agreeing to live south of Sand Creek. The Cheyenne were given a U.S. flag that they were told they should raise whenever threatened and no one would attack them. In 1864, the Reverend Colonel Chivington led 800 troops of Colorado territorial militia in an unprovoked attack on a sleeping village of mostly women and children at Sand Creek (the younger men were out hunting). The villagers raised the U.S. flag as a sign of peace, but Chivington wanted genocide, massacring the village of 53 older men and 110 women and children, mutilating the bodies of the Cheyenne villagers. They took the Cheyenne scalps and genitalia back to Denver, marching down the streets with Indian genitalia held up on sticks, celebrating their genocidal trophies and their evidence that Indians would never again be able to reproduce.
In 1864 The Rocky Mountain News, one of the Denver papers that convicted Churchill in the press and called for his termination, described the massacre of 110 women and children and 53 older men by 800 Colorado volunteers this way: “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results.... Among the killed were all the Cheyenne chiefs, Black Kettle, White Antelope, Little Robe, Left Hand, Knock Knee, One Eye, and another, name unknown. Not a single prominent man of the tribe remains, and the tribe itself is almost annihilated.... All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.” History has shown the account of this massacre to be a gross case of research and journalistic misconduct.
One historian called Sand Creek the American My Lai. Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell called Sand Creek "one of the most disgraceful moments of American history."
One of the participants in this massacre was David Nichols who was honored by the University of Colorado by having a dormitory on campus named after him. In the 1980s my daughter and other First Nations students at UC protested this name, and the name was eventually changed in 1989 to Cheyenne Arapaho Hall. This local history is not irrelevant to understanding how Colorado to understanding the protests of the Columbus Day parades in Denver, and how Colorado has dealt with Churchill his termination or extermination.
Angry over the acquittal of Churchill and the other protesters of the Columbus Day parade, the right wing searched Churchill’s writing for something with which they could destroy him. That is when they found and publicized his comment, written in 2001, about some victims of 9/11 not being totally innocent. Later they discovered that it would be difficult to fire him on the grounds of his unpopular essay, so they went after his scholarship, looking for something they could call “research misconduct.” Forty-four pages in the “official investigation” (or shall we call it an inquisition) are devoted to trying to disprove Churchill’s contention that U.S. agents deliberately gave Indians small pox invested blankets in 1837-1840, while this represents only three paragraphs in any of Churchill’s 12 books and represents less than a thousandth of one percent of the genocide inflicted on Indigenous peoples. This attack on his position is all done from Eurocentric perspectives, biases and paradigms, totally discounting Indigenous perspectives and oral traditions. Yet universities like Colorado hypocritically claim to support and cherish diversity and dissent while denying validity to non-Euroamerican perspectives and traditions.
University officials said their deliberations did not consider Churchill’s essay about the causes of the 9/11 attack in which a short phrase found in one sentence has been used to indict and convict Churchill in the press. That position is, to say the least, not credible, and is being put forth simply to position the university in the upcoming court battle. Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, says that in order to show that Churchill’s First Amendment rights were violated all he has to do is show that Churchill’s unpopular phrase in that essay was a factor in his dismissal, not the whole cause. Everyone knows that without the publicity surrounding that phrase promoted by the right wing, there would never have been any investigation of his scholarship, which in the previous 30 years the university had found exemplary and worthy of promotion and reward.
Those who deny or ignore the American Holocaust are not being investigated. The scholars and journalists who perpetuate the Eurocentric biases disguised as American history are not being investigated for research misconduct, and are not being fired from their teaching or their positions in the media. The protestations of the university about preserving academic and research integrity ring hollow. The firing of Churchill is itself a form of research misconduct and represents a clear attempt by the right wing to silence Indigenous perspectives and to deny the American Holocaust.
Gary Witherspoon is a professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Witherspoon is expanding this essay into a larger work, a version of which is available here.
The case of Professor Ward Churchill has received considerable national attention over its two-plus year run. With the next act to be played out in the courtroom, the talk shows will soon be on to other things.
But the ripple effects for higher education will be much longer lasting. The University of Colorado Board of Regents on Tuesday accepted my recommendation that Professor Churchill be dismissed from the faculty for engaging in serious, deliberate and repeated research misconduct. The reaction to the regents’ decision from the university’s constituents has been overwhelmingly positive. Yet in the higher education community across the country, things are a bit more unsettled.
There are those on one end of the spectrum who believe Churchill is free speech martyr who was persecuted because of statements that flew in the face of prevailing winds. On the other end of the spectrum are those who think he is a charlatan, selling snake oil while disguised as an academic. Perhaps the largest group is the one in the middle, which recognizes that his academic misconduct sins were egregious, but remain decidedly uncomfortable that those sins came to light after he engaged in controversial speech.
The case’s implications for academic freedom are also compelling. The term being employed, particularly by those who either support Churchill or are concerned for his free speech rights, is that the decision to fire Churchill may have a “chilling” effect on academic freedom. That’s understandable, but holding Ward Churchill up as the poster child for academic freedom runs counter to the facts.
His own writing shows us why. His essay, "About that Bering Strait Land Bridge ... Let’s Turn Those Footprints Around," which takes archaeologists to task for holding to a migration theory, he writes, "Tailoring the facts to fit one’s theory constitutes neither good science nor good journalism. Rather, it is intellectually dishonest and, when published for consumption by a mass audience, adds up to propaganda."
Three separate panels of more than 20 tenured faculty, from the University of Colorado and other universities, unanimously found that important pieces of Professor Churchill’s research and writing met his own criteria for intellectual dishonesty. The faculty members, to a person, agreed that he engaged in research misconduct and that it required serious sanction. The faculty found a pattern of serious, repeated and deliberate research misconduct that included fabrication, falsification, improper citation and plagiarism.
The tenured faculty who reached these conclusions, like all faculty, have a significant stake in academic freedom. The bedrock of any university, particularly public research universities, is academic freedom. The scholars and researchers who investigated Professor Churchill’s work understood this relation to the work they did. They have the same stake in this bedrock principle that all academicians have.
If there is any real chilling effect in this matter, it is the threat posed to academic freedom by the types of serious academic misconduct in which Churchill engaged. Academic freedom exists only because tenured faculty can be trusted to act responsibly. When Churchill breached the obligations of trust imposed upon him, responsible scholars had no choice but to act.
Still, there are those willing to give his shoddy work a free pass because his intellectual dishonesty came to light after complaints about his controversial speech. There is no doubt that Churchill drew attention to himself when writing and speaking about 9/11 victims. It is also clear that allegations of research misconduct, unrelated to his 9/11 comments, were brought to the attention of the university.
Indeed, Professor Churchill invited his readers to challenge his work. In the introduction of his 1997 collection of essays, A Little Matter of Genocide, he writes, “I do believe that when making many of the points I’ve sought to make, and with the bluntness which typically marks my work, one is well-advised to be thorough in revealing the basis on which they rest. I also believe it is a matter not just of courtesy, but of ethics, to make proper attribution to those upon whose ideas and research one relies. Most importantly, I want those who read this book to be able to interrogate what I’ve said, to challenge it and consequently to build on it.”
The ethics of proper attribution and the basis on which his work rests were what the University of Colorado investigated after learning of potential research misconduct. His courting of public controversy on one occasion does not immunize him from adhering to professional standards in all his professional work. The university had an obligation to investigate serious allegations of research misconduct. Our policy statement on research misconduct prohibits us from turning our back on such allegations. Hiding behind the First Amendment is a smokescreen aimed at distracting people from the real issue: academic integrity.
In the final analysis, the Board of Regents of the university had little choice but to dismiss him. His acts of academic fraud were numerous, serious and intentional. Professor Churchill refused to apologize or correct his errors. He did nothing to indicate he would refrain from fraudulent research in the future.
Fraudulent scholarship violates the public trust and damages the profession. Faculty integrity is the cornerstone of any great university. The quality of the faculty’s work is at the heart of everything we in higher education do. To excuse the kind of academic fraud Professor Churchill engaged in would do irreparable damage to all universities.
Hank Brown is president of the University of Colorado.
Polemics seldom age well. But when Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual during the fall of 1967, he aimed his verbal artillery in so many directions that it seems as if some of the missiles are still landing four decades later. (At the time of his death in 2005, Cruse was professor emeritus of African-American studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.)
Crisis was certainly a product of its time – a moment when the alliances of the Civil Rights movement were disintegrating fast, and arguments over the direction of African-American politics and culture filled the air. Cruse took the measure of various ideologies and found them wanting. He had no use for what he saw as the illusions of the integrationist agenda. He was a black nationalist, yet quite pointed in criticizing the influence of Marcus Garvey and other pan-Africanists from the Caribbean. It was obvious that Cruse owed a lot to Marxist theory -- but he complained about the blind spots of radicals spreading the gospel of proletarian revolution to the ghetto. At the same time, he was critical of leading figures within the African-American arts.
At just about the time Cruse was finishing work on his manuscript, the call for “Black Power” began to be heard among younger activists. But he kept a distance from that slogan, too: “In effect,” he wrote, “it covers up a defeat without having to explain either the basic reasons for it or the flaws in the original strategy; it suggests the dimensions of a future victory in the attainment of goals while, at the same time, dispelling the fears of more defeats in the pursuit of such goals.”
It was a cantankerous book, then. But there was more to it than that. In arguing with everybody, the author was also, doubtless arguing with himself -- for along the way he must have adopted at least some of the positions under attack in its pages. Rereading The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual not long ago, I came away convinced that is one of the classic works of American cultural criticism. If the author seems cranky at times ... well, so does Thorstein Veblen.
Rather than devoting this column to celebration of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual on its 40th anniversary, however, I thought it would be more interesting to discuss Cruse’s work with a young historian who is by no means uncritical of the book.
Peniel E. Joseph, associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Henry Holt) and the editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (Routledge), both published last year. I have not seen the latter volume, but can attest that Midnight Hour deserved being named one of the best books of 2006 by The Washington Post.
Joseph answered some questions by e-mail about Harold Cruse and his legacy. A transcript of the discussion follows.
Q:The title of Cruse's book will sound rather dated to many readers now -- and it probably already did to some readers in 1967, even. Was there anything in Cruse’s background to make him want to insist on “Negro,” rather than some other expression?
A: I think that Cruse's decision to use the term "Negro" in this instance is very purposeful and in some ways ironic. By 1967 many Black Power militants, most notably Stokely Carmichael, were urging African Americans to identify themselves as "black." Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had been key forerunners, in the national sense, of a black consciousness movement that disparaged the term "Negro." Cruse had used the term "Afro-American" in a 1962 essay published in Studies on the Left that achieved a cult following among a certain segment of young black radicals.
But Cruse was also a highly idiosyncratic thinker and former activist who came of age during the Great Depression--World War II era. Transplanted to New York from Virginia, Cruse encountered a Harlem that, although past the prime of the New Negro heyday of the 1920s, featured street speakers keeping the embers of Garveyism alive. Local nationalists, from Carlos Cooks to Lewis Michaux, characterized African Americans as "black" or "Afro-American." Cruse did not take the explicitly nationalist route however, preferring to join the Communist Party around 1946. Yet he retained a race pride that left him unable to completely repudiate the cultural and racial consciousness of black nationalism and pan-Africanism.
The Cold War impacts Cruse, as it did others, in indelible ways. By the early 1950s Cruse had abandoned the Communist Party and Harlem for both political and professional reasons. Politically, he felt the party promised more than it could deliver for African Americans and played favorites, lionizing figures such as Paul Robeson while failing to nurture younger, lesser know types such as himself. Professionally, ties to the CP were becoming more of an albatross than an asset. Cruse, like the young Ralph Ellison, held a driving ambition to make it as a writer at all costs.
So between 1953 and 1967, Cruse is an itinerant writer, cultural and social critic, and a sort of political vagabond living in cheap flats in New York City's Lower East Side. He encounters figures such as the precocious LeRoi Jones with a mixture of bemusement and bitterness. Cruse also held enormous resentment against some of Harlem's leading black political and cultural figures. The list is too long to properly detail, but a few names should be mentioned: Lorraine Hansberry, Robeson, John Oliver Killins and members of the Harlem Writers Guild. This is as much about professional aspirations as it is about politics since, before The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual's publication, all of these figures managed to carve out better careers than Cruse.
By the early 1960s however, Cruse seemed reinvigorated enough to travel to Cuba (alongside of Robert Williams and Le Roi Jones--two figures criticized in Crisis); participate in the New York chapter of the Freedom Now Party; write several essays for small left-wing publications; and serve as a writer for the influential nationalist magazine, Liberator. In retrospect, it's unclear whether Cruse was really inspired to recommit himself to the kind of political organizing he had participated in as a young man, looking for fodder for his writing, or simply curious about the development of a new generation of activists and eager to lend his own unique insights. By the time Crisis was published, Cruse was 51 and seems to have undertaken one last political shift that found him more open to a rather conservative brand of black nationalism and unwilling to engage in the type of internationalism that characterized the essays he wrote in the early 1960s.
Thus, the term "Negro" in the book's title amounts to a pointed rejection of a style of "blackness" that Cruse castigated as being voguish, inadequate, and naïve. Scores of white critics, perhaps most notably Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books, would whole heartedly agree, and Cruse would be lionized as a breath of fresh air and a new intellectual star. In middle age, he became an overnight sensation.
Q:Cruse is very strongly critical of the integrationist impulse among black intellectuals. But he's also dubious about pan-Africanism, which he treats as a bad idea from the Caribbean. If you had to characterize the positive content of his thinking, would that be possible? Or is his book strictly a polemic?
A: One of the most fruitful aspects of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual resides in the fact that Cruse took black intellectuals and cultural workers and activists seriously. For him, they comprised the vanguard of efforts to transform America's democratic culture. This is especially significant since the activities and achievements of black intellectuals remains contested terrain in a society that devalues and denigrates black intellectual capacity. Cruse took the idea of black brilliance in the world of arts, letters, and politics as a give-in and attempted to chronicle why, for all of their intellectual and artistic gifts, black (at least according to him) were in worse shape in the late 1960s than they had been during the Great Depression and Second World War.
Since Cruse was very much a product of the internationalism of the post war year, it is significant that Crisis attempts to document and analyze the shift from the "Double V" heyday of the war years to the civil rights-Black Power era. Now much of this analysis is marred by polemics and ad hominem attacks, but Cruse understood that a shift had occurred and attempted to grapple substantively, if ultimately unconvincingly, with it. Cruse also grappled, although at times in a highly idiosyncratic manner, with ideas of black nationalism and integration, self-defense and non-violence, that contoured the civil rights era's heroic period. But for every nugget of insight found, it is imperative to remember that Cruse had some sort of personal and professional relationship or interaction with many of the historical and literary figures covered in the book, a fact that he steadfastly fails to divulge.
Q:What sort of influence did the book have in early days of black studies programs?
A:The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was published in the fall of 1967. Contemporary publications by notable black figures of the time included Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's Black Power and Martin Luther King's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Cruse's book was published with an impact of an unexpected blockbuster, receiving generous reviews in The New York Times and, perhaps most notably, Christopher Lasch in The New York Review of Books.
The irony is that both black and white critics mistook the book for an intellectual history, rather than a sweeping polemic that drew from history and personal experiences in a highly personal and subjective manner. White critics in influential periodicals hailed Crisis as a riveting manifesto that rightfully criticized contemporary Black Power nationalists for a "more militant than thou" attitude that the mainstream quickly found alienating. Black militants, especially cultural nationalists, were impressed by Cruse's forensic critique of interracial organizing (especially the influence of white Marxists on black activism) and drawn to his suggestion that culture would prove key to any successful black revolt.
For Cruse, who was well into middle-age at the time of its publication, the book proved to be a most intoxicating victory. Made more so because he achieved a measure of the long-sought fame and success as a writer that he had always craved, in a treatise that not only settled scores against luminaries like Lorraine Hansberry and Paul Robeson, but established him as a social, political, and cultural critic par excellence (one well received by both blacks and whites, for different reasons). A professorship at Michigan soon followed and he received tenure by the late 1970s.
Cruse' impact on Black Studies was enormous in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was intensely sought out as a university speaker, mentor, and sage by a generation of young militants trying to make their way through the complex and murky haze of the recent past. For Black Studies programs the weightiness, both literally and figuratively, of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual could be used to justify the substantive importance, even existence in some instance, of rich, vibrant, and complex black intellectual production and scholarly achievement. Indeed, the tome's sheer heft, made it required reading for tens of thousands of students during this era who read it alongside of such classic texts as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.
Q:We seem to have "anniversary fever" nowadays -- always measuring our distance from important moments some decades ago. The upheavals of 1968 will be revisited again shortly. (The '68 industry is quite well-capitalized.) But if 1967 was the year of Black Power, you'd never know that now. Why is that? Or are the commemorations just not getting publicized?
A: Black Power remains a period in postwar American history that the mainstream, with some glaring exceptions, would rather forget. 1967 is instructive on this score. That year is scarcely as well remembered as 1968, with its famous political assassinations, May Day revolts, and Tet Offensive, but perhaps is just as important. Urban rebellions in Newark and Detroit during the summer rattled the nation's and president Lyndon Johnson's composure. Black militants in Newark, most notably LeRoi Jones, used Newark's violence as a catalyst to assume political power over the city by 1970. It's important to remember that racial violence in American cities was spoken of, at least at the time, as the product of institutional racism, and not just by radicals, but by voices of liberalism such as The New York Times. 1967 is also worth remembering for Martin Luther King's public denouncement of the Vietnam War on April 4 at New York's Riverside church, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis.
Before the King speech it was Stokely Carmichael and SNCC who represented America's most visible anti-war activists. The idea that he was following Carmichael's lead annoyed King, since he had come out (and subsequently stayed silent) against the war as early as 1965, but militants could not help but point out the sequence of events. Stokely Carmichael's political activities during 1967 are nothing short of remarkable. January found him defending legendary Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell and consorting with Black Power militants in the Bay Area. In April he headlined a huge anti-war rally in New York that featured Dr. Benjamin Spock and Martin Luther King. By May he had stepped down as SNCC chairman and vowed to return to grassroots organizing to take over Washington, D.C.
But it was his activities outside of the country that shook America to it core that year. Between July 15 and December 11, Carmichael toured the world, stopping in London, Cuba, China, Vietnam, and various parts of Africa and Europe where he forecast guerrilla struggles on the streets of America in the service of black liberation. Eldridge Cleaver famously remarked that 1968 was the "Year of the Panther," but the organization made important strides in 1967. The BPP's May 2 "invasion" of California's state capitol in Sacramento garnered the group national headlines, which was followed by an electrifying profile in the August New York Times Magazine. Huey P. Newton's arrest for murdering a Oakland police officer in October would ignite a "Free Huey" movement that would draw together disparate activists and organizations and help enshrine the group as legend.
Much of these historical events are seen as too complex, messy, and even threatening to explain, recall, or commemorate in the mainstream. What's so very extraordinary is that Cruse's work was published amidst all of these roiling events and at a time when universities were being pressured to except large numbers of non-traditional and African American college students. Hundreds of Black Student Unions, coupled with the advent of Black Studies, made the intellectual exploration of black life a vital and necessary aspect of black activism.
Of course, at the grassroots level, many activists and long-marchers from this era are well aware of the significance of these anniversaries and are passing the significance of these events to younger generations.
Q:How well has Crisis aged, in your opinion? Is its interest now mainly historical? Is it still a live influence?
A: Contemporary African American history has achieved a level of sophistication in the past four decades that is extraordinarily impressive. A new generation of scholars are actively rewriting postwar African American history. New narratives are historically contextualizing the period which Cruse analyzes and uncovering a far more complicated, less Manichaen, black political, social, and cultural spheres than Cruse imagined. New histories of Black Power, what I call "Black Power Studies," are revising standard conceptions of the era and adding texture and nuance to Cruse's overly facile portrait of black radicalism.
The Black Power Movement's relationship with civil rights comprised more than rancorous debates between black nationalists and integrationists and goes beyond confrontations between advocates of self-defense and nonviolence. Cruse's own political evolution, one that he was unable to document in an objective sense, bears witness to the interaction between militants and moderates, intellectuals and activists, and civil rights and Black Power in a way that Cruse in unable to acknowledge.
In this sense, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is very much a product of a specific historical time, one whose age, biases, and limitations become more readily apparent as time goes by. That being said, Cruse deserves kudos for tackling such a big, ambitious subject with verve, moxie, and boldness in ways that still seem unprecedented. In many ways Cruse's tome will consistently serve as a right of passage for generations of aspiring scholars and activists seeking to make sense of the evolutions, debates, and conflicts within African American social, political, and intellectual circles between the Great Depression and Black Power eras.
Q:Well, I’m reluctant to go along with any scenario in which Cruse is just an important but misguided ancestor. Maybe the historians have surpassed him, but the cultural critics haven't, necessarily.I’m thinking of an academic conference on hip-hop a few years ago that was struck me as incredibly underwhelming at the level of analysis and argument. (It was the Authenticity Olympics, pretty much.) The qualities that make Crisis so readable after all this time -- the critical edge, the skepticism, the sense of cultural history as something to fight about rather than just to celebrate – were not much in evidence. If Cruse had been there, he would’ve cleaned everybody's clock.
A: Cruse's skepticism is to be applauded in certain instances, but it's also important to remember the many biases (for instance the book's anti-Caribbean tone) that haunt the book. There are also historical inaccuracies since Cruse, although a great appreciator of history, was not a historian. Crisis represents not so much a history than an impassioned, first hand account of the postwar era through an analysis of many events, meetings, conferences, etc. that the author participated in.
Certainly contemporary cultural critics should take note of Cruse's boldness, if not his belligerence. By 1967 it seemed that Cruse took a little too much relish in excoriating even attempts at political organizing. More eager to tell people why they were in error than to see the merit in constructive political engagement. This was a long way from the young activist who joined the CP or even the middle aged wander who visited Cuba in 1960 and was active in the Freedom Now Party in the early 1960s. Part of this may stem from political burnout, a breaking point that Ralph Ellison had reached by the 1940s.
By the late 1960s Cruse was content to serve as a sort of angry sage, telling younger folks what they were doing wrong while his contemporaries shook their heads in shock and disbelief at his newfound stature.
Its worth noting however, that none of them who could do so (figures like Julian Mayfield and John Oliver Killins and John Henrik Clarke) responded to Cruse with their own book-length manifesto (Mayfield did criticize the book in a review in the pages of Negro Digest). So a lot of this is based on how seriously do we take African American history. If we do, than we must take note of the way in which Cruse sees the period through odd, sharp angles that cut out whole swaths of history that a contemporary generation are uncovering and putting together in a more holistic manner.
In many ways Cruse was praised for his biting wit, caustic style, and ad hominem attacks than substantive historical analysis. There remains much to admire about Crisis, most notably its scope and ambition, but we must be vigilant about overreach. Christopher Lasch called the book a "monument of historical analysis," which is precisely in fact what it wasn't.
Q:The most recent edition of Crisis comes with an introduction by Stanley Crouch, who also wrote the foreword to The Essential Harold Cruse . Crouch definitely has a profile as polemicist (he’s someone the left loves to hate, and he revels in that) and his insistence on using the word “Negro” is contrarian enough. But in other ways it seems like an odd match. What do you make of the emergence of Crouch as one of Cruse’s more visible advocates?
A: Cruse, for many contemporary black intellectuals, represents the ultimate iconoclast, and thus he attracts admirers across ideological lines. In this way Cruse's willingness to cut across the grain of accepted discourse within black intellectual circles is, in some instances, similar to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. Since Cruse distanced himself from his earlier political radicalism, which covers at least two decades of his professional career, his corpus of well known works emphasize the kind of critique of black militancy that conservatives of all stripes find refreshing.
Q:Really? It's hard to imagine that many white conservatives would read Crisis and think, "Hell yeah!" Its framework is still quite Marxist, in a lot of ways. On the other hand, your comment about Cruse’s similarity to Ellison and Murray does seem very on-target – and Ellison, at least, does have some admirers on the right. (Meanwhile, Albert Murray remains criminally neglected by almost everybody.) Would you say something more about the sense in which Cruse can be called a conservative?
A: Cruse would not conform to contemporary standards of black conservatism. He was very much appealing for blacks to wield control over what he called America's cultural apparatus. His strategy for doing so however, remain frustratingly murky. Cruse rejected a facile black nationalism that he viewed as naive and insular, but at the same time promoted a robust version of black self-determination, especially over indigenous cultural political expressions.
The appeal to conservative could be found in the Crisis' criticism of black protest traditions (whether in the form of Lorraine Hansberry's writing, Paul Robeson's activism, or Robert F. Williams' militancy) as largely symbolic. Cruse was equally as harsh with contemporary Black Power militants. Cruse's discussion of the demise of the Amiri Baraka founded Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS) is especially instructive here. "The only real politics for the creative intellectual," he writes, "should be the politics of culture." He subsequently separates black intellectual work from social protests waged by civil rights activist and black nationalists.
This notion that black culture can be separated, or even should be, from bruising organic street protests is something that contemporary black conservatives would find tremendously appealing. It echoes elements of Bayard Rustin's famous notion that the movement had progressed from "protest to politics."
The relative absence of the black movement's international dimension is also important here. Surprising since Cruse was so well traveled and well read and had written incisive essays about the impact, for instance, of Cuba and African decolonization on the black movement in America. The surprisingly parochial view of racial dissent in America encourages the view that black freedom struggles are uniquely American and have no connections to global movements for decolonization and social justice and human rights. The final paragraph of Crisis argues that black Americans need to learn their historic roots in the U.S. more profoundly, which suggests Cruse's apparent fatigue with pan-Africanist and internationalist traditions that had in fact, along with Marxism, shaped his intellectual trajectory and political career.
In short Cruse's strident criticism of black nationalism, excoriation of a younger generation of militants, skepticism regarding the Cuban revolution, and insistence that African Americans' political, social, and cultural destiny was distinct from other parts of the diaspora (most notably descendants from the Caribbean) makes Crisis appealing to conservatives who have no use for, and would be offended by, the Marxist influences.
Late last year, The New York Review of Books ran a full-page advertisement fairly glowing with the warmth of the enthusiasm it projected for work of Bob Avakian. In case that name does not ring a bell, Bob Avakian is Chairman of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Once upon a time, Avakian was a student of Stanley Fish at the University of California at Berkeley; but amidst all the excitement of the late 1960s, the poetry of Milton could not compete with the slogans coming out of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, and so a leader of the American masses emerged, even if the masses themselves didn't notice.
The NYRB ad praised Avakian’s combination of “an unsparing critique of the history and current direction of American society with a sweeping view of world history and the potential for humanity.” It called upon readers to “engage” with his work. As it happens, I was once in a punk rock band with a former Avakianite. (This was back when one of the party’s slogans was “Revolution in the ‘80s – Go For It!”) Having thus already had the opportunity to (as they say) “engage” with Avakian’s work, I will testify that he is, at the very least, prolific and capable of extensive discourse. Nearly all of his writings are based on speeches to the party, and they do go on a bit.
In any case, the content of the full-page proclamation was much less interesting, all in all, than the list of people endorsing it. Among them were a few prominent academics. Cornel West was one of them. Members of the Harvard faculty were among the signatories. Ubiquitous cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek has recently added his name to an online version. The list also includes famous entertainers such as Public Enemy rapper Chuck D and Ricky Lee Jones, the folk-rock chanteuse. (The text and the most recently updated set of signatories can now be found here.)
Without quite endorsing the RCP slogan “Mao More Than Ever,” all of them had “come away from encounters with Avakian provoked and enriched in our own thinking.” Or so the text of the ad put it.
In the weeks since it appeared, a few friends who knew of my longstanding fascination with the Chairman Bob phenomenon asked about the New York Review ad. They were surprised to see it, and wondered whether all these people had actually taken up the cause of Avakianism.
My best guess, rather, was that very few of the signatories had read much Avakian. The abundance and verbosity of his pamphlets would exceed the stamina of any but the most disciplined of revolutionary intellectuals. What probably happened, I surmised, was that party cadres had pointed out various anti-Bush statements by Avakian in order to harvest a bunch of signatures from people who were angered by the course of recent history.
At the same time, it was easy to imagine how other people would probably understand the ad. They would look at it and conclude that the signatories were, in fact, hardcore militants looking to Avakian for leadership in establishing a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.
The belief that academia contains literally tens of thousands of such people has, of course, no basis in reality. But it is evidently quite profitable. There is an audience for such claims (the rate of propagation of suckers-per-minute having intensified since P.T. Barnum’s day) and it constitutes a more robust market than the one for Marxist-Leninist pamphlets. One pictures right-wing interns stuffing envelopes with reprinted copies of the NYRB advertisement and sending it to the hinterlands – and humming “We’re in the Money” all the while.
Well, not that it will slow down the fund-raising campaign one bit, but an article that ran on Sunday in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe helps clarify the motive of some of those who lent their signatures. Mark Oppenheimer, the editor of a new journal called The New Haven Review of Books, contacted some of the professors who endorsed the ad. He reports that they were much more interested in upholding Avakian’s right to free speech than they were in the content of his revolutionary doctrine.
There also may be a little nostalgia going on. Avakian is “a living link to the '60s,” writes Oppenheimer, “an era when American campus radicalism reached its apogee of influence. And he was an outspoken atheist back in the day, too, before Christopher Hitchens and others found bestsellerdom in unbelief; one professor told me he admired Avakian’s stand against religious fundamentalism. But above all the Avakian narrative allows civil libertarians to register a vote for free speech, even if they have to ignore the fact that Avakian's speech is in no danger of being suppressed. Rightly concerned about Guantanamo and the Patriot Act, they figure that Avakian is a good proxy fight, or good enough.”
This strikes me as a judicious estimate. But while for the most part concurring with the article (for which Oppenheimer interviewed me about my own sad misadventure of trying to arrange an interview with Chairman Bob), I think there is a little more going in with that manifesto than meets the eye.
Buying a full-page in America’s premier journal of public-intellectual commentary is an expensive proposition for a small group on the far left. And it is not necessarily the most obvious use of resources for revolutionaries who have otherwise spent much of their energy trying to build “base areas” (as Maoist theory puts it) in ghetto areas.
To understand what was really happening, we might take a quick glance at what might look like a very different sort of cultural artifact. I mean the recently leaked video clip of Tom Cruise speaking about Scientology, which recently showed up on YouTube. Here’s a link, for as long as it may be good.
A couple of weeks ago, a researcher for one of the television networks asked me if I might be willing to discuss the clip on one of the prime-time news programs. As with being interviewed for the Boston Globe article, this was a delayed side-effect of having once been in a punk-rock band – for another members of the group was a Scientologist. (A career as armchair subcultural anthropologist and the loss of hearing in my right ear seem to be closely related.)
It seemed as if a much better guest for the program might be Roy Wallis, whose excellent book The Road to Total Freedom: A Sociological Analysis of Scientology was published by Columbia University Press in 1976. But Wallis is now teaching in Belfast, while I live about two blocks from one of the network’s studios. Gore Vidal is said to have remarked that one should never turn down an opportunity either to have sex or go on TV. That seems like incredibly bad advice from the standpoint of hygiene, literal or spiritual. Still, I agreed to take a look at the clip to see if there were anything interesting to say about it.
And indeed there was. The video shows the famously enthusiastic actor discussing the miraculous powers he has gained from his years in the Church. The clip also demonstrates that Cruise can speak advanced Scientology jargon with a certain fluency.
Some commentary about his performance has been remarkably off-base -- treating it simply as a kind of recruitment film starring an extremely prominent celebrity. In fact, most of what Cruse says would be utterly incomprehensible to any potential recruit. You have to know the code, the inner lingo of the movement, to understand the implications of the points he was making.
Having studied Wallis’s monograph, I was able to follow the message almost like a native speaker. And that message was aimed strictly at anyone in the Church inclined to doubt its leadership. Cruse was pretty clearly warning members that their only hope lay in the authority of its established hierarchy.
So I explained in a short memorandum for the TV people – who thanked me, then decided another talking head wasn’t required for their program, after all. Gore Vidal might be unhappy, but I was slightly relieved. (Getting the Scientologists mad at you is no picnic. We’re talking about a church for which litigation is practically a sacrament.)
With hindsight, I think the general point of my analysis also applies to that full-page ad, as well. Whatever the intention of Cornel West or Slavoj Zizek in signing the appeal from the Committee to Project and Protect the Voice of Bob Avakian, the most important audience for its message was not the public-intellectual world served by The New York Review of Books.
The force of the discourse was, in important respects, centripetal. Its real audience is the party faithful. Or rather, those supporters who, at certain moments, feel doubt about whether Chairman Bob Avakian Thought actually can change the world. (The Chairman himself thinks that failure to appreciate his contributions is a major weakness among his followers, according to recent discussion among people formerly close to the party.)
There is nothing like a full-page ad in NYRB – endorsed by celebrities, no less – to make the road forward look that much brighter for the rank-and-file. It must also lift the Chairman’s own spirits. After all, the job of providing Maoist leadership in the world’s most highly developed country, with not a peasant in sight, has to get kind of depressing, at times.
Public intellectuals in America have good reason to be discouraged. And so do those who look to them for intellectual leadership. Currently, it almost seems that the more public the intellectual, the less seriously he or she is taken by other intellectuals. Nevertheless, public intellectuals today have more media outlets and markets available to them than ever before. Due primarily to the rise of new technologies, the circulation and recirculation of their ideas are reaching wider and wider audiences. Consequently, as the intellectual influence of public intellectuals over other intellectuals (viz., non-public intellectuals) wanes, the market for their ideas and their entertainment value skyrockets.
An additional cause for discouragement for public intellectuals and those who look to them for intellectual leadership is that society at large just doesn’t seem to afford its iconic or star public intellectuals much respect anymore. Public intellectuals in America are merely "one side of an argument," so to speak. From the general public’s point of view, they are either Republican or Democrat; liberal or conservative; left-wing or right-wing; pro-choice or pro-life; and so on. Public intellectuals signify or are reduced by the general public to nothing more than a position -- and usually an extreme one -- on a topic of contemporary social and political concern.
The reduction of the discourse of public intellectuals to mere polarized positions is the most observable sign of a lack of respect. It serves to short-circuit and obviate subtleties of argument and render superfluous the need for evidence. Respect is afforded public intellectuals not by the mere “declaration” or “assertion” of a position (anyone can merely declare or assert a position). Rather, respect is granted to them through the opportunity to articulate and defend their positions in some detail or depth to a wide audience. It is further confirmed when their defense is thoughtfully received by an attentive audience. Public intellectuals are respected for the depth of their knowledge, and efforts to suppress it, such as the reduction of their knowledge to a mere position, is ultimately a sign of disrespect for them as intellectuals.
The lack of respect afforded our public intellectuals today is a major cause for concern. The current situation can be put into better context when one recalls that the history of public intellectualism in America includes figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Max Weber, and John Dewey -- figures who still have a powerful presence in the world of ideas. At present, public intellectualism in America is preoccupied more with the idea-in-itself that is being promoted than with the person who is promoting it. For much of the last century, Dewey, for example, was regarded as not just another expert commenting on the public school system in America. Rather, he was treated as one of America’s finest philosophers who just happened to be sharing his ideas on education to a respectful and attentive national audience. At the opening of the 21st century, however, the situation is much different.
The final cause for discouragement regarding public intellectuals is the tug of war between academe and the public-private sector in which public intellectuals currently find themselves. Public intellectuals play a crucial role in the circulation, production and identity of knowledge though the two worlds they inhabit -- academe and the public-private sector -- both compete for their allegiance and affiliation. The interests of these two worlds are very different, with the most obvious difference being that academe privileges highly specialized modes of discourse, whereas the public-private world favors generalized ones.
I believe that the fundamental terms of the relationship of public intellectuals to the academic and public-private sectorss must be changed. I will even go so far as to offer that we might consider replacing the phrase "public intellectual" with the arguably more apt (albeit controversial) one, "corporate intellectual." The motivation for my case, however, will come from a most unlikely and unconventional source -- Emerson. Even though Emerson was writing well before the rise of academe and the university in America, his thoughts on academics and public intellectuals are extremely insightful and provide a unique point of entry regarding the issues at hand.
Critical reflection on the role of public intellectuals in America is important at this particular time in our history. Recent social and political events such as the war in Iraq, the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, and our responses to natural disasters, such as increasing global warming and Hurricane Katrina, reveal that our society seems to have lost its ability to question authority, to separate knowledge from opinion, and to discern what is valuable from what is worthless. Public intellectuals can potentially play a central role in directing -- or even redirecting -- the social and political agenda of the nation as well as provide the public with reliable insight. However, the academy’s move toward increasingly specialized knowledge and discourse and the public-private sector’s movement toward increasingly generalized (and polarizing) discourse and knowledge places public intellectuals in a difficult position to accomplish these ends. If public intellectuals are to become relevant and respected again, viz., be able to (re)direct social and political beliefs and aims, the terms of their relationship with the public-private and academic spheres must be changed.
Affiliations and Academic Values
Academe is frequently characterized as an oasis from the market-driven forces of the public-private sector. Within the academy, ideas are said to be pursued without regard to their market value by individuals dedicated to the life of the mind. Students and teachers enjoy in academe a reprieve from the pressure to conform their practices to the requirements of "cash value" or "public sentiment." Academe is a site where knowledge is disseminated, discovered, and debated, and academic values are directly linked to these knowledge-driven practices.
The public-private sector, however, is associated with a different set of activities and values. Moreover, arguably, this set of activities and values is defined as the opposite of those of academe. For example, if academe is dedicated to the life of the mind, then the public-private sector is not; if academe disseminates, discovers, and debates knowledge and ideas, then the public-private sector does not; if academe is not motivated by market values, then the public-private sector is. In sum, the public-private sector is a site where ends are pursued relative to their potential either to appease public and private sentiment or produce "cash value," whereas the academy is not.
Affiliation with the public-private sector is often akin in the academy to "selling out," namely, abandoning the pursuit of knowledge for the pursuit of market share. This perception is part of the reason that terms such as "public intellectual" and "academic" are at times used in a mutually exclusive manner: either one is a public intellectual or one is an academic. One cannot be both.
Public intellectuals promote or sell ideas whereas academics pursue or discover ideas; public intellectuals speak to and for the masses, whereas academics speak to and for academics. Moreover, public intellectuals are often distinguished by considerations of quantity, whereas academics are differentiated by considerations of quality. For public intellectuals, the more attention that their ideas or they themselves receive, the more valued they are as public intellectuals. In other words, one cannot be a valuable public intellectual without a public, and the greater the public, the greater the value that is ascribed to the public intellectual. Academics, however, are valued differently.
The key factor in judging the value of academics is quality: quality research in their discipline, quality teaching of their students, and quality service to their institution and community. While quantity can sometimes positively influence determinations of academic value, quantitative value is always tempered by considerations of quality. Standards of academic quality are determined within the academic community and may vary from discipline to discipline. In large part, quality in academia is a relative and subjective affair, as much depends on the standards established by the community. This notion of academic quality is particularly true within the humanities, but arguably holds as well in the sciences. Quality, the relative and subjective factor at the center of determinations of academic value, is much different than the key factor used to determine the value of public intellectuals. Issues of quantity are largely objective and empirical. As we shall see, for some, one only needs a tally-sheet and a calculator to determine the value of a public intellectual, whereas one needs very discipline-specific information to determine the value of an academic. This lack of reliance on discipline-specific information in quality judgments of public intellectuals is troubling.
The Decline of Public Intellectuals
We are living in a time when both the meaning and function of public intellectuals are being radically reshaped. The rise of new media and the growth of the entertainment industry have resulted in an unprecedented need for individuals to participate in it. Increasing numbers of academics are entering this growing marketplace for ideas, while at the same time the number of institutionally unaffiliated persons is decreasing. And while the "decline" of the public intellectual in America has been presented in numerous ways by numerous commentators, the most notorious and noteworthy example is the recent study from the legal commentator Richard Posner.
In his widely debated book Public Intellectuals (2002), Posner argues that American public intellectualism is in "decline" and presents a range of empirical evidence to support this conclusion. By a variety of methodologically questionable means, including statistics on media mentions, Internet traffic, and scholarly mentions, Posner presents a list of 546 major public intellectuals. He also offers a list of the top 100 public intellectuals most frequently mentioned in the media, with Henry Kissenger, Pat Moynihan, George Will, Larry Summers, William Bennett, Robert Reich, and Sidney Blumenthal at the top. Posner’s taxonomy of public intellectuals is as worthless in some respects as E.D. Hirsch’s list of “What Every Literate American Knows” in Cultural Literacy (1987) or Robert Maynard Hutchins’ selection of the Great Books of the Western World (1952). Nevertheless, it is as symptomatic of our times as People magazine’s annual personality taxonomies or David Letterman’s nightly Top Ten Lists.
While Posner’s study of public intellectuals is interesting and well intentioned, the fact that his quest for the biggest figures in the intellectual world literally is solely based on quantitative factors, and never on qualitative ones, is disappointing. Posner’s method furthers the notion that public intellectualism is merely a matter of "getting noticed" and never a matter of the quality of contribution one is making, let alone its epistemological, social and political value. Work like Posner’s continues to promote the unfortunate notion that public intellectuals are identifiable and worthy of merit based solely on the size of the market for their ideas, with no methodological allowances made for the quality of their contributions to public discourse. In addition, Posner treats public intellectualism in America as though it were merely part of the entertainment industry -- which it very well may be -- and, as such, judged by standards more akin to the Nielson ratings than the tribunal of reason.
Work on public intellectuals by cultural theorists like David Shumway, Jeffrey J. Williams, Sharon O’Dair and Cary Nelson is vastly superior to work like Posner’s. Their work seldom gets bogged down in the quantitative and who’s-who aspects of public intellectualism, but rather focuses on the cultural and disciplinary logic of what they call “the star system.” Effectively, their work on the star system is a commentary on the transition of some individuals from (private) academics to public intellectuals: a transition noteworthy for its shift between differing criterions of value, among other things.
One aspect of the star system is that a small coterie of academics make the transformation from being merely the most recognizable face of the life of the mind (academic stars) to being quite literally part of the entertainment industry (super-stars). As super-stars, their entertainment qualities and market value exceed those of mere academic stars. They operate in a value system more like that of movie stars than that of academic stars. If one can raise a stir, then one achieves a higher value in this system.
The nature of public intellectualism in America is in crisis partly because a wedge has been driven between the interests of academe and the interests of public-private sectors. One is either a mere academic or one is a mere public figure. As an academic, one’s audience is at best the members of one’s profession, and at worst, the members of one sub-area of one’s profession. In either case, the audience is strictly delimited. As a public intellectual, while one finds one’s audience expanded beyond the limits of one’s profession, one also finds it increasingly difficult in America to carry on a high and relevant level of discourse.
Given the unfortunate situation of academic and public intellectuals in America today, it might be instructive to look back to a time in America when the promise of a strong relationship between intellectuals and both academe and the public-private spheres existed and then ask how this relationship might be re-established. In looking back, I would like to comment on Emerson, in whose work there is the promise of a compromise between mere academics and mere public intellectuals; in looking forward I would like to suggest that we consider abandoning the academic-public intellectual dichotomy and establish a new category that might be called the "corporate intellectual" -- a term more consonant with the values of the new academy as well as with the public-private sector.
In his 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa society, “The American Scholar,” Emerson envisioned the American scholar as a person who would do whatever possible to communicate ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals. Emerson regarded the American scholar to be a whole person while thinking. As a whole person, the American scholar would speak and think from the position of the “One Man,” which “is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier."
In the act of thinking, the intellectual becomes this whole person. Emerson writes: "In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking. "
Isn’t this still true today? Doesn’t public intellectualism suffer from the exact form of degeneracy noted by Emerson? Are there not too many public intellectuals who are parrots in the public arena, speaking merely from the parameters laid out for them by others? Is regurgitating established discourses and strictly defined conceptual frameworks a sign of public intellectualism or public propaganda? Emerson is right in asserting that such things both discredit the ideas of individuals and render suspect the quality of their thoughts.
In all fairness though, perhaps “parroting” is more of a practical necessity today than it was in Emerson’s time. The need to affiliate one’s ideas with a group, school or individual is perhaps a function of the sound-bite age, where metonymic or telegraphic communication abounds. We demand labels for and from our public intellectuals, and when we don’t have them, we become nervous. And the labels we put on and demand from our public intellectuals are perhaps more important than what they actually think. "He’s a Republican" or "She’s a feminist" go a long way in the public arena in terms of persuading people of the value of our "thinking"; phrases like she sides with "moral values" and he is "against big government" serve as short-hand for more complete explanations and serve to cut off public debate and thought. This labeling process presents the conditions for an unending repetition and circulation of crystallized, unchanging doctrines within the public sphere.
As a public intellectual, Emerson’s whole person thinking wears a number of different hats. "The office of the scholar," writes Emerson, "is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation." "He is one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart." Emerson closes his address with a beautiful vision of public intellectuals as a group: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence."
Emerson provides us with a very clear response to the relationship of intellectuals to the public-private and academic spheres. For him, intellectuals live among these spheres, but do not affiliate with either one exclusively. For him intellectuals are always already involved in the public and private spheres as well as in the academic spheres and others. The concept of an "intellectual" for him implies a relationship with public, private and academic interests. Emerson himself, as perhaps the premier public intellectual of his day, if not in American history in general, both promoted or sold his ideas as well as worked hard to pursue or discover ideas; he both spoke to and for the masses as well as to and for the scholar.
From Public Intellectuals to Corporate Intellectuals
Public intellectualism today seems remote from the ideals of the Emersonian intellectual. In contrast to Emerson’s notion of the intellectual, our own appears overly narrow. The notion of the intellectual as "trapped" between affiliating with academe and the public-private sector is foreign to Emerson’s all-embracing intellectual. The rise of the corporate university allegedly pulls intellectuals away from the realm of academic values and into the realm of corporate and market (or neo-liberal) values. The general conclusion of most commentary of this type is that the intellectual’s values and identity are compromised in some way -- a conclusion that is reached by assuming that corporate and academic values are fundamentally incompatible.
But why do we need to continue to regard corporate and academic values as incompatible? Can there not be some common ground between them that allows not only for the continuing integrity of academic values in themselves but also of corporate values in themselves? Furthermore, what would happen if we postulate the intellectual from the position of the compatibility of academic and corporate values? Would the resultant intellectual be admirable or despicable? Progressive or reactionary? A monster or an angel?
One might reasonably call the type of intellectual that is the result of the rise of the new corporate university a "corporate intellectual." This designation would not only be appropriate, but also ultimately a fair one. While some might look upon the designation "corporate intellectual" with fear and disdain, I will offer that it is no less disdainful than the shopworn and outmoded designation “public intellectual.” More often than not, public intellectuals function in America today as part of the entertainment industry -- as part of a space set apart from academe. Most American academics are not public intellectuals, even if many of America’s public intellectuals are academics.
The recent rise of the corporate university leads one to the conclusion that academe is no longer nor will it ever be again an oasis divorced from private and public interests. Therefore, if intellectuals believe that the recent demand to straddle academe and the public-private sector is the continuing condition of the academy, they will be obligated to develop a sense of intellectual self-identity that does not view itself as "trapped" or "compromised." As the nature of academic identity changes, so too will, of necessity, the identity of intellectuals.
These changes in the configuration of the university call for academics to consider the markets for their ideas. In other words, instead of merely pursuing ideas in themselves or ideas as such, academics would weigh the market value of their ideas along with more purely knowledge-based considerations. This would simply be an extension of market-based practices already well established in academia. For example, most doctoral candidates balance the knowledge-based virtues of possible dissertation topics against the potential of these topics being appealing to prospective employers. Moreover, this market-based decision making is not limited to graduate students alone.
Professors of all levels working on manuscripts with an eye toward publication are remiss if they do not consider the market for their manuscript in the early stages of its development. Academic presses are increasingly behaving more like trade presses in that they are with more frequency refusing to publish otherwise academically sound manuscripts that do not have much potential for sales. On the down-side, this trend puts more pressure on academics to publish books with appeal beyond a small coterie of specialists; on the up-side, it compels academics to think in terms of a wider-audience for their ideas and to pursue projects that engage a broader set of interests and knowledge.
Furthermore, while it would be easy to be disdainful of the type of intellectual that results from this process, one should avoid this judgment and maintain an open mind as to the potential of these intellectuals for producing progressive change in both their particular professions and society at large. Corporate intellectuals would be persons who would always take into account at some level the market for their ideas and who would never merely pursue ideas as such. Market considerations of one’s ideas of necessity bring them into the public sphere -- and ultimately to a wider audience. Consequently, corporate intellectualism would in effect be a new type of public intellectualism. Moreover, given the current state of public intellectualism in America, this transition might not be a bad thing, particularly if it brings into the public sphere more of the progressive kinds of knowledge and questions pursued by academics.
The necessary condition for proper academic values and identity should not be gauged by one’s disassociation of interest with the market. As “corporate intellectuals,” members of academe would configure their identity as allied to both the “insular” world of the academy and to the public sphere. Not only is this a potentially more positive, socially responsible identity for intellectuals, it is more in tune with the current and continuing material conditions of the academy. So, for example, in considering writing a book or offering a course, intellectuals would weigh market considerations with academic concerns, asking both whether the project would have a market and whether it would further academic discourse. This reconfigured identity will resonate with academics seeking ways to have more public influence.
Rather than feeling trapped between academe and the public-private sector, academics should take advantage of the opportunity to align their identity with the public-private sphere. One of our goals as intellectuals might be to find ways to bring the two spheres to work together more organically, exercising public accountability without compromising our intellectual freedoms. In the process, increasing numbers of academic intellectuals might come to be regarded as public intellectuals. While the phrase “corporate intellectual” might grate against those ideologically opposed in toto to the corporatization of the university, it will be much more difficult for them to reject prima facia the notion that academics should weigh market considerations along with purely knowledge-based ones. If nothing else, the phrase “corporate intellectual” will spark much needed conversation about the positive role for academics in the emerging corporate university, particularly with regard to their relation to the public sphere. This will be one of the more encouraging consequences of the corporatization of the university, a material condition that does not appear to be passing away very soon. In the end, these newly minted corporate intellectuals have the potential not only to alter the meaning and nature of the American intellectual, but also to capture, as Emerson says, the world’s eye and the world’s heart. Hopefully, this is something that they will be able to do without seriously jeopardizing the pursuit of knowledge.
Jeffrey R. Di Leo
Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Houston at Victoria. He is editor and publisher of the American Book Review and editor of symploke, where a version of this essay first appeared. His most recent publications include A ffiliations: Identity in Academic Culture, On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy and Fiction's Present: Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation (with R.M. Berry).
Last week this column offered an assessment, not exactly glowing, of Cornel West’s latest book, an autobiography of sorts. The review failed to say anything about race. That will sound like a paradox to some people but it is not meant to be. A commentary on a book by a prominent black academic is not necessarily a commentary on race in America. (Still less need it be an editorial on the state of African-American studies, which some people took my review to be.) Race matters, but it is not all that matters. The quality of the book as such also counts for something.
Nor did the column discuss West’s politics, which are more or less my own. It is not that I am uninterested in either race or politics, but they were not the focus of the piece. Rather, West’s book was. But people seem to want to discuss race and politics -- so let’s.
It is impossible to make any point so clearly that some portion of the audience will not grow wildly indignant because they think you are saying the exact opposite. You may repeat the point in various ways, hoping that the message will prevail. (Redundancy within a signal is what distinguishes it from the noise in a channel.) But there are limits to just how much good this will do. The will to misunderstand seems to be invincible, and some people enjoy indignation very much.
It would have been difficult to make any more explicit than I did that my disappointment with Brother West – and, yes, anger at West for perpetrating something comparable to the “book” that Sarah Palin “wrote” – followed from a deep admiration for his best work. It is a bad thing to see proof of someone’s talent and intellect being siphoned off by the entertainment industry. The corruption of the best is the worst. Such was the feeling my review expressed, more than once, and in more than one way.
Some readers did get the message. A few suggest that it matched their own impressions. “I read The American Evasion of Philosophy at the beginning of my graduate studies,” one person told me “and it changed my life, but now I look at the excerpt from this new book at MSNBC and it makes me feel despair.” Considering that Brother West was published by a prominent vendor of inspirational and self-help books, this seems like a bad sign on a number of levels.
But to a significant layer of the public, West is not someone whose actual work, as such, means anything at all. They celebrate it, or loathe it, but that does not mean they have ever given any part of his work five minutes of thought. For them, West is not neither an intellectual nor even an individual. He is a synecdoche. He stands for black academics in general, or hip hop, or the history of affirmative action, or the entire history of African-American writing beginning with Phyllis Wheatley. Or something.
This figure is an avatar in the video game of the culture wars. Depending on how the player has adjusted the settings, the character is (a) the relentless and noble freedom fighter whose every move on screen strikes a blow for human liberation or (b) Al Sharpton plus Cliff’s Notes.
Now, my own estimate of Cornel West shares nothing with either of those attitudes – nor do I have much time for video games, actual or metaphorical. But that did not keep lots of people from trying to enlist me in the fantasy.
One especially feverish player announced that the column was so racist that it had only just stopped short of sending West a box of fried chicken. It would be patently impossible to demonstrate this from anything the column actually said. But the statement, while lacking any correspondence to reality, could be regarded as at least coherent on its own terms, once the premises were unpacked.
The most important premise being that no white writer can say anything critical about a black writer without having vile and probably violent motives. This axiom is typically nested, in turn, within an assumption that American life is best understood as having two distinct cultural complexes. One is coded white and the other black. They are accessible via distinct (and well-guarded) entrances, and obey incommensurable zoning codes. You are supposed to stay in your proper matrix.
A system of internal colonies, between which a spirit of mutual disinterest prevails, is not my idea of a good society. As a basis for cultural criticism, “separate but equal” is not that appealing a principle. Nor do I feel deeply accountable to any “tolerance” found choking on its own stifled aggression. My sense of life owes a lot to the work of C.L.R. James, who thought that the multiracial crew of the Pequod was what made Moby Dick such a touchstone to understanding American possibilities.
We should leave racial essentialism to the stand-up comedians who finesse it best. This is a hybrid culture. That is perhaps the one good thing you can say about it. I don’t intend to give that up.
In any case, the notion that a white critic has no business assessing a black writer begs an important question. (And not just, "Does that apply vice versa too?")
One of the decisive early influences on my own writing was Anatole Broyard. For many years he was a critic at The New York Times; he died in 1990. Some time before that, I read a collection of his pieces called Aroused By Books, and looking it over again recently, it seems clear that my response was to steal everything about his style and method that wasn’t nailed down. A few years ago, the public learned that Broyard had taken considerable pains to conceal the fact that he came from an African-American family.
By the logic of old-fashioned, real-deal, no-doubt-about-it white supremacy, anybody who looks white but has a “single drop” of “black blood” is actually black. This is binary thinking gone berserk. But it creates a problem for anyone who wants to insist on criticizing the critic for wandering into someone else’s ethnic enclave.
To bring this down to the matter at hand: How do you know I am white? How, indeed, do I? This society tells me that I am. But then, this society tells me plenty of things that serve its own interests – usually in ways it wouldn’t want questioned too closely. Perhaps obsession with patrolling the perimeters of our gated communities is not a good thing. I’m just putting that out there.
In any case, I want to make clear that there is no way I would ever send Cornel West a box of fried chicken. If we’re going to indulge in identity politics, let me just mention that I come from a Southern working-class family. If I had a box of fried chicken, I would eat it myself. Cornel West earns more in a weekend of public speaking than I do from a year of writing. Let him buy his own food.
As to politics.... It is said that American universities are under the control of tenured radicals trying to continue the revolution by other means. This is constantly repeated but it is utter nonsense. A thin layer of such people do exist, but their power is limited. The prevailing culture of the institution seems far more responsive to the spirit of corporate governance than to any belief that “democracy is in the streets.”
On that score, my admiration for Cornel West remains very much alive. People criticizing him as a “typical” leftist professor could not be more mistaken. For many soi-disant radical academics, the policing of one another’s verbal behavior is as close to activism as they will ever get. By contrast, Brother West gives intriguing glimpses of his involvement with the Black Panther Party, the Social Text collective, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Although the book does not mention it, he also contributed to the socialist journalNew Politics in the 1980s, when it was barely getting revived again after a long period of suspension. As a member of the current New Politics editorial board, I want to express thanks to him for that, and hope he got the copies sent as payment.
Cornel West's heart is in the right place. You can tell that it beats harder when there is a movement towards justice. He walks the walk. This cannot be taken for granted. But here, again, Brother West proves so terribly disappointing. It conveys nothing, absolutely nothing, of what it is like to work in a movement. Politics is not just exhortation. The ability to make a fiery speech is part of being an activist; that is true. But so is assessing your experience as part of a group of people trying to work together. Not a bit of that comes through in his writing.
“From each according to his abilities,” as the old spiritual says, “to each according to his needs.” The professor’s needs are being well met. It is how he is using his abilities that is in question. This is called taking someone seriously.
My review did so – but at the cost of violating certain norms of etiquette. This was explained to me, after the fact, by a tenured professor who is an admirer of West. A cardinal if unwritten rule of the academic world, it seems, is that one must never go on the record with a pointed criticism of anyone prominent or influential. This was not so much a moral principle as the wisdom required to survive in the marketplace. After all, they might retaliate.
Well, so much for speaking truth to power. You can’t please everyone. It would be pretty craven to try.
This column now approaches its fifth anniversary. At the risk of succumbing to the contagious influence of Brother West, I will say that it has had a mission. It has engaged with hundreds of books and authors with the simple intention of trying to communicate and assess their essences for as wide an audience as cares to pay attention – using a variety of formats and tones, and employing whatever degree of vigor, or earnestness, or broadness of humor, or allusive riffing, or explicit citation, or double-encrypted irony, as may seem necessary and appropriate at any given moment.
“Will it ever stop?” as the poet so memorably puts it,
Yo I don’t know. Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow. To the extreme, I rock the mic like a vandal, Light up the stage and wax a chump like a candle.
One of the turning points in my life came in 1988, upon discovery of the writings of C.L.R. James. The word “discovery” applies for a couple of reasons. Much of his work was difficult to find, for one thing. But more than that, it felt like exploring a new continent.
James was born in Trinidad in 1901, and he died in England in 1989. (I had barely worked up the nerve to consider writing him a letter.) He had started out as a man of letters, publishing short stories and a novel about life among the poorest West Indians. He went on to write what still stands as the definitive history of the Haitian slave revolt, The Black Jacobins (1938). His play based on research for that book starred Paul Robeson as Toussaint Louverture. In 1939, he went to Mexico to discuss politics with Leon Trotsky. A few years later -- and in part because of certain disagreements he'd had with Trotsky -- James and his associates in the United States brought out the first English translation of Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. (By the early 1960s, there would be a sort of cottage industry in commentary on these texts, but James planted his flag in 1947.)
He was close friends with Richard Wright and spoke at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church. At one point, the United States government imprisoned James on Ellis Island as a dangerous subversive. While so detained, he drafted a book about Herman Melville as prophet of 20th century totalitarianism -- with the clear implication that the U.S. was not immune to it.
Settled in Britain, he wrote a book on the history and meaning of cricket called Beyond a Boundary (1963). By all accounts it is one of the classics of sports writing. Being both strenuously unathletic and an American, I was prepared to take this on faith. But having read some of it out of curiosity, I found the book fascinating, even if the game itself remained incomprehensible.
This is, of course, an extremely abbreviated survey of his life and work. The man was a multitude. A few years ago, I tried to present a more comprehensive sketch in this short magazine article, and edited a selection of his hard-to-find writings for the University Press of Mississippi.
In the meantime, it has been good to see his name becoming much more widely known than it was at the time of his death more than two decades ago. This is particularly true among young people. They take much for granted that a literary or political figure can be, as James was, transnational in the strongest sense -- thinking and writing and acting "beyond the boundary" of any given national context. He lived and worked in the 20th century, of course, but James is among the authors the 21st century will make its own.
So it is appalling to learn that the C.L.R. James Library in Hackney (a borough of London) is going to be renamed the Dalston Library and Archives, after the neighborhood in which it is located. James was there when the library was christened in his honor in 1985. The authorities insist that, in spite of the proposed change, they will continue to honor James. But this seems half-hearted and unsatisfying. There is a petition against the name change, which I hope readers of this column will sign and help to circulate.
Some have denounced the name change as an insult, not just to James's memory, but to the community in which the library is located, since Hackney has a large black population. I don't know enough to judge whether any offense was intended. But the renaming has a significance going well beyond local politics in North London.
C.L.R. James was a revolutionary; that he ended up imprisoned for a while seems, all in all, par for the course. But he was also very much the product of the cultural tradition he liked to call Western Civilization. He used this expression without evident sarcasm -- a remarkable thing, given that he was a tireless anti-imperialist. Given his studies in the history of Africa and the Caribbean, he might well have responded as Gandhi did when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."
As a child, James reread Thackeray's satirical novel Vanity Fair until he had it almost memorized; this was, perhaps, his introduction to social criticism. He traced his ideas about politics back to ancient Greece. James treated the funeral oration of Pericles as a key to understanding Lenin’s State and Revolution. And there is a film clip that shows him speaking to an audience of British students on Shakespeare -- saying that he wrote "some of the finest plays I know about the impossibility of being a king.” As with James's interpretation of Captain Ahab as a prototype of Stalin, this is a case of criticism as transformative reading. It’s eccentric, but it sticks with you.
Harold Bloom might not approve of what James did with the canon. And Allan Bloom would have been horrified, no doubt about it. But it helps explain some of James's discomfort about the emergence of African-American studies as an academic discipline. He taught the subject for some time as a professor at Federal City College, now called the University of the District of Columbia -- but not without misgivings.
“For myself,” he said in a lecture in 1969, “I do not believe that there is any such thing as black studies. There are studies in which black people and black history, so long neglected, can now get some of the attention they deserve. ... I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such. I only know the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain political setting, and, particularly, during the past two hundred years. It’s impossible for me to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”
James’s argument here is perhaps too subtle for the Internet to propagate. (I type his words with mild dread at the likely consequences.) But the implications are important -- and they apply with particular force to the circumstance at hand, the move to rename the C.L.R. James Library in London.
People of Afro-Caribbean descent in England have every right to want James to be honored. But no less outspoken, were he still alive, would be Martin Glaberman -- a white factory worker in Detroit who later became a professor of social science at Wayne State University. (I think of him now because it was Marty who was keeping many of James's books in print when I first became interested in them.) James was the nexus between activists and intellectuals in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and his cosmopolitanism included a tireless effort to connect cultural tradition to modern politics.To quote from the translation he made of a poem by Aimé Cesaire: “No race holds the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.”
Having C.L.R. James’s name on the library is an honor -- to the library. To remove it is an act of vandalism. Please sign the petition.
In the context of the news that day in February, the announcement was almost jarring in its banality. On a day when legislators at all levels and all over the country were in full panic mode about budget deficits, and at a time when public investments in education, particularly higher education and most particularly the liberal arts, were being offered as examples of excessive government spending, a new commission had been formed.
At the request of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had gathered a group of distinguished citizens and asked them to recommend 10 actions "that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being." A bipartisan request to form a group to engage in long-range planning about the nation’s intellectual well-being by focusing on the liberal arts — such an announcement not only seemed out of place in the newspapers that day, it seemed almost to come from another generation.
Had these people not heard that, as House Speaker John Boehner put it, "We’re broke"? Didn’t they — these misguidedly bipartisan legislators and anachronistic advocates of the liberal arts — realize that we were in a crisis that precluded long-term planning and collective action? How could they fail to see that education today must focus on job training and economic competitiveness? And what were they thinking in focusing on liberal arts?
It has indeed been hard in recent months to hear anything other than the voices of doom. But the language spoken by these voices represents its own form of crisis, for it is almost entirely economic, as if all relevant factors in our current situation could be captured on a spreadsheet or a ledger. The reduction of complex social and political issues to economics signifies a failure of imagination; and "fiscal responsibility," while an excellent principle at all times, has come to serve as a proxy for our fears that we have lost our way in the world, that the future will not be as bright for our children as it was for us when we were young, that America is being outcompeted by countries that used to be "third world," that the future has somehow gotten away from us.
Fear, whose radical form is terror, has temporarily crippled our national imagination. Many young people today can barely recall a time when we were not subject to the shadowy horrors of terror and terrorists. Today, 10 years after 9-11, terror is a fact of life, and fear makes all the sense in the world. How else to explain the emergence of what are in effect survivalist and vigilante attitudes among so many of our political leaders?
At this time, it is useful for those with longer memories to recall that "other generation" that the current effort to support the liberal arts so strongly evokes. This would be the generation that, having fought their way out of the Great Depression, went out and won World War II. That generation, like ours, had things to fear, but they conquered their fears by taking action, including creating a commission charged with long-term planning for the nation’s educational system, focusing on liberal education.
This commission, created by President James Bryant Conant of Harvard, was formed in 1943, in the middle of the war, and completed virtually all of its work while the outcome of the war was still uncertain. Still, the vision its members announced was confident, spacious and radical. Their report, General Education in a Free Society — or the “Redbook,” as it was called — outlined a program of liberal education for both high school and college students, with required courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. The intention was to extend to masses of people — including the hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers who would be going to college on the new GI Bill — the kind of non-vocational education previously available only to a select few.
Such a program, the commission thought, would be profoundly American in that it would prepare people for citizenship in a democracy, giving them what they needed not just to find a job but to live rich and abundant lives, the kinds of lives that people in less fortunate societies could only dream about. Announcing the great mission of American education and the new shape of American society after the war, the Redbook was hailed as a powerful symbol of national renewal, and served as an announcement of America’s cultural maturity. Its main arguments were translated into national policy by the six-volume 1947 "Truman Report," called Higher Education for American Democracy.
The program bespoke confidence in democracy, and in the ability of people to decide the course of their lives for themselves. It suggested, too, a conviction that a democracy based on individual freedom required some principle of cohesion, which would, in the program they outlined, be provided by an understanding of history and culture, which they entrusted to the humanities.
Of course, not every institution of higher education has followed this extraordinarily ambitious and idealistic vision. Indeed, by one recent account, only 8 percent of all American institutions of higher education give their students a liberal education. But that 8 percent includes virtually every institution known to the general populace, including Cal Tech and MIT. With their unique dedication to liberal education, American universities are acknowledged to be the best in the world at two of the central tasks of higher education: educating citizens and conducting research.
Mass liberal education was advocated in the face of challenges every bit as great as those we face today. As a consequence of the war, the national debt had exploded, reaching unprecedented levels (121 percent of GDP in 1946, compared with 93 percent in 2010). And as the grim realities of the Cold War set in, including the prospect of nuclear annihilation and the widespread fear of enemies within, many people felt that the nation was vulnerable in ways it never had been. It would have been understandable if the nation had tried to hedge against an unpredictable future by cutting spending, turning inward, and retooling the educational system so that it would produce not well-rounded citizens but technocrats, managers, nuclear engineers, and scientists.
Instead, we created the Marshall Plan, built the interstate highway system, and increased access to higher education so dramatically that, by 1960, there were twice as many people in higher education as in 1945. And incidentally, the middle class was strong and growing, and the fight for civil rights acquired an irresistible momentum. Things were very far from perfect, but we unhesitatingly call the generation that accomplished all this "the greatest."
What really distinguished the American philosophy of higher education in the generation after WWII was its faith in the future. People educated under a system of liberal education were expected not to fill slots but to create their lives in a world that could not be predicted but did not need to be feared. The lesson for today is perfectly clear. Terrors will always be with us, but we can choose to confront them through collective action and a recommitment to the core principles of democracy, including access, for those who wish to have it and are able to profit from it, to a liberal education. "We’re broke" is a sorry substitute for the kind of imagination and boldness needed now, or at any time. We must take the long view, the global view, and the view that does the most credit to ourselves.
I would not presume to tell the new commission which steps to support the liberal arts they should endorse. But I would urge on them a general principle: that liberal education should not be considered a luxury that can be eliminated without cost, much less an expensive distraction from the urgent task of economic growth, but a service to the state and its citizens. It is an essential service because it reflects and strengthens our core commitments as a nation, without which we truly would be broke.