Scholarship as Spectacle: Ben Urwand, Reza Aslan, and more

Scholars have never been completely immune from showmanship.   But in recent years the search by academics for celebrity appears to have become more intense.  And whereas tele-academics used to be esteemed for their erudition (consider the likes of A.J.P. Taylor and Simon Schama) today’s celebrity academics acquire notoriety for their pugnacity, for the outrageousness of their claims and the sexiness of their topics.

Consider Ben Urwand, a junior scholar just out of the PhD at Berkeley, now at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and author of a blistering attack on Hollywood movie moguls’ alleged collaboration with the Nazis during the 1930s:

http://chronicle.com/article/When-Hollywood-Held-Hands-With/140189/

And at an even higher order of magnitude there is  Reza Aslan, a gifted popular writer whose new book on Jesus doesn’t seem terribly original – many scholars have presented Jesus as a political revolutionary – but who is a master of public relations and had the good fortune to be subject to a spectacularly flat-footed interview on Fox News:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/30/business/media/odd-fox-news-interview-lifts-reza-aslans-biography-on-jesus.html

In the field of Jewish Studies, Shlomo Sand is a similar phenomenon.  His 2008 book The Invention of the Jewish People was enormously popular, particularly in western Europe, but was little more than a polemic with footnotes.

The temptations of celebrity can be irresistible.  Academics tire of slaving away over scholarly monographs that few will read.  But there is an enormous difference between writing accessibly for a general audience, which ultimately benefits the entire reading public, and seeking celebrity, which benefits only the author – and, most of the time, for a very brief time.

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