(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/07/Ask-About-my-Pronoun-Preference1.gif)The other day I was sitting here writing and had the Howard Stern Show on in the background. (I sometimes find it easier to write with background noise.) Since Howard was on vacation, they were rerunning excerpts from old programs, including one on which he interviewed a prostitute. She told him about a client of hers who paid her a couple of hundred dollars to give him a good, swift, violent kick in the cojones. At first she hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, but then, apparently drawing on her high sense of professional honor and duty, she went ahead and did what he asked, whereupon he doubled over in such excruciating pain that he was barely able to stagger out of the room. As she watched him depart, she was overcome with feelings of guilt for having caused him such agony. Two days later he came back with another two hundred bucks and asked her to do it again.
It wasn’t until several hours later that I realized this wasn’t a bad metaphor for the current relationship between what are supposed to be some of America’s – indeed, some of the world’s – very best universities and liberal-arts colleges and the people who send their kids there. What do I mean? This: every year, all over the U.S., countless parents cough up not two hundred but more like two hundred thousand dollars so that their pride and joy, their newly minted high-school grad, can go to Harvard or Yale or wherever. So they pack him – let’s make it a him – off to old Ivy, and next thing you know he’s being roundly scolded at orientation for harboring vile prejudices of which he has, until now, been totally unaware. But don’t worry, he’s told: those prejudices aren’t really his fault – they’re the natural product of a bourgeois upbringing in capitalist, imperialist America, that fount of all worldly evil and the international headquarters of racism, sexism, and classism. It is, furthermore, made clear to the kid that he’s come to the right place: for the next four years, he’ll undergo a thorough re-education that will liberate him from the misbegotten notions on which he was raised and will set him on a journey down the one and only path to truth.
Four years later, having been marinated all the while in postmodernist twaddle and lockstep groupthink – from queer theory to radical feminism – the kid will be handed a diploma and sent home, where his parents, if they haven’t already figured out what’s been happening to their little darling on campus, will get an earful of some of the stuff he’s been “learning” and will realize that he’s learned to despise pretty much everything they stand for. He’s been taught to hate his country, to hate its history (of which he’s been given a thoroughly twisted version courtesy of Howard Zinn & co.), and to view its economic system (thanks to a gaggle of post-Marxist profs) as the root cause of all the planet’s ills. In short, they’ve paid good money – a lot of it – for their precious angel to be brainwashed into viewing them as class enemies. Or, to return to our original metaphor, in exchange for all those staggering checks they’ve been mailing off to the college all these years, they’ve been given the equivalent of a powerful kick in the privates.
And so what do these parents – who, in our hypothetical scenario, have other, younger kids – do? Do they reevaluate their choices? Do they admit to having learned an expensive lesson and change direction? No – they go ahead and send kid #2 to exactly the same place to be brainwashed in exactly the same way. And, in the fullness of time, they do the same thing with whatever other kids they have. In short, it’s just like that guy paying the hooker to slam her heel into his groin over and over again – the only differences being (1) the sums of money involved, and (2) the fact that at least the hooker, unlike the college, felt bad about taking money for doing such a horrible thing to a paying customer.
I’ve spent much of the past couple of years working on a book about some of these matters, so the ways in which higher education has devolved over the last generation or so are very often on my mind nowadays. But the immediate reason why I found my thoughts wandering down these byways the other day was an item by Mark Steyn in which he quoted, first, a Harvard Crimson report that that institution had appointed someone named Vanidy “Van” Bailey “as the College’s first permanent director of bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer student life,” and, second, a follow-up “correction” in which the Crimson noted that “[a]n earlier version of this article used the pronoun ‘she’ to refer to Vanidy ‘Van’ Bailey….In fact, Bailey prefers not to be referred to by any gendered pronoun.”
Apparently, then, Bailey actually took the trouble of contacting the Crimson and explaining that they were not to use a personal pronoun whenever writing about, um, Bailey. The idea presumably being that, in the world according to Bailey, being described as either he or she is somehow, you know, oppressive. Oppressed by a pronoun! This, folks, is the kind of victim theater that is not only taken seriously nowadays at places like Harvard – it is nurtured, exalted, rewarded. Bailey, after all, got hired by the world’s (supposedly) greatest university, in an exceedingly tough job market, presumably ahead of a lot of other people. What little information is available about Bailey online does not overly impress. But one thing Bailey is obviously terrific at is knowing exactly where the cutting-edge of this whole preposterous victim thing lies.
From one perspective, of course, this story is simply funny – a diverting source of mirth in difficult times. From another perspective – in fact, from several other perspectives – it’s pathetic, disgusting, enraging. Think about it: if you’ve sent your kid to Harvard, and he happens to be gay, and maybe he hits a bump on the road of life as a result of which he’s advised to consult the BGLTQ student life office, do you want Bailey to be the one behind the desk giving him advice about how to move forward on the road to mature, self-disciplined, responsible adulthood? There are plenty of people in the world, gay and otherwise, who are real victims. Countries like Iran execute people for being gay. But at places like Harvard, gay students – who, just by virtue of being there, are by any definition highly privileged – are not encouraged to think about ways in which they might use their own privilege to help the very real victims of genuinely oppressive regimes (on the contrary, they are generally taught to be good multiculturalists who use extreme caution in judging “other cultures”). Rather, they are encouraged to cultivate their own sense of victimhood – to be self-absorbed, to navel-gaze, to discover victimization in places where no reasonable person would see it.
Aside from being inane and outrageously arrogant, of course, the suggestion that other people must alter their use of pronouns in order to avoid offending you is pretty ignorant. Does Harvard’s newest employee realize that it is, quite simply, impossible to de-gender many, if not most, of the major languages of the world? In English Bailey’s title is director; in French would it be directeur or _directrice?_ In quiring minds want to know.
I don’t mean to single out Bailey. This story just happens to highlight a sickness that has infected, to various degrees, virtually all American institutions of higher education. The situation tends to be especially bad at the most historically distinguished ones, and everywhere you turn it seems only to be getting worse. I just finished writing, as I say, a book that examines the lengths to which people in academia today are willing to go to top one another in the victimhood sweepstakes – yet somehow I never even ran across this business about rejecting gender pronouns. The point being that every time you turn around, somebody very fortunate and privileged seems to have come up with yet another ingenious new way of claiming to be oppressed and of guilt-tripping others into taking seriously their ludicrous demands for sensitivity. The whole shebang, of course, is absurd. It’s grotesque. And, more to the point, it could not be more brilliantly designed to quash the very concept of civilized, responsible adulthood – the attainment of which, once upon a time, was the ultimate goal of higher education.
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