Society, Language and the University

From Lenny Bruce to Noam Chomsky

Published in Social Anarchism #22, 1996

Comes now a collection of essays, interviews, and letters by Sol Saporta, a linguist, humorist, and inveterate gadfly who spent 30 years on the faculty of the University of Washington. To introduce the reviewer's perspective (minimally, but enough to indicate possible conflicts of interest): I have spent the past 15 years at the University of Washington myself, as a member of the non-professional classified staff. Sol Saporta retired in 1990. It's not surprising, given the nature of the institution, that I was unaware of his existence until the events immediately surrounding his departure. Too bad. I would have enjoyed cheering from the sidelines as he exposed his academic colleagues to the opinions of a man who takes "the word liberal in such expressions as liberal arts and liberal education to be primarily related to its original meaning, i.e., 'free, or pertaining to a free person,' and only secondarily to mean 'general or extensive.' In other words, a liberal education is presumably a 'liberating education'." (85)

The numbers give you a certain kind of feel for what this book is. Within 224 pages, there are 30 separate pieces divided into six sections (five of the sections are theme-based; the sixth contains five brief letters by Saporta to the UW student paper and the Seattle Times). By far the longest section is the one called "Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics," which includes two fairly length interviews with Chomsky, with interspersed comments by Saporta, and an essay in which Saporta reflects on Chomsky's epistemology and ethics. The shortest, but none the less heart-felt, section is devoted to Saporta's defense of horse racing and its fans, the gamblers. With a selection ranging all the way back to 1974, it's not surprising that a few of the essays seem a bit dated, but most of the book remains provocative and engaging.

This book is bound to inspire both conversation and argument. Saporta expresses his opinions in declarative sentences that, when they don't evoke cries of agreement, will certainly provoke an outcry of opposition. In reviewing current feminist evaluations of Marilyn Monroe, for example, Saporta declares: "I do not know which is cause and which is effect, but the deterioration of the women's movement is related to its assimilation into the academy." (18) Plenty of fodder right there for a discussion lasting well into the wee hours, and then you still haven't even touched on Marilyn Monroe, the subject of the essay.

Time and again Saporta throws out an intriguing or infuriating statement and leaves it there, undeveloped, as he continues on his merry way. "Hey, wait a minute," you hear yourself say, "you're wrong about that." (As when he claims in passing, on p. 42, that women "cannot simultaneously deny men their linguistic privilege and refrain from using sexist language," which I doubt, not to mention the odd notion that women might be in a position to "deny men their linguistic privilege.") Or, "but what does that mean?" you cry. (As when he throws out, on p. 47, the technical information that "Linguistically...the bias against old people more closely resembles that towards racial and ethnic minorities than it does the bias towards women.")

The collection's strong points are its wide-ranging view, from Lenny Bruce as cultural activist to the academy as agent of social control, and Saporta's commitment throughout to digging up those "shared assumptions" that lie hidden beneath so many public debates. Occasionally a story or illustration turns up in a second essay, and some editing of the collection as a whole might have eliminated the unnecessary repetitions. Most of the stories are good enough to hear twice, though, and this is not a book that requires a sustained, one-session reading. Personally, Saporta is an odd but not unusual blend of populist free-thinker and cynic. The principle he applied during his academic career to every question of curriculum change was: "the more options the better; the more requirements the worse." (87) That principle often implies some basic level of trust in the average human. On the other hand, here is Saporta on his beloved race-world: "Every racetrack is populated by gamblers, touts, hustlers, and bookies, all with a little larceny in their hearts, which, paradoxically, makes them a cut above the average citizen when it comes to honesty, decency, and integrity." (119) Go figure.

For me, the story of Saporta's expulsion from the garden -- in the form of his virtually forced retirement from the University of Washington after being charged with sexual harassment -- cannot help but fascinate. Saporta was not accused of anything heinous, you understand; nobody claimed he raped or even attempted to assault anybody. But a series of women students and former students did say he had "frequently asked them out on dates, hugged them, licked their ears, and kissed them open-mouthed on the cheek," behavior that the then-chair of Linguistics had warned him "was interfering with his duties as a departmental advisor because students were staying away from his office." (UW Daily, June 18, 1990) Saporta does not deny those charges in this book, but he does attempt to "re-position" them, as an academic feminist might say. He raises, in fact, many of the same issues that bell hooks has been exploring recently, trying to find or create a "margin" where the power differential between professor and student, an inequality imposed by the institution and its rank-based definition of authority, can be set aside by those who wish to be more free than the usual definitions allow. Despite being sure that I would not want Saporta to lick my ears, I can sympathize with his frustration when he writes that "my attempts to raise some of these issues during the initial stages of the investigation were dismissed as 'intellectualizing,' the irony of which will not be lost on critics of contemporary education." (77)

I think Saporta's dilemma here can be seen as one version of a problem many anarchists encounter in various aspects of our lives. When we want to be free to behave in ways that transcend (read, violate) social or legal boundaries, we like to assume that everyone else is free to join us ­ and equally free not to join us, if that is their preference. All too often, that result is that we free ourselves from recognizing the ways in which those "others" are not in a position to live as freely (yet) as we are. It's a balancing act. On the one hand, we do want to challenge people (including ourselves) to be more free. But on the other hand, we can't underestimate the effects of unfreedom. It may seem ludicrous that a woman would be unwilling to enter the office of her advisor simply because she fears he might lick her ear. But that's the insulting kind of damage inflicted on many of those who happen to be women students in the university's hierarchy-within-a-hierarchy where the lessons of unfreedom traditionally have been specially adapted according to gender, age, ethnicity, economic class, and (to some extent) individual history.

In his support for gambling Saporta writes: "I do not wish to paint with too broad a brush, but the division between the paternalistic, authoritarian left, on the one hand, and the libertarian left, on the other, may be precisely and quite accurately reflected in the conflicting attitude toward gambling, and by extension to other social phenomena, like prostitution, pornography, drugs, nontraditional expressions of sexuality, etc." (114) Well, perhaps. But surely it's not that simple, Sol, not if you start taking into consideration the point of view of the horses or, by extension, the prostitutes.

Five years before Sol Saporta was forced into retirement, his colleagues and former graduate students created and published A Festschrift for Sol Saporta to "pay tribute to a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, understanding, justice, and excellence." His students remember him as someone who "does not teach by simply transmitting information....He is there to make you think." During his 15 years as chair of the Linguistics Department, they say, he "fought tirelessly against mediocrity and discrimination and for academic freedom," including the right of students to participate in all decision-making that affects them. Sounds like a good person, a good teacher, to have around. His loss from the university must have been a relief to those professors and administrators who prefer the civil acceptance of hypocrisy to a relentless pursuit of truth, but it also must have been a relief, sadly, to the women students who were so weakened by their socialization that they felt powerless to protect themselves against him except by making themselves fodder for the institution's adversarial system where, as Saporta puts it, "vindication and vindictiveness become surrogates for justice."

And forgiveness becomes impossible. I have been thinking a lot lately about forgiveness -- and forgivingness -- as another attribute of a just society. Berel Lang wrote (Tikkun, March/April 1996): "If, as experience constantly informs us, it is beyond our capacity never to be guilty of wrongdoing, then we also pretend to be better than we are if we forget the possibility of such failure even on occasions when we seem farthest from it; that is, when we are ourselves victims." We need to learn to live justly with people who do harm, whether the harm in question is murder or "nontraditional expressions of sexuality" that cause another person psychological pain. The traditional method, as employed against Sol Saporta, is to throw the offending party away. That's not going to work when we get where we're headed, so we might as well start thinking about it now.



Society, Language, and the University: From Lenny Bruce to Noam Chomsky by Sol Saporta, 224 pp. New York: Vantage Press, 1994. $14.95 paper.

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