I've refrained from commenting on last year's Boston Globe story by Mark Oppenheimer about the PGR and about me, but it still occasionally generates e-mails to me seeking comment--especially since the new PGR came out. So I guess I should say a few things about it, perhaps as a warning to those who may encounter the dishonest and timorous Mr. Oppenheimer in the future. (What did Karl Kraus say: "No ideas and the ability to express them: that's a journalist!")
Mr. Oppenheimer seemed a pleasant enough fellow to chat with initially, though I soon got the impression he was not being particularly forthcoming and that there was something a bit sleazy about him. The final article was about at the level one expects from those who think that there has to be a pro- and con- in every story. The factual part of the story was fine--though it overstates, as is common, my "power"--and it conveys fairly well the constructive role the PGR has played.
A few observations:
1. When Mr. Oppenheimer first contacted me, I asked him directly what the story was about, and he said (this is a direct quote from an e-mail) "the rankings you do, which I understand are widely admired and taken very seriously." This was a lie--welcome to the land of "journalistic ethics"!--since it turned out he also was quite interested in attacking the rankings and, bizarrely, my blog. The former was no surprise, but I was astonished to discover that any attention was accorded the blog since Mr. Oppenheimer never once let on that he wanted to discuss my blog and never once asked me to respond to any of his comments on the blog! Amazing.
2. The final bit of Mr. Oppenheimer's article--besides misrepresenting my style of argument and leaving readers with the wholly false impression that choice epithets are directed at philosophers rather than bloggers, wingnuts and, of course, journalists--also reveals that he is wholly in the dark as to the norms of philosophy. He was obviously reaching to find something critical to say by way of summing up. (Why? See #4, below, for a possibility.) One may appreciate Mr. Oppenheimer's "method" by noting that one of the three offending phrases from my blog he singles out ("zombies") has been used exactly once in five years, while another--"demonstrably incompetent"--is actually misquoted: what I wrote--after a lengthy and detailed analysis of Carlin Romano's ignorance of philosophy and of the place of Rorty's work in it--is that Mr. Romano is "demonstrably (I have just demonstrated it!) incompetent." Perhaps solidarity with a fellow journalist inspired Mr. Oppenheimer's telling misrepresentation of the quote and the context?
3. So desperate for evidence that someone was mad about my blogging (other than obvious wingnuts and crazies), he dredged up an obscure insult by a conservative law blogger, Ann Althouse, which was quite plainly not (contrary to Mr. Oppenheimer's presentation) a response to my excoriating anyone, let alone her. What's more remarkable is Mr. Oppenheimer knew this, since I sent him the link (before he wrote the article) that started it all. But I guess he didn't want that to interfere with the fictional narrative. (Even Professor Althouse was astonished, I take it, to see an obscure comment posted on a blog dignified with newspaper coverage!)
4. Mr. Oppenheimer admitted, during our various exchanges, that he knows the editor of the journal that ran this earlier smear piece on me; the editor, like Mr. Oppenheimer, edits a literary magazine, is a New Haven resident and was a former grad school student at Yale and colleague of Mr. Oppenheimer's. That editor and I had had some sharp exchanges about defamatory comments in the earlier smear piece, comments which he subsequently removed (even lowlife journalists get nervous about defamation). Discovering that he and Mr. Oppenheimer knew each other, however, did make me skeptical about Mr. Oppenheimer's likely objectivity. (He did not reveal this conflict of interest to his own editor at The Boston Globe and, when the editor confronted him with it, he denied everything, of course.)
5. Mr. Oppenheimer did make one, I thought, astute observation: "If you look closely, his thrice-divided personality - scholar, surveyor, blogger - is unified in its argument: philosophy matters. (The reason to be harsh with Carlin Romano is because he gets Rorty wrong. And some idiots give Leo Strauss too much credit.)" Of course, I never called the Straussians 'idiots,' since that illuminates nothing about the character of that particular pseudo-scholarly cult. But his basic observation rings true, to me at least.
Herewith a few reactions to the piece e-mailed to me. From an academic in another field, with whom I've corresponded though never met:
I've come to expect snarkiness from such columns, but I thought his dig at the end was especially gratuitous.
From a well-known philosopher:
I thought he did pretty well, though it trailed off a bit at the end.
And from a non-academic reader of the blog:
He commits the reflex error of all journalists of straining to criticize that which is praised or virtuous, a primitive conception of egalitarianism. It succeeds in typing (pun intended) him as a man who would make Henry James flinch. At least, the article, until the point of intellectual collapse at the end, presented your accomplishments reasonably well although he clearly shies away from respecting the integrity of your method of debate. This reveals more about his timorous personality than about your style.
And from another philosopher:
It's a poorly written piece , and he doesn't mention that Althouse is a right winger, either.
And from yet another philosopher:
Considering the guy's academic background in religious studies, this came off rather well. But what was that silly twaddle about calling morons "morons." What else should they be called? And has he ever read Brad DeLong or PZ Myers or just about any other prominent blog? Since you stopped blogging about politics, you have become positively bland by comparison! Rather effete sensibilities this fellow has.
"Bland"! Now that really hurts!
The comments on this anonymous philosopher's blog also struck me as both funny and apt.