Thursday, June 10, 2010

Today's Assigned Reading: Ayn Rand, Tony Judt and Dean Dad

I spent the first part of the morning absorbed in Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford: 2009). I always thought there were two kinds of people: those who were simply mad about Rand, and others (like me) who couldn't make it through the first fifty pages of her histrionic prose and cheesy philosophizing.

Wrong, wrong, wrong (as one usually is when, as on Facebook, there appear to be only two choices: "Like" and "Dislike.") There are also those who are neither Rand worshippers or Rand avoiders, but who are just smart, like Jennifer Burns. For all the books that have been published lately about the rise of conservatism in the post-World War II United States, I would have to say Goddess of the Market is the most unusual, in that it teases apart the different philosophical strands of conservatism and libertarianism, while also connecting them to political movements and figures that themselves deserve more attention: Wendell Willkie, for example. Burns also does a terrific job of knitting Rand's philosophy of individualism into a wider intellectual world that preceded the resurgence of conservatism as a governing philosophy in the 1960s. Another bonus is that I have always felt a little guilty for never reading Rand -- and now I can once again back-burner her, but all the better informed by Burns' account. It's a win-win.

In other reading news, check out Tony Judt's column in today's New York Times, "Israel Without Cliches." I've been following Judt's memoir pieces in the New York Review of Books, which should be mandatory reading for young historians, particularly since they detail the many complex and non-academic experiences Judt has brought to his life of scholarship. They are beautifully written; and they not-so-unsubtly illustrate what it means to be a cosmopolitan intellectual. Like many feminists, I sometimes begin to foam at the mouth at Judt's uninformed (but not unopinionated)) views on the place of women in the academy (prone -- see "Girls! Girls! Girls!" April 8 2010), and everything that modern American Studies is built around ( "Edge People", March 25 2010). In "Edge People," these two targets of condescension merge. if female graduate students are most notable as fodder for sex and marriage (which makes it all better), provided almost solely for the benefit of distinguished male faculty on the loose in middle age, we learn that "the shortcoming" of "para-academic programs" like "'gender studies,' 'women’s studies,' 'Asian-Pacific-American studies,' and dozens of others" (scare quotes around these fields are his)

is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves —thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.

What is it that Judt writes about again -- uh, whites? Europeans? Men? Talk about a job creation scheme that has really influenced the academy. Aren't you glad he wasn't your dean? Nevertheless, despite occasionally wanting to reach through the page and shake him for using his perch to say stupid and ill-informed things about fields -- and people -- he clearly knows nothing about, I am enjoying this series enormously. The New York Times piece,on the role of anti-Semitism in public discussions of Israel, displays Judt at his most lucid in dealing with a difficult problem that can have otherwise reasonable people screaming at each other in seconds.

In other writing news, Dean Dad elaborates on my post about voluntary retirement in academia here.

Crossposted at Cliopatria.


eric said...

I also don't agree with Judt's approach to American Studies, or his tone and general attitude to relations between female graduate students and male professors. Or his knee-jerk anti-New Left position in general.

Yet I think you're being a bit unfair to him when you say he studies "whites? Europeans? Men?"--this is all true, but his mid-career decision to study Eastern Europe (and learn Czech) rather than remain within the comfortable bubble of French history...this is not nothing. Europe includes a great deal more for him than for most European historians. That might not sound like much, but it shouldn't be glossed over.

Tenured Radical said...

I'm checking "like" on this with one proviso: Judt's categorical dismissiveness of entire fields as exercises in narcissism and affirmative action also overlooks exactly the point you make. Not only are these areas of study are actually necessary to understanding the United States and its place in a global system (as eastern Europe was critical to the development of "the West"); but that, to compete in today's critical race studies, many numerous Asian-descended people in Asian-American Studies have to learn one or more Asian language to do their work because they were born and raised to be English speakers.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

First you get all "financially prudent", and now you're giving us "reading assignments"?

Tenured Radical said...

!!!!!I KNOW!!!!!!WTF!!!!! xo, TR

Comrade PhysioProf said...

TE, you're totally out of control!!!111!!!!ELEBENRYTY!!11!!!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I mean, "TR"!!!111!!

Historiann said...

Which continent does Czechoslovokia/the Czech Republic belong to? I always thought it was Europe. Just because some folks think "Western Europe" is the only Europe there is is no reason to congratulate Judt for his amazing foresight or linguistic brilliance.

So, yeah: it's all white European men. But I would hardly accuse Judt of solipsism for that. Too bad he can't refrain from seeing crude identity politics everywhere else.