July 23, 2009

Henry Louis Gates Inc.

I've been writing about Henry Louis Gates for 14 years, going back to this passing mention in a National Review article. Here, for instance, is a blog post about Gates' televised adventures with genetic testing. And here's my post on Gates's sensible campaign to restrict affirmative action at Harvard to the descendants of American slaves, such as, say, Michelle Obama, and deny racial preferences to the children of immigrants and whites, such as, oh, Barack Obama.

Granted, Gates is, as we've seen in recent days, a race hustler. It's completely in character for Gates to try to make money off his unfortunate temper tantrum by whipping it into a PBS documentary. Yet, for most of his long career he's been the classiest race hustler in the racket.

But, my goodness, does he ever hustle.

I touched on his indefatigability in my 1997 book review, "The Ebony Tower," in National Review of the (purportedly) Gates-edited Norton Anthology of African-American Literature:
Although anthologies of black American writing have been published by the score over the last 150 years, this enormous tome is sure to attract much attention, due to the authority of the "Norton Anthology" brand name and the well-deserved celebrity of co-editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The multitalented Dr. Gates somehow manages to be a master political operator in the growth industry of multicultural studies, an impressive researcher into the history of black literature, and a graceful writer for general audiences.

Franklin Foer explained this mystery the next year in Slate in "Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The Academic as Entrepreneur."
Gates does so many things at the same time that you have to wonder how he makes sure all of them meet the same high standard. The answer is, he can't. In 1997 alone, according to his curriculum vitae, he wrote four long pieces for The New Yorker, published one book, and edited two more. He also supervised doctoral dissertations, taught two undergraduate courses, ran Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research (raising funds, balancing budgets, recruiting professors, planning conferences), served as director of editorial content for a publishing imprint he co-founded, was a consultant on Steven Spielberg's Amistad, scripted and hosted a Frontline documentary on the black bourgeoisie, and developed a six-part BBC-PBS documentary on Africa--the entire continent. He continued as an editor of Transition magazine; the Black Periodical Literature Project; the Zora Neale Hurston Library series; the 30-volume African-American Women Writers, 1910-1940; and the 2 million word Encyclopedia Africana. Nominally, at least, he sat on the board of editors of 29 other journals and on 82 advisory committees for museums, theaters, institutes, literary prizes, and universities.

This month's Boston Magazine takes a hard look at Gates. It gives you an exhaustive account of his career, marred by a deeply unfortunate headline: "Head Negro in Charge." [That's Gates' own joking term for himself.] The Du Bois Institute site details Gates' many projects, including the Encyclopedia Africana. If you're interested, it says it's hiring.

Gates works very hard. Most days, he starts writing at 5 a.m. A 9,000-word New Yorker profile that would take most journalists weeks or months flows effortlessly from his pen. An incisive piece on Louis Farrakhan was reported Monday afternoon, written Tuesday, edited Wednesday, and closed Thursday. Gates drafted his 216-page memoir, Colored People (1994), in six weeks, though some critics thought the final result reflected the hasty composition.

But hard work alone doesn't explain Gates' output. He also understands a fundamental maxim of capitalism: Don't do yourself what you can pay others to do for you.

It is a time-honored perquisite of senior professorship to have students act as minions, fetching books from the library and doing grunt research. Many scholars have figured out how to turn this somewhat feudal tradition into an industry. In the 1980s, for example, Yale Professor Harold Bloom served as the "editor" of 160 anthologies of literary criticism, even though it was graduate students (and a few undergraduates) who actually waded into the library and picked out the selections. But Gates pushes the envelope. He may be the only academic with a self-designated "chief of staff" who handles day-to-day details and deals with reporters. An assistant edits his writing. Another conducts research, keeping him abreast of the latest developments in hip-hop and digging up quotes for New Yorker pieces. Dozens of other writers and editors are hired to help produce his various projects. To put together one volume, The Dictionary of Global Culture, for instance, Gates used 32 research assistants and 32 fact checkers, in addition to 27 writers. (For this piece, I spoke with 17 current and former Gates employees.)

The last large-scale reference work Gates co-edited, also with Appiah, was The Dictionary of Global Culture, published last year. The book was meant to be the multiculturalist rebuttal to E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s controversial The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988); the idea was to highlight the accomplishments of non-Western societies and their contributions to Western culture. But it was too weirdly conceived and poorly edited to do all that. As a response to Hirsch, it is irrelevant, appearing long after most had forgotten Hirsch's book. It is also filled with easily dismissable PC agitprop. As a reference work it fails, because entries are shorter and less informative than most entries for the same subjects in even the Encyclopedia Britannica. And it is embarrassingly error-ridden.

Why would Gates allow the publication of such a book with his byline and photo on the dust jacket? He had no idea it was so bad. After coming up with the idea for the project and appointing an "associate editor" to run it, he says, he was only minimally involved. According to those who edited the Dictionary, Gates read entries only just before they were sent to press, then looked closely only at items within his area of expertise, such as the Harlem Renaissance and Hurston. The book's introduction was drafted by Appiah [who, by the way, is the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, the famous Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain in the late 1940s]. ...

Gates' 29-page CV is packed with other projects to which he devotes scant energy. Between 1992 and 1998, for example, he contributed not a single word to 28 of the 29 magazines where he is listed as an editor. He does none of the line editing of articles for Transition, even though it proclaims his editorship in ads. For the 40 volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers he edited, he appointed others to put together the books and write their introductions. Ten other editors helped put together The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, even though it was his byline that appeared on the cover. ...

The problem is, the work that comes out of his scholarly chop shops isn't nearly as good as it should be.

29 comments:

Ross said...

I bet Oxford professor Felipe Fernandez Armesto wishes he were black so people cared about his over the top arrest.

Tater said...

Armesto's arrest wasn't over the top, but rather appropriate, once you realize that he was arrested not for jaywalking but for being a 3rd rate historian who's written one too many bad historical surveys.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you failed to address 1 important point: Is Gates's work important?

Roger Kimball answers that question:

Two points. The first cannot be properly investigated in the present climate of racial hypersensitivity, so I bequeath it to a future historian of American culture. You can scarcely find a mention of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that does not assure you of his eminence and scholarly distinction. Don’t believe it. To call him second rate is a calumny upon respectable mediocrity. He is a desperately pedestrian scholar who, except for the accident of skin color, would be lucky to be teaching at the University of Southern North Dakota, Hoople. Instead he is the Yada-yada-yada Professor of racial grievance &c &c at Harvard. Some future anthropologist will set the record straight.

The second point concerns Gates’s favorite (really his only) intellectual gambit: playing the race card. His scholarship is concerned with nothing else, and he has just demonstrated that his academic interests are all of a piece with his amour propre. Gates claims to want to push beyond racialism, but his every move, personal as well as intellectual, depends upon and reinforces it.

Polanski

Anonymous said...

was a consultant on Steven Spielberg's Amistad

Oh, so he's responsible for the ridiculously anachronistic mess that was Amistad.

Anonymous said...

Great post Steve.

Lloyd G. said...

Even Perez Hilton puts his byline on what his ghostwriters produce. Gates is a brand.

Grand Wilhelm said...

Well, as someone who (briefly) worked for HLS Prof. Ogletree, doing his research and crafting his words, Gates obviously "leverages" the talent of others. But then so do the other heavy hitters, like Dershowitz.

As an aside, Obama said he did not know the facts, but he really did. He was in touch with Ogletree who gave him Gates' spin on the story.

Obama couldn't say that and still have the perception of being neutral, so he made that dopey comment: I don't know the facts, but trust me, the white cop is stupid.

Anonymous said...

I wish the police cruiser's video recorder was on and facing the house for the Gates' arrest. Then we'd have gotten to see the whole thing unfold.


That might be an idea for police officers: Some sort of fiberoptic camera that can be embedded on their uniform (belt, badge, cap), hat can be turned on when they feel they need to collect visual or audible evidence. Encountering some screaming guy calling them names might be a good time to turn that on to protect oneself from heedless accusations later.


I dont know if Gates should have been arrested on his porch (I had read he followed the cop out onto the street earlier, but that turned out to be wrong), but Crowley would have been better served to hand the incident off to one of the other Harvard or CC cops that had showed up when he left the house to go complete his report and radio back. There was a black cop present.


I honestly think that Gates saw an opportunity when the cop showed up and asked him if he lived there and if anyone else was in the house, and made the most of it. He gets to martyrize himself and make himself more "authentic" by getting arrested.

Seamus said...

I followed the link saying that Gates's book was "notoriously error-ridden." One of the alleged errors listed was that "The Magna Carta is known as the Great Charter "because of its massive size." I know this sounds like a howler, but when I was studying medieval history, I was taught that in fact the Great Charter was called that precisely because of its size, and in comparison to the accompanying Charter of the Forest, and that only later was it held to be "great" because of its importance for English liberty.

This theory may be debatable, but the fact that Gates adhered to one side in the debate doesn't make him an idiot. (He's an idiot for lots of other reasons.)

Seamus said...

Oops, that should be "embarrassingly [rather than 'notoriously'] error-ridden." (I was trying to quote from memory, since I couldn't block two quotes at once, and I was too lazy to paste one quote, then go back and copy the second one.)

Anonymous said...

Another one of these industrious acadamics who comes to mind is Dershowitz. But at least with him u know he is smart enough to have written the stuff, he just doesn't have enough time. With this Gates fella, i ain't so sure.

Mr. Anon said...

Gate's career puts me in mind of a scene from a "Get Smart" episode (Tequila Mockingbird) that I've always found amusing

I paraphrase:

Badguy: I am the chief of police. I am also the mayor, the fire chief, the director of public works, the sanitation director, and the librarian.

Maxwell Smart: That sounds like a lot of work. How do you do all that?

Badguy: We don't have a library.

Gates may move a lot of paper, but how much of it will be remembered after he has left the scene? My guess is.....nothing.

Anonymous said...

I have co-authored or co-edited several books with Skip and let me tell you this -- he works harder than anyone else I've ever worked with! He is unbelievably productive and supportive. Yes, he relies on his circle of friends for editing input and advice, but he is a generous collaborator.

Anonymous said...

LOL, Tater.

dearieme said...

"[who, by the way, is the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps, the famous Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain in the late 1940s]. ...":
frequently referred to as Sir Stifford Crapps.

Andrea Nyx Hemera said...

Suppose a conscientious black police officer had arrived at the home of a snot-nosed, pompous, arrogant, conceited white professor to check up on a possible burglary. Suppose the white professor treated the black officer with contempt and disdain, shouting and demeaning the man who's only trying to do his job. Would Obama have called the black officer 'stupid' while praising the rich pompous white professor?

These liberals and leftists claim to be for the 'little guy' and the working class, but their attitude to people(at least white people)in blue collar professions is one of arrogance, snobbery, and aristocratic high-handedness. Gates was angry at the white officer for daring to be 'uppity' instead of ho-de-do-ing and shuffling before Esteemed Massuh Gates.

wren said...

I wonder if he was particularly close to any of his numerous staff.

The police question he refused to answer?

"Is there anybody in the home with you?"

;-)

C. Van Carter said...

The media are unable to simply state Gates is a Harvard professor, they compulsively describe him as "pre-eminent" or "leading" or "acclaimed".

Andrea Nyx Hemera said...

Suppose it's 2007 and Bush is still president. Suppose a snot-nosed, pompous, and arrogant white professor buddy of Bush had a confrontation with a black cop who merely carried out his duty. Do you think Bush would have called the black officer 'stupid'. If he did, how do you think the media and the likes of Gates woudl have reacted? They would have denounced Bush for sticking up for white power and privilege and would have praised/honored the black officer as someone who simply wants to be recognized as a Man.

Truth said...

Gates does so many things at the same time that you have to wonder how he makes sure all of them meet the same high standard. The answer is, he can't. In 1997 alone, according to his curriculum vitae, he wrote four long pieces for The New Yorker, published one book, and edited two more. He also supervised doctoral dissertations, taught two undergraduate courses, ran Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research (raising funds, balancing budgets, recruiting professors, planning conferences), served as director of editorial content for a publishing imprint he co-founded, was a consultant on Steven Spielberg's Amistad, scripted and hosted a Frontline documentary on the black bourgeoisie, and developed a six-part BBC-PBS documentary on Africa--the entire continent. He continued as an editor of Transition magazine; the Black Periodical Literature Project; the Zora Neale Hurston Library series; the 30-volume African-American Women Writers, 1910-1940; and the 2 million word Encyclopedia Africana. Nominally, at least, he sat on the board of editors of 29 other journals and on 82 advisory committees for museums, theaters, institutes, literary prizes, and universities.

-Damn Steve-O, he makes your work ethic look like that of a Venice skateboarder.

Truth said...

"I bet Oxford professor Felipe Fernandez Armesto wishes he were black so people cared about his over the top arrest."

He didn't mention the part where he told the cop, "Your momma was Jaywalking!!!!"

"Oh, so he's responsible for the ridiculously anachronistic mess that was Amistad."

It's a bad thing for a movie set in the 17th century to be "anachronistic?"

"That might be an idea for police officers: Some sort of fiberoptic camera that can be embedded on their uniform (belt, badge, cap),"

That might make it hard to beat the shit out of suspects.

"Oops, that should be "embarrassingly [rather than 'notoriously'] error-ridden."

So your response to Gates' scholarship was "embarrassingly error ridden?"

"Gates may move a lot of paper, but how much of it will be remembered after he has left the scene? My guess is.....nothing."

Yeah I'm hip!

By the way; which one of the brilliant and classic responses that you've posted here is going to get you a statue erected?

Anonymous said...

It's a bad thing for a movie set in the 17th century to be "anachronistic?"

Not one of your better retorts, Truth. You need to look up "anachronistic". And the movie wasn't set in the 17th century. Get some rest, Truth. You're not at your sharpest.

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Mr. Anon said...

" Anonymous said...

I have co-authored or co-edited several books with Skip and let me tell you this -- he works harder than anyone else I've ever worked with!"

So? A man may be the hardest working nose-picker in the world, but all he will have to show for his labors are.....boogers.

Being a hard-working producer of scholastic crap is nothing to be proud of, as far as I'm concerned.

"Anonymous said...

It's a bad thing for a movie set in the 17th century to be "anachronistic?"

Not one of your better retorts, Truth. You need to look up "anachronistic". And the movie wasn't set in the 17th century. Get some rest, Truth. You're not at your sharpest."

No, that is par for "Truth". He is not an intelligent man - he is the simulacrum of an intelligent man. He thinks it is enough to use a big word, but does not much care what they mean.

Truth said...

And what masterpieces have you produced in your life again?

Sutor ne Supra Crepidam iudicaret
-Erasmus Adages

Anonymous said...

Guys, be a little nicer to Mr. Truth. He's remarkably civil, considering that one of the major themes of this blog is that people of his ethnicity tend to be less intelligent and more violent than other people.

Anonymous said...

Guys, be a little nicer to Mr. Truth. He's remarkably civil, considering that one of the major themes of this blog is that people of his ethnicity tend to be less intelligent and more violent than other people.

This is true of every white poster here as well. Compare and contrast.

~Svigor

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous said...

Guys, be a little nicer to Mr. Truth. He's remarkably civil, considering that one of the major themes of this blog is that people of his ethnicity tend to be less intelligent and more violent than other people."

Why? He isn't civil to anyone. Not cursing people is not the same thing as being civil. And he is a shameless liar with no respect for the truth. He's just another chest-thumping black kingfish with an ego entirely unstrung from his actual abilities. He should not be humored, but frankly told what he is.

You ought to realize what is at stake with the stuff that is discussed here. Out in the real off-line world, the poster who calls himself "Truth" is my enemy and the enemy of my people. I don't feel any obligation to play nice.

Truth said...

"You ought to realize what is at stake with the stuff that is discussed here. Out in the real off-line world, the poster who calls himself "Truth" is my enemy and the enemy of my people."

Alright Buddy, you win.

I'll stop throwing rocks at the short bus.