Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

Eric Alterman in his cautionary tale about the academy's role in the collection and dissemination of news asserts that "university faculties do tend to be politically liberal." Full disclosure requires that I mention that in addition to being a law professor for more than thirty-five years, I am the immediate past president of the Illinois Council of the American Association of University Professors.

That said, I cannot help but wonder. Alterman's assertion is most often made about humanities and liberal arts professors. Is it possible that the liberality is less from the politics of the professors and more from the curriculuim itself? The Western canon is essentially liberal: e.g., Socrates, Dante, Locke and Joyce.It is both a record of the challenges to the then-prevailing consensus, and of the debates continuing over time. History is now understood to include the actions and ambitions of "every person," as best as such things can be discerned. It now foregrounds examples of goodness to challenge our complacencies, and of barbarisms to challenge our self-images.

It is the impact of these revelations that underlies the charge that professors are liberal, even radical. People do not want to be discombobulated by these realities. Recognizing the political liberalism of the profesoriate, even David Horowitz and Anne Coulter presumably would have students read--in addition to Burke, Hayek and Rand--Rousseau, Keynes and Cervantes. They might even agree that students need to know the work of Du Bois, Alinsky, Oppenheimer and Rawls, in addition to whatever else they need to understand the workings of contemporary America.

So despite Alterman's dismissive attitude, it may be that the academy is where our need for not just the truth but the whole truth is nurtured and preserved. No doubt, too often we get other than "nothing but the truth," but trial and error in the classroom, as in life, is the only way forward.

jerry kendall

Grayslake , IL

Dec 21 2009 - 11:12am

Web Letter

Jim Livingston must have been surprised to learn that he was not merely giving a keynote address at an academic conference last month; unbeknownst to him, he was being used by Eric Alterman to assess academia's fitness as the "potential savior" of American journalism.

Let's set aside the implausibility of Alterman's fantasy: that university professors, who are paid to teach undergraduates, train graduate students and publish books and articles in their fields of specialty, would abandon it all to take up the work of failing newspapers. Alterman writes penetratingly about journalism, and has earned the right to an occasional fatuous column.

No doubt there was nothing intentionally malicious in Alterman's decision use Livingston as his straw man. Still, it seems unfair to judge Livingston by invented and undisclosed standards, based on nothing other than a talk delivered to a specialized audience of intellectual historians rather than a general public of newspaper or magazine readers.

If Alterman also got his facts wrong, which appears to be the case, that merely adds an ironic twist to the whole sorry episode. Either way, he owes Livingston an apology.

François Furstenberg

New York, NY

Dec 17 2009 - 11:13pm

Web Letter

Mr. Alterman,

I was also at the USIH plenary at CUNY, and on the whole I side with Jim Oakes. But your question to Dr. Livingston was irrelevant to the talk he gave and, as I don't know you from anyone, I honestly thought your strident tone and puzzling choice of film made you some crank who wandered in off the street. Cranks are great at academic events; they ask entertaining questions and lighten the mood a bit, since gatherings of academics tend to be overly serious, self-important and lacking in perspective of the wide, crazy world (literally, in this case) just a short distance from their hushed assembly.

But, sir, your question and subsequent attack from the bully pulpit of The Nation shows that you're not even as honest as a crank. Cranks at least say what they mean, rather than ambushing invited speakers with a pet topic--like how you had (oh, gosh!) dined with movie folk, whose film just happens to be great and oh-so-true, doncha know--never mind artistic license! It was a truly embarrassing speech and showed, I think, a particular determination on your part to indulge yourself at the expense of everyone else in the room.

I expect unimaginative people to ask such solipsistic questions at conferences. I never thought an accomplished, by all accounts intelligent liberal like yourself would do it, nor did I expect that you would smear a guy like Livingston in a national publication where he's always going to be at a disadvantage, by calling him not only a misguided academic but a destroyer of American culture! To say you lack perspective is a perverse understatement. Are you, in fact, so deeply entrenched in whatever you have going on that you can't tell the difference between an honest, intellectual disagreement and Armageddon? Please take a moment to consider what you've said and what you may yet say. Beating up on a guy, as one astute observer (who also happens to be my dad, a carpenter from North Carolina) put it, "because you don't like the same movies," is an overreaction at the very least.

To call Dr. Livingston a venal man and a tool because he disagrees with your idea and then to say he's even worse because he didn't make you look like an ass in front of the room by telling you his son is in the Marines--which, right or wrong, would have basically ended the conversation for you--is beyond reason. Livingston refused to shut you down by playing identity politics, not because he likes you or even because he owed it to the audience to answer your question; he did it because the topic that night was pragmatism and because he is an honest intellectual. I don't believe you fully understood those things, or else you never intended to treat his talk as anything other than your own personal soapbox.

I wish you would reconsider the vitriol, the incredible vitriol, you've heaped on Dr. Livingston. The words "grace" and "charity" spring to mind when I think of intellectuals, teachers and journalists. You, sir, claim to be all three, but you forgot your virtues in the haste to make what turned out to be a muddled point, even when you had a few weeks to put it on paper.

I trust you don't need or care to know my credentials, but should we ever meet under circumstances akin to those last month at CUNY, you can be certain I will extend you the courtesy you failed to show Dr. Livingston. I believe history and historical debates are big enough things for honest men to disagree without need of a bludgeon or a soapbox... or a hit piece in The Nation.

Josh Fennell

Washington, DC

Dec 17 2009 - 10:08pm

Web Letter

I have to say, I have a hard time seeing what has so upset Mr. Livingston. Rhetoric aside, he does not actually dispute the truth of anything I wrote. He did call The Hurt Locker "a lie." He has never witnessed the operations of a US bomb squad in Iraq, as the film's screenwriter, James Boal did. He does believe that American soldiers are taught to lay aside their human feelings in the service of their military mission. He did respond to my question with an irrelevant story about a friend's son's enlistment, though he now says he was lying about the identity of the young man in question.

I take no issue with Mr. Livingston's observations about his son, whose sacrifices I admire and appreciate. I'm glad he's taken the opportunity to set the record straight. But his remarks here bear little resemblance to those he made at CUNY as he, himself, admits.

Eric Alterman

New York, NY<a name="oakes"></a>

Dec 17 2009 - 11:10am

Web Letter

As I sat listening to the exchange Eric Alterman describes between himself and James Livingston, it struck me that they were talking past one another. Livingston called The Hurt Locker a lie because he considers the film thematically fraudulent. It depicts soldiers as John Wayne types--solo fliers who lose their ability to engage with other human beings as they become addicted to the thrill of war. Livingston's point was that soldiers are in fact trained to act only as parts of a larger group, always conscious of the human beings with and for whom they are fighting. Alterman, recoiling from Livingston's use of the word "lie," insisted on something else--the factual accuracy of the events portrayed in the film, as they were related by the eyewitness account of a journalist.

Livingston's point could be "true" even if it turned out that the journalist's account was false. In any case, nothing in Livingston's talk or in the exchange that followed justifies Alterman's claim that Livingston subscribes to a "purely ideological" notion of truth.

James Oakes

New York, NY<a name="livingston"></a>

Dec 14 2009 - 3:49pm

Web Letter

Eric Alterman gets only one thing right in his recent column. On November 12, I gave a talk at the CUNY Grad Center about the strong resemblance between academic idioms and cinematic representations in the late twentieth century. Otherwise he's wrong about what happened there.

In the Q and A that followed the talk, I responded to Alterman's question about Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker by saying, "It's a lie," and then, when pressed, I said, "OK, it's a fabrication." My point was that this movie betrays the actual experience of soldiers and Marines, in their training and in their subsequent engagement with the realities of combat. For it resurrects and glamorizes the very dangerous notion that modern war can be understood as individual acts of bravery, in terms of personal responsibility and honor--and this despite the reassuring epigraph from Chris Hedges to the effect that "war is a drug."

Alterman attributes to me something I have never thought, let alone said: "Asked about Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, he denounced it as 'a lie' because, he said, its portrayal of the American soldiers as decent human beings contradicted the messages they received in training to lay aside their human feelings in the service of their military mission."

He has inverted my meaning with perfect symmetry. I said that soldiers and Marines are taught, in training and by combat to put aside their personal feelings and to play the roles they've been assigned in the division of labor that is the military in a time of war. They're taught to become more human, not less, by playing these roles, by stepping outside themselves, by understanding how others will perceive them--by acquiring identities that negate what they have been in the relatively small worlds they came from. They're taught that if they take any of it personally, they put themselves and their comrades at risk.

If they are well-trained, in other words, soldiers and Marines know that the personal "authenticity" embodied by the hero of The Hurt Locker--for whom lonely risk of death in soulful combat with intricate evil somehow makes life more meaningful--is the drug that will kill them. Unlike Chris Hedges, Mark Boal, and Kathryn Bigelow, soldiers and Marines know this drug is not addictive. They avoid it, anyway.

I have another vested interest in setting the record straight. That "irrelevant story" I told in response to Alterman's question was, in fact, a lie. The truth is that my son is a Marine who has been to Iraq and back. So I have seen, heard and read a lot about his training and his experience in combat. I told the story as if it were about a friend's son because I didn't want to pull emotional rank on the man at the back of the room.

I can say in all honesty that my son is a better person--if I may, he has become more human--because he knows what war is like. His decency was never in doubt, before or after the rigors of basic training on Parris Island. But the horizon of his humanity now stretches farther precisely because he is a Marine.

James Livingston

New York, NY

Dec 14 2009 - 10:44am

Web Letter

Eric Alterman should stop trying to save journalism. His muddled and fanciful contribution to the cause leaves me wondering why, with friends like this, journalism needs enemies.

The only way to make sense of Alterman's column is to agree with him going in that the newspaper business and journalism are the same thing. But why should we agree to such an assertion? Here on the interwebs, for example, we find lots of good old fashioned journalism--just ask Josh Marshall or Jane Hamsher.

Newspapers have a business problem--or so I've heard. But to suggest, at this stage of development, that as newspapers go, so goes journalism is silly.

But inane as Alterman is on the subject of journalism, his reporting skills are worse. The pointless and irrelevant example of a plenary address to a conference of intellectual historians, and the Q and A afterwards, had no place this column. Alterman was clearly annoyed by the address and the man who gave it, James Livingston, and he could not help but get his digs in against Professor Livingston for upsetting him so.

No one would be surprised to hear that a journalism professor found a postmodern "riffing" on objectivity, truth and fact objectionable. We should likewise not be surprised that Alterman's sensibilities were offended by Professor Livingston's claim that low culture movies like The Matrix and Terminator II contain important and provocative ideas. But Alterman's offended sensibilities do not excuse his failure to report what actually went on at that conference, or to make things up as a way of attacking someone who doesn't like the same movies he does.

Reading Alterman's account actually made me wonder for a minute if I was really in the same room with him. And now it has me convinced that Livingston's (real) answer to the question regarding The Hurt Locker was spot on: all such descriptions on the part of journalists--and particularly those who turn reportage to screenplay--are subjective and narrative. Seeing a person do their work does not make your interpretation of the worker, the work, the job, or the product "accurate" or "true." Such "recollections" are--always are--interpretations; readings. As Livingston said: It's not the events themselves but what we say about them that makes them true.

Eric Alterman obviously can't understand what Livingston is talking about. But if he's going to report on it, the least he could do--for the cause of journalism if not his own pride--is get it right.

Mike Fennell

Charlotte, NC

Dec 13 2009 - 1:12pm

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