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Monday, January 21, 2013

HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN


All of us, I trust, recall the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings, entitled "The Scouring of the Shire."  Frodo and his intrepid little band of hobbits have returned to the Shire from their extraordinary adventures to find a pair of scalawags terrorizing their idyllic community.  Grima Wormtongue, the evil, twisted, conspiratorial advisor to King Theoden, and Saruman, the powerful wizard who turned to Sauron and what in other contexts would be called the dark side of the Force, have been defeated and deposed.  They are now reduced to  tyrannizing over innocent hobbits with cheap magician's tricks and schoolyard bullying.  Frodo, Sam, Merry and the others have no difficulty rousting them and driving them from the Shire.  I have long cherished this lovely fillip at the end of the saga as a literary representation of pomposity and self-importance brought low.

This was called to my mind this morning by yet another circular e-mail from Henry Louis Gates.  I have made it onto what is undoubtedly an enormous distribution list compiled by Gates, presumably because my email address still identifies me as a member of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts.  Gates burst on the scene with a genuinely interesting book, The Signifying Monkey, and after a bit of academic peripatetics, settled at Harvard as Chair of their languishing Afro-Am Department.  Gates proceeded to assemble what he rather grandiosely called his Dream Team [a term appropriately applied to the group of American superstars who won the first Olympic basketball competition.]  In short order, the department launched a doctoral program most notable for the fact that it required all of its graduate students to earn an M. A. in another department [thereby making clear the department's belief that it was not the home of a real academic discipline.]  After his maiden publication, Gates has never done another serious piece of real research, instead spending his time on endless editing efforts and television promotions, all of which are characterized by an insatiable hunger for publicity and a singular absence of taste.  In those early years at Harvard, one of his proudest boasts was that he had lunched with Tina Brown, then the editor of The New Yorker.  One of the interesting aspects of Gates' career is that he has no discoverable relationship to the Black community, unlike his quondam colleague, Cornell West, who, despite his pyrotechnic self-promotion, has genuine roots in the Black church.

The email is titled "Amazing Fact #15: Where Was the First Underground Railroad?"  It is to this that the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University is reduced.  It can surely not be long before a line of commemorative coins, "suitable for framing," appears under his name, together with a collector's edition of Little Black Sambo. 

11 comments:

Carl said...

There's just one L in "Cornel West." By the way, in case you missed it, Dr. West gives one of his most compelling performances ever in a five-minute comment on the president's ceremonial use of Dr. King's bible, viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96d_CzrfxsM

Murfmensch said...

Is the MA in another discipline justified by job prospects later?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

No, it is just their way of acknowledging that they do not believe in their own discipline. Every single member of the department has a joint appointment with some other department. Read my book, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN, last chapter.

Superfluous Man said...

Yes, but how many pancakes will he eat, and who will he eat his pancakes and drink his beers with, and how many beers per pancake will they drink? Sine I don't drink, I don't know the proper beer to eat with my pancakes. Perhaps you can convince them that only a proper French wine would be appropriate for the occasion. Buit which one?

Just as an aside, I would note that pancakes are not favored here in Central PA. They prefer chicken on waffles.; Don't ask me how it tastes. That's one food this BBQ loving southerner won't eat under any circumstance. .



















































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Amato said...

Wow, an excellent description of role that Skip Gates has carved out for himself in African-American studies. I met once him once at Howard (he doesn't often make his way onto HBCU campuses) when he was touting his DNA project--he wasn't a particularly friendly guy either.

Can you imagine the "father of black history," Carter G. Woodson, playing those games. In 1922, Woodson flat out rejected being involved in the development of a "Negro Encyclopedia," a project which included the likes of James Weldon John, Monroe Work, and, eventually, Du Bois. But Woodson didn't wan't to take part because it was backed by white capitalist money (the Philips-Stokes Fund) and he felt the white editorial control would produce a final product with profound distortion of black history. Woodson was a dedicated scholar and didn't have much interest in making potential white backers comfortable--I wish the same could be said for Gates.

D. Ghirlandaio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

I don't have any idea what Gates had in mind when he put in place the MA requirement, but I would have thought it went well with the inherently interdisciplinary nature of "area studies" generally, and need not necessarily be taken to mean the field isn't a legitimate one on it's own. (It's now not at all unusual for philosophers working in special areas to get an MA in, say, economics, biology, linguistics, etc., and Texas A&M, when it started a Ph.D. program in philosophy recently, put in a requirement for students to get an MA in another field. I never took any of that to suggest that the people involved didn't think philosophy was a discipline in its own right.) So, even if Gates was wrong in his personal motivation, the basic idea doesn't seem bad to me, and perhaps one that should be followed in other areas.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Matt, generally speaking I am sympathetic to what you say. For reasons that I spell out in my little book AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-WHITE MAN, I think Black Studies is a special case. It has to do with the perpetually endangered status of the field, which is never true of traditional fields like Philosophy.

Matt said...

Thanks- that sounds perfectly reasonable (though unfortunate.) (I suppose that there's a certain amount of hostility towards area/cultural studies all around, some of it clearly irrational, but if we get by that, then I should like to think that black/Africana studies would be obviously as legitimate an area as any other on the merits, and much more clearly important for the US than most. It's too bad that it's not seen that way.)

LFC said...

Hasn't Gates edited or co-edited at least one (probably more than one) multi-volume, multi-contributor encyclopedia? That hardly seems to me to fit your description of "endless editing projects and TV promotions" that are "singularly lacking in taste."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

LFC, the story of that multi-volume encyclopedia is a long and complicated one, and does not redown to Gates' credit.