Lawsuit-free since 9/14/05

Thursday, March 31, 2005

We Get Letters! We Get Lots and Lots of Letters!

Peter Bailey Doesn't Like Us, Misspells Some Things, Pretends to Be a Legal Scholar and Doesn't Have a Sense of Humor

We recently received this bit of unclever (or even well-reasoned) invective at takebackourcampus@yahoo.com.
Dear Take Back,
One difference between Margaret Kent Bass and Rob Loftis and TBOC is that those two people take complete personal responsibility for the intellectual/ideological positions they articulate. Another difference is that they don't hide behind cute pseudonyms, nor do they personally attack students whose positions differ from theirs and defend that activity as "satire." They also know that "a clever mixture of news, wit, satire and commentary" creates nothing but rhetorical confusion, allowing its perpetrators to cloak expressive irresponsibility behind claims of freedom of speech. And now TBOC is suing Professor Bass for exercising her right of free speech in using the blog as a subject for class debate. Great--welcome to revengeland. You understand, I hope, that some liberals in the country would argue that there are larger issues for a publication like yours to be taking on than the SLU administration or the Canton chapter of Young Republicans? Seriously, guys, it's time to graduate from SLU. Your litigation is a nuisance suit, and you know it, and one
that reduces to hypocritical mockery your testimonials to the sanctity of free speech.

Peter Bailey
Professor of English

[In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that the above text is the second draft of the letter Dr. Bailey sent to TBOC. Being a sport, I replied to his original message and offered him the chance to fix his spelling and grammar errors before his mild bit of rage was put on public display as a silly testament to the politics of tenured professors. He was nice and did so immediately]

But onto the (unbecomingly thick and imprecisely sliced) meat of his message. Bailey first points out the difference between Margaret Kent Bass, Rob Loftis and Take Back Our Campus. Some might call this point needless. After all, no one has ever compared Margaret Kent Bass or Rob Loftis to TBOC. "But what the hell," Bailey must have thought in his safe Carrollian Wonderland of academic outrage. "'Why is a raven like a writing desk?' Why is a raven not like a writing desk?"

Onward now, following Bailey's blunt form: One difference between Peter Bailey and Take Back Our Campus is that we respect the intelligence of our readers, trusting them as capable of separating news from opinion from satire. Another difference is that we don't believe the lack of a punchingly blatant frame "creates nothing but rhetorical confusion." We trust our readers to distinguish a joke from an argument and trust that when our writing (as it often does) injects humor into more serious polemics, our readers will accept the gags in the spirit in which they were offered.

Seriously now (and Petey-- do those words suitably indicate that the following paragraph contains a different point? I'm unsure how much more obvious I can be, but I wouldn't want to add to your "rhetorical confusion"), Bailey seems to think that Dr. Bass' violation of TBOC's copyright is protected by the umbra of "free speech." Though Bailey might claim "fair use" (which would also be a mistake, as Dr. Bass wasn't free to reproduce our work in print form for the purposes of her class), but "free speech" has absolutely nothing to do with the issue.

[Am I the only one who sees a problem in at least two members of the English department not knowing (or deliberately ignoring) the basics of copyright law? Perhaps the administration can use this as a "teachable moment" and hold some kind of remedial seminar for them.]

While it's certainly arrogant of Bailey to presume to speak for the voiceless masses (his group of "some liberals in the country"), I was puzzled by his reference to TBOC as "a publication like yours...." TBOC is a blog about St. Lawrence University and the surrounding area. We always have been. We provide an alternative viewpoint, one not found in University-sponsored publications. We are going to write about SLU issues. While I am solipsistic enough to assume that the world is clamoring for my views on Social Security (Bush is looking to privatize Social Security to boost a failing Wall Street and raise the economic indicators just enough for Republicans to win in 2008), Iraq [our next target is either Azerbaijan, Sudan, or (again) Venezuala-- just follow the oil], or Terri Schiavo (only her body died today-- her brain's been dead for fifteen years. And who decided that a woman with an eating disorder would wish to have a feeding tube?)-- for now TBOC will continue writing about St. Lawrence and the surrounding community. However, it is obvious that the subtext of Bailey's argument is that we should cease the deserved scrutiny of the administration and SLU Republicans. Why? It makes him a little nervous. While academics and their administrative bosses (Saul Bellow here: "wasn't a college dean a kind of executive?") ostensibly encourage debate, occasionally support free speech and rally to issues both politically correct and politically unimportant, they detest personal accountability. "Why, oh why," they lament in successive fugues (an example of which can be found here, which I will be sure to expound on in coming days). "Must we be held accountable for the things we do and say? Can't everyone just be nice and let us do whatever we want?"

While I found humorous Bailey's invocation of the uncharming staples of Grade Seven forensics (e.g. "Seriously, guys..." "and you know it..."), I was mystified by his inability to understand a joke. Why didn't Bailey, the author of a well reviewed book about Woody Allen, understand that my announcement of a lawsuit against Margaret Kent Bass and St. Lawrence University was a bit of parody meant to highlight the betrayingly illiberal and unacademic nature of SLU's lawsuit against TBOC?

In the hopes of nudging him a little further to the punchline, I sent Bailey a nice note, asking what he thought of SLU's lawsuit against TBOC vis a vis TBOC's lawsuit against SLU. Hoping to establish a friendly tone (he had, after all, addressed the TBOC staff as "guys"), I addressed the letter to "Petey," asked his opinion on Woody Allen's latest feature and wrote "Personally, I've always thought that Interiors was Woody Allen's funniest movie." [For non-Allen fans, Interiors is a stark drama that doesn't even have music, much less any jokes.]

At the time (and no, I hadn't mirthfully been smoking hashish by myself all evening while reading Jonathan Safran Foer's latest novel, which I highly recommend), I thought Bailey might have been charmed by this bit of insousiance. I was so wrong. The next day, I received this:
Christian Evangelist,
I responded to one e-mail addressed to "Petey," but if you want to have serious discussions about significant issues with adults, you need to cut out the sophomoric, wiseass forms of address and the "I-think INTERIORS-is-Allen's-funniest-movie" bullshit. Then we'll talk.
Peter Bailey
Michael Chabon (in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) wrote about the latter titular character, "[l]ike all of his friends, he considered it a compliment when somebody called him a wiseass." I'll follow Sam Clay's lead.

If Peter Bailey refuses to discuss an issue without first being addressed in whatever hierarchical manner he deems appropriate (inconsistent with the colloquial tone he originally established by addressing the TBOC staff as "guys"), then he can continue to jabber at whatever sycophants will use his title. But at TBOC, we've always ignored self-important and hierophantic behavior, instead choosing to address the merit of the argument. Indeed, that's the only way to impose on the artificial power structures built by academia.

But in spite of all the evidence, journalistic balance forces me to write that Peter Bailey's probably a nice guy who might even have an argument if he bothered to coalesce his thoughts into something more coherent than his folksy use of "bullshit." Just don't try to tell him a joke.


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