A benefit of a polarizing election is that it tends to flush out those who try to camouflage their partisanship. Such seems to be the case this time around, for instance, with the editors of The University of California Press, who offer in their present catalog, just in time for the election, a screed by one Charles Tiefer entitled Veering Right: How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes.
Now, for the record, UC Press, one of the five largest university publishers in the nation, publishes a lot of interesting and excellent stuff, and many of us will have books of theirs that we value. The Press bills itself, however, as the "nonprofit publishing arm of the University of California," which ought to mean that it exercises at least the minimal care the University does in avoiding too overtly taking sides in politics. This does not require avoiding controversial subjects or refusing authors who are open about sometimes extreme political and moral commitments. Nor does it necessarily demand avoiding all forms of partisanship. There is plenty of room for radical scholarship in a university press and for authors who have axes to grind or purposes that the majority of people may not share. To choose an example from the past, there is no ground for complaint that UC Press published an account by an ex-president of Students for a Democratic Society of how the media, in keeping with a purported conventionalist bias, subverted the SDS's purpose (Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching). Similarly, it is senseless to complain of the almost uniform leftward tilt of the Press' proudly proclaimed "pioneering books on critical social issues." Here, the press really does operate as an "arm" of UC, where any other kind of posture is considered morally and politically objectionable.
With Veering Right, however, UC Press exceeds these very tolerant limits. The book makes no bones about its political purpose. The current catalog begins its description by of the book by declaring it a "searing indictment of current administration policy"as Senator Kerry demonstrates, liberals have a predilection for being "seared"and ends the description by saying that the book discloses the "previously unimaginable successes" that "ultra-conservatives" could achieve "during a second Bush term."
Just so we not miss the political point or think the editors alone in their view, the catalogue then offers us testimonials to Tiefer's work by some notables. John Deanyes, that John Deanspeaks of Tiefer being "timely" in the way he outs the administration's twisting of the law to forward "its radical political agenda." Dean is not formally a Democratic operative, however, and thereby an insufficient authority for the Press' purposes. It needs some more openly partisan Democrats to make its position absolutely clear. Thus, we next receive the enthusiastic endorsement of Tiefer's work from Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, Santa Monica's and Beverly Hills' gift to the nation, and John Podesta, Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff and the President of the Center for American Progress, one of the 527 organizations mobilized to defeat President Bush this time around. Waxman apparently took time off from his main job of cataloguing the administration's sins to revel in Tiefer's "brilliant expose" and to look forward to the "outrage" that his book is designed to generate. Not to be outdone, Podesta celebrates the "piercing light" Tiefer shines on the "black hole" of administration secrecy and, still smarting from how his president was undone, expresses hope that the same light will awaken the media from its "deep coma."
Now it is not difficult to understand the motives of Tiefer and the "experts" of UC Press. Tiefer, Solicitor of the House of Representatives from 1984-1995 and Assistant Senate Legal Counsel before that, was apparently cashiered after Republicans captured Congress in 1994. At present a law professor at the University of Baltimore, he is likely just getting some revenge and exorcizing some demons. There is little surprising either, about the comments of Dean, Waxman, and Podesta. The surprise is that UC Press so openly enters the political lists by publishing and headlining such a book. Over one hundred years old, the Press advertises its faithfulness to its original purpose of "publishing the best scholarly books" and claims to be as committed "as ever…to serve the University and the people of California, as well as scholars and university communities around the world by giving voice to great ideas." So how do we get to Tiefer's book?
At one level, what is going on at UC Press seems clear. As its website makes plain, the Press has long since forgone a scholarly interest in politics. In the fourteen sections into which it divides its offerings, there is no political science section, although there are separate listings for sociology, anthropology/archeology, and global issues. It does not seem too much to conclude from this and books like Veering Right that the Press has basically given up on scholarly political science in favor of popular and more inflammatory publications. If setting aside its political science is a matter of market considerations, I suppose, it would be excusable, although one would hope for a greater sense of responsibility from a great university press.
The problem here, of course, is not what UC Press chooses not to publish but what it is publishing. There seems no excuse for a book that seems as openly unbalanced as Tiefer's. One wonders if the present set of editors is out of synch with the press's purposes. Looking through the editors listed on the Press website, one notices that the person who seems in charge of politics has an M.A. in the history of religion and places politics after religion and Asian studies in the areas he oversees. Beyond that, his previous professional experience was as an assistant at another press to the sociology and anthropology editors and, on the personal side, he cites his interests in reviewing books for the Shambhala Sun, a "Buddhist inspired" magazine, and playing in jazz and rock bands here and in Europe. There is nothing objectionable, of course, in any of this. But it sort of answers some of the questions about how UC Press came to publish a book like the one it trumpets in its present catalogue.
It may the UC Press' right to join the ranks of openly political presses, although I am not sure of the legalities given its status as an "arm" of UC. I am confident, however, that if it wants to take this route it needs to sever its ties with UC, given the University's need to retain at least some semblance of non-partisanship. Moreover, for the Press to continue on its present course makes it a potential embarrassment for UC. Recently, the University concluded a budget deal with a very popular Republican governor. The agreement is critical to the University's future, and it depended on some delicate negotiations between folks who do not necessarily share many views when it comes to politics at large. It behooves the University, in short, to court the political community at large, not just that portion of it which agrees with such as John Dean, Henry Waxman, and John Podesta. If UC Press seeks to go in another direction, it needs to reconsider its relationship to the University.