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It Couldn't Happen Here

Poisoned Ivy By Benjamin Hart Stein and Day; 254pp.; $16.95

By Paul DUKE Jr.

ONE PASSAGE in this book is so extraordinary it is worth quoting outright:

Downstairs, on the slime coated floor of the basement, one could find what was known to the administration...as a horror show. Mike Lempress had chugged his tenth straight beer and had some notion of breaking the all-time Dartmouth record of thirty-three. He failed, but not from want of trying.

Buddy Teevens, the starting Dartmouth quarterback, had convinced a freshman to place a beer cup on his head, the idea being that Buddy would try and knock the plastic cup off by throwing a beer keg at it. It turned out that Buddy was better at throwing footballs than kegs--much better. Buddy missed and the poor freshman spent the rest of the night in the clinic, a not-uncommon consequence of the sport popularly known as William Tell...

But a smallish fellow, by the name of Charlie, stole the show when he used his forehead to cruch an unopened can of beer. He stood the can on its end and smashed his head squarely on its top. As the metal sides of the container burst, beer flew all over the room. Life in the fraternity basement, despite its lack of class, had a certain primitive charm. I decided I would probably join the house in the spring; most of the people there knew how to have a good time.

A certain primitive charm?

Poisoned Ivy, Ben Hart's attack on the Dartmouth administration that fought his beloved fraternities, is a silly book. But it is also an important and interesting one, because it presents a telling example of the thought of a young conservative today.

Most of this book is not a description of Dartmouth drinking habits, but a dissection of the blight of liberalism at the Hanover, New Hampshire campus. Slings and arrows fly at many targets in Poisoned Ivy--the Dartmouth administration, mushy-headed liberals, activists of any kind, modern education--but the main point of this rather pointy book is simply that conservatives have more, well, fun.

Hart, one of the founders of the brash Dartmouth Review and the son of a Dartmouth English professor who is an editor of the equally level-headed. National Review, isn't content to annex only John Kennedy for the Republicans now that the Democrats have slipped off the left side of the earth. He wants it all: Football, drinking, girls (but only the cute ones who wash and wear bras), plus homey things like the flag, religion and the family, which President Reagan has already claimed. If Hart is to be believed, conservatives have irrevocably cornered the market in pleasure commodities. Liberals, particularly those who support affirmative action (which Hart, taking a cue from hero William F. Buckley, Jr., calls "reverse discrimination") are introspective ideologues wracked with guilt and shot through with hypocrisy. Can you imagine them throwing a party?

THE BOOK is the bittersweet tale of one boy's love-hate relationship with Dartmouth. Hart entered the school in 1977 and found himself, happily, rooming with Jeff Kemp, now quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams and the son of congressman Jack. There were dignified professors with whom to study Shakespeare and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the splendrous White Mountain scenery to enjoy.

But outside his close circle of reonoclastic conservative friends (the most outrageous and witty one wears an "I Love Ron" button and tugs a rubber shark on a leash when he goes to nuclear freeze rallies) Hart was pitted against what he calls the liberal "ethos" that diseased the administration and most of the student body.

The ethos, according to Hart, is an all-out attack on the Western tradition. "Area studies" (such as Afro-Am or Native American studies) supplanted the clasics. Flag burning replaced flag waving. Worst of all "during the late sixties, cultural relativism settled in as the orthodoxy at Dartmouth. 'Value judgements" were evil. We were to be 'non-judgemental.' What they really meant to say was that the core values of the West were now defunct."

The ethos was also unbending. Those who challenged it endangered their academic lives. In the middle of a hockey game, a student skated out onto the ice dressed as an Indian (the Dartmouth symbol which was thrown out by the administration because it was offensive to Native Americans on campus). The crowd went wild. The administration, however didn't join the cheering. They suspended the student, then removed the suspension and imposed a strange penalty; the student had to take a Native American student to lunch every week for a year.

And Hart's descriptions of left-wing rallies are pint-sized imitations of Tom Wolfe's roasts of the trendy liberals of the sixties:

"I've always expressed my concern for the underprivileged," said the pretty little red-haired girl as she leaned forward in her pink pants suit, fur collar, and "Abortion Now!" button.

Afros, pony-tails, goatees, leather jackets, funny-looking shoes, Trotsky glasses, foul smells, guitars, pot fumes, couples of all sexual peculiarities making out, women nursing babies. It was all there...

A young woman of Latin descent--she was extremely short and wore a headband and some kind of peasant dress--nudged my arm, looked up at me, and said, "We're Maoist utopians and we're prepared to fight to the death." I smiled politely.

Finally, in a conversation with his girlfriend, Hart weaves all the threads together:

"It was pretty disgusting, I mean that women's support session they were having--people trying on birth control devices, others massaging each other, examining each other's bodies. They invited me to watch, but I had to leave, some people actually stank...

"It was all in the name of this principle, the principle of unattractiveness. They want men, and women, to accept them exactly as they are...

"It's all somehow connected," I said. "Feminism, atheism, Marxism, liberalism, and unattractiveness."

What's the point of all this? That's hard to say. Amidst the lances at liberals, Hart mixes in gushy descriptions of the weather, glowing and predictable accounts of football "gladiators", and very specific indictments of the administration for stoking the degenerate liberal ethos. In some of those cases, the Dartmouth administration seems in the wrong. For instance, Hart points out, the administration dealt severely with the student who was dressed as an Indian, the rallying point for Dartmouth conservatives, but it took no notice of another group of "minority students" who destroyed a traditional snow sculpture when the suspension was cased.

And Hart claims that the administration did everything in its power to harass the Dartmouth Review, a weekly newspaper which Hart and a few friends dreamed up in 1900 as an "all-out assault on the ethos." The Dartmouth Travel Agency and the Dartmouth Cab Company never found themselves challenged for using the college's name, but the administration threatened to see the Dartmouth Review to prevent its use of the name. And, according to Hart, long after the paper had become nationally famous, outsiders who called Dartmouth information and asked for the Review were told that the publication did not exist. He repeatedly mentions the bizarre incident in which a Black administrator attacked and bit him, drawing blood, while he was distributing copies of the newspaper. Three days after the incident the faculty voted, 113-5, to censure the Review.

What Hart does not mention anywhere in the book, however, is that the administrator was slapped with a week's suspension from work, a court imposed fine, and probation. Nor does he make any reference to the Review column, entitled "Dis sho' ain't no jive, bro" that brought on the wrath of the administrator. "Today, the 'ministration be slashin' dem free welfare lunches for us po' students," the column read. "How we 'posed to be gettin' our GPAs up when we don't be havin' no food?" In a moment of calm hubris Hart titles the chapter describing the birth of the Review, "All the Truth That's Fit to Print," Hardly.

But even if Hart does have legitimate gripes against the Dartmouth administration, he doesn't have a case against academia as a whole, try as he might to concoct one. He consoles himself about the situation at Dartmouth by noting that "Harvard, Yale and Princeton are all in worse shape." But "Abortion Now!" buttons (if they actually exist) are hardly flowering in the Yard, and undoubtedly tenured Harvard professors like Richard Pipes or Paul Bator, both prominent veterans of the Reagan administration, would be happy to have the likes of Ben Hart over to dinner.

THE PURPOSE of this book, though, isn't to throw any intellectual weight around. (In fact, Hart sometimes writes so poorly--a modern building on the traditional Dartmouth campus "makes about as much sense as acne on Princess Grace"--one wonders if he has any intellectual weight.) Instead, the real point is to raise a toast to the triumph of conservation in the country, particularly among smart young people who know how to have a good time. At various points in the book Hart comes to the defense of, "women who [wear] bras, skirts and lipstick" in contrast to the smelly let-it-all-hang-out liberals chanting on Dartmouth green. Or he'll tell us that athletes, who have "experienced intensity the transitory nature of the world," are profoundly deeper human beings than are academics.

Hart's ruminations are impossible to consider serously, particularly because he paints liberals so monochromatically. They support Russia over the United States, minorities over whites, left-wing authoritarianism over capitalist democracy. They think that Stalin's murder of 30 million Soviet citizens was "unfortunate." They consider the Soviet Union not an "enemy" but an "alternative political system." Hart's portrayal of liberals doctrine is, like his description of the rallies, so skewed that any liberal men he knocks down are 100 percent straw-filled.

BUT LIBERALS reeling in depression because of the ascendance of the Ben Harts of the world should take note: the young conservatives are cocky, and it's going to bring them down. The same fingerpaint-level thinking that could allow Ben Hart to see primitive charm in a senior beaning a freshman with a beer keg reaches its apotheosis in Hart's English thesis.

He explains:

I tried to demonstrate that capitalism, freedom, and art are related and, in fact, inseparable. I thought that a home-run hit by Babe Ruth was, in some sense, comparable to The Waste Land, the revolutionary and explosive poem published in 1922 by T.S. Eliot...Cash, of course, made possible the revolution in technology, industry, and, I argued, art. I suggested that Marxism is a reactionary ideology, a fearful revolt against man's natural desire for freedom and the almost limitless possibilities presented to be who has money.

The fact that this puerile theory won Hart a cum laude degree may be the worst indictment of Dartmouth in the book. But more importantly, there goes Ben Hart again, trying to claim art and Babe Ruth for the Republicans. The dispiritedness and aimlessness of liberals today feeds this sort of foolishness. Liberals themselves made similar claims in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson and a slew of liberal Congressmen seemed to sweep Republicans into eternal oblivion. The Republicans came back swinging in 1966.

Historians will look back with a chuckle on this book as a prime example of the sort of pollyanna-ish thought that dominates conservatives in the 1980s. Prosperity, conservation, freedom seem to these people the three points of an inviolable triangle. Fortunately, American political life has not yet become so one-dimensional as that.

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