12 March 2008

Professor Of Affirmative Action

The day I was admitted to Berkeley, I excitedly shared the news with an acquaintance who'd graduated from Harvard. His reaction: "Big deal, it's just public school."

Since then I've met a number of Harvard men and women and realized that his snobbery/jerkdom was the exception rather than the rule, but for a few years it did color my view of what I think most people would agree is America's most prestigious institution of higher learning.

I paid a visit to Harvard sometime in the early to mid-90s and hung out for a while at the campus radio station, the only jarring note being when I walked into someone's dorm room to find half a dozen of America's future best and brightest slumped over in varying states of heroin intoxication. But I guess you find that sort of thing anywhere pampered young people with large allowances are gathered together.

But apart from that episode, my admiration for Harvard remained largely unsullied until I started noticing some of the professors they were hiring in the name of "diversity," "Rappin'" Cornel West being the first to catch my eye. I'd heard West on several talk shows before he decided to turn his African-American Studies lectures into one of the most embarrassing hip hop albums ever made (those of you even vaguely familiar with the genre will know there's some stiff competition in that department). He's not a stupid man, and only a little foolish (hey, I've made embarrassing records, too), but nor is he Harvard professor material. Community college, maybe, but even there, his occasionally ponderous academic vocabulary can't obscure the fact that his main qualifications for the job were his racial ideology and his skin color.

West left for Princeton several years ago when in his view Harvard president Larry Summers failed to show sufficient respect for the affirmative action programs that were responsible for his having a job, but apparently Harvard has continued fishing in similarly shallow waters, at least if Monday's New York Times op-ed piece by Orlando Patterson is any indication. Patterson, a professor of sociology, using the tortured logic most often encountered in Rhetoric 101 undergrads, sets out to demonstrate that Hillary Clinton's silly "red phone" ad is actually a blatantly racist appeal on a par with D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation.

His evidence for this: the sleeping children portrayed in the ad's opening scene are white. That's it. Clinton's operatives could have removed the racist subtext, he says, if they'd used black children or parents as models, but since they didn't, it's obviously an attack on Barack Obama as a dangerous "dark" outsider. Never mind that a virtually identical ad was used by Walter Mondale against a decidedly non-black Gary Hart, or that LBJ had pulled something similar against the even whiter Barry Goldwater.

Is it the most farfetched idea in the world? No, I suppose not; I've heard Al Sharpton come up with goofier notions, and a quick perusal of some political punk rock lyrics will turn up notions far more bizarre. But once again, we're not talking about professional race demagogues or teenage anarchists here; we're dealing with a distinguished Harvard professor churning out drivel that shouldn't get past a competent composition or logic instructor, let alone the editorial board of the New York Times. If there's racism here, it's in a system that promotes clowns to the highest echelons of our educational establishment based - it would seem clear in this case - largely on the color of a man's skin. Content of character - or at least of intellect - seems to have scarcely entered into the matter.

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