Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The John and Howard Show

Boy, here's a name I haven't thought of much lately: John Silber, paladin of all that is good and great in American academic life; also freelance bully and headline grabber--and in particular, arch-foe of Howard Zinn who played the Questing Beast to Silber's King Pellinore.  I haven't thought that much about Zinn lately either although I guess I was aware that his People's History of the United States, once the cynosure of campus radicalism is apparently still in print and still grinding out a nice piece of change for the the Zinn estate.  Zinn (or his ghost) is also the recipient of a gift--really, a pair of gifts--perhaps rather grander than he deserves.  One is a biography by Martin Duberman, apparently a sympathetic observer even if clear-eyed about at least some of the shortcomings of his subject.  The other is a superb review of the book (and of Zinn) by one  David Greenberg (hitherto unknown to me), willing to approach both Duberman and Zinn with perspective at once clear-eyed and compassionate.

I'm to review the review--go read it yourself, it's great, and not that long.  But I do want to say a word about the conflict between Zinn and Silber which appears to form a center of the book as perhaps it did of Zinn's career.  For those just arriving, Silber was the high-saliency president of Boston University and Zinn represented, to all appearances, just exactly the sort of guy Silber did not want cluttering up his government department.   Clearly Greenberg holds no particular high regard for Silber:.  
Silber’s ostensible concern for academic freedom was belied by his tyrannical style. Heedless of due process, intolerant of dissent, Silber imposed his will on the faculty and students, generating only more unrest.
For such a man, Zinn was a natural target, and however bitter the conflict, you can;t escape the notion that Zinn loved it: to all appearances, it gave him all the street cred a self-proclaimed radical could have wanted.  

But let me turn back to Silver.   Like him or not (I don't know many people who do, or did), still I think you'd have to concede the sincerity of his commitment to the academy, or at any rate to his own vision thereof.  But whatever his virtues, I think you'd also have to concede that he was an unquenchable publicity whore--one of those people, to put it differently, who really doesn't care whether he wins or loses the good fight as long as the spotlight stays on him.

I'm  not quite sure how this plays out in the life of Boston University--not nearly well informed enough to pass judgment.   As a distant observer, my guess is that BU is a more impressive place now than it was before Silber set foot in the place, whether because or in spite of him I wouldn't want to say.  But that won't keep me from speculating that Silber might have done a better job of work on Zinn if he'd been quieter about it.   And that here may be half or dozen or so University leaders who have done far more damage to the cause of progressive politics just by being a bit more reptilian about it.


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