Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Wit and Wisdom of Brian Leiter

Maybe I just have a soft spot for cranky elitists (being one myself, of course), but I think this passage, in response to a column by George Will on the problems in academia, is really funny and brilliantly written:

But let us translate: what Mr. Will really means is that universities are places where the banalities and misinformation which are the lifeblood of the mass media are not taken seriously; where people who think Iraq attacked the World Trade Center have a tough time holding their own in grown-up conversation; where apologists for state terror have to confront the arguments of those who know an apology for state terror when they see it; where lies about economic and social policy are perceived as lies, and made to answer to facts and evidence; where, in short, the parochial smugness of an effete little simpleton like George Will (and his many clones who constitute the “diversity” of the mass media) is perceived as exactly that.

That, my dear readers, is how you take a verbal pickaxe to someone with wit.

Comments

  1. #1 PaulNoonan
    November 29, 2004

    Prof. Leiter has wit in spades, there is no arguing with that. As for wisdom (with regards to this post), isn’t he just repeating the idea that Will is
    1. Stupid (which does not do anything to support the notion that intellectual diversity exists in academia and is simply an ad hominem), and that
    2. Will is a hypocrite because either
    a. Diversity does not exist in the major media (which I suspect Will would agree with) or
    b. “diversity” in the media is a sham that obscures the truth.

    This strikes me as a non sequitur.

    George Will is hardly an archconservative, and trying to make him into one is counterproductive. When Prof. Leiter gets into pissing contests like this he just ends up sounding like Bizarro Rush Limbaugh, throwing around his own ideas as gospel without support. Any good pissing contest should not be wind assisted, whether the air being spewed forth is hot or not.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    November 29, 2004

    PaulNoonan:

    I didn’t say I agreed with Leiter; I just think it’s really well phrased and amusing. It struck me as very Mencken-like – even if it’s wrong, it’s great writing.

  3. #3 PaulNoonan
    November 29, 2004

    That is essentially what I meant by praising his wit, but this still just seems like name calling to me. I suppose all disagreement comes down to name calling at some level, but I’ve seen Brian put his excellent writing skills to use while simultaneously making some very insightful (and funnier) observations. I just pictured George Will attempting a snappy comeback and it was surprisingly easy to imagine.

    I’m not well versed in the works of H.L. Mencken nor am I totally ignorant. He is an excellent basis for comparison. I always thought that his excellent turn of phrase came from the ability to dryly assert that one thing was, in fact, something completely different and generally quite the opposite. I’m sure that Mencken would claim that he was simply being accurate, and no matter how absurd the comparison that he would draw, you got at least some sense that he’s right and you’re wrong.

    I’ve read some posts by Brian that sound like this. You think X is X, and that is the conventional wisdom, but the consequences are Y (or it is actually Y). In fact, he is generally very good at this when talking about the media. This post just seems like he’s saying “I think X.”

    Like this phrase:

    “where apologists for state terror have to confront the arguments of those who know an apology for state terror when they see it;”

    Wouldn’t Mencken write this as:

    “Where apologists for state terror will have to do the apologizing in person.” (hmm, a tad overly dramatic perhaps),

    or,

    “Where apologists for state terror will learn that mere apology is insufficient and will now require penance.” (OK, so Mencken would never use “penance.” Maybe “justice” instead, but penance just sounded better. Plus it’s an ironic word choice.) Anyway, that is all that I’m trying to say.

    He makes some nice word choices, I’ll grant that.

    My point was also not about what he said, but the way in which he said it.

    I almost always agree with your sense of humor and style, and normally I wouldn’t bother to comment on a stylistic difference, as it is a pretty subjective thing. I guess I was just wondering why this particular post struck you.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    November 29, 2004

    Paul-

    I guess I didn’t give it that much thought, it just struck me as funny. Yes, he is essentially calling George Will an idiot, but that is not itself an ad hominem, it’s merely an insult. And while I don’t hold Will in quite the low esteem that Leiter does, I thought he called him an idiot in a most ingratiating way. The reference to Mencken was both to the pugnaciousness of the text and to the rhythm of the phrasing. The phrase “the parochial smugness of an effete little simpleton” has a very nice cadence to it, as does the whole passage. I think that’s what struck me about it. But I confess to being a sucker for well turned phrases, even if the ideas they express are nonsensical.

  5. #5 PaulNoonan
    November 29, 2004

    That makes sense. And to be fair,
    “the parochial smugness of an effete little simpleton” does roll nicely off the tongue. He definitely has a way with words.

  6. #6 raj
    November 30, 2004

    Let’s get something–uh–straight. Will has a good gig going for himself. He’s been a regular on the Disney Channel’s “This Week” program for over 20 years (he must have an extended contract). He’s got a column published in a number of newspapers to give succor to the ignorant. He’s figured out a way to make more than a few bucks off of stupid people and/or people who want to have their preconceived notions reinforced.

    Will isn’t stupid. Neither are the various media outlets who run his bloviations. On the other hand, one might seriously wonder about the targets of Will’s bloviations.

    Will is yet another example of someone who has figured out a way to enrich himself by beating working. There were more than a few people out of the various Republican “White Houses” who did the same. Pat Buchanan comes to mind. As do Joe “WorldNutDaily” Farah and Brent “Bozo” Bozell. And Bill “Gambler” Bennett. And, for that matter, James Dobson. They have figured out ways to make lots of money with little work. It’s amusing that the various Republicans put up with that, but, what did Mencken say about a fool being born every minute?

  7. #7 Brian Leiter
    November 30, 2004

    I’m glad at least one other cranky elitist enjoyed the writing! I am puzzled by Mr. Noonan’s reconstruction of the argument. I thought the argument, brief as it was, was simple: it is false that universities lack diversity. It is also slightly obscene for someone part of an institution that genuinely lacks diversity–namely, the mass media–to charge that universities lack it. But that has no bearing on the falsity of the claim. That’s all.

  8. #8 thief
    November 30, 2004

    Noonan,

    George Will is an idiot. Not in the sense that he’d lose an argument with Bush if the Secret Service weren’t hanging around, but in the sense that he makes up a lot of disingenious bs to support positions that anyone who has to work for a living can see are horseshit.

    The drip you’re defending from namecalling is a world class little namecaller himself.

  9. #9 raj
    November 30, 2004

    Thief, no, George Will is not an idiot. The idiots are the people who take what he says seriously–and pay him for saying what he says.

  10. #10 PaulNoonan
    December 1, 2004

    Professor Leiter,

    My disagreement, and it really wasn’t even a disagreement so much as it was curiosity, was with Ed more than it was with you (which Ed explained very nicely). However, my comment on your post (which dealt mainly with the excerpted portion, as that was the subject of my stylistic inquiry) basically boils down to the fact that the support for Will’s accusation has nothing to do with the diversity within his own profession. If your point was simply to tear down Will, I applaud your effort, as it was quite entertaining. If your point was to take issue with his point about diversity in academics then the post was less satisfying. The only relevant argument in the post is this:

    “where it is possible to teach, as I do [and my situation is not atypical], with Burkean conservatives, free market utopians, socialists, social democrats, Clintonite democrats, and regular ‘ole boring liberals).”

    Will did offer evidence to the contrary (the ever popular “study”), but this is a fair point.

    However, the last paragraph of your post simply states that Will’s opinions (to the extent that he personally shares some of these rather stupid conservative views) are wrong. While Ed was hooked by the meter and word choice (which was excellent), I was more drawn in by the style of argument. It reminded me of the style used by Alan Keyes against Alan Dershowitz where he forced Dershowitz to defend positions that he did not hold (do you really think that George Will believes that Iraq attacked the WTC?). Changing the arguments of an opponent hardly shows a commitment to intellectual diversity. It looks as if you are unwilling to consider opposing arguments by making them look more ridiculous than they really are.

    But it was a short post, and long, complicated, complete refutations don’t fit into short post so perhaps it is unfair of me to apply this standard. To sum up, in a more simplified fashion:

    Your points: Intellectual diversity exists in academia already, and Will is a hypocrite for saying otherwise.

    My points: Perhaps you are correct about the first point, but you didn’t offer much in the way of evidence and Will’s supposed hypocrisy has nothing to do with his point.

    Finally, I do appreciate your writing, though I do disagree with you much of the time.

    PS – When you wrote this:

    “where apologists for state terror have to confront the arguments of those who know an apology for state terror when they see it”

    you sounded like Potter Stewart.

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