THE ANTITHESIS TO "BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE": Just got back from seeing the documentary Spellbound, which is ostensibly a video vignette of eight middle-school spellers who, despite their disparate personalities and backgrounds, all have a passion for words. But while the film is about a spelling bee, the real theme throughout the engrossing flick was the love of America. The movie could just has easily have been titled "The Greatness of America." One contestant, Angela, was a Mexican immigrant's daughter from Amarillo, Texas whose father worked on a farm milking cows. Her parents spoke Spanish at home, yet she became a champion-caliber speller. Another memorable character was Neil, a 12-year old 8th grader of Indian descent whose parents pushed him to excel in any activity -- be it basketball, karate or spelling. His parents pointed out he wasn't just one of those "geeky spellers, he was also a blackbelt in karate." His father said (paraphrasing): "That's what's unique and great about America. With hard work, you can go anywhere you want." For comic relief, there was Harry, the hyperactive kid from New Jersey who spoke a mile-a-minute and seemed an unlikely champion speller.
This movie should be touted as the conservative response to "Bowling for Columbine." Many of the kids came from disadvantaged backgrounds, but worked tremendously hard to succeed. Many of the families profiled were religious -- one father mentioned that a grandfather from India got 1,000 people to pray for his son's success. Another contestant was a church regular who told the camera he "believed in Jesus." No one was a victim, save perhaps for the hyperactive Harry who blamed the host for mispronouncing the word he lost on. The communities in which these children grew up were largely supportive -- nearly every middle school and many local establishments put up congratulatory signs for their hometown heroes. Even a "Hooters" joined in on the act, but managed to misspell the word "congradulations" in a fitting bit of irony. I felt myself rooting for all the kids, from the somewhat socially awkward, gun-lover from rural Pennsylvania (take that, Michael Moore) to the lower-class, black girl from the inner city who merely took a Metro ride to arrive at the national competition.
Community, family values, religion, strong work ethic, love of America: what more could a red meat conservative ask for in a movie?
Tuesday, June 24, 2003
THE POST RUNS A COVER STORY ON AU: Last Sunday, the Washington Post magazine ran a 5,800 word cover story about the state of American University's campus during the Iraqi war. The story's author, Peter Perl, an occasional writer for the paper's magazine, tries to weave a narrative together similar to a Michael Lewis, whose book "Moneyball" provides an outsider's look at a baseball success story of the Oakland A's by highlighting several key protagonists. Perl tries to highlight several conspicuous players on the AU campus: AU Republicans prez Bob Nardo, AU "anarchist" Andrew Willis, Prof. Said, the veteran peace and conflict resolution studies professor.
However, the difference between Perl's expose and a chapter out of "Moneyball" is that, despite their same literary technique, it becomes fairly obvious that Perl depends more on singular observations and unfair stereotypes. I don't know exactly how much time Perl spent on campus, but he clearly lacks the firsthand knowledge of being at AU full-time to really gain any significant insights. Let's look at some examples (or as old Channel 9 sportscaster and AU professor Warner Wolf would say: "Let's go to the videotape!")
Perl starts off by introducing one of the story's protagonists, a veteran Prof. Abdul Aziz Said who was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq. In the second graf, Perl writes:
Similarly, Abdul Said himself is a singular institution on this internationally diverse campus. The Syrian-born professor of international relations has been a fixture at AU for five decades, promoting social justice and peace, regardless of circumstances. More than 40 years ago, he championed the rights of a handful of Jewish students who were being blackballed by fraternities and he helped them found their own frat. "I believe I am the only Arab who has a Jewish fraternity scholarship named after him," Said says with a deep laugh.
For the record, I've been at AU for three years now and it wasn't until last year until I heard of this "singular institution." Perl makes him out to be like a Elie Weisel or Robert Reich, or some campus icon -- frankly, he's not. He's been at AU a long time, but Perl offers no evidence to put Prof. Said on such a pedestal. The fraternity story is interesting, but it hardly backs up the fluffy cliche that he has "promoted social justice and peace, regardess of circumstances." That's some loaded language. Does embracing social justice and peace, for example, mean supporting the Palestinian cause? Sadly, these words have become so politicized that when I read that I automatically assume that he's embraced a bunch of left-wing causes. Sadly, social justice isn't what it used to be.
And lo and behold, with the next paragraph, my hunch is proven.
More recently, with the Palestinian intifadas, the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11th terrorist attacks, Said stepped forward to lead campus teach-ins aimed at promoting a message of academic and personal understanding.
(No, not the suicide bombings, but the Palestinian intifadas. Okay, so I read on.)
So once Perl sets up Prof. Said as some icon on campus, it's hard to disagree with anything he does -- for example, kissing the American flag that a pro-war protestor is holding up. Perl writes:
Said went on to deliver a strong message against what he described as the Bush administration's failure of leadership, absence of vision and dangerous abdication of America's role as a moral standard-setter for the world. Acting preemptively and unilaterally would do lasting damage, he warned students. "In a military sense, our position is unlosable," he told the standing-room-only audience. "But in a political sense, our position is unwinnable."
Perl automatically assumes Prof. Said's message is strong even though he doesn't seem to offer any substantive pearls of wisdom, just the standard anti-war protestor cliche. I would think that freeing the Iraqis from a brutal dictator would further enhance America's role as a moral standard-setter, no? Instead, Perl just accepts this message and portrays him as the wizened clergyman of campus.
That's just the beginning. The article, while admirable in its coverage of all things AU (it managed to seemingly cover nearly all the war-related news on campus), it lacked the depth and first-hand knowledge of the players and people on campus. At first, I thought this piece was disappointing because it did its job well -- it was value-neutral. And that's what I found problematic, because it's so hard to approach a provocative issues with full objectivity. But when I re-read the piece, I felt it wasn't value-neutral. The conservatives on campus were portrayed as flag-huggers who just like to sing patriotic anthems all day. That doesn't accurately represent the conservatives on campus that I know. They are among the more articulate and well-reasoned people at AU. The reason the College Republicans have grown isn't because of some right-wing hysteria and jingoism on campus. It is due to the strong and intelligent leadership of a Bob Nardo who deserves a lot more sympathy than he gets in the article.
The baseball story that Moneyball narrates is the battle of ideas, and a small cadre of stat-geeks essentially manage to alter the dominant mind-set of the leaders and elite in the game. Maybe I'm biased, but I would've approached the AU war story in a similar vein. Frankly, the overwhelming power numerically of the left on campus is outdone by the reason and ideas of the conservatives and libertarians on campus. There's a palpable hatred and prejudice of anyone who espouses a non-liberal view on campus by a small but vocal group of lefties on campus. These leftists wanted to censor a conservative magazine and stormed into a College Republicans meeting because a member wrote an article that criticized the excesses of feminism. But in recent years, the college Republicans membership has skyrocketed and I think there is becoming a genuine contest in the battle of ideas. Yet Perl simply stereotyped the conservative as this:
"God Bless America! Land that I love . . ." Nardo and his companions sang. They then broke into "The Star-Spangled Banner." Outside other antiwar functions, a small but determined contingent of opponents chanted, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!," sang patriotic songs and "Onward Christian Soldiers," and shouted slogans aimed at Saddam Hussein -- and occasionally at the French.
While the lefties protested ridiculously, the coverage of their events -- such as the Said flag-kissing for peace -- were portrayed in a positive light. Frankly, Nardo comes across like a jingoistic, evangelical maniac -- not the occasionally crazy but genuinely intelligent Nardo I know. When Said talks about peace, Perl takes three paragraphs to make him a paragon of virtue. But when Nardo and his ideological cohorts want to take out a heinous dictator, they're crazy patriots. In an article loaded with adjectives, there's not one devoted to the evil, maniacal, (insert adjective here) Saddam Hussein.
I'm not going to comment on the whole story, but there's one point that is telling in the Left's intellectual dishonesty. History Professor Peter Kuznick, an unscholarly lefty professor if there ever was one, is profiled teaching his class about how former President Harry Truman's racism played a role in his dropping of the atom bomb in Japan. Here's the excerpt:
Reading aloud contemporaneous excerpts that included Truman's private letters to his wife, Bess, Kuznick portrayed a man who was stubborn, insecure and also racist, privately using derogatory terms for blacks and Asians. Most of Truman's top advisers opposed using the atom bomb, as American intelligence reports indicated Japan was about to surrender, Kuznick told his class of 35.
"A relatively decent, informed, intelligent human being chose to use the bomb -- despite the opposition of almost every top military leader. If he would choose the bomb, why should we believe that someone like George Bush would be more cautious or thoughtful in using these weapons?" he asked. "My argument is not condemnation of Harry Truman. My argument is that none of the presidents should have that kind of power."
Kuznick went on to outline the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review that he said officially "lowered the bar" on America's willingness to use weapons of mass destruction. He asked the students, "Do we have any trust that our president won't use nuclear weapons? Is George W. Bush a deeper thinker or more moral than Harry Truman?"
But Perl had to issue a clarification to this part of his article, writing: "An article in the Magazine paraphrases American University history professor Peter Kuznick as saying that most of President Harry S. Truman's top advisers opposed using the atom bomb on Japan. While most of Truman's military advisers opposed dropping the bomb, there is no historical record of his top civilian advisers counseling against it, according to Kuznick, who has written extensively about the bombing of Hiroshima."
I checked my valuable primary source reference, "Major Problems in American History since 1945," and the results were illuminating. Facts are a useful thing, you know? The Interim Committee, which Truman appointed to advise him on the atomic, unanimously recommended its usage. Secretary of War Stimson gave high praise to the project. Secretary of State Marshall was enamored with the potential effects of the bomb. In fact, Marshall dissuaded Truman from informing the Japanese before leveling the bomb on Hiroshima. A panel of U.S. science advisers also recommended dropping the bomb in June 1945. (Thank you, Prof. Griffith for both the valuable book and informative class -- one based on facts not politicized nonsense. And Griffith is definitely not a conservative.)
So is Kuznick a liar? Intentionally intellectually dishonest? It sounds like Kuznick is admitting that the historical record contradicts what he taught. Before the clarification was issued, I posed that question to Perl in his online chat, and his response was telling. Here's the exchange:
Same with Prof. Peter Kuznick, who attributes President Truman's dropping of the nuclear bomb to his racism, when it is obvious that the overall mindset in 1940s post WWII America was strongly anti-Japan and anti-German -- Truman was no anomaly of his time. And surely his views on race didn't dictate his dropping of the bomb; national security considerations did.
Do you have the same reaction as I do when reading those comments from tenured professors, who seem hopelessly "unscholarly?"
Peter Perl: You are certainly entitled to your opinion. I'm hard-pressed to define who's scholarly or unscholarly. Some teachers put a great deal of passion into their work. If you agree with them, they are great teachers and scholars. If you don't, they're unscholarly.
We'll see who has the last laugh. Perl apparently thinks any opinion -- with or without factual evidence -- is relevant, and any passionate teacher can be scholarly. It's merely a matter of opinion. Yet it was Perl who had to issue a retraction because he bought, hookline-and-sinker, Kuznick's ludicrous assertion that Truman dropped the bomb because he just hated the Japanese. (As I mention in the question, hardly any Americans had any love for the Japanese during WWII. I guess FDR is a evil monster because, you know, he put thousands of Japanese legal immigrants into internment camps.) And yet the neglect for facts and lack of useful information was what made what could have been an impressive piece into a lackluster one. It's basically a list of his observations meshed into a descriptive narrative. It has breadth but no depth. He shows no degree of skepticism when listening to, er, crazy hippies spouting their utopian, ridiculous worldview.
Which brings me back to "Moneyball." The great thing about the baseball narrative is the story's protagonists used facts and knowledge to back up their views. Billy Beane's A's essentially led the Information Revolution in baseball. While veteran scouts liked a player's swing, build, or 50-meter dash time, the smart ones used data and reason to back up their views. Yet Perl writes this piece like the over-the-hill scouts who evaluate on what they observe -- facts be damned. He interviews a bunch of people, captures a bunch of snapshots on campus but fails to see the big picture. Perl lacks any skepticism and fails to, essentially, acknowledge the naivete and abject stupidity of many of the protagonists he glorifies. Where's the probing question to Kuznick when he asserts that Truman was a flaming racist? Where's the questioning to Said about the positive effects the war brought? Heck, where's the challenge to Nardo to clarify his views on the war, to delve deeper into more than just silly slogans?
I guess I'll have to wait for that piece -- or maybe I'll write it myself.
Okay, I've taken a semi-hiatus from blogging, and have since returned from Europe, started a job and began looking for a place to live next year. The latter is still happening, but I'm ready to start opining and do more than just offer links and post the occasional column that I did in London. I have this nice new laptop that allows me to blog from the comfort of my bed, and there's quite a lot of stuff going on in the news that I have more than a passing interest in: postwar Iraq, the roadmap, affirmative action and race-based admissions policies, media bias, and the quality of academia. So here it goes: "All About Josh," season two.