Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Summer Book Report, Pt. 2

As I mentioned in one of the comments, one of my birthday presents was Professor Mike Adams' book Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel. I enjoy Dr. Adams' columns on, and I knew that I would like the book. Therefore I read the whole thing (200 pages) in two evenings. I was right.

Let me start by saying Dr. Adams is just fun to read. He's got a good sense of humor, a healthy dose of common sense, and is very approachable - the two times I've e-mailed him he has responded quickly.

Adams describes a visit he made, before (and as a part of) his conversion to conservativism and to Christianity, to a prison in Quito, Ecuador. He was touched by a display of religious faith exhibited there, in spite of the absolutely horrid conditions, and he writes:

"When i stepped out into the streets of Quito, I looked up at the statue of the Virgin Mary and thought about how people in my own country have so much to be thankful for and yet try so hard to find ways to be unhappy, to be offended, and to be seen as victims. So many true victims in that prison found ways to be thankful and to have faith in the face of hopelessness." (p. 18).

That's quite a bit to chew on in what is otherwise a fun, but not always very deep, book. I don't mean that as an insult, and I hope to explain my meaning a little better below. But I think we all might consider whether we are hunting for reasons to be offended, or finding ways to be thankful.

The book is mostly a collection of letters (some sent, most not) and columns, as well as a more lengthy description of how he, a UNC student and the administration got embroiled in a legal battle over privacy and Freedom of Speech. Generally speaking, I don't find op/ed columns get very deep. You only have so much space, and if you want to tell an introductory story, maybe tell a joke or two, and make a brief point, you're all out of space. The real purpose of an op/ed piece, in my view, is to get people talking. Sometimes it's to bring an event to peoples' attention, and sometimes a well-known event is mentioned as a catalyst for a discussion of some political point.

That's why I said Dr. Adam's book is not always very deep. Constrained by the normal space limitations of a newspaper op/ed column, he has enough time to tell us about a problem, make an observation or two, and write a quick summary. If the columns don't get people thinking independently of the brief text, or actively discussing/debating it with others, then it doesn't serve much of a purpose. Possibly it will reinforce the beliefs of people who agreed with him anyway. Possibly it will galvanize the opposition further. Muckrakers don't rake muck simply because muck likes to be raked - they rake muck so that people can do something about it.

This inherent deficiency with a space-constrained format really comes through in some of his chapters. One example is his chapter entitled "The Viagra Monologues." (pp. 137-39) Adams briefly summarizes his impressions as he read "The Vagina Monolgues," which his campus proudly presents every years. Other than inserting a few snarky comments, we don't get much in the way of an evaluation. Granted, the evaluation may safely be inferred. Adams is a conservative, and the rest of the book is introduction enough into how he feels about feminism and sexuality discussed in poor taste. But although he leaves no doubt that he disapproves of the Vagina Monologues, he does not really dwell on his specific reasons. It is as though stating the message is tantamount to a principled refutation of that message. It is not. What I would like to have seen in that chapter is some sort of discussion about the level of feminine sexuality in public discourse he deems appropriate, and more importantly, why.

Let me expand on this latter point somewhat. After reading the book, I have no idea how Dr. Adams feels about public discussion of womens' issues. You might observe (correctly) that Adams teaches Criminal Justice, not Women's Studies. But if Adams is going to publish a chapter on the topic, I think I reasonably hold his feet to the fire if he does not, in fact, discuss that topic. For example, how free should women (or men, for that matter) feel to discuss female sexuality in public? A lot? A little? Not at all? What are the benefits and costs of each, if any? What is the best way to educate women on rape awareness or prevention, or dealing with it after the fact?

I don't claim to have any answers to these questions. Like Dr. Adams, I am not trained in Women's Studies (for the record, I have a Bachelor's degree in Near Eastern Studies and two-thirds of a law degree). But the unasked question isn't likely to get answered, and Adams doesn't do much, after mentioning the issues, to say anything constructive about the issues.

That said, I agree with him that "The Vagina Monologues" sound like they are in extremely poor taste. And the promotional materials on UNC campus even more so - I will refrain from quoting Dr. Adams' book on that point.

In other areas, the book is extremely well done. I love his chapter called "Answer a False Accusation of Racism" (pp. 7-11), in which he reveals his two-step method for, well, answering false accusations of racism. First, ask the person to define "racism." Adams notes that this question will very rarely get a response. When it does, ask how that definition applies to the issue being discussed. What a brilliant and elegant way to disarm the all-too-frequent charge of racism! In that chapter and again in "An Illegitimate Attack" (pp. 20-22) we see fine examples of knee-jerk race warlordism effectively shot down by asking two simple, perfectly valid questions.

Reading the book is something of a roller-coaster ride. I always laughed when the evil bad guys were vanquished and humiliated by the cold, hard light of logic. But I soon began to get a little frustrated that, year after year, the same culprits popped up again and again doing the same old stupid things. I started to wonder whether there is any hope at all for some sort of sanity to ever come back to our nation's universities. I e-mailed Dr. Adams and asked if he feels at all optimistic about the prospects of making any headway in his efforts, and he very enthusiastically gave me a link to, which is an organization dedicated to protecting free speech on campuses. Sort of like the ACLU, but not, you know, evil. The site is full of stories of how people on campuses everywhere successfully fight college administrations for basic constitutional rights. I encourage everyone to check it out. I also encourage everyone to buy the book, and to go to to get acquainted with Dr. Adams.