The NYTBR blows it again

Alan Wolfe wrote a very, erm, unsatisfactory review of Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? in the NY Times book review on Sunday. We could just slap it into that largish collection we’re starting to build up of Weirdly, Almost Perversely Bad Reviews from the NYTBR – there’s the one William Vollman did of a book on Nietzsche that Brian Leiter ripped up one side and down the other, there’s the Leon Wieseltier one of Dennett’s new book that Brian also took issue with, there was that Wonkette mess on Katha Pollitt’s new book that I was faintly critical of, and now this.

It starts horridly – “Bérubé comes off as spunky, likable and anything but a left-wing extremist…” Spunky? Spunky? Why not just tell him he’s cute when he argues? Spunky is right up there with feisty, and feisty is a word that needs to be expunged from the language. It’s a wonder people don’t (as far as I know) call me that. Pleasingly, they’re much more likely to call me things like acid, savage, and acerbic, which I have to tell you, makes me beam with quiet but deep happiness. (Then again there was that time someone called me twee. O the agony. But still, that’s not as bad as feisty.)

But then the wheels really come off.

…and he convinces me that Horowitz is as unpleasant as he is ungracious. But he does not persuade me that Horowitz is wrong. I’ve taught in at least two universities known for their leftism, and I know full well that those who teach at them strenuously opppose hiring conservatives and treat students who venerate the military, for example, as misguided. Were Horowitz not in fact intent on replacing left-wing thought police with their right-wing equivalent, I would applaud his efforts.

But that’s why Horowitz is wrong! His schtick is not just saying hey there are too many lefties in universities, it’s working to get laws passed that would ‘fix’ this putative imbalance by getting the state to micromanage every aspect of university teaching, hiring, curriculum, grading, evaluation, and haircut. Der. You might as well say ‘if eliminating the estate tax didn’t benefit the rich while shifting the tax burden onto the poor, I would applaud it’. And then there’s the bit about ‘venerating’ the military, and the sloppy notion that thinking ‘veneration’ of any military might be misguided is a necessarily lefty idea.

It is instructive to learn that anthropology is not a discipline composed entirely of like-minded people because left-liberals do not always agree with poststructuralist Marxists, but this hardly addresses the widespread perception that cultural anthropology has little room for those who might believe that America’s presence in a third-world country might bring about some good.

The what? The widespread what? The widespread perception that what? What does ‘America’s presence’ mean? Some Americans? Undercover agents? Invasion? The whole country picking up and plopping itself down inside a third-world country, squashing everything in sight and slopping all over the neighbours? Surely whether that presence ‘might’ bring about some good or not depends heavily on what that means, but it’s impossible to tell what it means. It’s just loose sloppy hand-waving in the general direction of a thought without bothering to pin it down. That’s lazy, frankly. One gets the irresistible impression while reading this article that Wolfe scribbled it down while watching a football game on tv or something. It doesn’t seem to have his full attention.

Also fueling conservative anger is the fact that universities work remarkably well. They bring jobs and new industries to the regions in which they are located. They tend not to lay employees off with the haste of the private sector.

Hello? Some universities are in the private sector? I know conservatives think they’re some sort of alternative world because they’re not always directly shuttled around by the profit motive, but all the same, quite a few of them are private rather than state. Maybe there was a touchdown just then, and he lost the thread.

And then he wraps up with a disjointed, lazy last paragraph, in which he even admits to a kind of childish boredom. But the Times thought this was good enough. Well it isn’t.

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