Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Movement Against Scholarship

Anne Applebaum has written a fascinating review of the recent book by Nicholson Baker entitled Human Smoke. I have not read Baker's book; however, it seems that many reviewers and historians regard the work as a monument to moral and intellectual vacuity.

According to critics, Baker takes the anti-American moral relativism of the last 35 years and retroactively applies it to World War II. He implicitly argues that the Western Allies were in no way morally superior to the Third Reich and Imperial Japan and should never have taken up arms against them.

Applebaum fully agrees with these critics and shreds Baker's book accordingly. However, she also tries to put Human Smoke into a broader context, comparing Baker to Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown. She also cites Baker's recently expressed approval of Wikipedia. Though she doesn't use the term, Applebaum argues that Baker's book is yet another disturbing example of a phenomenon called counterknowledge:

Yes, Wikipedia is democratic; and yes, it treats all authors as equally worthy; and yes, it lets the self-tutored compete with the academics--and yes, it is deeply and profoundly anti-intellectual, as well as often wrong. Who needs a Ph.D., or even a college course? What is the use of studying for years in boring old libraries? So what if you have accumulated, through hard work, some real expertise? Who cares if you know a few languages? On Wikipedia it doesn't matter, since, as Baker explains approvingly, "everyone's identity was hidden behind a jokey username" in any case.

Baker did not adopt these views in a vacuum. Anyone who has ever spent any time surfing the blogosphere will recognize his perspective immediately. It is true that there are many excellent, well-educated bloggers, whose contributions to public debates are invaluable, and who have served to prod the establishment institutions of many professions to try harder. At the same time, there are also many bloggers who, without any knowledge or expertise whatsoever, believe their opinions must by definition surpass those found in the "mainstream media, " or the "conventional histories," simply because they are self-appointed "critics," whether right-wing, left-wing, or off the charts. The result of their efforts is that quality--accuracy, truthfulness, learnedness--is disappearing beneath the sheer quantity of random, wrong, and irrelevant information.

Until now, I had assumed, like everyone else, that the main victim of this new vogue for arrogant ignorance would ultimately be the "mainstream media" itself. Who needs The New York Times or The Washington Post if you can get your news from Google and your opinions from the latest, hottest, angriest blog? But Human Smoke might be a harbinger of what is to come in other spheres: Baker, after all, is the historians' equivalent of the smug bloggers who think that because the mainstream media is sometimes wrong, they are always right--and that if they can find a link to a "fact," that proves it is "true." If Baker can find a compelling anecdote, from Mein Kampf or The New York Times, that's good enough to make it a part of the historical record. Thus will "conventional" history eventually vanish.

Human Smoke, in other words, is not a conscientious pacifist tract. It is not a clever contribution to today's debate on warfare, and it does not add anything to what we know about World War II. It is a cheerful contribution to the movement against scholarship--a movement which has advanced so far, in fact, that I fully expect these observations, too, to be condemned as "elitism." As one who does contribute (it's pathetic, I know) to the mainstream media on a regular basis, I know that any author who expresses a sliver of doubt about the wisdom of amateurs risks bringing down a torrent of recrimination and insult upon his head. But if we have arrived at the point where a solemn and excited individual can cobble together anecdotes from old newspapers and Nazi diaries, and write them up in the completely contextless manner of blog posts, and suggest that he has composed a serious critique of America's decision to enter World War II, and then receive praise from respected reviewers in distinguished publications, then maybe it is time to say: Stop.


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