Michael Bérubé’s “This I Believed” first appeared in Issue 71-72 (Spring/Summer 2009) of the minnesota review.
Sixteen years ago, in the summer and fall of 1993 when I was writing Public Access, I described myself as “a lefty middle-innings pitcher, keenly aware of living in a time when New Deal liberalism marks the leftward border of the thinkable in the United States, and committed to a pragmatic politics of the most fairly regulated markets this society can produce or imagine.” The end of that passage marked me as Not Left Enough in some quarters, but it’s the beginning of the passage that I’d like to explain. The middle-innings pitcher is the guy who shows up when things have gone badly awry. He’s not the closer, who shuts things down in the ninth, and he’s not the setup man, who takes care of the seventh and eighth so that the fireballing closer can face the absolute minimum number of batters and live to throw heat the next day. He’s the schlump who appears when the starter has coughed up one hairball after another, or when the starter has coughed up hairballs and his hapless replacement has followed suit. The job of the middle reliever is to stop the bleeding and give the team a chance to rally. If they can.
At the time I wrote those words, I was thinking of the spectacular, thrilling, world-historical media extravaganza known as the PC scare, in which the hardened culture warriors of the right faced off against the mostly befuddled and muttering legions of academic liberals. Two years earlier, as a second-year assistant professor, I had stepped up and written a response to Kimball, D’Souza, et al., out of sheer frustration—frustration at my senior colleagues for not taking the right seriously, or for taking the right seriously but having no clue how to respond in a public forum. Needless to say, I didn’t have any idea how to respond in a public forum either, because I had never done it; but I thought, in 1991, that the starters and their hapless replacements were coughing up hairballs, and I didn’t think I could do any worse.
That was arrogant of me, perhaps, but…well, there is no but. It was arrogant, full stop. I’m still glad I did it, because I was right in one respect: my senior colleagues were coughing up hairballs whenever they tried to reply to the right’s shock PC troops. But the conditions of my response had some deleterious effects on me over the short term. Because one of my desires, in intervening in the PC debates, was to explain literary theory to people who thought it was (a) a tool of leftist indoctrination, (b) nothing but obfuscatory jargon, or (c) a scary thing that might hurt literature, I wound up thinking—for at least the next few years—that I was, or should be, in the business of defending every variant of theory from every kind of attack. In my defense (which I can’t help but undertake, even at this late date), I was working at a time when curmudgeonly and anti-intellectual senior faculty in English, some of whom had produced little or no scholarship in decades, could (and did!) vote against hiring or tenuring brilliant and promising junior colleagues who identified themselves as deconstructionists or feminists or queer theorists (or all of the above). That is, I took part in the PC wars not only to bear arms against the dishonest and ignorant hacks of the American right, but also to engage in side skirmishes with the theory-backlashers in my own discipline—and I did so with glee, for I knew very well who the angels and demons were.
I say this now with a mixture of irony and nostalgia, because the terrain has shifted so dramatically since then. In the early to mid-1990s, it was quite easy to give in to the temptations of side-choosing, good Us against evil or clueless Them; indeed, at times it was actually imperative. When exactly? At hiring time, for starters.
Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches cultural studies and American literature. He is currently the president of the Modern Language Association. You can learn more about Bérubé and his work at his website. To read the rest of the article, visit our online archives. You do not need a subscription to read the full article.