One of the funniest moments in Woody Allen’s Academy Award-winning comedy “Annie Hall” is the classic scene in which Woody squelches a pompous know-it-all standing in line behind him at a movie theater. The man is holding forth on film criticism and finally begins pontificating on the theories of Marshall McCluhan, a Sixties media scholar most famous for the quote, “The media is the message.” Woody acts out everyone’s fantasy who has had to listen to strangers blather on about topics they aren’t qualified to discuss by magically producing the real McCluhan to confront the man. “You know nothing of my work!,” McLuhan tells the shocked pedant.
Today Stanford law professor pulled a McCluhan on none other than George Will, who, she pointed out in a letter to the Washington Post, recently used her law review article to bolster his position by substantially misrepresenting—or misunderstanding–what it actually said:
“Mr. Will’s column distorted my Harvard Law Review article in details both large and small. Yes, the Framers of our Constitution intended to limit the federal government’s power to protect liberty. But they also crafted the new Constitution to empower the government to deal with critical problems. For much of our history, the Supreme Court recognized congressional resourcefulness as a source of our nation’s strength. By looking only to James Madison and 1787, Mr. Will ignored the post-Civil War 14th Amendment, which explicitly authorizes Congress to enforce guarantees of liberty and equality.
“As for my discussion of the court’s Citizens United ruling, I did not attack “spending by outside groups,” as Mr. Will wrote. Rather, I pointed out only that there has been a significant increase in such spending (much of it in forms that leave voters in the dark as to who bankrolled the messages they hear) and that reasonable people can disagree about whether this is good for democracy.
“Finally, for someone who prides himself on his linguistic precision, Mr. Will’s attack is particularly tone-deaf. “Disdain” means “scorn” or “contempt.” Nothing in my article expresses scorn or contempt for the court or for judicial review. I — like many other Americans, including some of their colleagues and many of their predecessors — simply disagree strongly with the approach some justices have taken and the conclusions they have reached in some recent cases.”
Take that, George!
Indeed, take that all pundits and columnists who misrepresent the work and words of others, confident that the actual speakers, authors and scholars are not nearby, ready to pounce. Good for Karlen, for showing other academic victims of distortion and misrepresentation that there is a remedy, as well as an obligation. Just as opinion writers like Will are obligated to fairly represent the opinions of others that he employs as allies, so are those writers and scholars who are misrepresented obligated to set the record straight, since they are the only ones who can do so conclusively.