Saturday, May 17, 2008

Takedown Time!

It's been a while since I've done a good old-fashioned take-down of someone's idiocy. This one actually comes from something I wrote at the Foreign Policy Assocation's Africa Blog. Enjoy.

This Kevin Cullen op-ed in The Boston Globe is so badly argued, so dumb and shallow, that I hardly even know where to begin. And what probably vexes me more than anything is that I agree with the fundamental premise behind the argument. But it is so terribly done that it does an injustice to the merits of the debate. In penning such a badly written, poorly argued, at times inane screed, Cullen manages to hurt the very cause he espouses and gives those of us who do the hard work of actually understanding Africa more work to do just to cover our own flanks. Let’s look at, deconstruct, if you will, just how monumentally bad this piece is. As usual, I will place Cullen’s words in quotation marks and as appropriate will add my own running commentary, which I will precede with “***”:

"So they’re finally getting serious about rescinding the honorary degree the University of Massachusetts gave Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe. About time, and props to the students and to state Representative Kevin Murphy who kept pushing this when all the beautiful people in Amherst looked the other way."

*** So far, fairly innocuous, and as I said, I agree with the sentiment. But the gratuitous “beautiful people” ad hominem gives a sign of things to come.

Mugabe, who led the struggle against white minority rule in what was Rhodesia, was the great black hope for postcolonial Africa when he became Zimbabwe’s first democratically elected leader in 1980.

*** Him, Joshua Nkomo, and at the time, most presumed, others to come. Anyone who has read my writing on Zimbabwe here at the Foreign Policy Association and elsewhere knows that no apologia for Mugabe is forthcoming on my end.

"It was a stroke of unwitting irony that UMass gave him a doctorate of law in 1986, because ever since Mugabe has been extremely good at thumbing his nose at international law, turning Zimbabwe, once Africa’s rose, into an autocracy as indifferent to human rights as Rhodesia’s British colonizers. At least the Brits stopped torturing people in the afternoon to take their tea.

UMass was entitled to honor Mugabe in 1986, but everything he’s done since has shown him to be a thug and a brute and a racist to boot. The UMass trustees responded to years of documented human rights abuses by yawning. Last year, they said they wouldn’t rescind the degree, but would write a letter expressing disapproval of Mugabe’s behavior. This, no doubt, bothered Mugabe no end."

*** Let us overlook the misuse of the word “irony” here. I am, frankly, beyond expecting journalists actually to use that word correctly. And the cliches — good God, the cliches. Let us instead look at the logic in this paragraph. You sneer at the idea of a sternly written letter causing Mugabe to feel chastened. Fair enough. Such a letter would be of no moment. But rescinding an honorary doctorate would? You are arguing for one meaningless symbolic gesture over another. Forgive me for feeling a bit underwhelmed by your intellectual gravitas, never mind the bizarre aggressiveness with which you make these distinctions not amounting to a difference.

"The trustees said they were very, very upset with Mugabe. That’s like members of the Reichstag saying they didn’t like the tone of Hitler’s speech to them in 1933."

*** Actually, the two are not at all the same. Even if we ignore the invocation of Hitler – almost always a sign of a vacuous argument – the analogy is a mess. In the case that has you so worked up, the trustees of a university in the United States are, we can all hope, dismayed, furious, distressed, have your pick, about the actions of a foreign leader. But they may or may not choose to withdraw an honorary degree they gave before the vast majority of the class of 2008 was born. My guess is that they do not want to get involved in the business of going through all past honorees to test for similar perfidy. In what possible way does that provide an analogue with Hitler and the Reichstag in 1933, given the role that the Reichstag and Hitler played and the relationship between the two after January of that year? I am taking a guess here, but based on what I have seen so far, you must have done terribly both on the analogy sections of the SAT and in history classes, because this comparison represents idiocy compounded by idiocy.

"The trustees said they didn’t rescind the degree because they had never rescinded one before. Following this magnificent logic, if you stumble across a dying person for the first time in your life, you should just keep walking, because, well, you never stopped to help a dying person before."

*** This strikes me as either another dumb analogy or as a dumb metaphor. Which brings me to another complaint: This is a rather poorly written screed. It is turgid and nonsensical and angry and unfocused.

"It’s high time they restore the Blue Wall as a full-fledged bar and offer two-for-one Powerhouses before trustee meetings at UMass-Amherst. Seriously, if these clowns got loaded before their meetings, could they do any worse?"

*** I honestly do not understand this level of rancor toward the trustees of a university who have a million more important things to do than to engage in – and I cannot emphasize this clearly enough – empty symbolic gestures. Kevin (Mr. Cullen? I won’t make you call me Dr. or Professor – let’s be on a first-name basis here), this is between you and me: I understand the business end of ardently written attacks. I’d like to think I am pretty good at them. And Lord knows I’ve teed off on a few folks in the past myself. But basically you are referring to an entire body of people as “clowns” because they have not decided to enact your utterly meaningless withdrawal of a fake degree. Take a step back and you will realize the manifest silliness in all of this. Maybe you should go and have a drink at the Blue Wall yourself and just calm down. I do like the inside references though – it makes you seem sort of hip in the way that people who are not at all hip but wish to be present themselves.

"I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the UMass trustees to my pal Geoff Nyarota. When he was young, Nyarota worked as a teacher, because that was the only job the white Rhodesian government allowed educated blacks to hold. When Mugabe came to power, Nyarota was able to pursue his real calling, which was journalism. He became editor of the Daily News, which quickly became the best newspaper in

"After Nyarota exposed the corruption endemic to Mugabe’s regime, Mugabe did what any good despot would do: He had Nyarota arrested. Six times. When Nyarota wouldn’t back down, they bombed his printing press. When he still wouldn’t back down, they tried to kill him.

"At that point, six years ago, Geoff Nyarota did what any good newspaperman would do: He ran. He didn’t stop running until he got to Massachusetts, where the flagship state university had bestowed its highest honor on the guy who wanted him dead. Harvard’s Nieman Foundation gave him a fellowship and a way to feed his wife and children.

"The sanctuary is appreciated, but Nyarota wants to go home some day, and when he does, that will probably mean Mugabe is dead or in the dock at The Hague. When that happens, Zimbabwe will be better off."

*** Your friend’s is a great story and you tell it prosaically but effectively. You should have led with this. You should have let this be the basis for a rational argument about the real effects of Robert Mugabe’s regime. And you should have honored your friend by making an elegant case for the ways in which hundreds of thousand have suffered under the ills of Mugabe. Instead you use your friend to engage in a harangue that in some ways serves to dishonor him. Some way to treat a friend.

"Meanwhile, the traveling circus that is the UMass trustees will meet next month to sort this out. Luckily, they are not meeting in Amherst, which is located in a lovely part of Western Massachusetts known as Happy Valley because a disproportionate number of people there still wear Sandinista T-shirts and think Winnie Mandela was just swell."

*** And now back to our regularly scheduled inanity. Rather than engage in this sophomoric jibe against an entire, and not, by the way, insignificant, region of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts you should probably know that in Amherst there are almost assuredly dozens, probably hundreds, of people who know substantially more about the Zimbabwe situation than you do, which I would bet is a pretty low bar to jump. Rather than engage in some fatuous anti-lefty criticism you could have called some of these people, most of whom almost assuredly would have supported your case. Instead you insult one of the most important centers of learning in New England. Well played, sir.

Instead, the trustees will meet in Lowell, a real city where people have real jobs and don’t have time to worry about tin-pot dictators who live off faded freedom fighter tales.

*** This is a single-sentence paragraph (don’t get me started on the ways journalists write) that is densely packed with foolishness. Lowell is a “real city,” as opposed, I guess, to Amherst. It has a perfectly respectable branch campus of the University of Massachusetts, but a branch campus nonetheless. But I would love to know more about the “real jobs” dichotomy that you – who, may I remind readers, is a newspaper columnist for one of the most elite newspapers in the country, which hardly entails heavy lifting, and in his case does not apparently involve making phone calls to talk to people who know vastly more than you do about the very things you choose to splatter on the op-ed page – so venerate. Oh – and aren’t you choosing to write about a tin pot dictator? So I do not get it – either Mugabe is worth writing about (and I’d propose that he is given that he is a ruthless tyrant actively destroying his country) or he is not. But it hardly edifies the discussion to create strawmen and presume that the good folks of Lowell have real jobs and thus do not care about the very topic that has you so exercised that you are writing about it. Dishonoring the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe by asserting that their leader is not worthy of being noticed by people with real jobs might prove your populist bona fides in Lowell, but it hardly convinces the rest of us of your seriousness.

When the trustees sit down, they should make quick work of this, pausing only to cross out Mugabe’s name and put Geoff Nyarota’s name in its place.

*** Sure, Geoff Nyarota, or my friends Mark or Douglas or countless other Zimbabweans. This is fine. And were the column otherwise not so cringe-inducing it might have even represented an eloquent closing. And indeed your larger point – UMass should pull Mugabe’s honorary degree – is a worthwhile one. But your overall presentation is so bad, so poorly presented, so full of itself and yet ultimately substanceless, that you actually undermine the cause you espouse. A sort of grandeur creeps into a newspaper column this wretched. In a way I feel as if I should thank you. It is rare to see a single example that captures the manifest awfulness of so much of modern commentary from people who veer too far from their areas of knowledge. I am in your debt, sir.

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