Thursday, August 13, 2009

When Life Gives You A Sommers, Make Sommers-ade

Today, when I was in between sessions of my advanced oral history institute, I received an email from someone identifying herself as Christina Hoff Sommers' assistant, Kimberly Hudson. The e-mail pointed me to this story at the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Christina Hoff Sommers thought you might find this exchange interesting," it said.

Well first of all, I've got to say that what I actually find interesting is that, when I look at the address list, the Tenured Radical has ascended to the lofty bloggy ranks of Feministe, which is also on the list, as is Bitch Ph.D., and Ann Althouse. Either my status is rising ("Hello, Huffington Post! R U redy 2 sho me the luv?") or Sommers has the compulsive need to be in touch with everyone who has written anything critical about her, no matter how unimportant they are.

Whatever, you know? I'll go with the the first theory and take recognition where I can get it.

The Chronicle story, if you didn't bother to click the link, is that publication's attempt to get "both sides of the story" on the dispute between Sommers and Nancy K.D. Lemon about whether Lemon is a scholar or a left-wing, loose-with-the-facts, hijacking, so-called feminist who "stole" feminism from the right-wingers like Sommers who really know what to do with it.

I'm voting that Lemon is a great feminist scholar whose work has been repeatedly vetted by experts in her field, but do look at the evidence and see what you think. I wouldn't want to, you know, state that Lemon is a highly regarded legal scholar as if it was a true fact, and then have Sommers go around the country giving speeches about me. Although maybe I should rethink that, if it would make me more famous.....Anyway, to recap, for those who have joined us late: Sommers' claim against Lemon was the subject of this July 1 post by yours truly, and the attack follows a now familiar strategy (familiar, in fact, with some variations, since the McCarthy era):

1. I have found a so-called fact in your work that I dispute.
2. This fact calls the veracity of your work into question, regardless of your belief that it is true and your good faith effort to demonstrate that.
3. You either knowingly lied or you are stupid: your explanations and disputation of my criticism are worthless.
4. You are a fraud, and your work is not only without value, but absolutely wrong in all its particulars, a danger to your students and a danger to the United States of America.

In other words, lob as many accusations as possible, hope some of them hit, and obscure the whole point of what someone is writing about by insisting that something minor that is a reasonably disputable fact or interpretation makes that person into an egg-sucking liar.

Now if Sommers were still in the academy, this would be what we call uncollegial behavior. (Note how she has carefullly chosen disputable facts as the basis of her attack on Lemon, so that she cannot be sued for libeling Lemon, or slandering her in the many well-paid talks Sommers has given around the country where the faithful gather to hear the Word.) But because she is nobody's colleague, and is paid by the American Enterprise Institute to create diversions so that important social and economic issues are not addressed, we might just want to call it self-promoting.

Sommers' criticism of Lemon is that references to "the rule of Romulus' repeat the factual error that there was such a person as Romulus; and that there is no record of the "the rule of thumb" in English law. Read the exchange to get the gist of the argument about these two (not terribly important) citations in a very, very long legal textbook about domestic violence.

A third criticism is that one of Lemon's authors referred to a March of Dimes study about battered women that Sommers said in the last round doesn't exist. The study does exist and was funded by the March of Fucking Dimes, although Sommers still claims the current Director of Dimes knows nothing about it. But Sommers says the semantic difference of whether it is a March o' Dimes study, or a study funded by the March (and for all I know, the funder owns the research whether it remembers having funded it or not) is absolutely crucial to the credibility of Lemon's whole textbook.

And my question is: why? Why, even if these assertions are true, would it destroy the credibility of the whole book until and unless someone did much more research to show that there were systemic flaws of argument and fact throughout?

Sommers has restated her position in this second piece -- not answered Lemon, although Lemon has done her the courtesy of responding to the original critique. But I would like to ask Christina Hoff Sommers a question and have her really answer it:

What the hell do the the question of whether either Romulus or the rule of thumb are "real", have to do, today, with the critical fact under discussion: that men continue to rape, beat and kill women and children as if they owned them? Nancy Lemon is trying to do something to change that by working to get the legal system to respond to the idea that women have a right to health and safety -- what are you doing?


AndrewMc said...

This is what was done to Michael Bellesiles, and in much the same way.

Find someone with an agenda that runs counter to the author's, and nitpick the work to the point that you destroy hir career.

The right is very good at this.

Susan said...

What drives me nuts about Sommers is that she can take what is "true" -- the semi-mythical "rule of thumb", for instance -- and ignore its impact on women's lives. If we argue about the history of Rome in the 8th century BCE, we don't have to do anything about domestic violence today.

adamhenne said...

What I'd like to know is, why does The Chronicle keep giving Sommers not just a platform, but also the last word? Her response to Lemmon's cogent and respectful rebuttal is the lamest bit of non-argument I've seen outside of an undergrad debate, but side-by-side in The Chronicle they're made to seem equally serious. I don't expect a nutjob ideologue like Sommers to play by standards of academic fairness, but why else does The Chronicle publish debates if not to mediate those standards? Boo on them.

Lance said...

As they say in NYC on WFAN, first time/long time.

It does seem that those on the right do a better job, perhaps, of marketing their own position, getting it on the news, etc.

But the biggest issue is the one raised by TR: Summers is always focuses on diagnosis and not prescription, and more interested in policing feminism than in being a feminist, even by her own simplistic definitions.

Thanks, TR, for the end-of-summertime thirst-quencher!

For the record, she (CHS or TR) has never called me or emailed me. ;) I hope for the latter someday.

MT said...

Christina Hoff Sommers has an assistant?

Knitting Clio said...

Sommers gave a talk at our university about ten years ago (at the invitation of the local chapter of National Association of Scholars). When she started to make erroneous claims about the content of our courses, I gave her hell. Sounds like her "facts" are no better.

Janice said...

Obviously, for Sommers the historicity of Romulus is much more important than the history of legalized beatings of women.

And, heck, the whole Mosaic law tradition can just get thrown out the window since I don't see any real proof that Moses ever existed. If anytime a historical error is committed in a legal judgement, law code or statute text, do violators get a "get out of jail free card"?

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, how many times are you going to rehash this? Neither Lemmon nor Sommers has said anything new since the last time you did a post on this, and the comments were much the same as well. I would give my comments again, but what's the point?

Historiann said...

Thanks for the update. AndrewMc and MT already said what I was going to say, but I'll say them again: 1) your list of how-tos is exactly what was done to Michael Bellesiles. The underlying assumption throughout the Inquisition against him was that he was willfully lying, and that his scholarship was undertaken in bad faith, rather than that there were "disputable facts" at stake. I disagreed with Bellesiles' book, but I don't think he set out with evil in his heart to commit academic fraud.

And, 2) Sommers has an assistant? I know of only ONE legitimate historian with an academic appointment who has an assistant. Absolutely everyone but one I dealt with for the Berks last time around answered her own e-mail, including Drew Faust. (This was before her elevation to the Presidency of Harvard, but still.)

Love you, TR! Stay in touch!

AndrewMc said...

@Historiann: Catharine Clinton has a publicist, if not an outright assistant.

Historicann said...

AndrewMc--she didn't a few years ago when I corresponded with her about the Berks, but that was before the publication of her Mary Todd Lincoln book. Maybe now she has a fraction of a publicist's time.

mathprof said...

First of all there is a huge difference between a study conducted by the March of Dimes and one conducted by someone else with partial funding from the MOD. If I do some research it is not an NSF research study even though the NSF funds my research.

Second, Lemon was clearly in error regarding her "fact" that some large percent of ER visits by women are due to domestic violence. In fact it is some large percent of those women already at the ER for violence related injuries, a huge difference.

As someone with no horse in this race so to speak, having read Sommer's initial Chronicle article and then the "debate" on the Chronicle, it is clear that Lemon is a shoddy scholar uninterested in fixing her mistakes.

Tenured Radical said...


Your points are illuminating, although what the substance of the difference is between a MOD study and a study funded by the MOD -- in other words, the person who wrote this article (and btw, it wasn't Lemon -- the book is a collection) seems to think that data is good, and Sommers does not dispute the data directly. She asserts it is false because the ownership of the data was misrepresented by mistake. But that doesn't prove that the data is wrong (even if it is!)

Second, Lemon did fix some of the errors, but just because Sommers asserts something under dispute is an error, doesn't mean it is. Do the misreadings you have revealed in your comment make *you* a shoddy scholar? I think not. And Lemon is not a shoddy scholar either: there is a vast weight of evidence to argue that is not the case, and to assert this on the weight of a disagreement about an undocumented Roman king is idiotic. And by the way -- oral history tradition is not necessarily false or mythic. Sommers doesn't know crap-all about history and shouldn't claim she does.

And frankly -- Sommers' point is that Lemon is an ideologue. I don't agree, but let's pretend she is: isn't the pot calling the kettle black here?

JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, may I point out (as an MA in English from that distinguished institution of higher learning, the University of Mississippi, that the first sentence in your refutation of mathprof is woefully lacking grammatically, syntactically, and logically. If you are going to argue, please don't adopt Palinesque sentence structure.

Tenured Radical said...

That must be painful, JDB. Je le regrette beaucoup que j'etait plus foue ce matin quand j'ai escrite.

JackDanielsBlack said...

"Faire de la bonne cuisine demande un certain temps. Si on vous fait attendre, c'est pour mieux vous servir, et vous plaire."

from the 1940 menu of Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans.

I think this applies to writing as well as cooking. Julia Child would probably agree.

bernie said...

I read the Chronicle piece plus the string of comments. I think Christina Hoff Sommer's point is supported by the quality of the comments here and in many of the comments in the Chronicle. My reading is that Dr. Lemon simply had to acknowledge the two issues and correct the mis-statements. (Parentetically, if they were inconsequential why the fuss?) Her weak effort to defend her position on the Rule of Thumb - citing Plutarch as evidence of Romulus' existence - and her mis-reading of a simple statistical ratio certainly raises questions about her critical thinking skills.