Thursday, September 20, 2007 • 10:57 AM Comments ()

On Beating Bill Bennett, the Academic Study of Pop Culture, and the Soul of Man Under Late-stage Capitalism

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Of the many arguments I’ve fantasized about having, one of them, oddly enough, is on the topic of the academic study of pop culture. It takes place on the Charlie Rose Show, and I’m facing off against Bill Bennett, perhaps the grossest of the professional fuddy duddies—the fusty old white men and women who get paid to wear bow ties and pearls and write tsk-tsk articles about the sabotage of western civilization by Foucault-wielding academics.

He comes on with his standard talking points, about how, thanks to the loose morals and Frenchification of our nation's English professors, the kids today are giving each other handjobs and smoking MTV instead of reading Shakespeare on the farm while their fathers beat their mothers for burning the meatloaf (or whatever Bennett’s vision of the good life is). And I, instead of making some thoughtful but very dry argument that there are a dozen threats to the integrity of higher education that are greater than the influence of English professors, will just accuse Bill Bennett of being a philistine who doesn’t have the moral, intellectual or literary standing to question anyone’s legitimacy as a thinker.

In preparation for my appearance on the show, I’ll have read Bennett’s awful books and selected some particularly awful passages, and I’ll read them out in all their awfulness, then contrast them to a few nice passages from some of the better academics working—people who turn their intellectual consideration of American pop culture into a kind of art. Say, Gerald Early writing about the Miss America pageant, or Dave Hickey on the Las Vegas aesthetic, or Nancy Bauer on pornography. Or even John McWhorter, who’s a bit of a professional fuddy duddy himself, writing on Tupac Shakur.

“Charlie,” I’ll say, “the problem with talking to someone like Bill is that we can’t even have a thoughtful conversation about these issues because he doesn’t take thinking or writing seriously. He can’t write an original sentence, or make a graceful transition from one paragraph to another. His own books have no originality to them, and he obviously hasn’t read what any of the people he's attacked are writing aside from the short, out-of-context excerpts his research assistant hands him. He doesn’t know anything about the scholarly conversations in which they’re participating. He thinks the truth of his position is so apparent that there’s no need for empathy, no need for humility, and no need, really, for much thought at all. He’s not an intellectual. He’s a mouthpiece for his prejudices, and yet he has the gall to make sweeping pronouncement about the corruption of the Academy.”

To every point Bennett tries to make, I’ll simply respond with another deconstruction of one of his crappy sentences, and I’ll make the point that until conservative critics of the Academy can actually prove that they know anything about the high culture they claim to be defending, then we shouldn’t have to listen to them.

And eventually Bill will burst into tears, too humiliated to continue, and I’ll be celebrated by the liberal blogosphere as a great champion of intellectual freedom and integrity. Or something like that.
It’s a fantasy, of course, not just because of all the fantastical elements of it, but because it gratifies my wish that the issue could be resolved so easily, that the criticism of something I love—the university, the academic study of pop culture—is wholly bogus, born entirely of resentment and stupidity and envy. If we could expose the jokers for who they really are, all of the problems would go away.

But it’s not like that. There are, actually, very good criticisms of what’s happening in humanities departments on a lot of campuses. There’s a lot of academic writing about pop culture that’s not just useless but annoyingly grandiose, convinced of its own virtue, as if writing about the subversiveness of a particular artifact or emanation of pop culture is a subversive act in itself (in this respect, lefty-ish professors are making the same kind of conceptual error made by their conservative nemeses--believing that the value of your work inheres in the subject of it, be it Shakespeare or Roseanne, Aristotle or Che, rather than in the quality and honesty of your thought).

The problem is that people like me, who would like nothing more than to whack professors (because we envy their degrees and their job security), aren't willing to spend too much time publicly criticizing them so long as the criticism will get absorbed, as it inevitably will, into the blob of know-nothing voodoo that Bennett and his crew do so well.

The Bennett fantasy is, in part, about dominance, payback, and self-glorification. It’s also about wishing the world were simpler than it is—wishing that our problems would go away if we could just expose and destroy the few evil masterminds who are supposedly creating them. But it’s also, and maybe this is the healthiest part of it, about wanting to clear the path a bit, wanting to get the assholes out of the way so that I can have a really invigorating argument with people who, although they disagree with me, at least accept the premise that we’re arguing because we care.

--Daniel Oppenheimer, Writer and co-founder of Masculinity and its Discontents

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