Professor Mark Kleiman (Wikimedia)
I’m going to pick on Professor Mark Kleiman of NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management for a bit, and not just because I’m cheesed about his suggesting, wrongly and dishonestly, that an easily checked fact in a piece of mine is a “flat-out lie.”
(To be clear: Professor Kleiman wrote that the claim was false and then rhetorically asked whether it was a “flat-out lie,” which is a tediously familiar form of passive-aggressive intellectual cowardice.)
The times being what they are, I am fairly used to misrepresentations of my writing and my views; I am asked on a fairly regular basis about things I’m alleged to have written (and tweeted) that are pure invention—by which I do not mean taken out of context, distorted, etc., but simply made up out of whole cloth, pure fabrication. This is pretty common stuff on social media, usually from anonymous trolls or sad Media Matters types.
But it matters a great deal more when it’s an NYU professor, even on Twitter. If we are to have a functional democratic discourse, then we need functional and reliable institutions. Another way of saying that is that NYU is not the only loser when NYU professors develop a reputation for intellectual dishonesty: The rest of us need NYU professors to be reasonably honest, too. We need the news pages of the New York Times to be more or less non-fiction, irrespective of their point of view. We need public-radio journalists to forgo reporting as fact fictions about “exploding bullets.” We need conservative commentators who can tell the difference between a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied territory and an agent of the Third Reich.
A lie from a putatively authoritative source such as Professor Kleiman takes on a life of its own. One response to him on Twitter reads:
They [meaning National Review] don’t care if they publish lies as long as it means they “win”, i.e., means they get their agenda fulfilled. It’s all about winning, not truth, when it comes to these right-wing tools. In short, @NRO doesn’t care that he lied, because his lie fits their agenda.
So there’s a made-up “fact”– that I lied to my readers about teachers’ compensation — and then a morally satisfying story that partisans tell themselves about that fiction. The prestige of an institution such as NYU is an intellectual tool and, like any tool, it can be used in a responsible way or in an irresponsible way. Professors have a particular professional duty to use their tools responsibly. Sometimes, they need a little help in that.
Bias is a problem, but this isn’t really a question about bias. I know what Mother Jones’s biases are, but if I read a news story in that magazine that says x, y, or z happened, I am reasonably confident that the facts of the case are things that actually happened, however loopy the point of view Mother Jones might bring to those facts. Journalists make errors, of course, as do professors, and the better ones correct them. But they generally do not make things up.
The problem for professors such as Mark Kleiman is two-fold. One is the basic structure of social media, especially Twitter, which rewards and encourages outrage and expressions of tribal affiliation. The other (distinct but not entirely unrelated) problem is the hysterical political tenor of our times, which justifies intellectual dishonesty and pig-brained partisanship as expressions of moral urgency and markers of moral seriousness. Hatred is taken as a warrant for dishonesty—and nothing comes more naturally to the inferior kind of mind than hatred and dishonesty.
My forthcoming book, The Smallest Minority, is in large part about this kind of thing and the way it undermines our democratic discourse.
It’s an unhealthy thing for Republicans and conservatives to hear something unwelcome from an NYU professor or the New York Times and dismiss it out of hand with a sneering admonition to “consider the source.” But it’s an even more unhealthy thing for rage-addled mediocrities such as Professor Kleiman to give them reasons to do so.
For the record, I emailed Professor Kleiman about his error to give him a chance to correct himself. He refuses to do so. He did write to claim that “no reader is going to think salary-plus-benefits.” The piece in question plainly states that the number cited refers to salary and benefits — twice, in fact. I suppose it’s possible that he did not actually read my column. Likely, even, I suppose: He also wanted to know why I’m not more critical of President Trump and military spending, so he’s pretty clearly operating in the dark.
But what does that say about his intellectual standards?
I have had the honor of speaking at NYU a couple of times, and I think the students there deserve better, especially at 50 grand a year — a princely sum that would cover about one-half of a Milwaukee public-school teacher’s compensation!