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Non Rebuttal-Rebuttals: East Coast Straussian Edition

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Martha Nussbaum’s review of Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness is the most devastating critique of the philosophical pretensions of a Strauss disciple since…Nussbaum’s evisceration of The Closing of the American Mind. (I’m not sure if the review is available to nonsubscribers; generous excerpts are available here.) While the review is venomous (“On the logical principle that from a contradiction everything and anything follows, I conclude that Manliness says it all. Try that out on the back jacket”), it’s also very detailed and rigorous about Mansfield’s sloppiness, incoherence, and egregious misreadings. You have to read the whole thing, but as a representative example, consider Mansfield’s claims about feminism:

Mansfield is horrendous when he reads feminist thinkers. He gives us a hasty, superficial summary of several bits of some early works (de Beauvoir, Millett, Greer, Firestone), but absolutely no sense of how any of these women argues, and no sense of what the women’s movement has produced since the early 1970s. (Cursory references to Carol Gilligan and to an exchange between Judith Butler and Seyla Benhabib do not tell us anything about the framework of their ideas.) Susan Okin is mentioned once in the text, and Andrea Dworkin is ignored altogether. (Catherine MacKinnon turns up in the bibliography.) By such strategic omissions, Mansfield is able to hoodwink his implied reader into thinking that all feminists want to have a lot of sex without commitment, and that they ignore or denounce the family, and that they “do not worry about violence in sex, and they do not refer to the respect in which one should hold one’s partner.” This last is the most extraordinary claim of all. If any topics could be said to be absolute cliches of modern feminist thought, they would be the topics of sexual violence and sexual respect (treating a person as a person instead of as an object).

Yep–according to Mansfield, feminists don’t care about the respect in which women are held or about sexual violence. It’s quite remarkable that this book was published by a major academic press.

Anyway, Mansfield wrote a letter in reply (TNR, 8/14/06) that is a model of the feeble letter-to-the-editor rebuttal:

Among the many errors and misrepresentations in Martha Nussbaum’s review of my book on manliness is the statement that I have retired from a chair at Harvard (“Man Overboard,” June 26). Not so. Apart from that, I say that I did not follow her instruction for writing my book because I did not want a product quite as earnest as the books she has done lately. Nor do I desire the servile future of caring males listening raptly to righteous females that she has in mind for us.

Truly a model of the genre. First, you hint at the review’s many “errors and omissions” without bothering to point most of them out. Then you point out one trivial error that is completely irrelevant to the main thrust of your argument, and move right to the ad feminams and non-sequiturs. (Apparently it’s “earnest” to care about whether you meet scholarly standards or apply any rigor to your argument, and this is not a manly characteristic.) And, finally, your book having been utterly demolished by a vastly more serious and accomplished scholar, without rebutting a single substantive argument she puts forward you triumphantly note that she has a vagina, and hence can be safely patted on the head and ignored while non-caring and non-earnest men talk utter nonsense about how Margaret Thatcher is the only female to have led a society and how feminists don’t write about sexual violence and John Stuart Mill’s views on education wouldn’t permit On Liberty to be taught in the classroom.

What’s particularly funny about this, of course, is that Harvey “C Minus” has been the self-appointed scourge of declining standards at universities and is constantly portraying himself as standing athwart them, yelling “Stop!” But, of course, as his letter makes clear what he’s concerned about is not the decline of standards per se but the decline of privilege; he wants his arguments pre-empitively insulated from feminist critics and other interlopers. To believe that it’s “earnest” to point out that someone lacks even minimal knowledge about the schools of thought he’s writing books about, and that such criticisms can be ipso facto ignored based on irrelevant personal characteristics of the critic, is pretty much the opposite of high standards.

…Full review is available via the fine folks at Powell’s. (HT Steve.)

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