In Search of Max Faber

A polemical book takes aim at African-American public intellectuals. Scott McLemee represents....

April 9, 2008

In 1997, Oxford University Press published Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture,” by Michael Eric Dyson, who at that point was a professor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has since gone on to bigger things; last summer, Dyson was named by Georgetown University as one of its University Professors. God and Gangsta arrived bearing glowing endorsements, including one by Houston A. Baker Jr., a former president of the Modern Language Association. (Two years ago, Baker left the English department at Duke University and joined the faculty at Vanderbilt University as Distinguished University Professor.)

In his new book, Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era (Columbia University Press), Baker recalls being stirred by his “hope for the black intellectual future to produce a supportive blurb invoking comparisons of Dyson with geniuses of times past. ”This, Baker now says, was “a grievous mistake.” Some tort lawyer should look into whether or not Baker is obliged to reimburse readers for the price of Dyson’s book.

Either way, it seems that Baker has now carefully read what he once so hastily blurbed, and found it wanting. “Dyson’s black public intellectual mode," he says, "is a Sugar Ray Robinson-style duck and cover strategy. It intermixes metaphors, and dodges and skips evasively with the light drama of nonce formulations. There are no intellectual knockouts. Further, there is virtually no irony whatsoever.” About a subsequent work, Baker says that the main factor “at work in Dyson’s text -- especially when he devotes lavish textual space to his own public appearances on ‘Meet the Press’ -- is authorial self-promotion.... This is the stuff of tabloid journalism. It is not worthy work for a true black public intellectual.”

A complex set of transactions is under way among those three adjectives, even beyond their relationship with the noun they qualify. Some black public intellectuals, it seems, aren’t truly intellectuals. And other black public intellectuals aren’t truly black.The whole domain must be policed by someone who manifests all three qualities in perfect harmony. Said gatekeeper must be willing and able to represent what the author calls “the black majority.” For the true black public intellectual, the interests, intentions, and aspirations of his community prove wonderfully apodictic. Guess who qualifies?

Not, to be sure, Shelby Steele or Stephen Carter or John McWhorter -- each of them a critic of affirmative action and of black popular culture. Baker treats these adherents of middle-class African-American assimilationism as so many fellow-travelers of the neoconservative ideology that emerged among Jewish intellectuals during the 1960s and ‘70s. Nor does Baker have much use for Henry Louis Gates or Cornel West. And his retroactive dis of the exceptionally telegenic Michael Eric Dyson has already been noted.

Betrayal takes on each of these figures through a mixture of critical analysis and personal insult -- blended in portions of roughly one part to three, respectively. This is an extraordinarily repetitious book. The range of ways to suggest that one’s targets are the contemporary equivalent of those African-American performers of the 19th and early 20th centuries who “blacked up” for the minstrel shows is, after all, finite and soon exhausted. Even the more substantial element of the book -- its critique of the emergence of a middle-class and centrist cohort of African-American intellectuals -- proves redundant. The late Harold Cruse anticipated the trend in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual more than 40 years ago, and Adolph Reed Jr. brought it up to date in 1995 in his blistering essay, “What are the Drums Saying, Booker? The Current Crisis of the Black Intellectual.” (It can be found in his book Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, published almost 10 years ago but still an exemplary model of polemic as product of brain rather than spleen.)

What Betrayal offers is, primarily, is repetition of arguments others have made, spiced up with denunciations of motive (everybody loves money and going on TV) and passages that ventriloquize what Baker's opponents are really saying. Thus, Shelby Steele tells white America: “You should have known the majority of these power-hungry, searching-for-weakness ‘minorities’ out there have no merit, excellence, or cultural treasure to add to the world’s store. It probably would have been better for American morality and its capital reserves had white supremacy never ended.”

So one reads Steele as quoted in Betrayal -- followed by Baker's quick, glossing addendum: “Again, my words.” For Steele never actually said it. ("Again, my words" indeed: Baker likes the method enough to use it every so often.) In a war of words, this qualifies less as a weapon of mass destruction than a labor-saving device.

Baker assures readers that he, at least, is using the best tools available to the true black public intellectual. “I am,” Baker assures us, “a confident, certified, and practiced reader of textual argument, implicit textual values and implications, and the ever-varying significations of written words in their multiple contexts of reception.... I forgo ad hominem sensationalism, generalized condemnation, and scintillating innuendo where black neoconservatives and centrists are concerned. The following pages represent a rigorous, scholarly reading practice seasoned with wit.”

After reading some two hundred pages of "ad hominem sensationalism, generalized condemnation, and scintillating innuendo," one wonders if this passage, at least, may be a case of the "irony" that one of the blurbs for Betrayal attributes to it. I am not quite sure. But one moment of reading the book certainly had a profound effect on my grasp of just how seriously the book must be taken. This was when Baker discusses the affinity of certain contemporary black public intellectuals (the non-true kind) for neoconservatism.

Baker points out that in the 1940s, Irving Kristol, the founding father of that neoconservatism, abandoned the constricted world of left-wing politics “in search of a more expansive field of intellectual and associational commerce (one in which he would be ‘permitted’ to read Max Faber)....”

That parenthetical reference stopped me cold. I have a certain familiarity with the history of Kristol and his cohort, but somehow the role of Max Faber in their bildung had escaped my notice. Indeed, the name itself was totally unfamiliar. And having been informed that this book was "the product of “a rigorous, scholarly reading practice” -- one “seasoned with wit,” mind you, and published by Columbia University Press -- I felt quite embarrassed by this gap in my knowledge.

Off to the library, then, to unearth the works of Max Faber! But before I could get out the door, a little light bulb went off. Baker (who assures us that he is a capable judge of social-scientific discussions of African-American life) was actually referring to Max Weber.

It's a good thing the author of this book is "a confident, certified, and practiced reader of textual argument, implicit textual values and implications, and the ever-varying significations of written words in their multiple contexts of reception.” Otherwise one would have to feel embarrassed for him, and for the press that published it. And not just for its copy editors, by any means.


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