In 1993, Terry Teachout penned a brutal review of Houston Baker’s then-most recent book. “The argument of Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy,” noted Teachout, “can be summed up briefly: (1) Black studies is an indispensable part of American higher education. (2) Rap is a creative and authentic expression of the urban black experience and should thus be taken seriously by academics, particularly those working in the field of black studies. (3) Anyone who disagrees with (1) or (2) is a racist.”
Baker’s views on rap? “They are, controlling for polysyllables, mostly indistinguishable from those of the average thirteen-year-old, and are in any case asserted rather than demonstrated.” The book itself, according to Teachout, was “a veritable omnium gatherum of latter-day academic clichés”—characterized by rampant errors (Baker misspelled the names of S. I. Hayakawa, Carol Iannone, Catharine MacKinnon, and Salman Rushdie) and preening (Baker: “I recently (February 1990) had the experience of crossing the Atlantic by night, followed by a metropolitan ride from Heathrow Airport to North Westminster Community School in order to teach Shakespeare’s Henry V to a class of GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) students. … To make an exciting pedagogical story brief, we took off—as a group. I showed them how Henry V was a rapper—a cold dissing, def con man, tougher-than-leather and smoother-than-ice, an artisan of words. … eight or nine of the students surrounded me after class seeking, as they put it, ‘scholarships’ to go back with me to America— ‘now, Sir!’”)
Scott McLemee has reviewed Baker’s most recent publication, Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era, which takes on a host of black intellectuals “through a mixture of critical analysis and personal insult — blended in portions of roughly one part to three, respectively.” That style wouldn’t surprise anyone who encountered Baker through the lacrosse case.
According to McLemee,
Baker assures readers that he, at least, is using the best tools available to the true black public intellectual. “I am,” Baker assures us, “a confident, certified, and practiced reader of textual argument, implicit textual values and implications, and the ever-varying significations of written words in their multiple contexts of reception.... I forgo ad hominem sensationalism, generalized condemnation, and scintillating innuendo where black neoconservatives and centrists are concerned. The following pages represent a rigorous, scholarly reading practice seasoned with wit.”
Baker, alas, seems to have been no more careful with facts in 2008 than he was in 1993. Writes McLemee,
Baker points out that in the 1940s, Irving Kristol, the founding father of that neoconservatism, abandoned the constricted world of left-wing politics “in search of a more expansive field of intellectual and associational commerce (one in which he would be ‘permitted’ to read Max Faber)....”
That parenthetical reference stopped me cold. I have a certain familiarity with the history of Kristol and his cohort, but somehow the role of Max Faber in their bildung had escaped my notice. Indeed, the name itself was totally unfamiliar. And having been informed that this book was “the product of “a rigorous, scholarly reading practice” — one “seasoned with wit,” mind you, and published by Columbia University Press — I felt quite embarrassed by this gap in my knowledge.
Off to the library, then, to unearth the works of Max Faber! But before I could get out the door, a little light bulb went off. Baker (who assures us that he is a capable judge of social-scientific discussions of African-American life) was actually referring to Max Weber.
It’s a good thing the author of this book is “a confident, certified, and practiced reader of textual argument, implicit textual values and implications, and the ever-varying significations of written words in their multiple contexts of reception.” Otherwise one would have to feel embarrassed for him, and for the press that published it. And not just for its copy editors, by any means.
So argued the man described by Vanderbilt University as “one of the most wide-ranging intellectuals in America.”