Thursday, July 17, 2003
The very definition of old news: I've been really, REALLY slow on this puppy, but it's still worth a comment from me. You all have no idea what I'm talking about. I'm referring to the June 22nd Washington Post Magazine article on AU's campus atmosphere at the brink of war with Iraq. For AU-philes (like me), it's a pretty straightforward ride through the spring semester. It was a little dry (given that I knew the subject, having...um...LIVED through it!), but still told the story pretty satisfactorily. (Full disclosure: know of Andrew Willis, had a class with Elizabeth Falcon [if I remember correctly, she was interning, ironically, at the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco that semester], know Bob Nardo [given that he was CR president, kind of a no-brainer], had Peter Kuznick [America Between the Wars...you find the archived posts referring to that, I'm not implicating myself], friends with Julie Fishman [via Hillel, one of the first people I met at AU, actually]). I would put together a long, detailed criticism of the article, except that Josh Kraushaar's already done a good one. (Hat tip for both the original article, and Josh K.'s return piece: the always-dependable BenLadner.com.)
Let me respond then to both pieces in tandem. I think it's a difficult thing to sum up the whole mood of a campus in 5,800 words, and so you've got to go with general stereotypes, even if they're not 100% accurate. If Perl started looking at AU in February, or worse yet, after spring break in March, this would be after 6 months of exhaustive debate on the conflict both nationally and campus-wide. At war's start, everyone who's going to have a position has their position. You've pretty much down to trite cliches on both sides (Having spent time with Nardo and the CR's during this time, the description is pretty much true -- although that's maybe due to bad event planning. I've found myself that it's much harder to articulate an argument FOR war -- as it should be -- and it really can't be done at a sort of rally, despite right-wing attempts to the contrary [See also: Rally for the Troops, Capitol Lawn, April 12th. I was there. I know.]). Josh criticizes Perl for not going into as much depth as someone like Michael Lewis in Moneyball. I don't blame him as much. Moneyball was supposed to be an NYT Magazine article, about the same length as Perl's. There was so much material there that Lewis turned it into a book. Had this been a book, perhaps Bob gets his own chapter, Prof. Kuznick gets his own chapter, etc. Then, you can see the main players more in depth, their flaws and their strengths. Perl had to either go for scope or depth in his article. He chose scope, and while it isn't perfect, it's better than 5,800 words on one of these people to try to get the full picture.
It's possible Perl was looking to capture Vietnam-like student sentiment compared to an "apathetic America" supportive of the President. He'd find it at AU, although it's not there 100% (I know plenty of apolitical people), and there are plenty of fringe groups (CASJ on the left, the "Southern Heritage Society" on the right). I'd note although that it would probably steam Matt Herrmann and the other College Dems that they didn't even play a role in this. I'm actually a little surprised. One would think that since they have to be both pragmatic (CASJ aka the Movement is more hard-left, the CD's are looking for jobs) and yet are mostly anti-war. Given the positions of Dean/Kerry/Edwards, etc., I think they would have added a little spice to the article (Haley Stevens, anyone?).
My criticism in the original reading focused not on the article, but the live author chat. Reading it again now, it appears to be heavily edited, as Bob only appears once, whereas he was every other questioner in the previous chat (the thing at the bottom now, was somewhere near the middle). Reading a coherent version, it's pretty obvious Perl wasn't totally tied in to events, having missed both The American Journal flap and any mention of BenLadner.com. (I could be wrong, but his answers make it seem this way). It's possible that his article is a sanitized view of events. I never saw the guy (...actually, now that I think about it, maybe once, in front of Bender Library, the Thursday after the start of the war, about 5 o'clock, at the rally mentioned in the article. Like I said, the tone of that event is pretty accurate, but it is odd that that's the only mention of Nardo, the CRs, the Committee on the Present Danger, etc), so I don't know what he saw. For 5,800 words, he hit of lot of significant events. It's nice to at least see AU in a good light in major media.
JH 1:48 AM