Tuesday, July 06, 2010

To Cite Is To Endorse, or, Rhetoric As A Bludgeoning Device

Ed over at Dispatches has a good take on people bitching and moaning about Kagan citing a socialist in her undergrad thesis. As he puts it:

[Q]uoting a socialist scholar in a paper about the history of socialism does not make one a socialist.

That's so self-evident to me that it's damn near axiomatic; presumably Ed has a similar take. No rational person could believe otherwise, so Pam is clearly arguing in bad faith, right?

Well... maybe not. As I was reading his post the thought occurred to me that maybe Ed's observation isn't self-evident to Pam and her ilk. We (meaning Ed, myself, and likeminded individuals) understand that a thesis is an exercise in inquiry that requires casting a wide net. All manner of facts and opinions may be relevant to the question at hand; the sources thereof are evaluated on the basis of veracity, not ideology. Thus, in this case, Kagan may cite a pro-Nazi socialist because he has something relevant to say and not, as Pam would have it, because she's a secret Nazi sympathizer.

Now let's posit an alternate model where the thesis is not so much an inquiry as a vehicle for the exposition of a pre-determined conclusion1. If you're trying to make a particular point you're going to bolster your case solely by reference to ideological allies; there's no cause to give voice to the loyal opposition, much less anyone with strongly dissenting views. It follows logically from there that a citation is equivalent to an endorsement; why mention someone unless you agree with them?

Is this what's actually happening in practice? Consider, for example, Glenn Beck's Common Sense. The book contains no direct citations, IIRC, and the list of additional readings is exceedingly narrow; Beck shows no interest in exploring views which don't directly coincide with his own. I don't feel like I'm going out on a limb to say that the Kagan's thesis and Beck's book are intended for distinctly different purposes.

Ultimately this is a roundabout way of explaining Pam's reaction2: there's some non-trivial slice of the blogosphere/punditocracy/whatever, represented by people like Geller and Beck, for whom the practice of citation means something different than it does to academics like Kagan. I don't believe their interpretation is at all reasonable, but then again with that crew it's hard to tell how much they believe what they're saying and how much is just pretext.


1 Hardly an original observation, I know, but certainly relevant here.
2 Assuming, of course, that she's not just feigning outrage to score points. Unfortunately that's a fundamentally un-testable proposition.

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