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Young Fowlerstein

April 18, 2009

There’s this scene in Young Frankenstein where, after failing to re-animate Peter Boyle, Gene Wilder calmly speaks about needing to handle disappointments with “quiet dignity and grace” then loses his composure and turns to angrily choke Boyle’s corpse, screaming “I’ll get you for this! What did you do to me?! What did you do to meeeeeee?!” humorously revealing his true emotions.

Great stuff. I was reminded of that scene when I read a recent post on the SDC blog by SDC President Jerry Fowler, criticizing the book Saviors and Survivors by Mahmood Mamdani. He begins by nonchalantly expressing how little he cares about the book, and then proceeds to grasp at straws in a desperate attempt to try and show how awful the book is.

In the post, pretentiously titled “Haboob Mamdani”, Fowler accuses Mamdani of using secondary sources, saying “Actual scholars of Sudan – which Mamdani is not – have begun to eviscerate the historical section due to fundamental errors of fact and Mamdani’s almost exclusive (and selective) reliance on secondary sources.” Lo and behold, later in the post, Fowler uses only SECONDARY SOURCES to back up his claims. Specifically, he cites posts on the Social Sciences Research Council blog, called Making Sense of Darfur, by Martin Daly and Rebecca Hamilton. Daly’s post references a review posted separately, and aside from that has no other references. The reader isn’t told where he found the facts he states. On the other hand, Hamilton cites many different sources in her post, including the Security Counsel website and the CRED report, to back up her claims, which makes her a secondary source when reviewed by another author (I can’t believe I actually have to explain this. I feel like a high school English teacher! That’s all for today, class. Next week we begin our lesson on allusions, similes and hyperbole!).

Fowler doesn’t just need a lesson in source referencing, but also in vocabulary.  Specifically, he says that “Those familiar with the Darfur advocacy movement likewise have begun to eviscerate that part of the book,” with a link to Hamilton’s post.  While Hamilton definitely voices concerns about accuracy, she ultimately concludes, “In sum, I would recommend the central section of the book to anyone who does advocacy on Darfur…”  So, that’s supposed to be an evisceration!?  Really?  That’s the most scathing, blistering critique of Saviors and Survivors he could find?  I wouldn’t call a lukewarm recommendation of a book an evisceration…not even a punch in the stomach.  More like an Indian burn… purple nurple tops.

Finally, Fowler should know when to not call a kettle black. He argues that “[Mamdani] started with his theory and then searched for bits of information that could be used – in some cases, twisted – to support that theory.” I agree completely. One shouldn’t selectively gather information, but should consider all relevant evidence before making a claim. For example, if you’re going to make broad, encompassing generalizations, like “those familiar with the Darfur advocacy movement” are collectively “eviscerating” a certain book, you’d better be able to show that lots of people in that community are, in fact, harsh critics of the book. Well, on the SSRC blog that Jerry references, I counted nine reviews of Saviors and Survivors in total. Two reviewers gave the book an overall good review, two gave it an overall bad review and five described how the book was right about some things and wrong about others. In other words, seven out of nine reviews didn’t eviscerate the book. Whoops! Could it be that Fowler simply searched for bits of information to use to support his argument? Nah. What am I talking about? That’d be too transparently hypocritical!

All I’m saying is that Fowler could’ve handled Mamdani’s critique with more dignity and grace. For example, by attacking specific claims that Mamdani makes and explaining why they’re unfounded as opposed to writing a general, safely non-specific dismissal of the entire book. Unfortunately, he’d rather do the advocacy leader equivalent of throwing a hissy fit and choking Peter Boyle than engage in meaningful dialogue.

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