The Won Percent

Education, Plus ça change motherfuckers, War and Politics

Oh, Jesus, you’re already thinking. Another one of those “when I was at Oberlin back in the good ol’ days” stemwinding openers. Fuck you. Get your own blog. When I was a whippety little undergrad at Oberlin College lo this last dragging decade ago, one Larry Summers—you may have heard of him—was invited to speak at Finney Chapel as part of a yearly “Convocation Series”, the sort of series that well-heeled college and university presidents pride themselves on, the kind of convocation in which one is likely to encounter, say, the phrase “thought leader” incarnated in the form of various state functionaries and intellectual popularizers, an ongoing and geographically distributed set of temporary Chautauquas, pace Mencken, a sweaty, Gilbertian landscape of eating, praying, and love, at least, of money.

Summers was Clinton’s Treasury Secretary at the time—this was just before Harvard signed him on waivers. If you want a good example of exquisite mediocrity as the sole unkillable constant in American public life, just look at this guy’s career as he’s careened from one gorgeous scam to another, forever making millions. Anyway, I don’t think we yet knew about his role in the manufactured California Energy Crisis, but those were the waning glory years of gaudy Clintonian neoliberal economic imperialism, and plenty of us were outraged that this towering economic shock doctor was going to be ushered into our sylvan utopia and given a polite public reception. Of course, I was mostly interested in the business end of my bong in those days, and thus unable to rouse myself to any sort of action, but a bunch of campus socialists got themselves into the chapel for the speech, unfurled banners, shook noisemakers, and shouted the greedly little schlub off the stage.

The internet was as-yet inadequate to viralizing this sort of thing into a national scandal, but on campus, recriminations broke along predictable lines. The college administration and that portion of the student body and faculty who believed the purpose of education to be preparation for Congressional internships, get-out-the-vote campaigns, and Teach for America, with subsequent stints at the Kennedy School or Wharton and nice lives in the leafy Maryland suburbs were outraged at this abridgement of Summers’s right to be heard, besides which, it was impolite. The more radical sorts, mostly students and some of the hipper profs, replied, well, shit, our positions are totally unequal; he gets a stage, while we get lines at the microphone for a Q&A; he has a national, an international, forum; we have the letters to the editor in the Oberlin Review. The whole thing eventually blew over. Despite the earnest worries of the Leave Larry Alone faction, he was not irreparably tarnished; he went on bilking millions out of American institutions, and I’m sure he still gets invited to convocations today.

Thirteen years later, Ray Kelly gets shouted down at Brown. In a fully reciprocal, eye-for-eye, digit-for-digit justicial universe, students would have thrown him against a wall, forced his legs apart with their knees, grabbed at his crotch and fingered his anus, all the while laughing and cracking vulgarly wise about the size of his dick and the failures of his race, then publicly claimed it was for his own good. Instead, he suffered the mere indignity of not being able to read the same prepared remarks he’s read a thousand times before. But the internet has matured into a great engine powered by a steady injection of mere indignity, and although the truth is that this was a forgettable incident, a typical confrontation between young people with a burgeoning awareness of the systems of power in America and the sort of asshole that middle-manages those systems, a meeting of unequals in which strength in numbers briefly triumphs before the jerk they’re booing trundles off to a paid sinecure in one of the oligarchical pensioners villages set up by the finance industry for former servants of maintaining the status quo, it all became a great opportunity for national tut-tutting. The President of the University made a pitiful public apology; your cheeks and mine would burn with shame at such personal and professional abasement, but these people are the worst sort of masochists, and they get off on their own humiliation, so long as it’s in the service of someone with a slightly higher rank in the hierarchy. She promised that these students would “face consequences”, and the university has formed the hilariously Soviet “Committee on the Events of October 29th”. No, really.

Divisive, intemperate, ineffective. There’s plenty of scolding to go around, much of it from liberals who ostensibly see themselves as opponents of Ray Kelly. Most of these are reliable party Democrats who forever plead for work within the system. And it’s no coincidence that they call it work. Politics, including its PR arm, the press, is a profession. We can’t have all this shouting in the workplace. Some of us are trying to get something done here. Typical of this attitude and its attendant misunderstandings is Democratic commenter par excellence Katha Pollitt, of The Nation, who writes:

More important, shouting Kelly down shows lack of respect for the audience and for the larger—much larger—number of people who had never given stop-and-frisk much thought. By shutting down the event, activists successfully threw their weight around—all 100 or so of them—but did they persuade anyone that stop-and-frisk was a bad, racist policy? Did they build support for their larger politics and their movement? I don’t think so. I think the only minds that changed that night were of people who felt bewildered and irritated by being prevented from hearing Kelly speak by a bunch of screamers and now think leftists are cynical bullies who use and abandon free-speech arguments as it suits them.

It’s fashionable on the left to mock liberalism as weak tea—and sometimes it is. But you know what is getting rid of stop-and-frisk? Liberalism. A major force in the campaign against stop-and-frisk was the NYCLU, which carries the banner of free speech for all. And Bill de Blasio, who just won the mayoral election by a landslide, has pledged to get rid of the policy and Ray Kelly too. Those victories were not won by a handful of student radicals who stepped in with last-minute theatrics. They were won by people who spent years building a legal case and mobilizing popular support for change.

This is a type of rhetoric much-employed in the polite liberal press, a strategy for being superficially correct through artful misunderstanding. Nothing Pollitt says here is wrong, per se, and yet, if you ask me the proper temperature to roast a chicken and I tell you that the square root of two hundred and twenty-five is fifteen, well, what’s that got to do with the price of milk? You see, the point of shouting Ray Kelly off the dais isn’t to get rid of “stop-and-frisk,” which these students are sophisticated enough to understand as merely symptomatic of greater injustices and inequalities in American life. No, the point is to get rid of Ray Kelly, to make the point that he has nothing to say that’s deserving of public consumption, that he is a wicked fellow who ought to be drummed from public life, his opinions, like those of most of us, to be shared grumpily over beers with no one to listen but the other cranks and kooks drinking in the middle of the day. The point is to shame Brown University—admittedly, a difficult task, since the university in the form of its administration is, as noted, shameless—for inviting the weasely little fascist onto the stage in the first place.

After all, Bill de Blaisio’s presumptive firing of Kelly will not get rid of him, any more than the election of George Bush or the Enron fiasco could get rid of Larry Summers. I think de Blaisio’s comments on NYPD practices have been mostly laudable, and firing Kelly would be correct. But Kelly is going to get a bazillion dollars and a no-responsibility job at JP Morgan (or the like) for his troubles, and for the rest of his life, Brown University (and the like) is going to pay him tens of thousands of dollars a pop to opine sagely on the tradeoffs between the comforts of white people and the brutal oppression of everyone else in the service of an empirically dubious but psychically reassuring notion that this “reduces crime.” Paid public appearances are performances, and booing a bad band or a lousy soprano is not a First Amendment issue. If Kelly doesn’t want to be booed, he should recant and become less odious; otherwise, any effort to make him and his kind publicly unacceptable is a good, clean game.

18 thoughts on “The Won Percent

  1. But you announce the failure of your cause in your argument for it: we can’t get rid of Ray Kelly. Because we are powerless and he is powerful. Now I’m very happy to hear the cynical cry that we can’t actually empower ourselves with “better speech” to combat the Ray Kellys of the world. But don’t mistake the ability to shout one Ray Kelly down in one forum in one corner of the world that is already policed by the already converted as power, either.

    And this is one of my many, many problems with the current status of online “social liberalism” or whatever the fuck. I interact constantly with people who say, in online spaces, stuff like “ban the MRAs! Force them out of every forum! Make their arguments impossible!” And I just shake my head at the pure ignorance of the power dynamics in play here. If you spend all of your time in the tiny, tiny worlds of online spaces dedicated to social justice, or if your context is small liberal arts colleges dominated by the progressive petite bourgeoisie, then you might mistake yourself for powerful. But those places are ghettos of the imagination for people who need no convincing and instead are engaged in the kind of social and cultural horse trading that social justice movements engender. The world is a lot less like Oberlin than like Purdue, I’m sorry to say: funded by defense contractors and agribusiness and surrounded for miles by conservative Christianity. Outside of my building, there’s a small quad that is favored by the preachers who come here to shout against abortion and the gays. When I read people on Facebook saying I should “ban such people from all forums,” and I ask how I do that, precisely, when the preachers are reflective of the culture I am embedded in, and I am not, there’s this blank, blinking lack of comprehension. As if all places are Feministe, as if all places are Oberlin.

    I think the healthiest starting position for anyone interested in something like social justice is to assume your own impotence and proceed from there. Because that’s what the facts suggest. And this leads to the perennial schizophrenia of online social progressivism: constantly yawing back and forth between talking about the massive racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. of the contemporary world, and speaking triumphantly about one’s own power. It’s no way to operate, strategically or analytically.

    1. Great post, Freddie.

      Any chance you will ever reactivate your own blog? Frequent reader, even if I never commented.

      And Ioz errr..Jacob is always thought-provoking!

  2. Pollitt is right on a few things, at least: leftists are cynical bullies who use and abandon free-speech arguments as it suits them. Yup. Just as the left in the 19th century used to be libertarian. When “free market” ideology ceased to be of use in dismantling the ancient regime, so much for the free market. “Free speech” was useful in defeating the liberals. Now, not as much. Speech codes are quite the rave on college campuses.

    Does Brown have a “speech code”? It does! It’s not just the protesters. It is Brown. If the powers that be at Brown wished to let Ray Kelly speak, all they needed to do was remove the agitators from the hall. Why did they not do that? Because, ultimately, they sided with the protesters. At Brown, free speech is for the Left, not the Right.

    And yes, things are different now than when you were a stoned twink. (Please give up more of this. We loves you, IOZ.) The Left and its clients used to be able to operate fully cognizant that the media would cover for them whenever it got ugly. Now we have the TV-ized Internet, and your average law and order, decent, polite person can see how the Left operates unmediated. It’s not pretty. It never was pretty, but now people can see for themselves.

  3. I can’t help but notice that all this talk about free speech and polite dialogue revolves around white Ivy Leaguers and the like. They should bring in the recipients of this policy.
    I’d like to see Kelly give his speech in a barbershop in the South Bronx.

  4. Yes, you get it, man. The joke of it is that it takes layers of subjective bullshit to see anything other than what happened, which is that some ape without any hair on his head got up to make noises to an assembled crowd and a bunch of other apes jeered and hooted him off stage. Good on them given what the guy is going to say and refuses to recant and talk about the experience as a lesson in learning how not to be. The ones yammering on about first amendment rights and allowing the man to finish his coffee like Pollit are really spinning a yarn, whatever else you may think about their nonsense. I’d shake Ray Kelly’s hand, but I wouldn’t stand for him trying to speak to the room.

    Pffft…. I’ll get my own blog, dogs don’t jump.

  5. I love the IOZ reminiscences — want more; actually I was disappointed when the post turned out to connect to current events and I had to figure out what the event in question was.

  6. Now we have the TV-ized Internet, and your average law and order, decent, polite person can see how the Left operates unmediated. It’s not pretty.

    Unlike the operations of our friends on the Right, such as the Golden Dawn, which are cute as buttons.

  7. Ah yes, Demon, tu quoque. Favorite “argument” for the unscrupulous. And ironic sarcasm too! How refreshing! I never see any of that coming from the left!

    Well, at least your pseudonym is honest.

  8. Not as we’re defending that there Left: we’ve known liberals and Maoists: some serious assholes everywhere. But what political behavior is pretty? Demon rules all, Left Right and Center. Despair and die!

    (Demon and Leonard would probably get along: But elitist farts are so much better company when we’re, like, telling dirty jokes in Latin, rather than assholistically feminist- and leftie-hating all over.)

  9. The point here, Leonard, is that tone arguments and arguties are typical liberal role-play, at a significant remove from actual fought-and-felt politics from below. That you use this thread to demonstrate once again your massive lack of self-awareness isn’t doing you any favors.

  10. Curious. Pollitt had no objection at all when protesters disrupted a CNN “Town Hall meeting” at Ohio State in Columbus in 1998, starring Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and Sandy Berger, which was meant to drum up support for Bill Clinton’s plan to terror-bomb Iraq. She thought those protesters were quite cool, and praised them for making so much noise, despite ejections and an arrest, that they had to be allowed to ask a question of the “guests.”

  11. I’ve never really bought the “If your protest frightened or angered people it must have been a failure for your cause” argument. I mean, that could be the case, in some cases, but in others…

    I can’t really imagine anybody saying “Despite the divisive and radical tactics of Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights movement eventually bore fruit” or “The anti-abortion position has somehow managed to catch on, in spite of the radical tactics of its supporters.”

    Also Pollitt seems to be missing the fact that probably the goal here is less “Put an end to Stop and Frisk” and more “Exert some direct control over the school you and your parents paid $50,000 to attend” and by those lights, it seems like it was a fantastically successful effort.

    I also like how the people against the protest are all warning us that if a mob of people can shout at Ray Kelly, then a mob of people could conceivably shout at anybody. Gasp! What if someday we want to talk to a college audience who disagrees with us? How will we be able to do that if we can’t force them to shut up?

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