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Saturday, December 13, 2014

John Updike, Rabbit Run

On this front, Deresiewicz was wrong. What a tawdry waste of talent this book is. The style is perfect - the minute perceptiveness and uncanny prose is as remarkable as his short stories - but there is no substance in it. I spent the entire 250 pages hoping that Rabbit Angstrom would just fall down a well, and take his entire town's dreary, declining existence with him. It's hard to imagine how this bleak collection of frustrated, dimwitted sadsacks managed to animate three subsequent novels.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Silence and noise

Harvard has a finals week tradition called Primal Scream, which entails a large number of undergrads imbibing vigorously, disrobing completely, and then running around the quad screaming. This term, a group of students concerned about racism determined that this event would be the perfect setting in which to stage a silent protest. The Crimson dutifully chronicles the results of this prudent judgment, in prose and pictoral form:
As student streakers began to gather, talking and shouting, just a few yards away, the protesters, some of them clad in black sweatshirts with the words, “I ♥ Black People,” stayed silent. After failing to quiet the students with a megaphone, Khurana was lifted onto the back of a half-naked man, from where Khurana tried to quiet the crowd again. 
When the streakers continued to talk, the protesters broke their silence, chanting, “Silence. Silence.” Meanwhile, shouts of “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” erupted from the group of runners, drowning out the calls for silence by the protesters. Primal Scream participants have also chanted “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” during past runs.

“This is absolutely ridiculous, this is absolutely ridiculous,”one of the protest organizers, Aubrey J. Walker ’15, said to his fellow protestors. “We’ll wait here all night. Guys, look to your left, look to your right, these are your brothers and sisters and siblings. All we ask is for four and a half minutes of silence.” 
Shortly after, a group of streakers from the back of the crowd began to run in the opposite direction of the protesters, and the rest of the streakers followed in a lap around the Yard. The protesters turned to face the streakers after they finished their first lap around the Yard, forcing some streakers to run off the path and into the middle of the Yard. Some runners chanted, “black lives matter!” while others shouted obscenities.
No satire could improve on this reality. I'm not sure there will ever be a more complete encapsulation of Harvard than the photo of the Dean of the College perched on a shirtless student's shoulders yelling ineffectually into a megaphone at a crowd of drunk, naked kids and protesters in the rain.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"People are trying to turn being a woman into a profession"

In one of my occasional forays into vintage Crimson reportage (some great day, all school papers will digitize their archives), I came across this profile of Judith Shklar from 1972. I've been struck in the past by the aversion of  some of the sharpest mid-century female minds - Arendt, Didion - to feminism, and found the same sentiment (Arendt's "zat's not serious") here:
"Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner," she jokes, "but I always take people at their word. When I was in school, the women I knew there were at the top of the class." She throws this out with a kind of proud matter-of factness. "When most of them said that they preferred married life. I believed them. Perhaps I was naive. But now people are trying to turn being a woman into a profession, which is the worst kind of tokenism." She has the distinct sense that American women are suddenly being harassed by the magazines and newspapers they read for new but still wrong reasons. "Too much empty discussion of the role of women and her family can lead to just as disastrous effects as sex-discrimination. American women are being bombarded with articles on how to run their lives and those of their families. You'll notice that the tone is always threatening and pseudo-scientific" (two pet hatreds of Dr. Shklar's). "It's going to get worse--the pressure is on everyone. A less destructive way is needed." A student's impression affirms this attitude. "Her reaction to Women's Lib is probably to stop all that snivelling about insignificant issues, take care of yourself, and get on with it."
While we're lamenting poorly-verified sources and other journalistic failings in the immediate present, it must be said that this profile has it all. It's fawning and poorly written (what is a "metic's metic"?) and the student descriptions of Shklar are inexplicably anonymous, because praising your professors is surely one of those life- and reputation-endangering ventures requiring special protection. Still, this is a pretty prescient prediction.

UPDATE: Someone on Facebook also points to this lecture by Shklar with even more on this topic in the middle.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Self-inflicted campus hate crimes, Chicago edition

Peeps, remember all those times when racists vandalized Scripps College, the KKK invaded Oberlin, anti-Catholic thugs assault a guy at Princeton, and so on? Well, those same ruthless nogoodniks have struck again, this time at UChicago.

Last month, threatening and racist things were posted on a student's Facebook account, galvanizing the whole campus to action to fight the hate (and also galvanizing a federal investigation into the origins of the hate). Much hate was fought before it became clear that the source of the threats was the student who reported them. As usual, this was shocking news to all, because as we know, elite American universities are hotbeds of hate, so the likelihood is always high that such baroque threats are real. However, should the discovery that this was merely another false threat mean that things are ok and everyone should go back to studying? As the college press release gravely informs us, the answer to that question is emphatically,
No. As Vice President Coleman’s message pointed out, “That conclusion does not erase the seriousness of this episode, the harm it has caused to individuals and our broader community, or the consequences for those responsible. Whatever its purpose, the language used in this incident does not constitute discourse and will not be tolerated. Its use underlines questions about campus climate already raised in other contexts. These emerging facts do not in any way diminish the University’s commitment to a diverse campus, free from harassment and discrimination, as articulated by the president and provost in their message.”
As I mentioned in my previous post on this phenomenon, the discovery that a campus catharsis-inducing hate crime was self-inflicted has never impeded any college administration's commitment to histrionic over-reaction. That is because what self-inflicted hate crimes always prove is just how ubiquitous the hate in question really is. We're so steeped in hate that people sometimes get confused and inflict it on themselves without even noticing. Then they absentmindedly report it to their universities as an act committed by someone else, until they manage to recall how it came about (when investigators show up at their doors with some unusual evidence), and graciously correct the record. As the college admin puts it, self-inflicted hate crimes "underline questions about campus climate already raised"...by the same people who committed the hate crime against themselves. It's just more efficient that way.

My question is this: According to the Maroon article, President Zimmer's initial response to news of this crime was to promise that the university "would pursue criminal prosecution of the individual behind" the Facebook post. At the time, the hate crimer's friends dismissed this response as "reactionary at best" (Marx weeps). Now that the culprit's identity has been revealed, I wonder if the university will stand by its commitment to criminal justice, or if it will instead discover that what's really important at a time like this is not anything so vindictive and reactionary as punishing individuals, but rather that we take advantage of this opportunity to come together as a community to heal the wounds inflicted on us all by the ambient hatred sewn in our social fabric that was finally brought to light in this unfortunate incident, and to move forward toward progress, uniting in solidarity in our embrace of diversity, et cetera ad nauseum.

Serious people may ask serious questions about this pattern of behavior, especially in light of recent doubts about Rolling Stone's UVA story, which is not quite the same thing, but perhaps a relative in the larger campus hoax family. Why do students and professors lie about being victimized? The easy and insufficient explanation is "for attention," but there are many other ways to get attention - call in bomb threats during finals, show up to class naked, invent Facebook. The people behind self-inflicted hate crimes are all almost all campus activists and the hate crimes they inflict on themselves are of a piece with their prior involvement fighting sexism, racism, anti-gay bias, social liberalism, whatever. They're trying to advance their causes through these stunts, and the most common public statement after the fact that I've come across goes something like, "I was frustrated that everyone else was paying insufficient attention to my pet issue, so I dramatized it to show them how big a problem it really is." (Our Chicago culprit expresses this sentiment on his Facebook.) After the fact, there is always speculation that the hate-crimer is mentally ill and so should be an object of pity rather than derision or punishment, and it's certainly true that pulling such a stunt takes a foolhardiness that most college students - activist or pacifist - lack. Still, the mental illness explanation is too just-so: because we like to say that no sane person would do something doesn't mean that the person who does the thing is insane. So I'm open to other theories of the self-inflicted hate crime.

What's quite remarkable about this as a strategy is how often it works, in spite of the usually rapid revelation that it's a lie. Despite some mealy-mouthed regret rhetoric out of Chicago about the Facebook threat being fake, both the students and the admin continue to insist that the hate it conveyed is real and the university's planned response must remain unchanged in light of this discovery. But I suspect UVA will be a little different: because the story had national reach, the admin and the campus activists can't so flippantly dismiss its invalidity and dig in their heels like Chicago. That only works when the whole country's attention isn't riveted on the little doings of your campus. There is a certain reasonableness to the widely-voiced concern that if people dwell too much on the UVA story's defects, no one will believe legitimate rape allegations ever again, so to avoid that bad outcome, let's just chalk this all up to a "troubled woman" being exploited by a feckless reporter and put it behind us asap. That's the line in self-inflicted hate crimes - let's not let this regrettable error "distract" us from our mission - and in those cases, it usually works. Maybe that's even the best approach to the UVA story, but I think that this concern won't be enough to override the public's dislike of being duped, as it often is on campuses where those who dislike being duped are fewer and quieter than those who believe in the cause. Had such a false or inaccurate rape accusation been lower-profile, it's possible that it would've had the same local result as the typical self-inflicted hate crime: the university would express regret at the inauthenticity of the particular incident but insist that it only "underlines" the urgent need to do whatever it was planning to do when they still believed it was real. But this was too big and sensational a hoax, and it raised the stakes too high. But, on the other hand, maybe not.

So much for the serious people and their serious questions. On the whole, my favorite analysis of the Chicago situation comes from a student quoted by the Maroon observing one of the hate crime-inspired protests :
Second-year Edward Huh said that he thought that the message of the protest was somewhat muddled..."It was like a Sosc paper with no thesis,” Huh said.