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Unfiled May 27, 2004
Snubbed in Budapest!
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
At this point in his speech, I was gripping my pen like an ice pick, trying to think up the most annihilating question I could ask. An academic talking about a "public"? The average academic article has exactly three readers: the author, the editor who accepted it, and the copy editor who checked it. No one else will ever glance at it; it will pad the author's CV, cement a bond of mutual obligation between author and editor, and fill a millimeter of space on university-library shelves -- and that's all. Yet this professor, his resume swollen with dozens of unread and unreadable articles like this, dares to ask whether blogs actually have a public!

I could feel the old rage lurching up out of my gut like a surge of vomit. Part of being a coward (and I'm the biggest coward alive, with the possible exception of the entire leadership of the Democratic Party) is the way postponed anger comes out all at once, in a disastrous way, at the wrong target. And here it was, getting ready to barf out of me at Geoffrey up there at the podium.

At fatal moments like this, you know exactly what you're doing. You know it's a bad idea to alienate the whole conference at the very start. And time slows so radically that you have forever to reconsider. But you know that even if you had a Groundhog-Day series of chances to do the smart thing, you'd still stand up, trembling, frightened and furious, and ask the one question certain to convince everyone else at the conference you're a raving lunatic.

And sure enough, when they called on me I blurted in an aged shriek, "I find it typical of the Beigeocracy -- the rule of the Beige -- [see, I was afraid Nunberg might not know he was being insulted, so I had to explain the word] that you imagine 'balance' as Dowd vs. Safire, that's...that's like, uh, a one-millimeter range! ...Um, of opinion!! [I was now speaking in two exclamation marks per sentence]..."

You academics in the audience can probably guess how a successful American prof like Nunberg dealt with this belch from the cheap seats: he coopted it. He said, "I absolutely agree with you." There was more after that, but I was too stunned to catch it. He couldn't agree with me; that would ruin my suicidal outburst. So I went further, shrieking, "...So, speaking for ALL THE CRAZIES, I say, thank God for the Net!"

A vast silence settled on the hall. That was when they started snubbing me. They could hardly have done less.

And yet -- another typical feature of berserker/coward psychology -- I was truly, deeply hurt -- shocked! -- that the Americans and English at the conference were dodging me at the coffee break. Didn't they see that I had meant "all the crazies" in the kindliest possible sense?

Saturday evening was particularly awkward, because the only other visitor who went on the free tour of Budapest with me was...Geoffrey Nunberg. We shook hands and formally introduced ourselves on the minibus. "Hello, I'm the aged loony who disrupted your talk!" It was a long tour. Lotsa big buildings in Budapest. Old. Lotta statues. I couldn't tell you much more than that because I was cowering against the bus window, hoping he wouldn't talk to me. We got out of the bus to see some victory monument on top of a hill, right in the middle of a lightning storm. I was hoping to get hit; it would've eased the awkwardness considerably. But happy endings like that don't happen in real life.

The sessions flowed on and on. I blurted something stupid in every Q & A. You start watching yourself with morbid fascination: what screeching rant will I come up with this time? Some of them surprised even me, as when I ended up arguing animal behavior with an egomaniac from Montreal.

But some of the things the Americans said really deserved excoriation. I remember Nunberg saying in all seriousness, at another session, that new media might not let us "preserve the slowness" of academic discourse. God, they're admitting it these days! I always knew slowness was their key trait, but now they ADMIT it!

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