Better To Turn Out The Lights?
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[SAMUEL FRANCIS column on Carol Iannone, from The Washington Times, 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 Journal and the New Criterion.  She's the book editor of Academic Questions, 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 academe. 

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 it. 

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

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