Clubs Redux


To the Editors of the Crimson:

The Saturday Crimson seldom being delivered to William James Hall subscribers. I have just been alerted to Mr. Take Steven's letter of 8 December, responding to mine of 27 November on the Final Clubs. In the interim, of course, the Clubs have reacted to the University's pressure by indicating their willingness to sever all ties. In that sense, the issue is moot; Mr. Stevens has triumphed; the College is pure. Still, the wisdom of Harvard's action remains in question, so there may be interest in continuing the debate.

To reprise, I argued in my letter that the Final Clubs' role in the life of the College is inconsequential; that their discriminatory practices do no serious harm; and that it is puritanical, in that circumstance, to insist they change their ways or depart our midst. I implied that we all profit form having some among as who march to a different drummer. Laissez-faire. In his response, Stevens charges me with inconsistency, recalling, quite mistakenly, that three years ago I argued in favor of restricting the rights of homosexuals. Not so. Then, as now, I argued against restricting individual freedom of action except when essential to secure a greater good, even acknowledging support of "legal changes to guarantee [homosexuals'] basic rights." (Though I was defending the rights of those who decry the gay life.) In both cases. I ask only that we not force people to act as we wish unless it is apparent that the sacrifice of their freedom is essential to achieving a greater good.

There is of course, ample room for honest disagreement as to when the harm caused by individuals acting freely is so great as to justify the harm inherent in restricting them. My basic quarrel with Mr. Stevens, I think, is that he seems unaware that every restriction involves such a trade-off; once convinced of what's right, he assumes all should be made to conform, whether or not lack of conformity does great harm. The fact that the Final Clubs practice sex discrimination, simply as a matter of preference, is sufficient to persuade him (and the Committee on College Life) that the Clubs must go. My own preference is similar to Stevens', but I don't think our view should be imposed on the Clubs failing a demonstration of the damage they do. If the only harm is that their practices affront us (albeit "us" a vast majority) that's insufficient reason to restrict them. Stevens' only reference to my argument is that the Clubs do little harm is to say he's disinclined to agree they are "not central to the College." Having been here for 27 years and still scarcely aware of the Clubs (until this brouhahs), I'd be fascinated to hear what he has in mind.

Underlying the immediate dispute, I think, is a wider disagreement about the proper course for modern liberalism. I am devoted to the old-fashioned kind that says the best society is that which maximizes each individual's freedom to live according to her or his own values. Many who style themselves liberals today have exchanged that belief for adherence to a long list of particular values they think all men and women of good will must share. In that sense, they are indistinguishable form the Moral Majority and, precisely, "ill-liberal" according to the original definition of the word. Like the Moral Majority, they feel justified in pushing each of their beliefs to its logical conclusion and imposing them on everyone.

Old-fashioned liberalism rested on the proposition that none of us is in a position to know the final truth and, therefore, a good society minimizes the extent to which it imposes values on its citizens. Hence, church-state separation, for instance.

Of course, even Utopia can only "minimize." No state can exist unless in imposes some values on all. Though some may disagree, we impose a common definition of murder and insist that all abide by it. (And make no mistake, even on a matter so obvious--to us--as this, there are entire cultures that do disagree, usually in the form of giving the defense of one's honor a higher priority than the protection of human life.) So, with many other things. It is also true (and this, no doubt, is where us old crocks get out of synch) that in an increasingly interdependent society, the number of such impositions must increase. However, recognition of that fact, does not imply that we serve ourselves, or the future, well by casually accepting every limitation of freedom that promises to meliorate some present difficulty.

We should do a cost-benefit analysis each time individual liberty is in conflict with some other good we prize. Freedom of association is a good. Equal opportunity is a good. To impose membership rules on the Final clubs is to sacrifice the former. Not to impose them is to sacrifice the latter. Stevens and Harvard College, in the absence of any showing that denial of equal opportunity does harm in this case, have determined that freedom of association must be sacrificed. The fact that many who share their belief in equal opportunity also value free association highly, makes their action one that prompts me to turn Mr. Stevens' charge of "a narrow world view" back upon him. E.L. Patelle