The Dartmouth Observer

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Thursday, July 14, 2005
Dartobserver at Three: A (Lengthy, Rambling) Retrospective
You are probably wondering: who are we and what are we all about? A good question. The Observer was conceived by John Stevenson '05 and myself a few weeks ago as a publication intended to promote intellectual discourse on the Dartmouth campus from a non-partisan perspective. At present, we are a modest, web-only endeavor; in time, we might even come out in print.

My primary interest is the phenomenon known as the American Culture Wars. I approach it as a student of literature and history who happens not to be an American. Being a foreign student at Dartmouth has many advantages, one of which is the ability to see things from a rather disinterested, almost anthropological perspective. The debate about the Western canon, multiculturalism, race relations, political correctness - these fascinate me to no end. I have some opinions on them, of course, and some of you might call me conservative because of them, but I like to think that I've arrived at these opinions.
That was what I wrote three years ago, in my first ever post on this blog. I had little idea back then how things would be today. Heck, I hardly knew what a blog was back then. John and I had just gotten to know each other -- he was a freshman on campus for summer; I was in my sophomore summer -- and we started the blog because we wanted a place besides The D to publish our views on, in John's words, "Gender, race, political correctness, identity, poverty, the role of the individual, religion, and the nature and role of the government." The agreement was that the History and English major (me) would write about cultural issues, while the Government major (John) would blog about politics.

* * *

We also wanted to be multi-partisan, open, and inclusive. We had people to join our blog whom we disagreed with, but who wrote thoughtfully and enjoyed debate. Our rhetoric reflected those lofty aspirations. I wrote:
We have our biases. Any publication worth its salt must present opinions and defend them. However, this is not a political publication: we welcome anybody, left, right, or center, who wants to say something about culture, academia, or Dartmouth. Politics, inevitably, will find its way into our discussion, and the end products might sound conservative, liberal, socialist, or whatever, but the opinions we seek are those that are arrived at via careful, disinterested thought. If you believe that disinterested, depoliticized thinking is inherently impossible, then write in to explain why.
And so we were away. We blogged about everything, and the debates were excellent. Tim Waligore '01, Jon Eisenman '03, Laura Dellatorre '03, and Karsten Barde '04 blogged from the left; while the likes of Vijay Rao'03 , Frank Webb '03, Brent Kesler '03, John, and myself patrolled the opposite flank. Many of us took contrarian positions from time to time. I got angry at John Derbyshire in this piece. Occasionally, we even found things that we agreed upon, as this short exchange between Vijay and Jon Eisenman on a Harvard Magazine article entitled "Abolish the White Race" showed. Most of the time though, we disagreed and launched into each other with impunity and delight. Brent responded to a post from Tim on postmodernism with the following unforgettable introduction:
As I read Mr. Waligore's post Blind About Postmodernism, I fell into an apopalectic fit as the ghost of William Strunk Jr. siezed my body and began making red marks all over my computer screen--such was the intensity of his rage that I hadn't the opportunity to explain to him the benefits of modern technology.
To which Tim shot back:
I very much enjoyed the image of Brent Kesler falling into an apopalectic fit over the terrible prose in my post Blind to Postmodernism. I am sad that his outrage over my writing ability led him to spell "apopleptic" incorrectly. I plead guilty to sometimes taking this weblog posting less seriously than other pieces of writing, as I view it as more part of a conversation.
This was pretty much as "bad" as it got. On the whole, cheap shots and ad hominem attacks were few and far between. That didn't stop Dartlog's Andrew Grossman '02 from launching the following attack on Dartobserver:
The Dartmouth Observer, a website run by ocassional TDR meeting-attendee John Stevenson '05, has been awfully quiet since the election.

Contributors like [Free Press founder] Timothy Waligore, [College Republican officer] Frank Webb, [former Review contributor] Vijay Rao, [Free Press something-or-other, right?] Laura Dellatorre, [the unbearably verbose and unreasonably smug] Brent Kessler, [shrill and inane] Jon Eisenman, and [the surprisingly reasonable (given the context)] Chien Wen Kung have apparently been shocked into submission (well, Mr Webb may finally have found a nice Cuban girl for himself or something).

This would be a great opportunity for Kung to strike out on his own. Be honest: the S/N ratio has been rather low since the beginning, with most fodder for thought coming from Kung alone. Elevate yourself (further), Mr. Kung, make the break, and remember to send us the URL.

And for the rest of you: silencio!
Thanks, but no thanks.

Several months after we got started, Free Dartmouth was born. In the months that followed, and very slowly, many of our distinguished public intellectuals migrated over to the Light Side, and posted less and less here. I guess that was to be expected.

* * *

No history of this blog would be complete without mentioning this amazing piece of writing that I had the occasion to comment on. It was an introduction to a History senior seminar paper on the Arab-Israeli conflict:
Reality is such a murky subject. Nothing is necessarily causative of anything else: at best we can formulate plausible conclusion-like non-conclusions. In the debate surrounding the historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict, disagreement even precedes the level fo causative statements; very often what happened, or whether something happened at all, is, itself, debatable. The situation is compounded by the partisan nature of each writer on the subject, since the debate over who possesses "right" is ongoing. The question of the legitimacy of the speaker extends far deeper than this historical meta-level, however. If we pick any area of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict epistemological questions abound both in the events themselves and in the discourse that continues about the events. This essay will concern itself primarily with the former, specifically as regards the development of Arab nationalism or similar sentiments through the early twentieth century. Darkness seems to surround, even permeate, the information at hand for almost every major actor in this history. Some use such ambiguity to their advantage. Others, it plagues. In a gloss of this story, many historians ignore the profound doubt that faced every decision maker at every decision-point, and in doing so, they miss a major factor influencing the course of events: ambiguity. Defining legitimacy as truth, accepted (an integer ranging from zero to the entire population of the world), this essay will examine the rise of Arab nationalism with these questions in mind: how legitimate is the messenger? How legitimate is the message? And, how has legitimacy affected the actions of the characters involved?
And who can forget John's decision to ape Andrew Sullivan and create a series of awards based on well-known political pundits, both at Dartmouth and nationally?
The Judith Butler awardfor the most pretentious prose
Jeffrey Hart award for unbridled right-wing hysteria
Hemant Joshi award for exessive leftist rhetoric and irrational anti-Americanism
Antonin Scalia award for the most devasting insult
Tom Sowell award for the best deprogramming
Noam Chomsky award for the opinion least emcumbered by knowledge
The BBC award for blatant but unacknowledged reporting bias
The Daniel Pipes award for undeserved hatred
The NY Times award for bad predictions
Al Sharpton award for anti-Semitism
Shimon Peres award for anti-Zionism
The Derbyshire award for the most egregious homophobia
Ruth Bader Ginsburg award for racial paternalism
The Edward Said award for the most egregious cultural relativism
The Ted Turner for the most anti-religious sentiments
Ann Coulter award for the least substantiated opinions
I don't think he gave out most of them, although Jon Eisenman decided to bestow the prestigious John Stevenson Award upon...John Stevenson!

* * *

The start of 2003, which is where we left off in the previous section, saw war in Iraq looming on the horizon. Naturally, blogging veered in that direction. Robert Butts, a new addition to the team, chimed in on democracy in the Middle East, his inaugural entry. I spoke about the war and human rights, but never got around to answering this typically probing post from Tim.

And then, because the war was pretty short, we quickly moved on to more interesting topics. By this time (April 2003), most of our liberal posters had, erh, left, and for some reason that saw us getting into plenty of debates with Free Dartmouth. Both blogs had by this time enabled Comments, and these, as you know, can get ugly. At first, there was this comment by John on Queer Bar Night:
There won't even be good looking people there. It will mostly be a cackle of militant identity-ists projecting images of 'pride.' I would like to think that there exists something more important than sexual oreintation, race, gender, etc. in the world.
Boy, did this stir the pot. Even I got into a spot of bother with Tim, who by now was posting exclusively on Free Dartmouth. I had the occasion to mention in a very short post that Andrew Sullivan had dished out one of his Susan Sontag Awards for Anti-Americanism again, this time to Sontag herself. I didn't think much of it, but Tim came back all guns blazing. I also unwittingly provoked Free Dartmouth's Jared Alessandroni '03, a man whose partisanship and incivility make the trolls at Little Green Footballs and Democratic Underground seem like cute furry gnomes by comparison. (I exaggerate, but this stupid and pointless "debate" was the first time I had actually gotten physically upset over blogging.)

It all got quite tiring after a while. I was back home and rather detached from the hustle and bustle of college life, and didn't really feel like trying to play fair with people who were all too quick to call me names. So as the summer of 2003 passed, I started posting less, and on less controversial topics. Soon it was senior year, and I had started writing my History thesis. Others like the always eloquent Jon Schroeder (who went to the same high school as T. S. Eliot) took up the reins temporarily as I toiled away on "A Legend in the Making: Prester John and Medieval Politics, 1145-1330." Yet somehow, by January 2004, I was the only person blogging (to be fair, not much). From then until I graduated, and even after that, very little blogging took place.

* * *

One of the things I quickly realized the more I blogged was how much I didn't know about some topics that, in my head, I thought I grasped firmly. Blogging about them became, in that sense, a way of knowing my topic, of following to their logical conclusions the premises I had started my argument with. For John Stevenson (I'll try to speak for him here, since he's currently enjoying his last free summer before grad school), blogging changed his mind -- not once, but several times, and though I struggled to follow his line of thinking at times, I thought it admirable that he had allowed his reading and thinking to shape his world view, and not vice-versa.

I suppose I've changed too. While I'm still capable of rousing myself for issues like the recent trustee elections, I'm no longer quite as passionate about "the Western canon, multiculturalism, race relations, political correctness" as I once was: if anything, I've become more critical of the right for all sorts of crimes committed against reason and truth. I've also become increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicking these days. Life is too short to spend one's hours fisking Jim Wright's speeches or responding to every silly op-ed in The D. There are books to be read, languages to learn, and time to be spent with friends.

* * *

Speaking of spending time with friends: I am going for a two-week holiday in Croatia with a former contributor to this site who's mentioned above. So from now till then, this blog is on holiday. In the meantime, to anyone's actually read all the way through this piece, which is probably my longest ever, take care!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005
History is not therapy

Left2Right's James Oakes draws some parallels between Lynne Cheney's call for a less multicultural History curriculum and the Philadelphia school system's tilt in the opposite direction. Writes Oakes:
Both demand the impressment of history into the service of ideology. Confusing history with propaganda, both forsake history as a critical discipline. And both establish a bogus psychological standard for measuring the validity of any particular historical inquiry. If it makes students feel good–about their country or about themselves, it make no difference–it's doing the job.
A good point, and one that can't be repeated too often.

Monday, July 11, 2005
Power down the Powerpoint, please

I can't remember if I've posted this before, but check out this Powerpoint presentation of the Gettysburg Address.