Scores of critics on the site complained that I had not read the dissertations in full before daring to write about them—an absurd standard for a 500-word blog post. A number of the dissertations aren’t even available.
If you go back to Naomi’s original blog post, you’ll first note its title: “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” She then continues, “If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.”
So her position is clear: just from reading very brief descriptions of dissertations, written not by their authors but by a journalist, you can tell that the dissertations are “irrelevant” “left-wing victimization claptrap” that make “a case for eliminating the discipline” of Black Studies. The most universal and absolute condemnation of an entire field possible, based only on fifty words of description of each dissertation by a journalist. This is the claim the legitimacy of which Naomi is steadfastly defending.
To cap off her argument, Naomi further insists that since “a number of the dissertations aren’t even available,” she can’t be faulted for not having read them. We’re getting into some highly peculiar territory here. Indeed, I haven’t read the material I’m condemning, but since I couldn’t possibly have read the material I am condemning, my condemnation of it is thoroughly justified.
I don’t see how this position is defensible on any grounds whatsoever. You could point out that the Chronicle is unlikely to be as vigorous in disciplining left-wong bloggers who say ignorant things about conservatives, and that would be right. But the conclusion to be drawn from this observation should not be “Let a thousand lilies fester”; rather, it should be, “Let’s try to learn from this situation what standards of civility and journalistic responsibility we want to uphold here, and enforce them consistently.” I don’t think the Chronicle will do that — I’m pretty sure that other writers for the Brainstorm blog will continue to say bigoted and uninformed things about conservatives and Christians — but that’s what ought to happen. We should certainly not agree that everyone can be uninformed and bigoted about everyone else.
I would say to Naomi, and to her defenders, that I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to allow your political adversaries to establish your own behavioral parameters. “If they say unfounded things about us we can say unfounded things about them” is not good ethics. It’s much better to have high standards for yourself and then challenge your adversaries to hold the same standards. To those who reply that that won’t work, I would say (a) that depends on what you mean by “work” and (b) anyway, it’s just the right thing to do.
One more thing: people keep talking about Naomi being “fired,” but I would be surprised if she had been paid to write for the Brainstorm blog. Certainly that wasn’t her job; it was a gig at most. If she wasn’t paid, then I think that the Chronicle people could disinvite her from participating at any time, and for any or no reason. If they were paying her, though, the ethical standards for dismissal ought to be higher.
UPDATE: Sonny Bunch points out that in the very piece I’m quoting Naomi mentions that she was a paid contributor. That’s what I get for reading another journalist’s summary of her op-ed instead of the op-ed itself. HAR.
SECOND UPDATE: I just discovered that some readers think I was being serious when I said that I read “another journalist’s summary of her op-ed instead of the op-ed itself.” No, that was a joke. I thought it was obvious that I read Naomi’s piece since I quote from it and link to it directly. I absolutely failed to notice the word “paid” in her description of her role at Brainstorm, and as soon as Sonny pointed that out to me I added the update. But that didn’t seem like a big deal to me because my post was about the validity of judging dissertations by titles and descriptions, and I was just adding a brief postscript about whether she was paid and how that affects the judgment of whether she should have been fired. I wasn’t yet weighing in about the firing: I did that later. But really, I should have been more careful and less ironic here. Irony is risky in these matters. My apologies for creating confusion.