An Apologie for the Humanties; or, Revisiting Margaret Wente’s Attack on Original Thinking

In the wake of 2015’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the largest interdisciplinary academic conference in Canada, what should have been a celebration of shared ideas was at least partially poisoned by a snippy, bullying article written by Margaret Wente, a professional bigot and supposed journalist whose continued employment by The Globe and Mail after being publicly outed as an inveterate plagiarist remains an embarrassing stain on the integrity of the newspaper.

The fallout from Margaret Wente’s absurdly offensive and trollish column, “Adventures in academia: the stuff of fiction” has been a widespread and well-deserved disgust, coupled with a much less well-deserved surprise at the audacity of it all. Opening the paper to Wente’s column, after all, is always a bit like changing a diaper: the disgust never really goes away, but those who do it enough times should eventually cease to be shocked by the contents.

A landslide of spite has followed her latest offering, as public intellectuals, already under serious threat from all sides and with no real recourse but merciless satire, jockey both in private and on Twitter for the perfect rebuttal. In the eight weeks since her article plopped into the public eye, venomous Wente-bashing has become something of an exhibition sport among Humanities academics.

The speed with which she’s plummeted from the outspoken adversary of the Humanities to its sustained private joke should tell us we’re responding to nothing new, relevant, substantial, or even particularly edgy in the familiar, regurgitated mush of her anti-academic smack-talk. Instead, the real concern is that Wente’s ignorance restates (without citation or credit, of course) the general hostility shared by many outside the academy who have been misled as to the nature of the Humanities—what it is we actually do, and what function our research actually serves. If we accept that Wente’s frothy rant articulates this trend, we need not feel so guilty about taking her bait: what sounds like little more than the ineffectual hostility of a harmless crank well into her dotage is in fact a representation of toxic ideas that have taken root in larger minds than hers, and with very real and unsettling consequences.

I would like to suggest here (somewhat contentiously, I know) that there are others in North America as misinformed about the Humanities as Margaret Wente. She is not, after all, writing from an absolute vacuum of experience: whatever sneering disdain she now holds for postgraduate research in the Humanities, she would not have landed her present job as the overrated newsprint equivalent of a clickbait blogger were it not for her own MA in English from the University of Toronto—a degree for which she must, at the very minimum, have affected the appearance of having done some worthwhile graduate research.

The moment we recognize Wente’s criticism of twenty-first century research not as the outside opinion of a layperson, but rather as the fossilized opinion of a lapsed academic whose understanding of the academy is a half century out of date, everything starts to make a little more sense. Her criticism of the emerging research of young academics—criticism she bases solely on the sensational, attendance-courting titles of papers she did not bother to read or attend—is not just lazy journalism: it’s lazy journalism in the service of an antiquated, hyperconservative, and certainly bigoted colonial enterprise that we’ve been working hard to stamp out of the academy since at least the late 1960s.

Whence, then, comes Wente’s withering distaste for postcolonialism, for gender studies, for “low art,” for anything touching on issues of race, gender, and class-based inequalities? Whence comes her vomitous spite for any research even peripherally associated with destabilizing the matrices of white, affluent, heteronormative power? She’s been thoroughly labelled by her critics as a virulent racist who, in the words of one dedicated detractor,

works so hard on smearing all non-white peoples with a broad brush, who will invent social problems where none exist, who will scurry to find any possible racial angle to a story…every possible stereotype, every smug expression of superiority, every casual smear at a non-white culture that one can conceive of has found its way into Margaret Wente’s columns…she rarely has any empirical evidence to back up her claims…indeed, she does little actual research, relying mostly on unknown cranks and “everybody knows” statements. (Tyrone Nicholas, WenteWatch)

So, there’s that. There’s also her sick misogynist fantasy that her old enemy—universities—are somehow responsible for what she calls “the manufacture of ‘rape culture’.” But what’s really happening here, at least in her most recent tirade against the twenty-first century Humanities, is less an example of the usual garden-variety bigotry, and more specifically a cultish prayer at the altar of Harold Bloom’s canon—an altar to which even Bloom himself has not been stodgy enough to cling a full half-century after its establishment. Margaret Wente clearly lives in a delusional world in which—regardless of the content of the research she didn’t bother to read—any work on sci-fi, or television, or LGBT fiction, or anything even remotely postcolonial in its attitude, is unworthy of study. It is an élitist fantasy land, a place of absurd and snobbish patriarchal fairytale, in which Shakespeare is God’s gift to the noble white English reader, Byron is an immoral sleazebag, brown people are not worth Wente’s time (as usual), and J.K. Rowling ought to have stayed a housewife. It is a world in which the high civilization of Tennyson is forever beset on all sides by the howling savages of the Beat Generation, in which knowledge is a commodity for professors to tell ex cathedra and for students to echo unthinkingly. It is a utopian world for people like Margaret Wente, in which phony intellectuals like her can thrive through regurgitation (and, of course, plagiarism) while original thinkers—her real lifelong adversaries—are summarily dismissed as lowbrow couch potatoes masquerading as academics.

Thankfully, the extraordinary papers (unlike her, I attended and listened to them) with buzzwordy titles cited by Wente are welcome signs that there is much more to the Humanities than the low-grade, upchucked rote intellectualism with which she seems so enamoured, a pompous buffoonery masquerading as erudition which substitutes a healthy dose of old boys’ club snobbery for authentic rigor.

The great irony of all this is that Wente’s sick fantasy world is one with which academia is too often accusingly associated: the myth of the “ivory tower” so regularly picked up by anti-intellectuals is one in which we are distant irrelevant beings, aloof and unconcerned with “lowbrow” texts written or even read by most people living today. We don’t care, the old story goes, about what ordinary people read or watch, raging instead—as E. M. Ashford does in Margaret Edson’s brilliant one-act play Wit—about the inconsistent punctuation chosen by John Donne’s editors, all while culture moves on without us and “young people become increasingly stupid”—another favourite fearmongering bedtime-story of the 65-year-old Wente.

Thus, while most anti-academic writers accuse us of occupying too much the snobbish, irrelevant ivory tower, Wente accuses us of occupying it not enough. She is quick to dismiss a study of “Whiteness, Nihilism and Class in Grand Theft Auto V” as “pop culture” (she sneeringly calls it “post book”), all the while forgetting what the word “pop” actually means: popular. Wente doesn’t know or care that the game has sold 45 million copies in less than two years—for those of you keeping track, that’s more copies than have been sold of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea combined, ever. (The game is also longer, in terms of the word-count of its written content, than any one of those books.)

As Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James have most recently shown us, popularity is a rather poor measure of literary merit. Grand Theft Auto V may keep Harold Bloom occupied and amused in between his office hours (I like to imagine he gets a kick out of playing as Trevor), but it’ll never replace the Norton Shakespeare on his desk. However, popularity is an excellent measure of what’s important to many people: that’s what “popular” means. It’s an excellent measure of which texts are directly changing the way that people think, and exerting the most active pressures on what Charles Taylor calls the “social imaginary”—the shared common belief and common practice that form the experiential background of humanity.

Grand Theft Auto V isn’t really turning 45 million youth worldwide into car-jacking lowlives, much in the same way that Dungeons & Dragons didn’t turn them into Satanists in the 1980s, nor Prince CDs into purple-sequined sex fiends in the 1990s. But it’s doing something to them, engaging a generation in ways that maybe might be worth knowing something about. At the very least, it’s a literary and cultural phenomenon that’s worth devoting a twenty-minute general paper to, if not necessarily one’s whole academic career.

This brings us to the question of what the ACCUTE conference is for. ACCUTE, the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English, is the professional organization whose program was most directly under fire by Wente, and the one for which I’ve presented five different research papers in the past three years. The annual conference is a particularly large one, at least as far as Canadian literary criticism goes, in part because it’s a coming together of critics in their capacity as generalists. There are other professional associations that cater to our particular research interests as specialists: the two big ones in my main area of specialty, for example, are the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism and the International Gothic Association, both of which also had a presence at the Congress of the Humanities. But ACCUTE, in itself, seldom favours our much-beloved arcane specializations: it is a general venue for literary scholarship that never confines us to the purview of our specialist comfort zones, but rather challenges us to create a dialogue with our fellow scholars farther afield—not just with those persnickety kindred spirits who are fascinated with the same commas in Donne’s sonnets that we are.

This generalist and cross-disciplinary atmosphere, completely unbeknownst to oblivious outsiders like Wente, has a dramatic effect on the flavour of scholarship it produces. It is a place for advanced and creative analytical experimentation, for weird and therefore potentially groundbreaking ideas, and for open-minded thinking, especially about the things that concern our students. The T in ACCUTE stands for Teachers, and it’s not there for cosmetic reasons: much of the very best research that emerges from this conference in particular engages with our students and the general textual experiences of their lives in ways that our meticulous work on Donne’s punctuation does not.

This year, I presented at Congress (to Margaret Wente’s horror, I can only hope) on Star Wars, and again on neo-Romanticism in slam poetry—and a third time on the precarity faced by contract academic faculty, who form another frequent punching bag in Wente’s ongoing personal war on the menace of universities. There is a reason this was the right venue for a Star Wars paper. There is also a reason I saved my somewhat more obscure presentation on Anglo-Norse onomastics for the MLA convention. Congress is a place for the free exchange of ideas, which works best when they address or channel texts through which we have a shared familiarity. This is why it’s the kind of venue where academics who ordinarily spend their time knee-deep in dead white Englishmen—Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tennyson, Wordsworth, William Morris—end up presenting a variety of brilliant, relevant, relatable (and, most distressing to Margaret Wente, original) work on Tumblr, the World of Warcraft, Marvel’s Deadpool, Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, selfies, breasts in science fiction, and dozens of other papers of substance and ingenuity whose titles and subject headings are calculated to titillate, in part to attract a broad interest from across the field. And while Margaret Wente may, as Canada Research Chair in History Steve Palmer cannily notes, call out such works in a similar manner and with similar motives to the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937, no thinking person can accept that the work of Canadian intellectuals is at once snobbishly exclusive, and also pandering to the unwashed masses. Are we aloof snobs, or lowbrow fluffologists? Wente can’t have it both ways: her own knack for somehow functioning at the same time as both a boorish hack and a sneering elitist is a secret art whose paradox we have yet to master.

The democratic rise of the blogosphere, coupled with the general decline of print news, is fast eroding the barrier of legitimacy between private, not-for-profit bloggers and overpaid public blowhards like Margaret Wente. Her columns are well-read because they function in ways identical to the very worst clickbait that spills onto our Facebook feeds from zergnet, Buzzfeed, or io9.com. As Tyrone Nicholas writes,

Her popularity is due to her uncanny ability to strike a chord in the reader’s id, the hidden coterie of prejudice that all of us have but that we like to think we have let go of in a modern society. Wente strikes this atavistic nerve, reawakens the fear of all that is dark and different, tells us it’s okay to let logic, reason, and evidence fall aboard, and trust the evidence not of our eyes, nor even of our hearts, but of our fears. (Wentewatch)

That a dinosaur should prove so capable of speaking to our reptile brain is nicely thematic, but hardly “uncanny.” The proliferation of scare-journalism on the Internet is a sign of just how common writers of Wente’s ilk really are—how many of them, in fact, are willing to churn out similar (but better) work for free, or for fractions of a penny per click. That The Globe And Mail is continuing to indulge her poison pen—that it is, in fact, paying her for it—is only accelerating the decline of the print news in Canada. The relationship of Margaret Wente to the print newspaper is not one in which a glossy, smudgy newsprint page lends her any legitimacy, but rather one in which she drains the last vestiges of legitimacy from that distinguised physical medium by her continued pollution of it. In the growing meritocracy of twenty-first century journalism, even Wente’s artless belligerence will eventually give way to more competitive belligerence, an antagonism with a little more substance and style: her careless, uninformed, monumentally lazy anti-intellectual punditry may have all the tone and tact of Ann Coulter’s worst diatribes, but she falls far short of Coulter’s consistency and coherence. She doesn’t even seem to understand, really, exactly why she has come to hate universities and learning so much: a thorough Freudian psychoanalysis of her columns, I think, might be a fine topic for an ACCUTE conference paper in future years.

I even have a cutesy paper title with a colon in it for you – “Sour Whine from Sour Grapes: Chardonnay, Plagiarism, and Punch-Drunk Anti-Intellectualism in the Canadian Press.” Use it royalty-free, if you like.

The growing incoherence of Wente’s writing seems to suggest that Time itself, at least, will soon have the decency to hand her the pink slip that The Globe And Mail’s editors have been too reticent to issue. In the meantime, it’s worth taking a deep breath, stepping back from the gleeful work of the academic backlash against Wente (of which this piece is an admittedly late arrival), to answer her accusations against the academy in all seriousness, as if they had come from a more competent accuser. There are substantial and important answers to questions about our work, and our ability to continue doing that work relies on our ability to articulate those things in the language of our accusers. What is the “value added” of the Humanities? What knowledge capital does our research contain, and how can that be mobilized? What are the negative effects of poor administrative support on the knowledge economy of the Arts?

Scholars in the arts and humanities will, of course, bristle at ugly phrases like “knowledge economy.” So, I think, would many economics professors, for that matter: they’re the ones, after all, who could best explain all the reasons why that politically charged metaphor doesn’t actually bear out. But when the accuser is also the judge—as is the case with the non-academic public—the language of the accuser is often the language in which we must mount a defense. Are they really so unreasonable to ask us to justify our existence in language that makes sense to them?

If we really do possess the skills we claim, mounting this defense should not be difficult for us; yet we resist this demand because we’re offended by it. It’s why professors from days of yore, before the vogue of “Learning Objectives,” resent being told to include them in course outlines. But what about those of us who have never known a time when we had no perennial need to defend our value and purpose to our departments, our families, our funding bodies, and the public at large? Those of us emerging into a climate of unprecedented hostility cannot even fathom a world in which the work we do as scholars of the Humanities had an assumed worth, rather than an assumed worthlessness. Those must have been wondrous times indeed.

Here is what scares me about this: if people are reading Margaret Wente and taking her seriously, it is because she is articulating problems with the academy (even her dodgy, made-up, phantom problems) more clearly than we are able to articulate our solutions to those problems (which may simply amount to convincing people that they are a load of hogwash). Even if all she is doing is making up imaginary problems, as long as she is articulating those problems more clearly or insistently than we are articulating the reasons why those problems are imaginary, then we run the risk of being defined in our work, to others, by malicious fools. And even if Wente’s anti-academic fluff piece is of no particular merit or impact on its own, it’s a helpful reminder that there is probably a wave of better-articulated, more directly perilous hostility out there, against which explaining ourselves is the best and sometimes only defense.

We must be ready to explain ourselves in a language that makes sense to people who don’t intuitively understand the work that we do. If we think that all our detractors will be as slow-witted and vainglorious as Wente, if we think they will all offer us half as many free avenues of casual dismissal (bigotry and a reputation for plagiarism are generous gifts indeed), we are grossly underestimating the challenges of defending Humanities scholarship in the face of neoliberal antagonism, and will continue to pay the price that I think we’re already paying for that false sense of security.

I think it’s in this capacity that Wente has provoked such a massive and defensive response—a test of the emergency response system, if you will. That her article amounts to little more than a passing snipe—as Bill Shakespeare would say, “a tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury /Signifying nothing” (Macbeth 5.5 26-8)—should not put us off our guard. The need for an Apologie for the Humanities—a Defense of Poetry, in Shelley’s words, as in Sidney’s before him—is perennial. This latest assault, though it amounts to little more than a haggard huff-and-puff against the sturdy brick wall of the ivory tower, is a helpful reminder that the tower defenses still do need updating, as they always do. If the sustained counterattack we have seen from outraged academics is a measured response to the feeble haranguing of just one glorified print-blogger, what will we have left in the arsenal when such anti-academic hostility is backed by a more sound, more articulate critique, written by someone who has done a little more homework than skim a few cherry-picked paper titles?

There are valid criticisms to be mounted against the state of the Humanities. That Margaret Wente has failed to do it does not mean it couldn’t be done. Her shot across our bow, whether an accidental miss or not, should serve as a warning. This is a time for academia to anticipate more intelligent, less lazy critiques in the same vein, and to prepare to respond to them in a number of ways—by refuting them, by disproving them, but perhaps even by listening attentively to those critiques and bettering itself in response.

What would Northrop Frye make of modern English studies? Margaret Wente, eager to drop the name of the only literary critic she knows, challenges us with this rhetorical question. Well, he’d have just celebrated his 103rd birthday, and so maybe his thinking might be more in line with Wente’s than his admirers would care to admit. Instead, I prefer to think he’d be quite pleased that, rather than stagnating at the point in history where his Anatomy of Criticism dropped in 1957, the disciplines of the Humanities have continued to evolve in accordance with human culture itself. The role of criticism like Frye’s—as I am sure he would have proudly admitted—is to contribute to the advancement of human thinking, not to flash-freeze it at the moment it hits print. We who name-drop the old greats, and may one day be old greats ourselves, would do well to remember that.

The kind of pre-war white establishment literary criticism for which Wente waxes nostalgic is an old tool for old times, built for discussing “classic” literature almost exclusively, and that in old and suspect ways—though I am not really sure that scholarship was ever really the way she misremembers it. If her writing smacks of an unmitigated yearning for the halcyon days in which we could all get by regurgitating the thoughts of others rather than breaking new ground in scholarship, we can see only too well the appeal of such a time to her, if it ever really existed. And we can be grateful, if such a time ever existed, to have moved beyond it, into a century and poetics and critical atmosphere that Wente cannot now and perhaps never will understand.

The iterative work of the Humanities is to keep adjusting itself, to keep making corrections. Its work can and must be criticized. It must be accused, and it must also be defended. The work of a good and helpful accuser is to prompt the best and most beneficial changes, not just to the academy, but the public and the culture it serves. It is the work of a bad accuser to mock these changes without understanding them, to stand in the way of the Humanities’ natural ability—nay, their natural compulsion—to renew and enrich themselves not only by preserving what is best of what was known and thought in the past, but by sloughing off what was worst of it.

This work is sacred work—at least, as close to sacred work as secular humanism allows. The human mind—both singular and collective—is not an empty cup to be filled, but rather a furnace to be stoked continuously. It needs a steady supply of new material to maintain its powers of originality. Grand Theft Auto V? Mean Girls? Lesbian science fiction? Graphic novels about zombies? I say yes, please, to all of these texts and more. Throw them all into the great furnace of the mind. Only with the passage of time will we see what burns with the light of original thought, and for how long, and what flares for a brief time before guttering, smoking, and being swept out with the ash. We will see what is slow to ignite but burns brightest in the end, and what does not burn at all.

Even Margaret Wente’s column should be consigned to the fire. Surprisingly, I don’t mean the fire of destruction—burning writing that we disagree with is the cardinal sin of the Humanities, and a practice much more to her taste than to mine. I mean instead that it should be thrown into the great glowing crucible of the Humanities—subjected to (and worthy of) the same analysis as any other text. As Lex Luthor so astutely observed in Superman: The Movie (another literary text to which Wente would no doubt offer a pearl-clutching scoff of disdain),

Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.

If the great secrets of the universe can be found in a chewing gum wrapper, perhaps there might even be a few worthy nuggets to be dredged up from within Wente’s collected works. If so, it will be the work of literary critics to see to the extraction of, as Jonathan Swift so succinctly put it, “such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” That is how literary criticism works: it unlocks, unpacks, and in so doing, it raises up. It takes concise texts and draws from them more riches than it seems could ever have been contained there. It is the process of taking any literature—good, bad, exalted, lowbrow—and filtering it through the shared prisms of author, reader, sociohistorical context, universal paradigms—until what emerges is a rainbow of meanings, all of them hidden to the casual eye. That, then, is my first defense to questions of the “knowledge economy”: literary criticism is an exponential multiplier of knowledge—feeding us with five thousand monographs, sometimes, from two small poems about fish. That those books are published in cost-prohibitive short runs by university presses, and usually run about $150 each—well, that’s another problem for another day.

Should we be angry that Margaret Wente, desperate to make her deadline and clearly slowing down in her dotage, somehow stumbled across a stray ACCUTE program and thought it’d be easy money to make bullying fun of a few paper titles without even reading the papers? I think it’s fair to harbour some resentment over that, given how directly anathema to the ethics and integrity of both academia and journalism her behaviour continues to run. Not everyone agrees with me that a little anger is appropriate: Dr. Peter Kulchyski, in his gently-worded article “Margaret Wente: Thief, Liar, and Cheat,” suggests that

by not debating her lying words…by not even bothering to be infuriated by her idiocies, we can firmly consign her to the place ‘intellectual’ thieves, liars, and cheats belong: far outside the republic of letters. (Canadian Dimension 47.1 [Jan/Feb 2013]: 2.)

There is an irony to this passage of course: my keen literary critic’s intuition tells me that Kulchyski might, in fact, be rather infuriated after all. But I disagree with the Platonic claim that such writing belongs far from “the republic of letters”: refusing to engage with absurdities is, in fact, shirking one of the most important duties of the Humanities. Whether we’re talking about the Grand Theft Auto video games, or about less clever and more distasteful texts like Wente’s articles, absurdities are part of the job; we must from time to time get our scholarly hands dirty.

That Margaret Wente’s alleged writing constitutes a rallying point for dirty-handed academics is an interesting sign of the times. It suggests, perhaps, a sense of shared responsibility for the defense of the Humanities that has become in recent years more democratic. Above all, it suggests a growing reluctance to give even the most ineffectual antagonism a free pass. The Humanities are a desperate beast in these desperate times, and we behave accordingly: bullying a desperate animal is a sure way to get bitten.

It’s that desperation—the urgency with which we collectively tear into a persona non grata like Wente—that concerns me most. The whole sustained atmosphere of nervous ire that’s been unearthed by this ultimately forgettable piece is of more concern than anything Wente could write or otherwise find already written. What it might actually mean, perhaps, is the kind of thing we need the Humanities to debate. Let us hope that when Congress rolls around next year, despite the frail efforts of the ten thousand Margaret Wentes frothing on Internet comment threads, and the one who miraculously clings to an ill-deserved print column, there are enough surviving academics to keep asking the questions that need to be asked.

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