December 05, 2003

Tempest, Meet Teapot

Whee! This O'Connor/Berube/Chronicle/student thing is getting interesting! I'll let you read and enjoy that stuff--I just want to clarify a few points I made in my earlier post, which, after reading commentary, obviously need clarifying.

Angie asks me some valid questions about my post. I'll reprint her comment here, because her points are well-taken:

Did you read Berube's article? He doesn't say anything about mental illness until the very end, which is the first section O'Connor quotes. At no time does he imply that the student is mentally disabled, as shown by his conservative views or any other reason. That's O'Connor's gloss.

She also says, "But as the essay unfolds, Berube loses track of a crucial distinction, that it was not the student's conservatism that was disruptive, but his disruptive behavior that was disruptive..."

I'm not sure that this is true either. The point of Berube's essay (which he makes largely in the title), is that maybe possibly perhaps there's a point at which you have to stop reasoning and understanding and pandering to a disruptive element, and just force it to pipe down. I'll bet his conservative student could've told him that in the first place.

Here's my response:
I read it, and for the purposes of my commentary I focused on the most inflammatory aspect of it. No, he never comes out and says, "This kid is a conservative, ergo he is mentally ill," but the underlying assumptions--where I will admit I agree with O'Connor's "gloss"--in paragraphs like these:

"When the semester was over, I wondered whether John's story was the stuff of which right-wing legends are made. Would he remember the seminar as the class in which his right to free speech and debate was trampled by politically correct groupthink (even though he spoke more often than any other single student)? He couldn't possibly contend that I'd graded him on the political content of his remarks, because he'd gotten an A for the course. But there was no question that he felt embattled, that he didn't see any contradictions in his argument about the internment camps, and that he had begun to develop an aggressive/defensive "I'm not a racist, but these people . . ." mode of speaking that would someday get him either in serious trouble with some angry hyphenated-Americans or the job Dinesh D'Souza held at the American Enterprise Institute. In the last couple of weeks of the term, I found myself speaking to him almost solicitously, as if to say, "You know, if you understand so little about how some of your remarks might be taken by members of racial minorities, and yet you say so much about them, you could be in for some rough times. You might want to read a manual on tact, perhaps."

But who am I to say such things? For all I know, John might be able to craft a life in which he can deride African-American ambivalence about integration and defend Japanese-American internment camps without ever confronting anyone who disagrees with him."

demonstrate the larger point in my essay so well that I could have probably just reprinted them with a "Look! Another elitist condescending goober!" tag and left it at that. Isn't it a little bit breathtaking that he simultaneously takes pains to demonstrate his heroic forebearance while implying that such an obviously belligerent and ignorant borderline racist could only get a job with a conservative think tank?

Do I agree with Berube that this kid is a professor's nightmare, in whatever context? Oh yes, yes I do. I've been in classes with folks like this on both sides of the spectrum (including a graduate seminar with a femist so militant that we couldn't refer to a work of literature as "seminal" without an outcry), and was fortunate in my teaching not to have to deal with it to this extent.

Do I also agree with O'Connor that perhaps part of the shock Berube experiences is due not just to the conduct of the person in question but also to his stance? Yes. The condescension apparent in the above excerpt does it for me, because I've heard sardonic comments just like it in TA lounges and graduate level courses on how to be a TA. It's ingrained, it's pervasive and I think arguments pointing out the underlying elitism and leftist mindset inherent in stuff like that--and how they color "innocent articles on teaching" are well taken.

I am also fond of this little excerpt:

"Few critics of academe -- and even fewer critics of liberal-left professors -- have any idea what kind of work that entails, which is one reason, surely, why headlines like "Conservative Student Punished by Stalinist Campus Orthodoxy" strike those of us who teach as so surreal."

Which frankly pushes the whole thing over the top for me. Excuse me, Mr. Berube, would you mind getting down off of your cross for a moment so that the rest of us can ask you to GET TO THE POINT here, which is ostensibly what you need to do to handle a disruptive student, not how misunderstood you are, or how conservative this kid was, or Asperger's syndrome which you don't know for sure if the student even has, or any of the rest of it.

In my reading, Berube derails himself with stuff like this. He could have written an effective and helpful essay without any of the incidental commentary, commentary which only reinforces my point about supercilious elitism.

So yes, I think I did focus on the extreme interpretation of this essay, in part because I am sensitive to it, but the textual evidence for the more radical interpretation, as they say, is there.

Ain't lit crit grand?

Posted by Big Arm Woman at December 5, 2003 08:36 AM

I read Berube's essay, and the question that kept coming to mind was, Is this an English class or a Political Science class?

I kept expecting him to say "Of course, one thing that I can always rely on to steer my classes away from fruitless political bickering (of any sort) is that my job is to teach literature, not politics. In this case, of course, I simply redirected our discussion to the use of anachronism, and whether it weakened or strengthened the novel."

What am I missing?

Posted by: Nancy2784 at December 5, 2003 11:57 AM

Well, Nancy2784, you're missing this passage from my essay:

I pointed out, gently but (I hoped) not patronizingly, that whatever any of us might feel about the various projects of black nationalism, we are, after all, dealing with a character in a novel– a character, I hastened to add, whose reductive brand of nationalism is ultimately undermined in the course of the narrative. It only makes sense to try to understand what he might be trying to say. And now let’s move on to another example of anachronism in Mumbo Jumbo. . . .

Is this close enough to "I simply redirected our discussion to the use of anachronism" for you?

Posted by: Michael Berube at December 6, 2003 01:50 AM

Mr. Berube, I wanted to ask you a question regarding your opinion about the Japanese internment camps. I agree that they were an injustice; however, I also recognize that during times of emergency, the government may have to do things that are patently anti-democratic. For example, Abraham Lincoln's multiple suspensions of habeas corpus during the Civil War, even while he was issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. I consider this an injustice as well, but do I believe it was necessary? Yes, I do. From what I've read, I do believe the US government had reason to be suspicious of the Japanese-American community. I do not believe that the camps were justified or the right decision, but I can understand the government taking special security measures such as requiring them to register as well as increasing surveillance. The government decided to err on the side of extreme caution because they did not know the extent of the possible problem within the Japanese-American community. When placed in that type of position, I'm not sure how I'd react. It's easy to denounce the camps from 2003 as a grave injustice, but, at that point in time, it's questionable whether you wouldn't find the injustice necessary.

During times of national crisis, I believe the government has to take steps that may not sit well with civil rights or liberty. I keep wondering about our current situation regarding Muslim terrorism. I'm curious as to your opinion regarding what actions the US government should take if the US came under seige from multiple and frequent terrorist attacks? If we had to endure frequent suicide bombings, car bombings, Muslim-perpatrated massacres throughout the US, etc. Do you believe that in order to keep the country safe, we would be justified in picking up Muslims, keeping some in camps and deporting others? I hope to god that the situation never reaches such a point, but I can't say I haven't thought about the effects a large number of attacks would have. I suppose I'm just interested in your opinion because I think these matters are far more complex than a routine denunciation and it's an especially relevant topic given the situation since 911.

Posted by: linden at December 6, 2003 04:54 AM

Linden-- That's an enormous question, but to answer it succinctly, I'd take Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus as the absolute limit case (we *are* talking about civil war, after all-- an extreme form of national crisis). Today, I strongly support tighter security at the nation's ports and sensitive energy/defense locations; airport security measures, inconvenient though they be, and the creation of the TSA; oversight and possible deportation of visitors overstaying their visas. But I think the executive branch currently has far too much power to designate individuals as terrorists without judicial review, and that the Patriot Act needs to be amended in that regard. (I'm not convinced that I'm more secure because Jose Padilla is being denied access to a lawyer.) The situation in Guantanamo, likewise, is both unnecessary to national security and a blot on our international human-rights record. About the dystopian future you imagine, with multiple and frequent attacks, I don't know what to say, but I don't believe that jailing and deporting (for instance) random Indonesian or Sudanese Muslims for the actions of (for instance) certain Saudis or Egyptians would do anything to ensure our safety-- and it would mark the end of the US as a free society. Beyond that, though, I have to say that I haven't yet given enough thought to what our society *should* do if we were to become the target of frequent attacks, and I agree with you that these matters are far too complex for routine denunciations.

Posted by: Michael Berube at December 7, 2003 04:48 PM