Footnotes & Fiddlesticks

When engaging on certain topics like say… communism, it is not uncommon to have someone ask if you have read a certain book and after learning (as they probably expect), that you have not, move to immediately disqualify your opinion. With people who do this, it usually doesn’t operate in reverse and they will be just as likely to dismiss any book you bring up for superfluous reasons; probably not themselves having even heard the title before you brought it up. In other words, holding someone to academic standard in an informal, conversational setting and not holding yourself to the same standard.

Now I want to make a clear distinction before continuing that if you are going to seriously engage with a topic, you should be well read on the subject matter. So yes, a serious criticism of communism (something I’ve never done here), would require you to have engaged with the relevant texts like Das Kapital. Replace the the nouns in the previous sentence with any other topic and the same rule applies. Again, I’m not talking about serious academic discourse, just general conversation whether over a dinner table, at a bar or an online forum. I’m talking about things at a amateur or perhaps journalistic level of discussion.

Now excuse me while I take a large  but necessary tangent for most of the rest of this post.

One of the first observations I would make, is that many of the most important texts in history have not been huge, heavily footnoted and barely readable academic tomes. I just opened a copy of Plato’s Republic and all the annotations were added a few thousand years later. This is just as true today. A book I was encouraged to read in university called Pedagogy of the Oppressed didn’t bring together every major text on educational theory. From the exerts I read, it seemed more like an eloquent rant and this text obviously had a major influence on the professor who set it in the readings and one assumes their own publications. And on thinking back it seems to have been pure cultural Marxist nonsense. Anyway, the main point is that it was recommended by academics despite not being all that academic.

The next observation I would make is with regard to the nature of the academic world today. It isn’t a secret that academics really love it when their work is cited and the more citations you have, the better it can be for your career. The reality is that very little of the enormous amount that is published is read so getting attention matters. I don’t think you need a doctorate to see how corruption could enter in here. Academics might agree to cite each other so they will in turn be cited, and so on. It could also encourage young academics to steer a thesis in a way that a more popular academic would agree with so they would go on to cite or even review! Then there is the other fact that there are a whole lot more people with doctorates than there are university positions which makes groveling a certainty.

You may have forgotten (and I almost did), that I’m not even speaking about college level intellectual inquiry. I’m talking about everyday conversation about serious (and often emotive) topics. When what I mentioned above goes on at an academic level, you can better understand how ridiculous it is to make appeals to authority in order to dismiss the opinion of someone you are speaking to.

And what is particularly annoying is when the reverse is true. During University I became interested in Australian history and began reading about it. Finding what was on offer to be tipped unsurprisingly in a certain direction, I eventually discovered the work of Keith Windschuttle. At the time, he had just released a large book following a series of articles appearing in Quadrant and elsewhere on the history of relations between European colonists and native aborigines. The title of what is still an unfinished series; The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, is enough to give a good idea about what to expect and how academics might respond to it. While certainly polemical, it is also a lengthy, heavily researched and meticulously footnoted.

Now even though Windschuttle had followed the rules, the goal posts were of course moved and ad hominem  (as properly understood), was the go to strategy for disqualification. You can even look at the responses they’ve chosen to list on Wikipedia and see how many of them merely label him right-wing in the pejorative sense – which is not an argument. Stop for a moment and consider that the Wikipedia hive mind is actually impressed enough with these responses to include them as though it is legitimate criticism. The only really legitimate criticism I remember reading at the time involved a couple of errors in footnoting which just pointed to the wrong page of a couple of works and changed nothing about his overall thesis. These were acknowledged and corrected but were still taken an opportunity to disqualify the rest of the work. The criticism was actually so bad that it provoked a book length response to the book length response and this was just the original volume.

So someone who followed all the rules and did all the research and read all the books still had the goal posts moved a further fifty feet after all that effort and not much changed. And notice again that I’m back on academic work involving academics. Perhaps now you can see why I think it is a little unfair that some people are required to subject themselves to peer review, for merely uttering an unfashionable opinion by people who apply no such standards to themselves.

If you do happen to find yourself in a conversation and are tempted to hold an unread book up in front of someone making an argument. I hope that after reading this, it will be simply to make a recommendation and not in order to disqualify what they are saying by imposing unfair standards of them. And lets not forget the most important aspect. When you do this you are making no actual argument yourself.

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