from the pages of../


 

Hook Line and Stinker

 By David Peterson

Must I be listening always, and not pay them back?

Do not things like these rate the midnight oil of a Horace?

--Juvenal

 

"My name is Joe Klein, and I wrote Primary Colors."

With these words, the same "witless, ravenous pack" that "Anonymous," the erstwhile author of the aforementioned novel, had once complained about on the pages of the New York Times Book Review, descended on Joe Klein, Newsweek columnist, CBS News commentator, and the author of the aforementioned novel. Being himself one of the "well-known people" who "make cameo appearances" in a book that I confess to having been so bored by, I could barely bring myself to look at it, the author's disclaimer that "this is a work of fiction, and the usual rules apply. None of the other characters are real. None of these events ever happened," only heightened the readers' sense of its historicity. "[E]veryone I've spoken with who has seen the review copies of the book is stunned by how well it captures the players from that tumultuous race," New Republic senior editor Matthew Cooper wrote before the book was even off the presses. "This all rings so familiar, and is so close to the reality of 1992, that the veterans of the Clinton campaign are in a frenzy of phone calls and speculation to identify the author," the Guardian's U.S. bureau chief Martin Walker said in a gushing review. "[T]he crucial insight of 'Primary Colors' is that Bill Clinton was born to inspire fiction just as he was born to run...." A crucial insight indeed--and one about which readers of the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages, The American Spectator, and Tikkun's endless symposia on the meaning of the Politics of Meaning, can plainly attest.

What by mid-summer had attracted 1.2 million enthusiasts to the hardcover edition of the novel (minus at least one of them, he thanks his lucky stars) was captured best by former New York Daily News writer Jim Sleeper, who recognized that "Mr. Klein knew perfectly well that in writing 'Primary Colors' he was 'lying' not only by concealing his authorship but, more fatefully, by inventing facts, as any writer of a roman à clef does, in this case to reinforce truths about Mr. Clinton that he'd evoked in such well-grounded columns as 'The Politics of Promiscuity'," one of Klein's earlier articles, dating from May, 1994.

Thus the clef that unlocked this particular roman wasn't the journalist's need to "lie to protect a source," as Klein would say in his own defense. Neither was it an author's need to protect his publisher, Random House, nor his need to protect "the integrity of this project"--though the project did pay off spectacularly for the author, something it wouldn't have done, had Klein published under his own name. Instead it was Klein's willingness to don the mask of literature on behalf of a political agenda that he never could have executed while he wore the mask of a journalist. Klein "believed he was doing his duty by imputing to Mr. Clinton all sorts of emblematic tawdriness that he hadn't witnessed or 'sourced', but only imagined," Sleeper observed, with implications that reach beyond the fate that befell "Anonymous" once unmasked. "He lied to make sure that the novel would reinforce, not undermine, his journalistic commentary on Mr. Clinton--to make sure, in other words, that what was fiction in the hands of a novelist could not be characterized as propaganda in the hands of a pamphleteer." Which, of course, is what books such as Primary Colors (though not only PC) really are: propaganda become literature. And what accounts for their best-seller pedigree. When in doubt, plead art.

*** *** ***

An "embarrassing black eye for Klein and for Newsweek," the weekly's own writers derisively greeted the news of Klein's authorship. "As the issue was debated last week, for many it came down to whether a journalist can lie in one part of his life and be trusted in the other....And they criticized [editor Maynard] Parker and Newsweek for violating a tenet of journalism: never to print a falsehood knowingly."

Parker, you'll recall, was the one member of Newsweek's staff (besides Klein) who had prior knowledge of "Anonymous's" true identity; in fact, Parker had known about it from the beginning. Yet on the several occasions Newsweek touched the story of "Anonymous" during the first six-and-one-half months of this year, the magazine elided any mention of Klein's role in it, actual or potential. "I was caught between two commitments, two different ethical systems--book publishing and journalism," Klein averred of his "brush with anonymity." That he chose to observe the more lucrative of the two goes without saying. The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell suggested one solution to the dilemma: subdivide Joe Klein into "Klein1, the journalist, and Klein2, auteur." Soon enough, however, this unnecessary multiplication of Joe Kleins threatened to become unbearable; other, more palatable, solutions were called for. Sensing the danger, CBS News ushered its Joe Klein out the door at West 57th Street. And Newsweek sent its Joe Klein on an extended safari.

But of all the windbags that belched stale air over Joe Klein's deception, none matched the editorial voice of the New York Times. Nothing less than the "credibility of the American press" is at stake, the Times intoned--the "core values of serious journalism." The behavior of Klein and Parker "violates the fundamental contract between journalists, serious publications and their readers. If journalists lie or publications knowingly publish deceptively incomplete stories, then readers who become aware of the deception will ever after ask the most damaging of all questions. How do I know you are telling me the whole truth as best you can determine it this time?"

A good question, though why it should have taken readers this long to get around to raising it is anybody's guess. After all, "You cannot set yourself up as a seeker of truth and then behave as a purveyor of lies," Columbia Journalism Review editor Suzanne Braun Levine added, wholly oblivious to the comeuppance--since that's basically what the media routinely do (i.e., purvey lies that have the status of truth), what took the CJR so long to catch on? Far overhead, near the eagle's nest of criticism, where the really astute commentators gaze down from on high, the plaintive cry of Atlantic Monthly Washington editor James Fallows pierced the midnight air: "The institution of journalism is not doing its job. It is irresponsible with its power."

But the "institution of journalism" behaves badly pretty much all of the time, as Fallows himself concedes in Breaking the News (Pantheon Books, 1996), his study of the American media. Here we've reached the highest stage in the ideological self-understanding of the media: the stage at which the critic attributes systematic behavior to the perverse failure of an institution to live up to a purpose (i.e., cultivating civic engagement and substantive democracy) that happens to be dead opposite the actual purpose the institution fulfills by design (i.e., taking the risks out of democracy, to borrow Alex Carey's phrase). Were the engineering and construction of bridges to observe the same basic principle as the Fallowsian and CJR's models of media criticism, this country's bridge builders would have succeeded in dispatching all of us to our rocky graves years ago.

In the end, the unmasking of "Anonymous" raised a rather silly question: Whether somebody can lie in one part of his life and be trusted in the others? The answer, I'm afraid, is embarrassingly obvious: Both the journalist and the liar work in the same profession. Still, Klein's unmasking suggested a more intriguing question as well. Shouldn't a person whom we'd trust in the most important field of his life also be trusted in the others?

*** *** ***

In "A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies" (Lingua Franca, May/June, 1996), New York University physics professor Alan D. Sokal told us that he wrote his celebrated article for Social Text "so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof." Well, that may have been. But as everyone knows, Social Text went ahead and published it anyway, under the pedantic and seemingly deep title, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (Social Text, No. 46-47, Spring/Summer, 1996). So much for the stringency of the review process employed by this post-left-wing journal's editorial collective. The gatekeepers at the sempiternally right-wing Chicago Tribune should be so charitable towards me.

Troubled by what he sees as a "decline in the standards of rigor in certain precincts of the academic humanities," Sokal said he "decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies...publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?" The controversies surrounding Sokal's experiment are so well-known by now, I won't bother to repeat them here. About some of its conclusions, though, let me add a few words.

Sokal's experiment was not without its flaws. To the eternal detriment of the experiment's results, Sokal exposed the fact that he had committed a hoax far too early in the life of the experiment, less than a month after "Transgressing the Boundaries" first appeared in Social Text. This meant that most of the readers of his parody of poststructuralism would come upon it with prior knowledge that what they were reading was just that--a parody, a hoax, but not a serious undertaking, worth refuting. If Sokal had wanted to conduct a far richer experiment in the social sciences, clearly he would have allowed the hoax to percolate for a number of months before exposing it. (Say, over the course of the spring and summer of 1996.) That would have provided the ultimate test: Can the academic disciplines that characterize themselves variously as the sociology of science and cultural studies tell the difference between speculative gobbledygook and interdisciplinary investigations that are both meaningful and serious? In fact, that's how honest errors and authentic hoaxes (Sokal's having been at most a good prank--no one that eager to expose himself counts as a full-blown perpetrator of hoaxes) get mopped up by real science: over time, members of the scientific community spot them, debunk them, and then flush them away. According to the way Sokal constructed his own experiment, however, it was the editorial collective that runs Social Text, and only the editorial collective, that would be tested to see if its members could spot an article "liberally salted with nonsense" (Sokal's phrase from the Lingua Franca exposé). Thus it appears that Sokal's bad conscience, along with his respect for disciplinary standards that forbid scientists from perpetrating hoaxes of the larger type, are what precluded him from giving his experiment a more expansive construction. Which really was too bad, if you think about it. How often does somebody have the opportunity to conduct an experiment in the social sciences comparable in interest to the one that Sokal had within his reach, but let slip away? Now as it turned out, the results of his "little experiment" were merely desultory. But that's his reputation he would have been putting on the line. Not mine. So it's easy for me to say.

A second flaw resides in the conclusions that Sokal drew from the result of his experiment: that the "epistemic relativism" of the editors of Social Text and the rest of the poststructuralist crowd leads them to intellectual sloppiness and, worse, to the anti-scientific, irrational belief that there isn't a real world, that its properties are merely social constructions, and that facts and evidence don't matter. This conclusion strikes me as unwarranted. For a lot of reasons.

First and foremost, I simply can't believe that there is anybody out there who subscribes to such a theory. (Except maybe Hillary Clinton's latest confidant and New Age savant Jean Houston, whose résumé calls her an "internationally renown psychologist." But it turns out she never completed her dissertation in the philosophy of religion at Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary, and thus lacks the credentials to be a practicing "psychologist." Not to worry, though. "I consider myself a philosopher," Houston tactfully responds. Which explains everything. As it doubtless explains Bob Woodward's latest book, The Choice. Or Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village, a book about which Alexander Cockburn for one has written with such affection. When in doubt, plead philosophy.)

Now suppose that the editors at Social Text had rejected Sokal's manuscript. Rather than publishing his manuscript in their "Science Wars" issue, suppose they sent him a letter thanking him for having thought of Social Text, yet apologizing for the fact that his manuscript did not meet their editorial needs at the present time. On the basis of this result, would Sokal have been willing to conclude that the inverse of every conclusion he has subsequently drawn from the results of his "little experiment" is true? Namely, would a rejection of his manuscript by the editors at Social Text have proven to Sokal that at heart, poststructuralists are just a bunch of hardscrabble metaphysical realists--devout believers that there is a real world, that its properties are not merely social constructions, and that facts and evidence do matter?

No. Of course not. The editors' rejection of Sokal's manuscript wouldn't have established anything of the kind. Which leads me to an important point: The fact that Social Text published Sokal's manuscript doesn't prove what he and so many of the writers who have applauded his prank--ranging from a lot of respectable folk on the Left to the jingoistic Right--think that it does. That's because it requires a monumentally huge leap for them to go from the success that Sokal enjoyed in pulling off his particular prank to the sweeping conclusion that the editors at Social Text and the rest of the poststructuralist crowd are (Can I say?) epistemically challenged. What happened instead was quite straightforward: The editors took Sokal at his word. That is, they know that Sokal is neither Joe Klein, Ted Koppel, nor Cokie and Steve Roberts--journalists running around the country with their hands out, in other words. Much less is he Newsweek's Maynard Parker or one of the editorial writers for the New York Times. In short, Sokal has credibility. Plus, he's a physicist. Understandably, then, the editors at Social Text assumed (since they had no reason not to) that when Sokal submitted his manuscript to them in late 1994, he was dealing honestly with them, and telling them the truth about his intentions. Quite unlike the skeptical rule that applies to Joe Klein and the rest of his colleagues in the media, any New York University professor whom we'd trust to deal honestly with us as a physicist, we quite naturally should trust to deal honestly with us as a novice poststructuralist.

Furthermore, when Sokal asserts now that "My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre," he's not being entirely up front with us, either. "Transgressing the Boundaries" happens to be an outlier--an extremely self-conscious parody of the genre, even a burlesque of it, but not your run-of-the-mill sample. Reading Sokal's concatenation of quotes and endnotes, I couldn't help but be reminded of Adorno's sardonic line about Heidegger: "He lays around himself the taboo that any understanding of him would simultaneously be falsification." Of course, what this sense of bewilderment says about the rest of the poststructuralist crowd isn't very flattering. But about Sokal, it tells us he must have worked hard to sound the part of the Competent Physicist Turned Po-Mo Devotee.

As the only extant Alan Sokal-Does-Po-Mo that is known to exist (I mean how many examples of Competent Physicist-Does-Po-Mo do you suppose there are in circulation?), a comparison between Sokal's parody and forgeries within the artworld is not completely out of the picture. When the artworld first found itself confronted with a trickle of Hans van Meegeren's forgeries of paintings by Vermeer, many experts were fooled, and mistook the forgeries for original works by Vermeer. "Presented with a single unfamiliar picture at a time, the expert had to decide whether it was enough like known Vermeers to be by the same artist," Nelson Goodman explains. "At every time a Van Meegeren was added to the corpus of pictures accepted as Vermeers, the criteria for acceptance were modified thereby; and the mistaking of further Van Meegerens became inevitable. Now, however, not only have the Van Meegerens been subtracted from the precedent-class for Vermeer, but also a precedent-class for Van Meegeren has been established. With these two precedent-classes before us, the characteristic differences become so conspicuous that telling other Van Meegerens from Vermeers offers little difficulty." (Languages of Art, Hackett Publishing Co., 1976, p. 111.)

What made "Transgressing the Boundaries" a case of intellectual gibberish were the errors of fact and reasoning strung together by Alan Sokal. (As the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg noted about Sokal's exercise, even more revealing than his intentional errors was the "variety of physics and mathematics bloopers in remarks by others that Sokal slyly quotes with mock approval." So it would seem there's plenty of culpability to go around.) And what made "Transgressing the Boundaries" a successful parody was nothing more than what makes all parodies successful--its exaggeration of the radical gestures, exotic diction, and tendency to lay on really thick and heavy the signs of one's own cleverness that are signatures of the most famous writers in the poststructuralist genre. But what made "Transgressing the Boundaries" a successful prank was Sokal's ability to pretend that he was a competent physicist trying his untutored hand at a piece of poststructural scholarship that included grandiose claims about the practical significance of research in areas of physics and mathematics that have a tendency to make people's eyes glaze over when hearing about them. Social Text's editorial collective need not be a bunch of "epistemic relativists" in the strong sense that Sokal suggests for its members to have been gulled by his prank. Maybe the Social Text crowd really is filled with a bunch of "epistemic relativists" (etc.). And maybe Sokal is perfectly justified in castigating their intellectual standards, not to mention their bona fides as leftists. (More about which anon.) But that's not what the success of his prank establishes. Not for a second. Whatever may or may not be true of the sociology of science and cultural studies, Sokal's experiment sheds little light on them. If any.

*** *** ***

It has been an interesting experiment in its own right to observe the diverse ways that diverse people have embraced the Sokal prank, and why.

The New Criterion's managing editor Roger Kimball leapt upon it like a hungry tiger leaps upon red meat--instinctively, that is, savaging not only the cultural studies crowd, but everything else that smacks of the Left in general. Tipped off about the prank by one of Sokal's collaborators before Sokal's own revelation appeared in Lingua Franca, Kimball agreed to hold his tongue until Sokal had the first word. Nevertheless, Kimball was able to contribute an essay to the May issue of The New Criterion that discussed the context of the prank without letting on. Kimball's essay is worth taking a look at.

Discussing "'Diversity', 'culture studies' & other mistakes," Kimball concedes that "ignorant pretentiousness is the least of the evils afflicting cultural studies." Much more threatening (from Kimball's point of view, anyway) is the politics of cultural studies, "which at many institutions has transformed the teaching of the humanities into a kind of intellectual freak show."

Revisiting some of the old haunts that he first visited in his Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (Harper & Row, 1990), Kimball writes:

 

One thing that almost all colleges and universities these days are trumpeting is a species of extreme relativism that goes under the name of cultural studies. The adjective 'cultural' makes it sound harmless enough; but in fact cultural studies encompass activities and doctrines that are far from harmless. Despite its name, cultural studies is fundamentally an attack on everything that was traditionally meant by culture. Its primary motive is not knowledge but politics, specifically the radical, anti-Western cultural politics that is fired by feminism, multiculturalism, Afrocentrism, deconstruction, post-colonial theory, queer theory, and all the other unlovely allotropes of post-Marxist leftism that deface American colleges and universities like so much intellectual litter. The story of the rise of cultural studies--and make no mistake, it is on the rise everywhere in the academy--is a sorry tale composed partly of misguided political activism, partly of arrogant intellectual chicanery, and partly of pusillanimity among those who know better but are afraid to speak up. As usual, the biggest losers are students, who instead of receiving an education are treated to an expensive and corrupting form of ideological indoctrination. In the end, cultural studies is an intellectual coefficient of the spurious demands for 'affirmative action' and diversity (p. 5, cols. 1-2).

That last sentence was no afterthought: their politics, not their epistemology or fuzzy intellectual standards, is the core of the academic Right's conflict with the academic Left. The same man who spies a diabolical correlation between cultural studies, on the one hand, and the "spurious demands for 'affirmative action' and diversity," on the other, had opened his essay with an attack on Columbia University's student activists who in early April (this is Kimball's version of it, anyway) "took part in various protest activities" on behalf of "establishing an 'ethnic studies' department." Here we discover what Kimball regards as the greatest of the "evils afflicting cultural studies"--and he pulls off his gloves, ready to do battle against it. "The irony, of course," Kimball writes, with a more earnest sarcasm that Alan Sokal ever manages, "is that many of the students who agitate against the 'Eurocentric' curriculum at Columbia and elsewhere are only present at the university in the first place because of the discriminatory practice of what is euphemistically called 'affirmative action', a.k.a. preferential treatment. But once admitted, it turns out that what many such students want is not an education but ideological training designed to confirm their coveted status as 'victims'" (p. 4, cols. 1-2).

Now anybody who knows anything at all about The New Criterion gang knows that what really ticks off its members isn't the "epistemic relativism" of the poststructuralists. Rather, what wins the Right's condemnation is an amalgam made up of fragments of the poststructuralists' rhetoric of liberation, mixed together with some very large chunks of the changes for the better that have been occurring in campus life over the past three or four decades--both the gradual "browning" and "feminization" of the university in particular. (By the way, as to whether the cultural studies crowd really is as progressive and leftist as its members like to imagine, or whether it's mostly a pose, like children playing Batman and Robbin, or Thelma and Louise, my short answer is: Get real. And check Tom Frank, "Textual reckoning," In These Times, May 27.)

Although a large variety of people embraced the Sokal prank, it's always worth understanding why they embraced it. Remember: In the Right's parlance, liberty, equality, and fraternity, peace and love, the liberal welfare state, multiculturalism, diversity, pluralism, and tolerance, civil rights, amendments XIII, XIV, and XV to the U.S. Constitution, affirmative action, government regulations on corporate capital and the workplace, the sense of social solidarity, the need for a living wage, for free speech, progressive tax systems, separation of church and state, environmental awareness, national health care, public housing, Social Security, nuclear disarmament, demilitarization, gun control, and anything else you'd care to add to the list--all these evils belong to the same lineage as the "species of extreme relativism that goes under the name of cultural studies" (to quote Kimball again).

The New Criterion gang is not the kind of allies we want on our side.

Oh, what a dangerous web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!

 

David Peterson is a writer in the Chicago area.