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Deserted by Hillary, How to Click with Radicals...

Daniel Seligman

Originally from Fortune


Here is a question needing to be pondered by the people: Could Chico Marx get away with it today? By "it" one alludes of course to the ethnic insensitivity implicit in the coarse subliterate persona and the klutzy Italianate accent wherein approval gets rendered as "Datsa nice!" and Harpo's mysterious muteness is explained by "He no-a speak." Could Chico, if magically resurrected, do the act today? Somehow one doubts it, and one has a larger stake in the question than you possibly realize.

Your servant has been thinking a lot about Chico ever since zeroing in on the Social Text hoax. Social Text is a now deeply depressed radical journal of cultural studies, published by Duke University Press and evidently run by 29 editors, or at least that is the number listed alphabetically in the "editorial collective" you run into at the top of their masthead, a designation heavily hinting that it was only a question of time before they got into deep dung. Endlessly preoccupying the collective is the injustice of present race-class-gender arrangements here on our planet, and the attendant need for dizzying articles demanding postmodern, deconstructionist, and multicultural revolution while flirting dangerously with total incoherence. When you tap into the Social Text World Wide Web site, you see a button called links. Click on this button, and you see a list of the editors' radical buddies, ranging from EcoNet to the Little Red Web Page. Click on Little Red, and the menu offers, inter alia, Marxist, anarchist, Zapatist, and Noam Chomsky Web pages. Click on Marxism, and you get nothing about Chico but are enabled to download the lyrics to "The Internationale" while also noting that as of June 5, 11,859 folks had logged on since February 5.

The current angst at Social Text reflects the contribution of Alan Sokal, a New York University physics professor who had the inspired idea of submitting a nonsensical essay to the journal. Entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," it gravely calls for a "liberatory postmodern science," in which the people are no longer tyrannized by the idea of an objective reality, also for an "emancipatory mathematics." You gotta love it. This article got 35 pages in the spring-summer issue, exactly 17.5 times one's own page budget, and no sooner was it published than Sokal turned up in the academic magazine Lingua Franca to gloatingly announce that his contribution was "self-indulgent nonsense." The parody was written, he said, to directly demonstrate the debased intellectual standards of academic subcultures producing journals like Social Text.

Unastoundingly, this all came as a hammer blow to the collective. One of its members, cited in an "editorial response" downloadable on the Web, was said to have been clinging wishfully to the view that the article might not be a parody at all but a genuine contribution to postmodern thought, and that its author felt obliged to renounce it, presumably because the ruling class would persecute him or something. Other members of the collective contented themselves with reviling Sokal for dirty tricks. They reminded one of the Daily Worker's editors in 1950.

Here this item suddenly turns autobiographical. Back at mid-century, your then-callow correspondent was striving to establish a career as a professional redbaiter. Looking for baitable material, he read every day's issue of the Daily Worker, official organ of the U.S. Communist Party. He soon noticed that an extraordinary amount of nuttiness was generated by the paper's coverage of what it termed "white chauvinism."

The format was always the same. Over and over again, a reporter would write something perfectly innocuous, would then be told he had unconsciously engaged in chauvinism, and would apologize abjectly. Once it was for calling a Chinese athlete intelligent--the implication being, as noted in the apologia, that there was something remarkable about smart Chinese. Another time the apology was for calling boxing immortal Sugar Ray Robinson by that name, somebody having decided that the "Sugar" was chauvinist.

Finally, there came a time when the Daily Worker movie critic wrote a highly favorable review of a biography of the Marx Brothers. The review was soon enough berated in a letter to the editor, signed "Jos. Antonelli," for the "slanderous caricature" of Italians by Chico Marx. This led to the usual self-abasement by the movie critic: "The review was a brief one...but that does not excuse its failure to mention the chauvinistic stereotype used by Chico Marx." Guess who really wrote the letter to the editor.

Actually, the people of America did not have to guess, as your servant instantly and gleefully wrote all about it in the New Leader. This triggered one's all-time favorite Daily Worker headline: HE MADE LIKE A COMMUNIST TO PRETEND HE WAS DECENT. Later one prevailed on Newsweek's press writer to further highlight the hoax. What fun.

And yet...and yet one cannot shake off a sense that half a century later, the world view driving Daily Worker looniness increasingly prevails in the culture. Chico's act would not fly today. Comics using dialect stuff are now judged candidates for sensitivity training.

Can emancipatory math be far behind?

Also of Interest for "Deserted by Hillary, How to Click with Radicals..." by Daniel Seligman:
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Last Modified: 24 November, 1997