This week's New York Observer features an article by Anna Schneider-Mayerson, on Columbia Law School's current efforts to recruit major scholars, including Lani Guinier (at left, photo courtesy of Cornell Chronicle), the eminent Harvard Law School professor and leading scholar of progressive civil rights policies and practices, such as proportional voting systems. The piece covers the sort of ground that once would have been the purview of the now defunct magazine Lingua Franca. It discusses Columbia Law's creation of a new center civil-rights center and its desire to vault its intellectual reputation (back) into the topmost ranks with Yale's, Harvard's, and Stanford's law schools, in part via the intellectual and cultural work of Guinier.
What interested me most about the article beyond the tidbits about Columbia's institutional anxieties and the cultivation process of star faculty members was its recitation of the infamous episode in 1993 when right-wingers caricatured Guinier's scholarship and theories, labeling her "Quota Queen" and causing such a brouhaha that Bill Clinton, who'd nominated her to be Assistant Attorney General, withdrew the nomination. (Another aspect to this story that I'll never forget, beyond Bill Clinton's cowardice, was how super-operator Hillary Clinton's supposedly addressed Guinier, her former Yale Law School classmate and friend, in a white House hallway after her public humiliation and the president's rescission of the nomination: instead of consolation, the Senator and presidential wannabe flippantly and patronizingly called out, "Hey Kiddo!") Few Republicans in the White House, Congress or among the chattering class will admit to their shameful behavior towards Guinier or her ideas and work, or towards numerous other worthy, outstanding Clinton Cabinet and judicial nominees, which is one reason I laugh at their whining about legitimate Democratic Congressional inquiry into and opposition to the extremist views and rulings of Alito. One of the GOP lackeys claimed that Senator Ted Kennedy's questioning of Alito's membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) was "nasty," "unfair" and "mean," among other ridiculous statements (especially given that Alito could remember his rulings perfectly but not only lied about not remembering his association with CAP, but recited Republican National Committee talking points about his desire to support ROTC--which had returned to Princeton by the time he joined CAP), but nothing that came out of Kennedy's or any other Democratic Judicial Committee's mouths has approached the nasty, distorting--mendacious--comments made about Guinier. The partisan poisoning of the well, so to speak, during the Clinton years has only worsened in recent years, with the Swift Boating of John Kerry and most recently Congressman John Murtha, and the character-assassination of any critics of the Warrantless Wiretapper.
Meanwhile, Guinier didn't look back. She went on to become the first Black woman tenured to the Harvard Law School faculty, and has continued to produce the kinds of important work that has so interested Columbia Law School. Voting systems much like the ones that brought her right-wing condemnation are in place throughout the world, and increase democratic representation were they in place across the United States.
Today's New York Times Arts Section included a piece on another eminent figure in academe, the philosopher Saul Kripke (at right, courtesy of UNICAMP, Brazil), formerly of Rockefeller and Princeton Universities and now a distinguished professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, which recently spent two days celebrating his achievements. The article, a two-page affair by Charles McGrath, titled "Philosopher, 65, Lectures Not About 'What Am I?' but 'What Is I?'," opens with a recitation of Kripke's boy-genius story--the son of an Omaha rabbi, he was publishing important philosophical papers while in his teens and teaching MIT graduate students while a Harvard undergraduate (though there's no mention of his having briefly been the roommate of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski)--then goes on to describe, in impressionist terms, Kripke's method and his lecture, while managing to say only a little about his important work in modal logic and the philosophy of language, which is the source of his cultlike appeal. (He also includes a rather Eurocentric quip about how an ideal philosopher should look, which is hardly surprising given that this is McGrath piece.)
Kripke's most famous text is Naming and Necessity (Harvard, 1975, 1980, 2005), which collects three lectures from the early 1970s. Among its other accomplishments, this text detailed a causal theory of reference, as against the standing descriptivist theory of reference set forth by Sir Bertrand Russell and others, with respect to proper names; according to Kripke's reading, a name refers to an object as a result of a causal connection with the object, as mediated by a chain of reference through a community of speakers. As a result a proper name constitutes a rigid designator, which holds for what it refers regardless of any particular facts about the holder of the name and in all possible worlds. It was this particular Kripkean insight that dazzled me some years ago. (The other assertions in the book, on a posteriori necessities, were over my head.) Once I'd understood I thought I'd somehow entered some magical community of understanding, though after trying to properly restate the outlines of the theory to others, I quickly disabused myself of that. But I also became fascinated in Kripke's story, and, after reading Brent Staples' account of tracking Saul Bellow around the campus of Chicago (which I continue to believe Bellow transposed into the utterly indelible and racist confrontation scene in Mr. Sammler's Planet), I thought of writing a screenplay, titled (KRIPKE), that turned on a young (Black) man who was so fascinated by Kripke's philosophy that he literally followed Kripke around his lecture circuit across the US, recording his experiences with reference to Kripke's theories and discussions, with the tale culminating in his finally meeting and chatting with Kripke on a walkway in Princeton (but not at the University). One of the people I'd mentioned this to was a musician and author I knew, Sean H., who was familiar with Kripke's work, but he agreed with me that it perhaps was not the most dramatic story (even in documentary form), and that it would be difficult to convey Kripke's ideas in cinematic terms, and that in any case once I'd solved all the technical and formal script problems, there was the issue of salability. Who on earth would produce such a film? Not that I've completely given up the thought, but... I do wonder if transcripts of Kripke's fascinating-sounding talk will be part of a future volume edited by someone at the CUNY Grad Center.