Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Everybody's Scarecrow, or, How to Make a Grand Theory of Everything

I'm a teacher, so I sometimes like to give multiple choice tests, because they're much easier to grade, and I'm a busy gal. I know what they do and don't measure, and I like to think I'm pretty good at writing them.

So here's a test for you:

1. Who is to blame for the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut?
A. The NRA
B. one lone gunman
C. the lone gunman's mother
D. none of the above

2. Who is to blame for this country's lousy gun control?
A. Barack Obama
B. Charlton Heston
C. gun toters
D. the 2nd Amendment

3. Who has the best explanation for the tragedy?
A. the academic
B. the preacher
C. the teacher
D. the president

4. Who is Dorothy going to miss the most when she leaves Oz?
A. Glenda the Good Witch
B. The Tin Man
C. The Cowardly Lion
D. Mr. Scarecrow

OK, here are the answers: 1. D, 2. all of the above and then some, 3. none of the above, and 4. D.

How did you do? To meet standards, I think you should have gotten at least 1. and 4. correct, so a 50% or above. Wait, what did you say? 2 and 3 had typos? Those weren't options? You disagree? Too bad. It's a multiple choice test. One of the answers has to be correct. Did you say the test was unfair? Wait, you've never seen the Wizard of Oz? What's wrong with you? If you didn't pass my test, you should have studied harder.
That was fun. Now let's talk about saints and sinners, and being Against Everything.

I remember very clearly the first time I learned the term academic people use for oversimplifying someone's argument: straw man. I wrote my B.A. thesis (called a "senior essay" at my undergraduate institution) on Gwendolyn Brooks's series of anti-war sonnets at the end of her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville. In an early draft of my essay, one of my friends and advisors, the Romanticist Chris (R.) Miller, told me that I was using Wordsworth as a "straw man" by suggesting that Wordsworth was a hypocrite when he claimed to be one of "the people" in his poetry. Chris explained to me that Wordsworth was by no means a rich man. I was wrong about Wordsworth. And I was getting Wordsworth wrong in the service of my argument, which was that Brooks was just as good a poet, that her poetry was just as smart, just as beautiful, and perhaps even cleverer than Wordsworth's.

The the term "straw man" may have originated with Frank Baum's Scarecrow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, and adapted into the first technicolor film, starring Judy Garland, in 1939. We sometimes forget that Baum's novel--and the movie--was an allegory, which, to remind everyone, is one of the oldest forms of narrative, a kind of story where there is a systematic relationship between the characters in the story and the ideas or people they represent in the real world. I don't remember (if I ever knew) which figure in Baum's Gilded Age the Scarecrow represented.* But, aside from representing a single human being, the Scarecrow represented the danger of an ignorant man. He doesn't have a brain. He points his finger. He's afraid of everything, and he, just like the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion (who I always remember is William Jennings Bryan) is always getting Dorothy into trouble.

In academia, accusing a writer of using a "straw man" is our way of saying that the writer is oversimplifying someone else's argument in order to use that person as a scapegoat. It is reducing another author to a talking "man" without a brain (or organs), in order to win the argument.

In academia, we do a lot of scapegoating. And now, having had the experience more than once in my life of being misunderstood and blamed for things that were out of my control, I have a lot of sympathy for the Scarecrow, who was always one of my favorite of the characters in the movie, because he's the most lovable. He makes mistakes, just like everyone, but he also gets unstuffed, and burned, and he just wants everyone to get along. He doesn't have a brain, but he does have a heart (even though when they open up his shirt, all they see is straw), and he does have courage. Of all the "good guys" in that movie, I thought that Dorothy was annoying, and Toto was a troublemaker, and the Tin Man was scary, and the Cowardly Lion was also annoying. And as I grew older, I also found Glenda annoying, even though she was my favorite when I was a little girl. But I have always admired people with heart and courage more than smart people. Maybe that's because I was raised to believe that smart people are the best people.

It became clear to me, as I grew even older, that Baum intended for us to find everyone in the novel annoying, to find the whole story annoying and stupid, and he succeeded, at least, in getting everyone's attention. Many of the novel and movie's best lines have become the best dead metaphors in the American idiom. "We're not in Kansas anymore." "If I only had a brain," (maybe we could get back home to Kansas). "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." All of these metaphors are references to ideology: the way dogma tricks us, manipulates us, scares us, causes us to point fingers at others, to roar loudly so that they won't know we're scared.

James Baldwin is now himself being treated as a straw man by many academics, who call him a "liberal" (which is a bad thing, because it means he wasn't a radical). These same academics point out how the Civil Rights Movement, which, in some corners of academia and the rest of the world, we prefer to call the "black freedom struggle," actually "just" reinforced the "liberal Cold War Consensus." In other words, you thought that Baldwin was a good guy. But in fact, he was a bad guy. He wasn't really a radical. 

It's interesting to watch these academics try to dance around one of our saints, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don't yet know of an academic who has dared to denigrate King. But they do say that King "wasn't radical enough" in his early years, and then they insist that he "became more radical" in his later years. This seems, at least to me, to get King wrong. Lately I've seen lots of my teacher friends posting King quotations on Facebook, and I always pay attention to the dates. King spoke out against "right to work" in 1961, in his "not a radical" days. He also spoke out against American ideology in the early 60s, before the March on Washington. Behind the scenes, he convinced A. Philip Randolph, the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the founder of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (in 1941), that the 1963 March would get more support if it was billed as a Civil Rights battle, rather than a labor battle. King was a pretty smart guy. In fact, he was a saint.

There were, of course, people outside of academia who denigrated King, both when Congress was considering making his birthday a national holiday, back in the 80s, and when Congress considered authorizing funding for a memorial to King on the National Mall. Some congressmen said he was too much of a radical. He opposed the Vietnam War! He fomented labor riots! Also, he was a sexist! We have FBI tapes that prove that he made sexist and racist jokes in private! King was no saint. He was a sinner. 

In academia, we love to hate Catholicism and Puritanism, because these religious dogmas act as if there are only good guys and bad guys in the world. Saints and sinners. We, in academia, recognize that Most People Are Complicated. Dogmas only make us hate ourselves. 

At least, we always believed that, until this one guy came along and changed everything. His name was Jacques. He was really smart. He created a powerful following. And he gave us something new to believe in: nothing. 

James Baldwin knew that believing in nothing was dangerous. He saw Bigger Thomas, who believed in nothing, and he knew that believing in nothing was a form of psychosis. Baldwin got in trouble, all the time, for putting himself out there and believing in things. For arguing that everybody needs something to believe in. For calling for peace and understanding. For changing his mind a few times.

In his preface to the play Blues for Mister Charlie, Baldwin explained why he had written a play in which the protagonist, at least in his imagination, is the white man. (Like many plays, the protagonist and the antagonist are sometimes interchangeable.) In Blues for Mister Charlie, a white man, Lyle Britten, murders a black man, Richard Henry. Baldwin explained in his preface that he had written the play in order to try to understand and even to love the murderous white man:
But if it is true, and I believe it is, that all men are brothers, then we have the duty to try to understand this wretched man; and while we probably cannot hope to liberate him, begin working toward the liberation of his children. For we, the American people, have created him, he is our servant; it is we who put the cattle-prodder in his hands, and we are responsible for the crimes that he commits. It is we who have locked him in the prison of his color.
Wait a second. Whatchu talkin' bout, James? Who is in prison? Who is "our servant"? Who needs to be liberated? Who is we? Who is he? It is the poor white man, not the black man, who his enslaved. He's a slave because he believes in America, in the America that puts him on top, and black people on the bottom. He's a fool because he doesn't realize how much the America he loves actually holds him down, and feeds him the lie of race to keep him quiet.

In the talk about Newtown, I see my friends and loved ones arguing on Facebook about who is to blame. Is the gun lobby to blame? Yes. Is American masculine discourse to blame? Yes. Is the mom to blame? Yes. Is the stigmatization of mental health to blame? Yes. Is the wretched young man to blame? You betcha. 

Are we going to keep playing "the blame game," or are we going to do something about it by trying to understand what happened?

Baldwin dedicated Blues for Mister Charlie to his friend Medgar Evers, an NAACP secretary in Mississippi who was shot in the back on his own front lawn, in front of his family. He also dedicated the play to four "little" girls: Denise McNair, 11 years old, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, all 14 years old. The four girls were murdered in a terrorist bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on  September 15, 1963.

Many American high school students learn of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, and I first learned of it when I read Dudley Randall's magnificent poem, "Ballad of Birmingham," as a 7th grader. But a lot of people teach that poem, or the church bombing, out of context. A lot of people don't realize that the bombing happened just weeks after King delivered his "I have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or they don't know that King gave the eulogy at the funeral for 3 of the girls, not all four. They don't know that King promised the bereaved congregation that the deaths of the girls was part of a larger struggle that we could not yet see or understand. He promised the congregation that the girls were in heaven. He promised the congregation that their deaths, which appeared to be so senseless, would make sense in the long run. Lastly, he promised, that their deaths would not be in vain.

That last line is a quotation, without the quotation marks. So was it plagiarism? King was quoting Abraham Lincoln, for some people, the country's Patron Saint, my grandfather's hero and therefore one of my very first heroes, a man whose stature in American history has grown so large that we have carefully examined and forgiven him his inconsistencies. We have decided that he was, on balance, a Great Man. He was a hypocrite, and he was sometimes selfish, and he sometimes weighed certain risks versus certain benefits and made "calculated" choices instead of "moral" ones. He was a white supremacist but he ended slavery. He ended slavery, but only to save a country that is and has always been sick. And at a crucial moment in the country's history of illness and weakness, he stood on a battlefield soaked in blood and promised that the deaths of all those thousands of young men would mean something, in the end. Was he being manipulative or sincere? Was he cold and calculating or warm and caring? Was he crazy or brilliant? That's what hundreds of historians writing thousands of words have been trying to figure out ever since the words came out of his mouth. But we might already know, instinctively, that the answers to all those question are the same as the answer my mom almost always gives when you give her a choice: No. Yes. Um. In other words: both/and.

One of my favorite critics to love and hate is Walter Benn Michaels. His break-out essay, the one that made his name as a critic, was called "Against Theory." In that essay, he and Steven Knapp use "theory," meaning deconstruction, against itself. The argument of deconstruction is that nothing means what we intend it to mean--in fact, there is no such thing as intending to mean something. There is no such thing as intention. There is only language, and language is like an evil robot that has betrayed its master: it refuses to do what you want it to do. It is out of your control. There is no such thing as control; there is only the illusion of control, and we live in a world of chaos. Michaels and Knapp argued that, in fact, if Saint Derrida's original argument were carried out to its final conclusion (final solution?), we would know that, in fact, humans must have intention in order for language to exist at all. Otherwise, they say, language wouldn't even be language. It would just be marks on a page. It's a brilliant essay. Even though it's Against Everything, it is like Pandora's Box: it contains a tiny little sliver of hope, and it gave me hope when I first read it.

I took a class with Walter my very first term in graduate school, which was a seminar offered jointly by UIC, where Walter teaches, and U of C, where I went for grad school. The class was co-taught by my dissertation committee co-chair, Ken Warren. It was huge, for a seminar--it had about 35 or 40 people in it. And it often seemed like the only person who ever talked in that seminar was Walter. He, the professor, was "that guy." I, normally quite the talker, only spoke once, when I had to read aloud an 8-page essay, the one requirement for the class aside from a seminar paper. I was terrified. Every time someone in that class tried to speak, it seemed to me, their idea would get ripped apart by Walter. That's how he teaches. My course advisor at the time, who had been a student of Walter's, encouraged me to take the class and to "get in the mix." But I was, at the time, way too scared. Would it be an overstatement to call Walter Benn Michaels's intellect sublime, when used as a weapon? It certainly scared the bejesus out of me.

The eight or nine people from U of C who took the class all became close friends of mine through the hazing experience that was that class. And the rest of them all had their own frustrations with that class. One of them hated that Walter turned every beautiful work of art into a racist text. One of them hated how Walter took her paper on Their Eyes Were Watching God and told her that she was wrong to defend Saint Zora, then proceeded to use all of her evidence against her. She turned that paper into her dissertation. When Walter did the same thing to me, it hurt my feelings, but I wrote a way better paper on a different novel--George Schuyler's satirical novel Black No More--for my seminar paper, and since Ken was the one to grade it, I got very helpful feedback and learned a lot. (Schuyler, by the way, was a prophet, but is considered a sinner, because he remained a Republican, though a Socialist, and then became very conservative in his old age. He even wrote a memoir titled Black Conservative. He was a reactionary.)

So was that the hate part or the love part? Both. I have noticed, in my travels, that Walter is incredibly misunderstood by even some of the smartest academics. They think he is "conservative" when he is really radical. They think that he wants to abolish the humanities, when really he has only suggested abolishing private education. They think that he hates Jews, when he himself is a (secular) Jew. They think that he is against anti-racism, when really he is against multiculturalism. He has, in some sense, suffered or achieved the fate of every great thinker: he has become everybody's straw man. And we could read this, in the words of Malcolm X, as Walter's chickens having come home to roost. When you try to make a Grand Theory of Everything, you get too big for your britches, you give the Cyclops your home address, the gods will smite you. When Walter fought Derrida, he was David. Now he's Goliath, and people throw rocks at him.

Sometimes I feel sorry for him, but then I check myself, because I'm guessing he doesn't feel too sorry for himself. He makes a great living and he loves his job. Is he happy? Most academics, like most radicals, are unhappy. I don't know Walter--I barely spoke to him at all when I was his student, and I haven't spoken to him since except to attend some of his talks and watch him eviscerate everyone who tries to disagree with him, which I find obnoxious but also very entertaining. My guess is that Walter also finds it entertaining that everyone misunderstands him, because he can recognize why they misunderstand him. When James Baldwin felt misunderstood, he became angry and vitriolic as well as pained and raw. When Langston Hughes felt misunderstood, he made jokes. He, one of the first great critics of the blues, called the blues "laughing to keep from crying." Sometimes it feels like all you can do is weep. But that's when you have to laugh, just so you can keep going.

*My husband, who Knows These Things, reminded me that the scarecrow in the 1939 film represented the Dust Bowl Farmer. I shoulda known that. I'm a historian of the 30s!


  1. 1) There's a lot here to respond to, so I'm invariably going to miss my main point by following some rabbit down a hole to a different tea party. (Wait! Brilliant idea: Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz mashup--Straw Mad Hatter, Cowardly White Rabbit, Evil Queenwitch of Hearts, Glenda the Good Cheshire Cat, etc.)

    2) For instance, there's certainly something to be written both about the parallel structure and the history of Jewish humor, African American blues, and crossovers. I'd start from that shared point of "laughing to keep from crying" or pointing out the systemic flaws with a wink. (Our outlier here could be "Strange Fruit," written by Abel Meeropol with no humor and sung by Billie Holiday with no wink.)

    3) And we could talk about the repetition of David becoming Goliath. To me, there's Freudian/Dostoyevskian tones there--"Who doesn't desire his father's death?" So bankers' kids become artists and artists' kids become bankers; so the theory-slayer becomes the theory-propounder, even if that means some flattening takes place. (The banker isn't just a banker but as an object of rebellion may get reduced to such.)

    So, my colloquium (taught by Ken) was focused on New Historicism in a way that didn't seem to excite many of us. As I think Josh Kotin said, the Historicists won, so it's no longer a big deal, which we might call the Kleenex problem: by winning the battle, they've lost their identity.

    4) Or I could reminisce about Walter Benn Michaels's meanness. I wanted to say that he--like Algerian Jew Derrida--comes from a rabbinic tradition of getting into the mix, of messing things up, of being a trickster. (This trickster rabbi is merely one rabbinic tradition.) So sure, he takes a bunch of people who are against racism and for multiculturalism and shows them how they're being racist.

    But sometimes Walter's willingness to fight the idea seemed to slip over into meanness. Do you remember when he said that he found trauma to be an unhelpful critical term? And then followed that by noting that he thought Cathy Caruth was "too stupid to live"? Or when we read an essay that included the idea that it was impossible to be a race of one, which WBM just brushed off There's a type of fighting with an idea that seems to be a failure of engagement.

    5) But maybe some ideas really don't deserve engagement? When I hear pro-gun people talking about how there should be more guns in classrooms, I don't really feel like engaging. Which gets me to what I really want to talk about, which is your post's closing ideas, and where to go from here.

    I mean, your post drops a few comments about the recent shooting in Newtown and our love of finding single causes. (Kim Stanley Robinson, science fiction writer and PhD under Fredric Jameson, taught me the word "monocausotaxophilia"--the love of single causes.) But you end with the frustration of misunderstanding, the anger, the bitter humor. So we keep going--but where?

  2. BenB: In Walter's class, you were the best at Writing Like Walter, in my opinion, in that you're witty and hilarious and incisive, but not necessarily biting and mean. (Though you did prove to me that Tarzan was really super racist. or was it anti-racist?)

    Where we go from here is an interesting question, of course. For you, it was away from academia, even though you would have made a fantastic English professor. For me, I'm not sure yet. Back into the belly of the beast, to fight from within? I thought that was what I was doing by going to teach in CPS. So maybe I'm just as contrarian as Walter, or as you, without the meanness (most of the time).

    Not to pscyhoanalyze our intellectual fathers and mothers, but it seems to me that most people who work in fields where there is a combination of low job security and high stakes (K-12 teaching, academia) experience intense paranoia and personal insecurity, and therefore meanness happens. I've been on both the giving and receiving end of that. So I tried to write a post about Walter that wasn't mean. :) But I've already heard from some people that I could have been meaner.

    So I was talking to Ken recently about how to do deconstruction in a nice way, for which I think he is the model. But I also think that Josh and Lubna and Mollie and Tom Perrin and Amy and you and I have a good point: we want academic work to be more relevant. And we think that the meanness and the irrelevance come from the same place: nihilism.

    The hilarious part about all that is, most of the deconstructionists do believe in something: they believe in their own academic work. Which proves Mollie's dissertation right. Believing in nothing is a convenient coping mechanism, a protection against personal attacks. "If you don't like my argument, at least you might still like me, because I don't care about my argument." By refusing to love anything, to care about anything or believe in anything, we have produced our own irrelevance to the political and artistic conversations that we want so badly to participate in.

    I also think we could just create an aphorism: "If you want to know what an academic believes in, look at what s/he teaches, not what s/he writes."