A shorter version
of this article appears in the Feb. 11 NR.
in an honorific? Not Shakespearean, I realize, but it is our topic
for today. The question came up not for the first time
when the New York Times ran its several articles on the Cornel
West controversy at Harvard. (West, a star professor in the Afro-American
Studies department, was tiffing with the universitys new president,
Lawrence Summers. It seems that Summers wanted West to straighten
up his scholarly and professorial act. West, quite naturally, got
upset.) Some of us suspicious types noticed that the Times
referred to West and other Afro-Am profs as Dr.
Dr. West, Dr. Gates, Dr. Wilson
while referring to Summers as plain ol Mr.
(The Times did the same with the schools former president,
Neil Rudenstine. All these people have Ph.D.s, of course.)
This was passing strange the kind of thing that made
you go, Hmmm, in the words of the old rap song.
that? First, the Times seldom refers to any Ph.D.
as Dr. The head of Mt. Sinai Hospital, yes; the Nobel
Prize winner in physics, perhaps. But an English prof or a sociologist
or a drama teacher or something? Unusual. Second, all of the men
referred to as Dr. were black, while the palefaces were
Mr. Was this an act of racial condescension, the attempt
of a great liberal newspaper to puff these aggrieved black academics
whose seriousness and academic legitimacy are repeatedly
and rightly questioned up? It seemed to many of us that this
was likely. Issues of this kind were addressed by Roger Kimball
in the last NR, in his piece on the West controversy, titled,
pointedly enough, Dr. West and Mr. Summers.
werent the only white liberals in the game. Al Hunt, in his
column for the Wall Street Journal, referred to West as Dr.,
Professor, and Mr., covering all bases (and
that was a lot of titles for a short column); Summers got Mr.
may seem trivial and they are trivial, in the context
of a war against terrorism and all but they include in them
enduring cultural and national questions. Cornel West and his like
(not that there are many of his like, West being a pretty singular
character) are very big on pride, self-esteem, and what Aretha Franklin
called R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Hes exactly the type to
insist on, and elicit, Dr. (though hes also been
known to refer to himself with great frequency, as a matter
of fact as Brother West).
It turns out
that West did indeed insist on Dr. It is the policy
of the New York Times to leave it up to the individual
to the individual Ph.D.-holder, that is how he is to be referred
to in the paper (though Dr. cant be used for an
honorary degree, thank goodness). (Physicians and dentists get Dr.
as a matter of course.) A senior news editor at the Times
confirmed to me that West has informed the paper that he wants Dr.,
while Summers the youngest man ever tenured in the Harvard
economics department, by the way wants Mr. (Arthur
Schlesinger Jr. by the way, again has fought all his
life against being called Dr. He never earned a Ph.D.,
having been made a Harvard professor without one. Come to think
of it, this may speak well for a Ph.D.)
at the Times in the public-relations department
told me that the papers reporters make it a habit to ask subjects
who hold Ph.D.s how theyd like to be referred to. This,
however, would be news to many people. I know several people
Ph.D.-holders whove been quoted regularly in the Times
for many years who tell me theyve never been asked
such a question. (Theyre called Mr. or Ms.
) These include big-time, true-blue, super-serious academics. When
I mentioned this to the senior news editor, he replied that these
people need only give the word, and theyll be Dr.
(You know who you are; be it on your conscience.)
In the West
controversy, the Times wasnt quite consistent. In late
December right off the bat West was Dr.
But in a January 13 article, he was Mr. (No word yet
on whether hes planning a lawsuit.) (For that matter, Dr.
Gates Henry Louis Skip Gates Jr.
was merely Mr., too.) On December 29, Charles Ogletree
a (black) law professor at Harvard and a key ally of West
was Mr. Later, on January 4, he was bumped to
Dr. It would appear that he requested Dr.
(although the particular reporter could have bestowed it on her
own). It would also appear that Ogletree is the first law prof in
history, or at least recent history, to be called Dr.
in the Times, or most anywhere else. (Dr. Bork,
As for the
Wall Street Journal, the stylebook says that a Ph.D. is called
Dr. if appropriate in context and if the individual
desires it. The editorial page, however always independent
and (gloriously) contrarian wont give you Dr.
unless you wear a white coat and stethoscope. The paper at large
also requires that Martin Luther King, though dead, be called Dr.
King, always. And this, the editorial page follows. King is
virtually the only non-physician in this society always to be called
Dr. (and virtually the only dead person as well).
In fact, Dr.
King is one of the great linguistic sacred cows in America.
The Times does Dr. King, too, though many great
and eminent persons who are dead are referred to in those pages
by their last names only (e.g., Einstein). (Odd that Martin Luther
King should be more a doctor than Einstein, dont you think?)
It was one of Bill Bennetts masterstrokes, while he was secretary
of education, to refer to King as Rev. King. One year,
he was the Reagan cabinet member selected to go down to Atlanta
to represent the administration on Martin Luther King Day. He made
a point of referring to the great man as Rev. King,
which was both startling and soothing to the ear. Bennett was reminding
his audience of the religious nature of this figure, at a time when
conservatives in general were trying to restore the place of religion
in public affairs.
should King be Dr.? It is true that ours is a country
in which black men, not long ago, were routinely called boy
(or worse); we are properly conscious of dignity and redress. But
what is more significant about MLK? That he repeatedly put his life
on the line so that black Americans could, at long last, become
fully Americans eventually losing his life because of it
or that, early in his life, he managed to plagiarize his
way to a Ph.D.? Anyone, practically, can get a Ph.D.; very few can
be a Martin Luther King Jr.
Back to the
Times for a moment: It still burns many old-timers that the
paper once referred to Fidel Castro as Dr. Castro. (The
dictator took a law degree from the University of Havana.) The queer
practice of Dr. Castro lives on among certain leftists,
and in many British newspapers, not only the Guardian, which
loves Communist dictators, but the Daily Telegraph, which
doesnt. Of course, absolute rulers are always lavishing titles
on themselves (including General, although, as many
have noted, its strange that Col. Qaddafi never moved himself
up). Elena Ceausescu, the late (and bullet-riddled) First Lady of
Romania, gave herself a Ph.D. in chemistry. She also had chemists
write books in her name and arranged to have many prizes awarded
to her in that discipline.
In 1986, the
Times achieved something of a stylistic breakthrough, assenting
to Ms. This allowed Gloria Steinem to utter what must
be the best line of her career: Now I dont have to be
Miss Steinem from Ms. magazine. Put it
in Bartletts, maybe. The Times is pro-choice on a womans
honorific, as on abortion: One can select Miss, Mrs.,
or Ms. Hillary Clinton must have chosen Mrs.
somewhere along the line. Imagine the thought process the
machinations, the considerations, the strategic ins and outs
that went into her decision!
Luther King, the most famous non-stethoscope-wearing Dr.
in America is Kissinger though HK long ago asked the Times
to call him Mr. (which it does). (Ive always thought
Dr. Kissinger rather natural for the man, given his
background in Germany: Herr Doktor and all that.) Another
former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had a curious transformation.
At first in the Times, she was Mrs.; then Ms.;
then, finally, she was Dr. at her request (Doctors
Orders, as a title in the Times put it!). (Must be
the funniest Times headline ever, which, admittedly, isnt
saying much.) As the paper reported in that story, Albright asked
for Dr. because I worked hard for it (meaning,
her Ph.D.). The Times recorded that she wondered whether
the change might make her appear insecure, but she went ahead
and asked for it anyway. Her teacher at Columbia, Zbigniew Brzezinski,
national security adviser in the Carter administration, is Mr.
in the Times.
Rice, the current national security adviser, is Ms. Rice
her choice. Yet White House spokesmen routinely refer to
her as Dr. Rice. This is somewhat strange, because the
presidents chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, is very
much a Dr. Ph.D. in economics from Harvard
but is never, as far as I can tell, called Dr. Hes
Mr. (or just Larry). Why should this be?
Is this a sneaking bit of racial condescension or puffery? Is it
a bit of gender-related condescension or puffery? Is it a harkening
back to an earlier national security adviser, Dr. K? Or it is because
there are a lot of Texans and southerners around the White House?
There is very
much a North/South split in this country about Dr.,
as about so many other things. It is common practice for professors
in the South to be called Dr. At the universities I
attended northern you would sooner have struck a professor
than called him Dr. In fact, it was something if the
sullen and self-absorbed students grunted their acknowledgement
of the prof at all.
Dr. are bound up in that bitch-goddess, Status. (Yes,
I know: James said Success. But Status is a sister.) The best line
in either Austin Powers movie belongs to Dr. Evil, who, when addressed
as Mr., says, I didnt spend six years in
evil medical school to be called Mr., thank you very
much! Our senior editor Jeffrey Hart, professor emeritus of
English at Dartmouth, remembers serving as a campaign adviser to
Nixon (not that this is necessarily a segue from evil). To Jeffs
amusement, Nixon called him Dr. Hart. This accords with
the Nixon we know: class-conscious, status-nervous, chip-on-the-shouldery,
the boy from Whittier who received a tuition scholarship to Harvard
but couldnt go, because the family didnt have the money
to transport him to and from Massachusetts. Nixon, according to
Jeff, would also say, Im no Ph.D., but . . .,
before launching into a disquisition on some arcane topic.
For some, to
be called Dr. is a way of saying, I am somebody,
in the words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. (Ah, the Rev. Mr.
Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton thats
a whole nother article, as we say in my family.)
Many years ago, another NR senior editor, Rick Brookhiser,
surveying all the mail sent to Bill Buckley, adjudged that the most
interesting letters were those from prison. And the least interesting?
The ones from people who signed themselves Ph.D. I know
someone whos a lawyer in West Virginia who has found that
the surest way to rattle his oppositions expert Ph.D. witness
is to refer to him as Mr.
But then, I
have another acquaintance who earned a Ph.D. in biochem and
he pleads for his Dr. because, There arent
many perks in this line of work, and Id like my little payoff
from polite society. Well, at least hes not a drama
teacher. The bulk of the Ph.D.s I know balk at being called
anything but Mr. (or maybe Professor, in
the case of academics), believing that Dr. has come
to mean Marcus Welby, and thats about it. As for those who
feel slighted when they are Dr.-less, all we can say
is, Ph.D., heal thyself.