Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Googling Goeglein

Laura Collins-Hughes wasn't the only ARTicles articler to note that many of plagiarizing Bush-Rove Christian-right ass-kisser Timothy Goeglein's lifts were arts journalism. It struck me from the git as a warning about the pitfalls of the universalist humanism toward which so much arts coverage (including mine, more often than I'm happy about) inevitably tends, especially when it's in need of a sell line or a big finish. That's why I plump for what I like to call impolite discourse--prose with a monkey wrench in it, or at least a few nuts and bolts. Scares away the genteel generalizers (and also, of course, quite a few editors); makes it less likely that your words will be taken in vain. Only it was hard to check my theory out. Many of the pieces the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel identified as Goeglein's sources did not yield to Google (I think I have Lexis-Nexis access from NYU but, typically, don't yet know how to use it), and the Goeglein pieces I spelunked around for seemed to have been taken down by the News-Sentinel, which some may regard as a destruction of the record but makes sense to me.

Looking over the list a little, however, I noticed that Goeglein often stole from his ideological allies--some of little intellectual moment, like Dartmouth Review's Jeffrey Hart and Robert R. Reilly of Crisis, plus others like Roger Kimball, whose Tenured Radicals I somehow never got around to even though I've launched a fair number of stink bombs at academic postmodernism myself. And though I would have thought Michiko Kakitani's seen-it-all crypto-elitism might have proved useful to Goeglein if he'd given it a little thought, the one he picked didn't require any--it was a review of a book about Mao as mass murderer from which I'll bet Goeglein removed Kakitani's reservations.

Returning to this problem a few days ago, I did find a Goeglein column still up, a Hoagy Carmichael piece he copped from Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Jonathan Yardley. Here's a relevant passage from Goeglein:

A quarter century after his death, Hoagy remains one of the most beloved composers of the classic American popular music songbook, and with good reason. He was easily one of the most unusual bright lights in a starry field. Why?

Now here's Yardley:

A quarter-century after his death, Hoagy Carmichael remains one of the most beloved composers of classic American popular music, and one of the most unusual.

Real writing-class stuff, don't you think? Yardley feels compelled to come up with that sell line--it is in fact his lead--but has the grace to get through it with a minimum of fuss. Goeglein can't resist embroidering, and look what he comes up with. He adds "the . . . songbook" to a phrase that was completely idiomatic before he got his mitts on it, and gussies up with inept boilerplate metaphor the rather weak closing "unusual" that Yardley is about to salvage with some analysis. Later on, fending off the plagiarism police, he does stuff like replacing Yardley's "dominant theme of his music is small-town and rural America" with the marginally meaningful "dominant figure of his music is small-town and rural America." Dude really can't write. I don't think Yardley's piece is great--Carmichael does bring out the pastoral sentimentalism in people. But in a sharp touch, it ends by recommending not just Hoagy's memoir but Louis Armstrong's rather more disturbing (though genial) and racially charged (though genial) Satchmo. Goeglein spares his Hoosiers this encounter with the Other.

Moral: There's universalist humanism, and then there's universalist humanism. If you gotta do it, try and do it right. But don't be surprised if somebody misrepresents it anyway.

Articles, Mar. 10, 2008

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