Steed and I recently went to the Atlantic Monthly’s reception for the New York leg of their Ideas Tour celebrating their 150th year. It was at the New York Public Library, and the proceedings were elegant and festive, as you would want, including a proper toast with champagne (which, to Steed’s delight, was not overchilled). Revelers were also invited to go to the panels the next day. These events were folded into Paul Holdengraber’s fabulous NYPL Live! series.
On the sign-up sheets, I saw an old acquaintance—Walter Benn Michaels, who would be debating Katha Pollitt and her review of his book, The Trouble with Diversity. I knew Professor Michaels almost 2 decades ago when he was a visiting prof. at Rutgers from UC Berkeley, shortly before he published “Against Theory” in Critical Inquiry. (He’s now at University of Illinois-Chicago.) He brought literary theory into my world, and it turned out I had quite a knack for synthesizing the work of Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, Wolfgang Iser, et al. (At that time, I didn’t question why one would want to do that, which now seems to be the only question.) And with Michaels’s recommendation, I was accepted to the doctoral program in English at Berkeley—but that’s another story.
I knew Michaels when he was a newly minted hotshot prof. On the library’s stage, he was the middle-age establishment, still gangly, but no more glasses. The topic was not his literary acumen, but his position that "the Left” is dissipating its energy on race and gender issues at the expense of leading the revolution we need for an equitable redistribution of the wealth. He arrives at this tenet with some sweeping notions like “race does not exist,” and here’s where the Left, voiced by Katha Pollitt, takes huge issue with him. As did Scott Stossel, of the Atlantic, who was moderating.
This is not a political blog, and I am a political pragmatist in no particular camp. The discussion was animated and hyperarticulated on both sides, and enjoyable to see. I was struck by several things: I was unaware that anyone seriously discusses “the exploitation of the worker” anymore outside of old Woody Allen films (so I guess that’s one of my limitations); Pollitt was particularly concerned about African Americans, of whom there were 2 in an audience of 120 (or so); “the poor” were often invoked—“they” are in great need of saving. This academic thing is not my world. I decided to avoid the one cliché I had control of, and did not approach Michaels with the “I was your student” babble. Besides, Steed had a pedicab waiting for me (up theme music).