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Mar 15, 2005 12:33 pm

Open Thread ...

We've never done this before at Cliopatria, but I'm opening this post for additional discussion. Let's keep it civil.

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Ralph E. Luker - 3/17/2005

Mr. Casey, I've replied to your "analysis" of KC Johnson's post elsewhere on these discussion boards. I stand by the last comment that you cite by me because Berube and his spear-carriers had thrown all ethical considerations to the wind in order to prevail rhetorically. What Professor Johnson had pointed out in the eight paragraphs you don't like is that Berube has done this in the past. What is your own need to resurrect an attack on Professor Johnson that even Berube has been willing, now, to call "over"? The closest I can get to it is that there's a Brooklyn connection. Maybe you are allied with some of the people who sought to destroy KC Johnson's career. I don't know. I do know that you seem to enjoy resurrecting an argument that its principals have abandoned. Uncharitable of you, in the least, I would say.

Leo Edward Casey - 3/17/2005

As a sometimes reader of Cliopatria, and as an admirer of it and of Ralph Luker's contributions to it, I have to admit that I am disappointed by his comments here.

Civility in political discourse is a two way street.

When Berube objected to the way his essay was construed, KC Johnson responded with eight paragraphs of ad hominems and a ninth paragraph of an apology dripping in enough sarcasm to fill a small river.

I am not defending the use of the terms 'lie' and 'liar.' But by singling them out of context, you excuse discourse at least as offensive.

And, this my friend, does you no credit:
<< The contempt of both you and Michael Berube for anything you think smacks of "conservative" allows you and him to make unjustified accusations against honorable people and have no shame about doing it. Get a grip! Where's your integrity? Or is it _merely_ at the service of your ideology? >>

Ralph E. Luker - 3/16/2005

Just a minor point, Mr. Menard. I do not speak for the Cliopatriarchs, so there is no attitude "of the Cliopatriarchs" toward Mr. Horowitz. We are rather determinedly diverse. I imagine that many of my colleagues share my doubts about his work -- some emphatically more than I do, some less so, and maybe even some sympathetic to him. They'd have to speak for themselves.

pierre menard - 3/16/2005

"But if the interpretation can go either way, the benefit of the doubt should be given."

Not always. For example, Clipatriarchs seem to be (justifiably) reluctant to give the benefit of the doubt to David Horowitz, given his past record.

Similarly, Berube did not initially call Johnson a liar, but only refused the benefit of the doubt when KC Johnson began to devote extensive space to quoting critical comments made by others about Berube, past emails Berube has written, etc - all of them not terribly related to Berube's charge that Johnson misrepresented his essay.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/16/2005

I should also note that in between the Monday night exchange and the Tuesday morning post here at Cliopatria, Ralph Luker had extended an olive branch in his post, as well, writing that "wven if you disagree with KC's reading of Berube's essay, Tim Burke's point -- that Erin O'Connor had read the essay in a similar way -- is worth making. While not agreeing with it, he acknowledges that people of good will can read a piece differently. Once Berube tells us that it's not how it was intended, I'd say we need to take his word for it."

That, too, struck me as a welcome effort to bring "Round Two" to a speedy conclusion, and it demonstrated Ralph's willingness to take Berube's explanation of his paragraph on good faith. If Berube's "L-word" only came after KC's second post, so too Ralph only became upset after the "L-word." There was a window of opportunity where all parties seemed to have come to an amicable agreement, and my intention in writing this chronology is just to remind us all what that window of opportunity looked like.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/16/2005

Adam, my response to you might have sounded pretentious, so let me ask for a covering apology for pretentiousness for this entire thread.

I hereby declare this thread suffused with supervenient grace. Let the reconciliation begin. (Remember, that last line is covered under my general apology for pretentiousness.)

Seriously, folks, although I joke, I seriously hope we can make amends.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/16/2005

Honorifics never hurt, Adam, especially when our respect for the parties in this debate might have been thrown into doubt by our previous comments. I probably should have broken protocol to use "Prof." throughout too.

I appreciate your signing on to this chronology, and I hope everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt for pointing out that there it was understandable for tempers to have flared on both sides.

Sharon Howard - 3/16/2005

But if the interpretation can go either way, the benefit of the doubt should be given. You would need extremely strong evidence to justify it.

Berube lost his temper, and it was not a pleasant sight. He's not the first around here lately. It doesn't mean he should be pilloried. But it can't be let go without criticism either.

Adam Kotsko - 3/16/2005

That chronology matches with my understanding. My own post on this topic at The Weblog was a (probably unnecessary) response to what I saw as Prof. Johnson's completely unnecessary re-opening of a debate that seemed to have been closed the night before. I've never been clear on what his motivation was for doing so. I suppose one possibility is that Prof. Johnson reviewed the Erin O'Connor exchange and felt that Prof. Berube's characterization of it was inaccurate or self-serving, thus prompting him to distrust Prof. Berube and to "stick to his guns" lest he be taken in by an after-the-fact rationalization that resulted solely from being called out (such an interpretation would be especially tempting given that Prof. Berube had previously accused him of being lazy while publishing in forums where he didn't expect to get called out).

It may still be possible for this discussion to just go away, but had it ended that night when it was "apologies all around," it would have ended much more amicably, that is, before Prof. Johnson's "Erin O'Connor post."

(For the record, I don't know why I've broken blogging protocol throughout this conversation to refer to both opponents as Prof. X.)

Caleb McDaniel - 3/16/2005

I agree with Ralph and Sharon that "lying" is not the right word to characterize KC's reading of the Chronicle piece.

I think it is worth remembering, though, that (1) Professor Berube did apologize for that word elsewhere on this open thread, and the least we can do in conversations like these is give apologies the benefit of the doubt, and that (2) Professor Berube had also ratcheted down his criticisms of KC prior to using the L-word, demonstrating that his conduct in this conversation has not been one unbroken tapestry of invective.

There has been invective on all sides of this discussion, including my own. I deeply regret this. I also regret how quickly this conversation among reasonable and fair-minded people became about side-taking. Early on I found myself on Berube's side, and because of this I lost sight of the other side's point of view, something which I earnestly try never to do. Some of my comments, both here and at Berube's blog, were expressed in an unkind spirit, and for this I have apologized and do apologize to the parties involved.

I do think chronology matters in understanding how this conversation developed into an open conflict, even after it seemed like the conversation was resolving itself in a fairly peaceable way. As historians, we should know that reconstructing a series of events and trying to explain why and when something happened is not the same as excusing it. I also think getting the series of events right can help us get up out of the trenches and look at the field from a different perspective. Truth and reconciliation go together. Or such is my hope.

To that end, I think it is important to remember that on Monday night (was it only that long ago?), after Timothy Burke intervened in the comments on KC's first post, KC generously said that he believed Berube was and is "well-meaning." He also granted that he might have misread Berube's article, but added only that the author of a piece bears some responsibility for the reader's misunderstanding.

Fair enough. Berube responded by saying that KC's charitable comment called for charity in return. He even addressed the Erin O'Connor exchange, which Tim Burke had brought up, and said that he had overreacted at the time and had apologized. He gave his own narrative of why he had been upset to find KC's paragraph, but he also retracted his jab that KC was not a "thoughtful" conservative. (On his own blog, as well, he crossed out this jab and added a postscript calling KC's comment "generous" and declaring that the exchange between him, Burke, and KC had brought matters sufficiently to a close.) At that time it was my fond hope that "Round Two" had come to an end, with both sides more or less agreeing to disagree.

On Tuesday morning, though, after this exchange about Erin O'Connor had already taken place the night before, KC posted a lengthy excerpt from an email Berube had written to O'Connor. He also said that he would wear Berube's "slams" with pride, even though (it seemed to me, and probably to Berube to) the night before had witnessed a halting move from body blows to a rapprochement. It was only after KC's second post that Berube's frustration took the form of the infamous "L-word."

To reiterate, I don't offer this historical reconstruction in an attempt to excuse. To prove that, let me also say that there were moments when KC ratcheted down his own comments. For example, in a comment on his second post, he said he was willing to see this is a simple disagreement over the article and leave it at that. Had I not been taking sides, I could have seized on that half-apology with the same gusto with which I seized on Berube's half-apologies. But by that point, I had shamelessly huffed off the comment thread, for which I myself apologize.

I'm not sure this has helped. If it leads to another round of finger-pointing, I will have utterly failed in my mission.

My hope in writing a history was to put us all in familiar territory, in the hopes that we would look around, recognize each other as friends, and see that we all get along right well most of the time.

Writing this history has let me relax my guard a little bit; hopefully it will do the same for others. I have no illusions, of course, that history is objective, or that my reading of events will not strike someone as tendentious. I can only beg your patience as a reader, express my sincere wish for an end to this conflict, and declare, finally, that I should get back to my dissertation.

pierre menard - 3/16/2005

Sorry about mischaracterizing your previous comments.

Anyway, to get back to my original point, its one thing to argue Berube's evidence is wrong, as I think you are doing now; quite another to get outraged at Berube for the mere fact of accusing KC Johnson of lying.

For what its worth, I agree with you on the issues: I think KC Johnson's claim - that Berube advised teachers to treat conservatives as if they have disabilities - substantially misrepresented Berube's point, but I am not sure this misrepresentation was deliberate. Either way, though, Berube was making a legitimate claim supported by evidence strong enough to be interpreted either way.

Michael B?rub - 3/16/2005

Um, just a simple clarification. The reason that Stalinists appear in the final paragraph of the essay is that the immediately preceding paragraph (that is, the penultimate paragraph) concludes with a sentence that includes a hypothetical headline, "Conservative Student Punished by Stalinist Campus Orthodoxy." Thus, when the final paragraph opens with "Over twenty years I’ve had many conservatives in my classes. I think I’ve even had a few Stalinists, too," I am invoking an antecedent that really isn't very hard to find (if you read the whole essay, or just the final two paragraphs), and the second sentence is-- though I do not expect everyone to get this-- tongue in cheek (since there really are very, very few Stalinist students out there).

Sharon Howard - 3/16/2005

This word 'liar' is thrown about a lot these days. I do not think it means what some people seem to think it means. One can be mistaken and honest. (Equally, one can be dishonest and correct.) To lie one must know the 'truth' and deliberately state something else. Lying requires intent. Berube thinks he has evidence in KC's statements of that intent. (And so do some others.) I disagree.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/16/2005

Good point, Anthony. Funny thing, tho. My last full-time teaching position was at Antioch, the nursery of red diaper babies and boot camp of the revolution, but I never met a Stalinist student.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/16/2005


Ralph E. Luker - 3/16/2005

No. Your last point is incorrect. I never made _any_ claim about what Timothy Burke might or might not think about anything. But I do recommend that you go over to Berube's blog and have a look at what Burke says there about Berube's essay. He makes a finer point than either KC or I have done.
Even so, doesn't it strike you as odd, somehow, that one would think to reference stalinists, conservatives and students with disabilities in the same paragraph? Why not monkeys, automobiles, and pears? A paragraph is supposed to be about a single something. Apart from a reading of Berube's essay, in the abstract, it's a little hard for me to imagine what that single subject might be.

pierre menard - 3/15/2005

" label those who have read it differently as liars is a sort of hegemonic move that we expect from a George Bush, a Karl Rove, a David Horowitz, or even worse."

Surely not. What if I read the examples in your last comment as saying all conservatives are liars, and then claim that I am not lying because I am only reading your comment differently? Certainly there are plausible and implausible readings.

Berube's point is that to read his essay as _advising_ professors to treat conservative students in a condescending/different manner - as suggested by KC Johnson in his essay - is not a plausible reading. Whatever meaning you might adduce to Berube discussing conservatives, Stalinists, and students with disabilities in - shudder - the same paragraph, Berube was quite emphatic that ALL students need to be accomodated equally.

And the other people you cite as concurring with KC Johnson- Erin O'Connor and Timothy Burke - are not actually on record agreeing as far as this point goes (I think).

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Berube's "evidence" amounts to his own reading of his own work. To read that work differently isn't a "lie." I now accept his reading of that work. But it isn't as if his reading is self-evidently obvious to all English-literate persons and to label those who have read it differently as liars is a sort of hegemonic move that we expect from a George Bush, a Karl Rove, a David Horowitz, or even worse. We don't expect it from an urbane professor of letters.
The anguish over all this continues to amaze me. It's inconceivable to me that I'd get as exercized as Berube has over a misreading of my own work. It is the writer's responsibility to make sure that his or her meaning is clear. It isn't primarily the readers' responsibility to figure out what the author means.

pierre menard - 3/15/2005


...and don't you think there are some occasions where
it is the only appropriate epithet?

Whether Berube was right or wrong to use it here is an entirely different question, and I understand that you must abide by HNN's rules that you may not entirely like. But your comments - correct if I'm wrong - show genuine anger at Berube's statement. And I simply don't see what is ethically or morally objectionable in Berube's calling KC a liar, given that Berube provided ample evidence in numerous comments/posts that readers are free to accept or reject.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Mr. Menard, This a ruling by History News Network, not by the Cliopatriarchs. Some of us think it's not such a good rule. Don't you think that it's a word that ought to be used rarely, if at all?

pierre menard - 3/15/2005

You guys at Cliopatria seem to be an extremely sensitive bunch. It is against the rules to call someone a liar? Geez.

So what _do_ you call someone who says what he knows to be untrue?

Alastair Mackay - 3/15/2005

Here is another link, this one to a discussion within Cliopatria, where Prof. Berube responds politely and cogently to criticisms. Contemperaneous with the explosions on the more-famous KC Johnson thread being discussed here.

Hopefully, per Dr. Luker, civility can lead to greater civility. And thus to useful discussions about disagreements, even strongly felt ones.

Adam Kotsko - 3/15/2005

We have each faced some very severe criticism as well as outright baseless slander (pedophilia, for instance). The stakes are somewhat different for The Weblog, of course, since we're just a bunch of kids hanging out in my basement playing Ping Pong, and you all are running an experiment in scholarly blogging.

I hope that Cliopatria recovers soon from the damage that has been done. Things tend to move quickly in the blogosphere, so there is a good chance that this will blow over in time. According to SiteMeter, you guys are still beating our traffic by a mile.

Adam Kotsko - 3/15/2005

I already posted a comment to this effect deep within the Matrix, but here are The Lost Comments.

Adam Kotsko - 3/15/2005

Mutual assured destruction works!

On another note, anyone who wants to read the comments to Prof. Johnson's latest post need look no further than here.

Perhaps ironically, we have a link from Michael Berube to thank for this.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Adam, So you want Berube to go ballistic on me, too. Jeez, maybe his ballistic self could clear the whole blogosphere with his pyrotechnics. What a wonderful world it would be!

Adam Kotsko - 3/15/2005

Is it inconceivable that he acts differently in a political dispute with his peers than he does with his students? What possible reason do you have to believe that he treats students in the same way that he does his peers? That would contradict his own testimony on the matter, which would assume that (a) he betrays the basic principles of teaching and that (b) he lies about it in a self-serving manner in national publications.

I'm glad that you are not saying that he betrays those basic principles or that he lies about it, because if you were, I'm sure that he would respond in a way that would reflect poorly on him.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

I've never blocked anyone's speech at Cliopatria and don't intend to begin doing so.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

First and foremost, Adam and Anthony, KC Johnson is not a liar. Beyond that, I have to tell you, that if I were a conservative student, I might choose to avoid a class with Berube. I'd rather not be the target of the invective that he's poured out here and at his blog. One way not to be such a target is not to get in his way. If our English professor had been clearer in that paragraph, he could reserve his fury for something more than self-defense.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/15/2005

Oh come on!

That's just silly.

KC Johnson did the enormous damage. Feel free to block me after that comment, but you are being simply wrong-headed.

David Silbey - 3/15/2005

[i]Michael Berube has done enormous damage to us at Cliopatria[/i]

Dr. Luker--

Could you expand a bit on what you think is the enormous damage Dr. Berube has done to Cliopatra?

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Michael Berube has done enormous damage to us at Cliopatria. I suppose you think it was justified. I don't. What purpose would be served by my coming over to The Weblog and in comments there and posts here conducting a vicious campaign of ad hominem remarks against you or Anthony Smith? That's what has happened here and Berube ought to be ashamed of his misconduct.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/15/2005

Dr. Luker,

Right, but you know what totally isn't vicious? Not just misreading something, but refusing to acknowledge that what you misread still isn't the same thing as advising professors to treat conservative students as if they had a mental handicap. You know what else isn't? Saying that he hopes that he's never a student that has an ideological disagreement with Berube. That's totally classy! Not at all vicicous.

Balance? Bull Sh**. Oh no, now you surely won't listen to me.

Adam Kotsko - 3/15/2005


Again, we seem to be forgetting context. Michael Bérubé's remark did not come out of the blue. They grow out of a particular history of a particular conversation. It is not a "vicious attack" to claim that someone who has made a hobbyhorse out of a misunderstanding of your remark -- a misunderstanding that, after a good-faith effort to correct it on the part of the author, has to be described as willful misunderstanding -- is a liar.

You seem to be putting a burden of proof on Prof. Bérubé that you are simply not applying to Prof. Johnson. If you feel as though you cannot publicly call Prof. Johnson out on his behavior (and I understand how that can be as the moderator of a group blog -- co-blogger relationships are complicated), then you should also refrain from publicly calling out Prof. Bérubé. Otherwise, you are effectively siding with Prof. Johnson in his continued "vicious attacks."

Adam Kotsko - 3/15/2005

can be found at The Weblog.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Anthony, When you've reached a point at which you're best reply is better than calling something "slop," I'll feel obliged to pay greater attention. The fact is that four reasonably intelligent people -- Mark Bauerlein, KC Johnson, Erin O'Connor, and I -- were inclined to read Berube's article that way. He objects to that way of reading it. I accept his corrective, but his ad hominem remarks here and on his blog are vicious and do him no credit.

Mark Grimsley - 3/15/2005

I agree completely that it's best to leave comments posted whenever possible. Blogs like this are, in part, on-going experiments in civil discourse. Sometimes things get out of hand, and then it's useful to be able to go back and see what happened as a way to avoid incivility in the future. I caught myself yesterday going beyond criticism of Ward Churchill's scholarship to make a demeaning comment about the man himself. I could have just deleted the earlier comment, but I thought it better to correct myself instead.

We are all bound to make mistakes from time to time. We need to maximize our ability to learn from them. In this case, "disappearing" a comment thread turned out to be a bad call, but it's led to this new exchange on our culture and procedures. That strikes me as constructive.

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/15/2005

OK really that is too far. It's very justified, the fact that you can't see it makes me wonder where your integrity is. It's sad to see you acting like this, Berube has contempt for all things that smacks of "conservativism"? Come on! Johnson completely misrepresented an article he wrote! The fact that he refuses to aknowledge that is pathethic at best, and suggests that he is not being honest at worst.

If I had a problem with all conservatives I wouldn't read any of the slop KC posts around here, and as it stands I'd rather deal with his bizarre ideas about campus ideological balance (which I think is, again, slop) than Horowitz. I'm honestly disapointed in both you and Johnson. That last paragraph says nothing about "advising profs to treat their conservative students as if they had a mental handicap."

You're going insane if you think that people shouldn't be pissed off about that. So, and I'm sorry to say this, don't you dare suggest that I'm at the service of some ideology when I'm pissed about this. Johnson has a serious problem here and you shouldn't be so blinded by friendship and "ideological alliance".

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Absolutely not, Anthony. The contempt of both you and Michael Berube for anything you think smacks of "conservative" allows you and him to make unjustified accusations against honorable people and have no shame about doing it. Get a grip! Where's your integrity? Or is it _merely_ at the service of your ideology?

Anthony Paul Smith - 3/15/2005

So what was he supposed to call him? I mean, if it quacks like a duck...

Sharon Howard - 3/15/2005

And I'll third that, as well as agreeing with Jason.

Timothy James Burke - 3/15/2005

We can talk about this amongst ourselves, but for public consumption, let me say that I agree with Caleb. The author of an individual item is free to allow or disallow comments at the outset, and to close a discussion if they feel it's become unprofitable, but I strongly object to removing comments already posted and published. I think that's a major violation of the spirit of a group weblog.

Jason Kuznicki - 3/15/2005

I was asked to make a similar decision recently on the infamous Hans-Hermann Hoppe thread at Liberty & Power. I left the comments open, and I would urge you to all to do the same.

If a comment really amounts to invective, then its author does no more than to hang himself with his own rope. If a comment cannot be substantiated, then it is up to the other commenters to point it out. I would only recommend deleting a comment or a thread if it became obscene, if it directly incited violence, or if it became clear over a sufficient period of time that the commenter aimed only at derailing discussions. Each of these is a judgment call, and especially the last one, which I think ought not to be done except in the most extreme of cases.

The best way to keep a discussion civil is to set a tone of civility in the blog posts themselves. That way, any comments that fall short of this standard will appear more clearly for what they are.

Michael B?rub - 3/15/2005

And I hereby apologize for pushing the envelope. I will not use that L-word. Better yet, I'll just stay off this thread altogether, having made my apology for running afoul of Cliopatria's standards and practices.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Good thought, Caleb. I'm checking to see if the comments can be restored.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/15/2005

Tim, As you may know, I don't have the technical access to close discussions at someone else's post. The decision to close comments at KC's post was KC's and he notified me of it only after closing the discussion. I pointed out earlier that the uses of the words "lie" and "liar" have been the occasion of obligatory deletions and corrections at HNN before -- so Berube had pushed the envelop. But, again, I did not cut off the thread. Unfortunately, closing comments does hide all discussion at that post. I urged KC not to do it, but the deed had already been done.

Caleb McDaniel - 3/15/2005

I'd like to respectfully submit a proposal for discussion:

I think Cliopatria's policy for turning comments on or off should be decided by the group as a whole and followed consistently for all of its members, since this is a group blog. If comments get nasty, most group blogs have a policy of deleting particular comments. But closing the thread entirely, and throwing the non-nasty comments out with the nasty ones, seems at variance with what a group blog stands for.

As I'm a relatively new Cliopatriarch, however, I'm more than willing to defer to the group if people feel differently.

Timothy James Burke - 3/15/2005

Ralph. I wrote a very careful reponse to KC's follow-up. Cut off the thread if you like, but don't remove the comments that people have already made.