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Resolute Humorlessness



It was James Madison '78, I think, who said that "we should take alarm at the first experiment with out liberties." Dean Archie Epps, as the College Administration's heavy hand, has lately been experimenting with considerable heat; and the editors of the "Lampoon" have apparently--and disappointingly--done a rather fast wilt in that atmosphere. As to the chill the Epps decision has cast on their collective sense of humor, that remains to be seen. The entire affair, as a matter of fact, has been characterized by resolute humorlessness on all sides. The Sullen Seventies must truly be upon us now that we've begun deciding that the First Amendment doesn't protect expression that "goes beyond simple fun," is "unbelievably offensive," or shows "a serious absence of concern for others," and so on and on. "Congress shall make no law ..."

It seems fruitless, however, a scenario of communication rather than any authentic engagement on the issues, to talk about who can say what as if it weren't ultimately a question of Power--of whether my guys can make your guys do what I want. The confrontation between HRBSA and the "Lampoon" is not only, is hardly at all, an abstract contention over Constitutional Prerogatives.

And if Harvard is still one of the very straight roads to the levers of power in America, there isn't any reason why minorities shouldn't think they're here to get hold of those levers--to be Very Important People not only on their own turf but also in the society at large, to struggle with the rulers to rule. With this time-honored American political tradition, incidentally, I have no special quarrel; I merely object to the prosecution of this struggle in symbolic terms which get the civil liberties we should all cherish stepped on. Showing political muscle by narrowing the range of free expression, that kind of symbolic behavior is, I submit, a real loss of liberty for all citizens.

What any committee invented to Study the Problem will doubtless discover first is that as far as race relations at Harvard go, there are precious few. Minorities and whites in the main don't see each other as individuals but as Representatives of a Position or Metaphors of the Moral Life. Whites undervalue minorities by considering them delicate pieces of psychic porcelain likely to shatter at the first sign of a Stereotype (cf. the Epps Decision) and thus to be beningly neglected; whites overvalue minorities by seeing them as the exemplars of ethical impulses (cf. the "Birth of a Nation" fracas of a few terms ago) that white society in its relativism and decadence has lost touch with. Neglected again as Conscience that needs very often to be kept at arm's length, the minorities withdraw into themselves, resenting and exploiting this treatment.

How whites can stop themselves from designing games for minorities to play and how minorities can take over citizenship on their own terms is one of American society's most difficult unanswered questions. William Edwards

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