Friday, January 20, 2006

Dorfman, the MLA, and Orwell

So get this.

Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean writer and intellectual, is invited by the Modern Language Association of America to give a speech on "the role of the intellectual in the 21st century" to a gathering of US professors of language and literature. Provocatively, Dorfman decides to poke a little bit of fun at the self importance and dire seriousness of the intellectuals to whom he is speaking, so rather than delivering the expected speech about the role of the intellectual, he instead relates an outrageous story about how he cannot give the speech he was meant to be delivering because it was confiscated at the airport by a secret division of Homeland Security which detained him at the airport as part of its role in targetting "dangerous" academics. He details an increasingly absurd conversation with the two agents, who "grill" him about possible Chilean sleeper cells in the US seeking revenge against the CIA for its role in the overthrow of Salvadore Allende in 1973. He even has one of the agents telling him that "you guys at the MLA take yourself way too seriously" and that the MLA should "Try some humor" if they want regular people to understand what they are talking about.

One would think (as Dorfman obviously did) that if the idea that the powers that be in the US are concerned about Chilean sleeper cells bent on revenge against the CIA was not enough to tip the audience off that the whole story was a parody, surely the notion that agents of Homeland Security have the slightest idea of what the Modern Language Association even is, much less that they would take enough interest in it to have an opinion about how to sell itself better, would be. But, as Dorfman discovered, the self-regard and paranoia of the modern intellectual class apparently knows no bounds. Following the talk, Dorfman was approached by several people seeking more information and expressing deep concern about the tale. They accepted it as entirely believable. Dorfman says that "Not one of my friends and associates at the convention or afterward dismissed my tall tale as patently absurd."

Now, the obvious conclusion to draw from this is that Dorfman's original thesis was entirely correct, and that these intellectuals deserve mockery. They take themselves far too seriously, and are far too self-important, which in turn feeds their own unbridled fantasies (Dorfman's words, by the way). Only a member of the MLA could possibly be so foolish as to think Homeland Security gives a fig about what members of the MLA think and say. And the irony of a person giving an open and unoppressed speech detailing the oppressions of the police state in which they are giving it seems entirely lost on these humorless linguistic giants.

But is this the lesson Dorfman takes from this experience? Of course not. Seemingly intent on solidifying his standing as a member of the same intellectual class that he has just shown to be gullible fools, Dorfman concludes precisely the opposite.

When I lamented the naivete of my sophisticated audience, the response was unanimous: I was the naive one.

Maybe they were right. My fraudulent yarn was apparently terrifyingly plausible in a country where citizens can be held indefinitely without charges, where wire-tapping without warrants is rampant, where the vice president defends the use of torture, and where the president invades another country under false pretences.

The sad truth about my story is that it comes straight out of the trepidation and terror caused by 9/11. Before that date, I would not have thought of concocting it, because most Americans would not have understood what I was talking about. The sadder truth is that I can imagine an epilogue to my story. The US is hit by an even more devastating terrorist attack. That day, can I confidently say there will not be a knock at my door and that two men, one tall and gangly, the other short and beefy, will not ask me if I recall spreading lies about their efforts to fight the war on terrorism? And that they will not demand that I accompany them, just for a few hours, for some routine questioning?

Thus does Mr. Dorfman join his fellows at the Modern Language Association in establishing the enduring wisdom of Orwell's axiom that some ideas are so absurd only an intellectual could believe them.


Anonymous Steve B said...

I was actually getting my hopes up then that there was an academic who is not a moron!

Never mind, makes it easier this way I suppose. Anytime I hear someone academic speaking I can just turn off safe in the knowledge I am not missing out on anything interesting or weel thought out...

12:12 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home