Mary Thomas of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Professor Steve Kurtz: Paranoid Journalism
A recent addition to this group is Mary Thomas, the P-G's art critic, with her bizarre piece ("Kurtz Case, Activist Art in Limbo," March 7, 2007, page C-3) on Professor Steve Kurtz, "a founding member of the widely acclaimed [by whom?] art collective Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) . . . ." Ms. Thomas explains that "The group explains the impact of science and technology on consumer culture through works that are activist, performative and conceptual."
Thomas' article is a monument to journalist murkiness, portraying the professor as a mixture of the strange figure in Conrad's Heart of Darkness ("Mistuh Kurtz, he dead") and the hapless "K" in Kafka's The Trial. The U.S. Justice Department has charged the professor with wire fraud and mail fraud related to certain "CAE projects."
We never learn the details of what the alleged defrauding involved. We never learn the details about a lot of things in this case.
If you read Thomas' article carefully, you will have many questions and few answers about the accusations. After Kurtz's wife died somewhat mysteriously in 2004, the FBI confiscated his computer, his books, and a variety of "microorganisms" contained in petri dishes. What these substances were and how Kurtz proposed to use them we never learn.
Apparently, Kurtz -- a very strange looking man with a greasy ponytail -- isn't a terrorist, although like most things, the article doesn't give us any definitive information on that. We do learn that the fraud charges are "based on his alleged receipt of the bacteria from University of Pittsburgh scientist Robert Ferrell." If the case goes to trial, a big "if," Kurtz and Ferrell theoretically could face sentences of 20-years.
Again, what were the bacteria and how did Kurtz intend to use them? Thomas doesn't tell us. Also, did Professor Ferrell send them to Kurtz or not? Again, the article doesn't enlighten us. Why exactly is the Justice Dept. accusing the professors of fraud? Search me, because Thomas doesn't clarify such points.
She does tell us that Kurtz is raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense (against precisely what?). Some of the money will fund an "international presence" at the trial, which will "include persons to conduct consciousness-raising activities [unheard of since the early 1970s?] as well as expert witnesses . . . to attest to the worth of CAE work."
In Thomas' piece, we read that the CAE -- and Kurtz -- have been associated with exhibits dealing with "Free Range Grain," as well the supposed evils of genetically modified foods and the real evils of Nazi eugenics and germ warfare.
The article suggests that there's something trendy about opposing Nazi pseudo-science and the use of weapons of mass destruction in form of germ warfare. Frankly, I haven't heard anyone advocating either.
Professor Kurtz seems to be one of those throwbacks to the hippie era. He may be one of those people who writes "Amerika" with a "k," suggesting this country is somehow the heir to Hitler's Germany.
As for CAE, one of its projects "incorporated an actual gene donor profile form." It did so "to make a point about how ingrained and myopic social values are, and how they can be manipulated." Say what?
For Ms. Thomas, mounting her soap-box in what's supposed to be reporting, "CAE, in short, provokes the kinds of questions that an informed citizenry must consider to control its destiny." That's just special pleading masquerading as journalistic insight. The facts presented in the piece don't justify the author's generalizations.
The paranoid style of reporting has lots of details. Few of them, however, advance a reader's understanding of the situation supposedly under investigation. Thomas suggests something very bad is going on, but she can't quite put her finger on what it is.
Did Professor Kurtz receive the bacteria? Did Professor Farrell send them? If so, why were they such a matter of concern to the FBI and the Justice Department? We'll never know.
Also, is Kurtz what he appears to be: an individual who defines his self-worth by his infinite capacity to stick it to the bourgeoisie? Is he, in other words, a relatively trivial figure vigorously involved in cultivating his status as a victim? The answer seems to be yes. Maybe Thomas could have explained that to us up front.
She deserves a good scolding from her editor. Apparently, she inhabits a hothouse where conspiracy theories blossom endlessly. In that word, an artist -- no matter how bizarre and self-serving -- is invariably right and the government is always wrong.
She assumes a readership that doesn't want to be confused by mundane facts. In the case of this particular reader, her assumption was dead wrong.
This will be my last column on the P-G, at least for a while. Mary Thomas and a few others will be happy to hear that.