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.