Better To Turn Out The Lights?

FRANCIS column on Carol Iannone, from The Washington
, June 7, 1991.]

Beltway conservatives are in a
flutter over the stalled nomination of Carol Iannone
to the National Humanities Council, and already
they`re murmuring that the well-known slapstick comic,
Sen. Ted Kennedy, is planning to pitch a pie in her
face. Miss Iannone has made the show-stopping error of
not giggling along with the liberal laugh track, and
the culturally deracinated peanut gallery of the left
doesn`t think her own act is funny at all.

Last January, Lynne Cheney,
chairwoman of the National Endowment for the
Humanities, named Miss Iannone – a young professor at
the Gallatin division of New York University – to the
Humanities Council, an august body of academics that
advises on the dispensing of federal funds for
approved projects in the humanities.
Requiring Senate confirmation, the nomination
was dispatched to the Labor and Human Resources
Committee, where Mr. Kennedy presides.
There the nomination has languished for lo
these six months, but not without hostile snickers and
sneers from Miss Iannone`s foes.

The most recent dead cat to be
lobbed at her is the charge of “racism,”
hurled by, among others, Joel Connaroe, a former head
of the Modern Language Association.
Miss Iannone, he wrote to Mrs. Cheney,
“clearly views all African American writers the
way the late Paul de Man viewed Jewish writers – as
easily dismissed second-raters.”  Mr. Connaroe had read (or says he`s read) Miss Iannone`s
essay in the March issue of Commentary criticizing
several recent black literary prize-winners.

But the charge of
“racism,” having been heaved at everyone
from Hitler to Harvard professors, is now virtually
meaningless and can easily be dismissed.  Miss Iannone clearly did not encompass all black writers in
her article but argued merely that specific writers
were undeserving of the prizes they`d won.
She may be right or wrong, but there`s no
reason to read racism into her essay.

Miss Iannone`s critics might do
better to back up and stick with their original gripes
about her.  Soon
after her nomination went up to the Senate, current
MLA head Phyllis Franklin wrote Mrs.
Cheney to complain that the nominee really
didn`t have sufficient academic credentials to serve
on the Council.  While
Miss Iannone has a Ph.D. and has taught at the
university level for a decade, Miss Franklin seems to
be right that her scholarly production is thinner than
Jane Fonda`s thighs.

Miss Iannone has mainly written
some high-class literary journalism for such
publications as Commentary, National Review,
the Wall Street
and the New
.  She`s
the book editor of Academic
, published by the National Association
of Scholars.  All
of which is terrific, but there`s little evidence that
she`s done her fair share of slogging through footnote
and index card to produce the kind of literary
scholarship that wins (or used to win) laurels in

There`s nothing wrong (and much
that is right) in the work she`s done, but it`s not
clear that it qualifies her for the Humanities
Council.  That
position typically involves some mastery of what Miss
Franklin calls “the academic enterprise” – a
grasp of what scholars do, who they are, how they do
it, how well they do it, how much it costs, how much
certain proposals are needed and who within the vast
academic-government complex is best suited to
undertake them.  All of that demands more than the kind of right-leaning
ideological political correctness Miss Iannone has
demonstrated so ably.  Maybe she can meet those demands, but so far she hasn`t shown

One way to show it is to sport a
resume that reveals an interest in such matters, and
one (not the only) way to do that is to have published
in the grim and obscure learned journals of the
academic profession, or to have dabbled in the
grant-getting by which scholarship is financed, or to
have directed theses and dissertations at the graduate
level.  If
Miss Iannone has done any of these things in her brief
career, her supporters would be well-advised to start
talking them up.
So far they haven`t, and they`ve rested their
case for her on the obnoxiousness of her enemies.

Well, they`re plenty obnoxious,
including such Borkers as the People for the American
Way and the whole tribe of feminists,
deconstructionists, multiculturalists, Marxists and
professional victims of every gender, hue and sexual
predilection.  What
these characters want is not scholarship but somebody
who will shut up and fork over to them the federal
swag NEH dispenses.

Mrs. Cheney, to her credit, isn`t
doing that at NEH, and Miss Iannone wouldn`t either.  But conservatives would do better if instead of just trying
to slip their own cousins into the federal woodwork,
they made every effort to abolish the NEH entirely. 

The Humanities Endowment
functions as a perpetual tax-funded feeding trough for
the American intellectual class, and as long as it
exists, the literati of the left will hope to fatten
themselves on its fodder, even as they subvert the
civilization of the people who pay for them.
Getting rid of the NEH would go far to decouple
the Brahmins from the bureaucracy and force them to
peddle their projects in the marketplace.
In that austere world, they might even discover
incentives to change their ideas and turn out more
wholesome scholarship than they habitually do.

But that will never happen if
conservatives are content merely with grabbing the
limelight on the NEH stage that the left built for
itself. Instead of rewriting the left`s lines, the
Beltway Right, if it does nothing else, ought to try
to turn out the lights and close down the whole show.

January 20, 2001