TCS Daily


Sticks and Summers

By Robert McHenry - February 23, 2006 12:00 AM

As a lifelong four-eyes and early adopter of "husky"-tailored dungarees, I have always clung gratefully to that flimsy little flotation device provided for harassed schoolchildren: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." It turns out I may have grown up in one of the last sane generations, as this simple chant has in recent decades been edited: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but the expression of unauthorized or unnecessarily negative views may offend anyone at any time and therefore can get you into deep, deep trouble." So, to Billy Joe Shumate somewhere out there: Thank your stars we were second-graders when we were, fella, for today you'd have been coming in for one big fat lawsuit, you and your Mom and her army boots.

For those of you keeping score in the free speech stakes, here are the current standings:

Muhammad cartoons: Riots continue, more deaths, more calls for European legislation to ban blasphemy.

Holocaust denial: David Irving pleads guilty to Holocaust denial, a crime in Austria. He gets three years.

Harvard: Having failed to abase himself sufficiently before the faculty, President Lawrence Summers resigns.

All in all, not a bad start on the week for the pietistic right and left.

The sticks have been used chiefly to beat Havarti cheeses, and the occasional Norwegian, as a demonstration of the Islamists' dedication to bringing the rule of unwritten superstition to the benighted rest of us. As for the stones, it turns out they do make a prison, after all, and Mr. Irving will have time to consider whether denying Darwin might not be a safer line of work, all things considered.

At Harvard, Mr. Summers faced neither sticks nor stones but an altogether more formidable weapon, the feminist fantods. The utter depravity of his crime -- suggesting that the possibility of innate differences between the genders was one among various hypotheses worth testing in the search for an explanation of the relative scarcity of women in the top rank of science and mathematics -- was first indicated by the reaction of an MIT biologist, who said she fled the scene lest she "black out or throw up." No subsequent elucidation of the nature of Summers' offense ever improved upon that formulation. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but making me barf is poopy."

The common element in these episodes is that someone had been made to feel bad -- dishonored, disrespected, guilty, or just, I don't know, icky. And here's the party-line response: They aren't going to take it, not anymore. They're going to build a world where you aren't permitted to make them feel the least bad, on pain of shunning or durance vile. They will use whatever means fall to hand in this project, from murder and arson right the way up to hysteria. Resistance is not only futile, it's prima facie proof of guilt.

"While I may not agree with what you say, I'm going to make damned sure you don't ever say it again, see?"
-- Voltaire, as played by Edward G. Robinson

It's this grim determination to set us all right -- based, of course, on the absolute conviction that they already are unassailably right -- that renders apology superfluous. The Danish newspaper that published the cartoons that sparked the spontaneous demonstrations only five months later has apologized. David Irving has offered a typically weasely statement of regret. President Summers has apologized repeatedly, and followed apology with money for this and that academic boondoggle. All to no avail. These are no mere private sinners, free to repent in their closets and be forgiven by their gods after appropriate mortification. These are very public and, as 'twere, iconic sinners, fit only to be tarred and feathered, racked, stoned, drawn and quartered, pinned to ant hills, and possibly even rebuked by Oprah, all for our very public edification and purification. Apologize? Save your breath, and kneel. Oh, and please grimace appropriately for the cameras.

What a glorious vision is this, this future Eden, where speech is so carefully watched, even if it is not listened to, and where no one need ever again experience judgment or reproach. You'll be OK, I'll be OK, we'll all be OK, truly OK, and we can shout out together the immortal words of Sally Field: "You don't dislike me. You really, really don't dislike me."

From elementary school, where "creative" spelling is encouraged and "every child is a winner," to idiot columnists telling kids not to sweat failing high school algebra on account it ain't no use nohow, to a state legislature considering a bill to empower college students to demand alternative coursework when they deem something in the standard syllabus to be offensive to their exquisitely developed senses -- the entire educational system has been conscripted into the project. And again, criticizing any of this just shows that you're part of the problem. And you wouldn't want that, would you?

Who needs criticism, anyhow? Criticism was originally invented in Germany -- get it? Germany? -- in order to establish authentic versions of ancient texts, but as we now have learned, texts don't have any intrinsic meaning, so "authentic" versions are illusory. The only thing in the cosmos worth thinking about is the bullying hegemonistic patriarchal racialist genocidal actions of, er, certain types, and how we are really gonna get 'em back for it one of these days, but good. After which, we don't have any firm plans. Maybe lunch.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of How to Know (Booklocker.com, 2004).

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10 Comments

bad writing
What a rambling incoherent post. Quick summary: Harvard liberal college Muslem stupid feminist, don't like.

Two specific points:

* The Arizona law allowing students to request alternate work was in responce to an assigned reading describing wife swapping. It would allow the students to choose less offensive literature, such as a Shakespeare play depicting brutal murders.

* Larry Summers basic mistake was to act as though he were in charge of Harvard. The faculty feel they run things and that University Presidents are chosen from among the faculty only to do the university paperwork and have dinner with doners, a sort of combination airline flight attendent and accountant. Such a person never would personally insult a faculty member, forcing said faculty member for the sake of honor to move to Princeton.

Good Post Joanie
Some people simply cannot read. Most likely they would also want an alternative course to try and find another method for communication. Lastly, I have read Mr. McHenry's book, "How to Know". Many people do not know "how to know" either. He does a good job of explaining this talent.

duh
"You've completely missed McHenry's point. Political correctness has infiltrated our society to the point where speaking one's mind can lead to the loss of a job, of freedom (incarceration), or even one's life."

I think I got his point fine, and you make it better than he does. I only wish it could be made in coherent paragraphs. My summary is a fair representation of what he actually posted.

About your specifics:

(1) What's your point? Should students be forced to read about wife swapping (which indeed, from the wife's point of view involves changing husband)?

(2) That's halfway to my point. As a legal matter, the Corporation and by delagation the President "run" the Harvard. As a practical matter, the main assets of the university are its faculty and re****tion (brand). Summers made it hard to attract faculty and created needless controversy. A university President is not a private citizen and has to remember that whenever he/she speaks in public, it implicitly is speaking for the university. The president of my university often is asked to express opinions about political matters I know he feels strongly about, but he never does, for that reason.

coherence
you seem to have a lot of trouble understanding articles that say things you don't want to here.

I'm merely one of the neandrathal conservatives, knuckles barely managing to clear the ground, yet I had no trouble understanding anything the author wrote.

I got it
I think the confusion about wife swapping came from not reading the link in the original post about the law in Arizona. It was pushed by conservatives in the Arizona State legislature who were upset that a student was forced to read about wife swapping. The terminology comes from the link -- I was just reporting it. My point was: it was conservatives who were putting in this, it is not another liberal travesty.

The faculty Summers wants to attract are specialists in subatomic physics or romantic Italian literature or some other hyperspecialized subject. These are the people he annoyed, the rank and file brilliant scholars who are the Harvard faculty. These people founded half the Route 128 companies (the other are founded by MIT professors) that drive the economy of Massachusetts. To them, academic politics (which can be nasty and fierce) is about such questions as whether to hire an organic or inorganic chemist. These are the decisions they did not want Summers making, though he has a legal right to. And if they don't like it, they leave and Harvard loses.

To end as you did, your mother wears army boots!!

So Far , So Good
So to summarize the year to date, reports of using stem-cell borne Korean humor genes to treat cheese-beating fuse head syndome were exposed as wishful thinking, Darwinian selection culled another bad historian in Austria, Harvard's third attempt at a presidential xenotransplant ended in an episode of rejection,and to protest the theft of "the Scream" from an Oslo museum,a Norwegian flung himself 140 meters off a skijump in Torino.

Just wait- April is the cruelist month.

Doe he shoot pandas , too?
In a truly memorable sentence , Goodman cots to the heart of Harvards problems - the food at the Faculty Club;

"The faculty feel they run things and that University Presidents are chosen from among the faculty only to do the university paperwork and have dinner with doners, a sort of combination airline flight attendent and accountant."

We are what we eat, and by accusing President Summers of cannibalism Goodman has gone too far . While horsemeat and whale steaks have in the past been featured on the FC menu, and possibly served as kebabs , in 370 years there has never been a reported instance of a flight attendent or accountant suffering a meat grinder mishap in the kitchens of 20 Quincy Street and ending up in he doner, the excellent pates, or even the kibbie.

Goodman must be thinking of the eponymous Business School across the river in Allston which has a separate menu and endowment, not Harvard College . Besides, Summers was never on the Faculty. He just runs the place .

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