March 17, 2004

A Case Study in How the Right-Wing Slime-and-Smear Machine Works

Imagine this: the on-line version of a national news magazine--in this case, The National Review--deems it worthy to come to the "defense" of a conservative Harvard law student, whose incompetent review of a book by creationism apologist Francis Beckwith.com was dismembered on a blog site. The defense, alas, was less a defense--no substantive issue in dispute was even mentioned--than a smear job.

The author of this smear job, one Hunter Baker (identified only as a "freelance writer in Texas"), talked with Professor Beckwith and the Harvard law student, but never bothered to contact me, the target of the smear. The author also never bothered to indicate why I had criticized the review, focusing only on one conclusory passage which he both misread and misquoted. Although he included various links, he never linked to my actual criticisms of the review!

High quality journalism, eh?

The article, unsurprisingly, was highly and uncritically supportive of the Harvard law student and Beckwith, and highly insulting towards me.

And guess what never got mentioned anywhere? Mr. Baker is Professor Beckwith's graduate student and teaching assistant.

Welcome to the world of right-wing slime and smear, where no ethics, journalistic or otherwise, apply, and in which facts or truth are never an obstacle.

A few hours after I "outed" Mr. Baker's connection to Beckwith on my blog, I received the following e-mail from this shameless hatchet man, which is almost breathtaking in its disingenuousness (Mr. Baker invited me to post it, and since he's handed me the rope...):

"The reason I didn't list myself as Beckwith's teaching assistant is simple. I have a long record of internet and print journalism that predates any association with him. That part of my life belongs to me. He has no control over what I choose to cover or how I write stories...."

"Yeah, right," says everyone over the age of 16. This claim might have been more credible, of course, if he'd volunteered this information before I outed him. Indeed, one might find it remotely believable if it had been included in his by-line when the article was published. (Why not let the readers decide for themselves about Mr. Baker's reliability and objectivity given his connection with one of the targets of the critique?)

But journalistic integrity, as noted, is not one of Mr. Baker's strong suits. Indeed, in this context, the word "fraud" seems literally applicable. (Since Mr. Baker apparently hasn't heard of journalistic ethics, here's a useful site; see esp. the section on "Act Independently.")

I've dealt with the substantive issues--the ones Mr. Baker never mentions--in earlier postings (and follow the links therein). But let's just pause for a moment to savor the depth of sleazy innuendo to which this journalist-cum-PhD student in Church-State Studies at Baylor University repeatedly stoops:

(1) Baker: "[Leiter's] rankings are respected and followed. Accordingly, Leiter is a powerful figure in the academy who is invited to speak by peers who may find him personally objectionable but too important to offend or ignore." I should hope I'd get a lot more invitations than I do if it were really the case that I get invited to speak on the basis Baker suggests. But, oddly, the ones I get almost all seem to be related to my areas of scholarly expertise. But the facts don't matter: the crucial thing is for Baker to suggest that my academic successes are attributable to the fact that people dislike but fear me. No actual evidence is adduced of course; innuendo suffices. (Count 1 of the defamation suit, for those who are keeping track.)

(2) Baker claims, "One doesn't need to work very hard to read between the lines. Leiter seems to be threatening VanDyke's career if he should dare to set foot in the academy. The tone of his post makes clear that he means this student editor of the Harvard Law Review harm." Actually, you not only have to "read between the lines," you have to misread the actual lines written, as explained earlier. (Count 2 of the defamation suit.)

(3) Baker claims that, "Leiter's peers, some of whom may actually have believed all the hype about academic freedom, will probably wonder just how this sort of proposed blacklisting squares with long-cherished ideals." The suggestion that Leiter is "blacklisting" anyone or violating "academic freedom" only looks credible, indeed intelligible, because Baker failed to mention the actual grounds of the criticism. It is not, on anyone's conception, blacklisting or a violation of academic freedom to say, "X is a scholarly incompetent, he should not be hired." (Count 3 of the defamation suit.)

(4) Baker now quotes his boss (without noting that's who he is) Professor Beckwith, who opines: "Leiter's apparent intention to employ his own celebrity and academic stature to crush a young man's spirit and his future job prospects in the legal academy, and to do so by means of blacklisting and mean-spirited McCarthyesque intimidation tactics, is absolutely unjustified." Better add Beckwith as a co-defendant to the suit. (Hmmm, a guy with a .com homepage might have some dollars that make it worthwhile....)

(5) Baker concludes: "Threatening the career of a young law student because he dared to differ is a sorry spectacle." Pointing out that someone who is a scholarly incompetent has no prospects in the legal academy is not a "threat"; pointing out that someone is a scholarly incompetent is not a matter of attacking someone because they "dared to differ." (Count 4 of the defamation law suit).

After all this, Mr. Baker actually had the nerve, in his aforementioned e-mail, to explain to me: "I felt outraged at the tone of your remarks directed toward Mr. VanDyke and independently decided to do something about it given the forums available to me."

"Outrage" would be too weak a word to describe my reaction to what this dishonest stooge of Beckwith has done. (And talk about "tone" is always the first refuge of those who can't argue on substance [it's one of the specialties of "Miss Manners" Beckwith]: refute me on the substance, then you will have shown the tone was inappropriate.)

Unsurprisingly, on the same day as Baker's NRO smear job appeared, the Discovery [sic] Institute posted it , but without any of the links in the original that would have taken the reader to my site, where a reader might have learned of the author's stunning conflict-of-interest. (The Discovery [sic] Institute is so lacking in credibility--their tactics even alienated several Republican members of the State Board of Education here in Texas--that they are de facto incapable of defaming anyone.)

Of course, no right-wing slime and smear job would be complete without the obligatory insulting e-mails from assorted right-wing cranks (all men naturally), suitably incensed by Baker's misrepresentations. Interestingly, although the National Review sent close to 700 visitors to my site on Monday, only about 1% bothered to share their "thoughts" [sic] with me. (That suggests that, by typical slime-and-smear standards, this may not have been provocative enough). Here are a few gems:

"How can a Darwinist care about principles of any sort? Whoever wins, according to Darwinism, is superior. Why then would a Darwinist study philosophy? Instead, focus on reproduction. Quanity of population is a real Darwinistic measure of success. And given the extremely high opinion you seem to have of yourself, you might as well go reproduce with yourself. With contempt for you and all you stand for, [a writer from Michigan]."

Obviously, if this is one's understanding of Darwinism, then it is hardly surprising that one should think Intelligent Design a relevant alternative. This writer also sounds a note popular with the folks who e-mail: contempt. Sociologically and psychologically, this is interesting. The folks who send these kinds of e-mails probably qualify, if anyone does, as "nobodies," unknown individuals stewing in the juices of their own resentment towards everyone with status and power who doesn't take seriously their myopic view of the world, who doesn't share and confirm their prejudices and ignorant preconceptions. It is more than a little ironic that their favorite verbal weapon, then, is expression of "contempt."

Consider this lovely fellow from California: "I feel sorry for ANYONE who EVER has to deal with you. I pity the poor student who must suffer through one of your undoubtedly longwinded, self-aggrandizing narratives." Well, don't feel too bad, the students tend to score me 4.7 out of 5 for quality of teaching. So I guess they aren't suffering that badly.

Some of the correspondents who took the time to write were at least funny: "I'm praying for you and the state of Texas. Ooops, did I just violate the establishment clause? Maybe I could have avoided it if I had been a little more evolved and not so intelligently designed. Praying for your future success [name omitted]." The Establishment Clause only covers government action, so rest easy prayerful one.

Another obsession of the irate correspondents is "name calling." So another, not entirely literate, correspondent wrote: "The reason the 'right' is so sucessfull is that we can have an conservation with another person without resorting to name calling if they have a different opinion. [Yes, readers, he really wrote that--I did not make this up.] You on the other hand seem unable to do so." And so, too, our charming Californian (above) is incensed that I call "those with whom you disagree [in this case, the proponents of Intelligent Design] 'scam artists'."

As Ezra Pound said, "You can't talk to the ignorant about lies, since they have no criteria." Everything for the ignorant appears to be a matter of mere "disagreement"--on a par, I suppose, with "I'd prefer Italian tonight, but you'd really rather have Chinese"--and not of "truth" and "falsity" or "reality" and "fiction." You think the earth is flat, I think it is round. That's a disagreement. God forbid I should call you an "ignorant yahoo."

But names have cognitive and referential content: a "scam artist" is a name for someone who tries to mislead others into "buying a bill of goods" that isn't really what the scam artist presents it as. Intelligent Design isn't creationism, we're told; ID is science, we're told. The folks who tell us this are "scam artists." Of course, you'd have to actually know something to know that is true, and to know why the "name-calling" is, in fact, the use of a warranted descriptive term.

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So this is America in the year 2004. Well-organized yahoos, driven by religious zealotry, campaign throughout the nation to undermine real science and real science education, with one of their acolytes occasionally sneaking in to the actual corridors of education and scholarship. When the intruders are correctly described as ignorant yahoos, they organize slime and smear campaigns, which soon inspire the rest of the ignorant yahoos to excrete their bile as instructed via the available media, notably e-mail.

In the midst of it all, my oldest child wants to be a scientist, my middle boy is learning to read and to speak French and Spanish at the same time, and my littlest is just learning her ABCs. They read, they learn, they have insatiable appetites for knowledge and experience.

Little do they know that sharing the same planet, sometimes the same city, the "lying liars" are hard at work, demeaning our public culture, spreading their slime, attacking our schools, and, slowly but steadily, undermining the Enlightenment and the world of possibility it bequeathed us at such extraordinary costs.

And then--the mind boggles!--the lying liars have the audacity to take umbrage because I've been "rude" to them.

"Anywhere out of this world," said Baudelaire.

And he hadn't even met Hunter Baker or Francis Beckwith.

Posted by Brian Leiter at March 17, 2004 02:33 PM