In previous posts, I have, with very jerky semaphore strokes, signaled my difficulties with scholarly or even spiritual work that aspires to be either “liberal” or “conservative.” Professors, I submit, should reevaluate their life choices if either designation is too readily (and accurately) applied to their research.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that being a “centrist” is Sole Proper Positionality for a Professor (though, quite frankly, we really could use a few more centrists here in Washington). It does mean that political rigidity can be the solvent of serious thought.
In any case, those scholars whose work is predictably liberal or conservative are missing out on the pleasure of not thinking politically. This entails the joy of not belonging to a team, a faction, a party, etc. A Philip Roth character, in a line that never ceases to amuse me, celebrated the virtues of belonging to a kibbutz made up of one person (“my kibbutz”). My sentiments precisely.
I mention all of this as a somewhat tangential and confused (see below) prelude to a few musings on strange bedfellows in academe. For, back on my kibbutz I just finished reading a truly remarkable book, Edward de Grazia’s Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius (Vintage, 1993).
Actually, I have never read anything quite like it. The author, a distinguished jurist and defender of free expression in the arts and literature, mixes serious scholarship and literary analysis with personal reminiscences from his days defending Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg. I can’t recall having read an 800-page book with such enthusiasm.
Anyway, one of de Grazia’s chapters reviews the peculiar coalition that developed in the mid-1980s between anti-porn feminists and right-wing fundamentalists. De Grazia scrutinizes the truly bewildering alliance in which university feminists such as Katharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin argued for policies that resembled those of conservatives like Attorney General Edwin Meese, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and assorted legal scholars.
I am intrigued by this case because, for years, I have tried to find a companion example to another unusual marriage. This would be the extremely odd coupling of postmodern Biblical scholars whose politics incline to the radical, even fringe, left and religiously conservative exegetes who are wont, for example, to consider homosexuality a sin. Each has launched a furious assault on “higher criticism”– that rationalist porn which eagerly undresses, exposes and defrocks the Holy Writ.
Put simply, both cohorts rejected the long-standing scholarly consensus that individual books of the Hebrew Bible had been written by a variety of “authors.” In fact, a guest-poster on this very blog a few months back made this sort of argument in a critique of the present writer and higher criticism (though I don’t think he had actually read my book on the subject).
As far as the now beleaguered higher critics are concerned, the true “authors” of biblical stories are scattered across Israelite time and space. Ergo, these critics deemed the Bible’s contention that a person named “Moses” or “Isaiah” or “Ezekiel” authored a given unit of text to be a pious fraud. With both religious conservatives and pomo leftists laying siege to this view, one wonders whether it will still be taught on college campuses in a quarter century.
So there you have it again: professors on the right and the left coalesce. But this is where I get a bit confused: if you agree with my statement above on the importance of scholarly nonconformity, I concede that there is a positive to be gleaned from all of this. After all, in both instances, we do see researchers finding common ground across ideological lines. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that I think all of these strange bedfellows were wrong.
I don’t see how we can possibly study the Hebrew Bible as scholars if we believe its own (and then religious orthodoxy’s) ascriptions of scriptural authorship. And, with de Grazia, I feel that nearly all forms of censorship result in great violence to a democratic polity.
I am curious to hear from readers if they can think of other instances of academic left-right alliances.
From now up until publication of my forthcoming book (and maybe beyond that), I will be on Twitter at @berlinerblau. I promise 140 characters of pulse-pounding profundity in every tweet, and I will never tweet about my dry cleaning or inadvertently share pictures of anatomical indiscretions.