Manichaean Labelling

First published in Books in Canada 26.6 (September 1997): 40.

It is perversely flattering to read, in Professor Joseph Knippenberg's review of my book Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars (February), that “Keefer poses as great a threat to the independence of the university as the corporate interests against which he inveighs.” Since Knippenberg believes that corporate interests (“rug merchants”, he calls them) indeed threaten the independence of universities, this is a serious charge. But even in the climate of paranoia created by the PC controversy, and analyzed by my book, it sounds just a bit silly. This is one book, after all, and there are big-time rug merchants out there.

Although he doesn't acknowledge the fact, the habits of mind Knippenberg reveals in his review are studied at some length in my book. These include a tendency (widespread among contemporary conservatives) to understand cultural debate in Manichaean terms, as a no-holds-barred struggle between the children of light and the servants of darkness; and a related tendency to substitute abusive labelling and paranoid distortion for responsible analysis.

Knippenberg's sense of what precisely he is opposing may seem confused. At one point he identifies my position as a “liberal or social democratic egalitarianism”; at another he finds my arguments “reminiscent of the worst kind of Marxist reductionism.” Is he genuinely unable to distinguish among positions any distance to the left of his own, or is it his habit to paste a “Marxist” label on any argument that makes a dent in conservative dogmas? He is in any case persuaded that a book which exposes the fatuities and the falsehoods of recent conservative attacks on humanities curricula, and which argues that feminist, materialist, and postcolonialist scholarship, far from being antithetical to our humanist traditions, can bring young people to an enhanced and humane appreciation of western literary and philosophical traditions, must be very wicked indeed.

One of the rhetorical postures that Lunar Perspectives dismantles (here following Northrop Frye) is the pretence that the university is an ivory tower, divorced from social concerns. From this Knippenberg deduces that I believe in power politics of the most brutal kind. Setting aside my repeated insistence upon civilized dialogue and my hope that, given good faith and interpretive patience, even people with the most radically divergent opinions might be able to arrive at a common understanding, Knippenberg tries to pin on me a view of the university as simply “a ground to be fought over and captured, either by the oppressed or by their oppressors.” This particular donkey's tail is his, not mine: if he thinks it will keep the flies from settling, let him wear it himself.

“Keefer's university,” Knippenberg declares, “is not one that I can respect or defend.” I'm sorry to hear that. For if I did have a university all of my own, his opinions would be welcome there, as part of the free and lively exchange that I see as one of a university's defining features. And who knows, perhaps at “Keefer's university” he might learn to be a more careful reader, and a less blinkered interpreter of what he reads.

Michael Keefer
Stad aan't Haringvliet, The Netherlands