Nicholas Dawidoff, "The Civil Heretic". March 25
SUNDAY was busy; we've got the neighbor's animals to look after while they join in the mass Hoosier migration to the swamplands of Florida, which I'm pretty sure Juan Ponce de Leon named The Land of Flowers for the same reason Erik the Red called it "Greenland": to separate real-estate suckers from their gold. You're heading to sunny climes just as the weather gets nice here. By the time it reaches an average daily temperature here matching the one you've escaped to--two months, tops--you'll be cowering indoors with the AC up full blast. Yes, the ocean and the beach are invigorating for as many as forty-eight hours provided you manage to get through them without second-degree burns, which I guarantee you my neighbors will not.
So it wasn't until yesterday evening that I finally dug down through the Sunday Times pile and came face to face with Freeman Dyson, those titular blackboard scribbles, and the boilerplate note that he "infuriated environmentalists".
I had, in fact, read much of the piece the previous Thursday, and if someone can explain to me what's up with the Times publishing its Sunday Magazine cover story four days early it will probably go a long way towards understanding how it could have imagined hiding the online David Brooks and Maureen Dowd would increase paid subscriptions. So I was already aware that the infuriated environmentalists featured on the cover were the species who write stinging emails and subject their targets to well-timed WTFs in "Chat rooms [and] Web threads". Which--I'm just playing a hunch, here--are not the best locations to contact an 85-year-old mathematician, or to gauge the reactions of the "Environmentalist" community at large.
They are, however, good places to find anonymous people hurling shit anonymously, as you may have heard. Which, of course, is right in the best traditions of modern journalism.
We think we know enough about academics and academicians to understand that some discipline-poaching octogenarian eminence insisting that the overwhelming consensus in someone else's field is Just Plain Wrong probably draws fifty good-natured smiles to every instance of outrage. But then we also know that academic rifts can be as vicious as a reality show. And we don't object to that any more than we object to Professor Dyson's opinion. It's just that by and large we conclude that that front-page outrage is, well, a journalistic invention.
And we don't quite understand it, really; does the Times imagine its Sunday Magazine readers wouldn't take to a cozy feature story about a still-kickin' 85-year-old physics legend without a phony Intellectual Celebrity Feud! hook? Because the whole frickin' article goes out of its way, roughly every 75 words, to paint Professor Dyson as Otherwise A Liberal Dreamboat Emeritus. He's an Obama man! He opposes nuclear weapons! His Christianity is more a Guide to Living than a system of belief! He's tolerant of the Lower Classes, and opposed to Star Wars. Though, somehow, this did not lead to "Freeman Dyson Pisses Off Right-Wing Munitions Magnates" ending up as the cover sub-head.
Professor Dyson can go on believing whatever he wishes, and best wishes for him continuing to do so for another thirty years, assuming either that Princeton isn't underwater at that point, or that the superannuated are more naturally buoyant. I happen to be a Global Climate Change Heretic myself, of a sort: I think mass drownings are something the human race has got comin' to it, though this doesn't mean I don't support every effort being made to avert catastrophe, including the liberal use of volcanoes and sacrificial Global Warming deniers found to be on corporate payrolls.
Nah, his opinions are okey by me. What the piece made me wonder about is why Noam Chomsky or Ward Churchill never appear on the cover of the Times Sunday Magazine with an examination of how either enrages the Right. (Chomsky did get to play 20 Questions with Deborah Solomon in 2003; she went so far as to read the blurbs on the back of his most recent book, or, in other words, two solid weeks of research.) And I was thinking about this while searching for the cat food next door ("in the garage" the note says, without mentioning which pile it was hiding under) when it hit me: you can't really make that big a deal out of someone infuriating the Right when that's the default setting.