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The Aggressive-Passive Mr. Mansfield

By Marc J. Ambinder

It's clear that somewhere beneath his steely demeanor, somewhere under his dark fedora and tan suit, Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53 enjoys the sunshine. But there is a deeper dynamic at work, one that would-be opponents ought to notice. First, Mansfield rarely volunteers opinions--they're usually sought from him. But it is his subsequent behavior that is fascinating. For you see, dear Harvey demurs. He appears to want to be loved. He doesn't retract what he has said; he merely attempts to make it as utterly innocent as possible. And he does his best to make friends with members of the political group that has taken offense at his words. Innocence is a key word. The learned eyes open widely. Palms turn outward. And he gains sympathy. This happens every time he becomes the object of a new outrage. It has become a semi-annual dance. The beginning and the end are predictable.

Take, for example, his 1993 remark that "homosexuals undermine civilization" and that homosexual behavior was "shameful." The aggressive: he said this while testifying in favor of a Colorado constitutional amendment which would have banned laws that specified homosexuality as a distinct category for legal protection. The passive: he said that laws protecting specifically gays would patronize them (an argument Machiavelli sort of makes in his Discourses on Livy). And though the BGLSA (it didn't have a "T" that year) might have hated him, several of its members liked and respected Mansfield personally.

This current spat has gone according to form. Mansfield has been very consistent about grade inflation. He said the same thing in 1993 in Harvard Magazine, at a time when the SAT gap between black admits and white admits was larger than it is now. Mansfield is very savvy, so he must have had some idea that his recent comments would raise a row. They did, courtesy of the e-mail discussion list of the Black Student Association (BSA). Several students, in delightful vituperation, wrote screeds protesting the fact that they even heard the comments, as if such discourse ought never to be uttered. (That's hogwash; we're in college; we're going to hear unpopular speech; let's grow up.)

This performance made valid criticism of Mansfield slightly more difficult to communicate and cleared the high road for him. So did the stand-in, which only had the effect, according to several Government 1061 students, of annoying them and giving Mansfield exactly what he wanted: the chance to appear sober and in the position of responding to an overindulged anger--anger out of proportion to the alleged wrong.

One student who wrote an e-mail to Mansfield forwarded Mansfield's very, very polite response to the BSA list. It almost begged for a meeting. Last week's closed-door discussion was the result. But nobody's mind was changed on the issue at hand. What was the purpose of last Monday's meeting, then, if not a self-affirming exercise for both sides?

Mansfield's comments are a red herring. Administrators can rightly take him to task for not citing evidence. But they have admitted that the College gives minorities a "plus" in the admissions process--a system that is affirmative action in practice if not in name.

But as the diversity of the equally-qualified applicant pool grows and grows, race will cease to be a discernable plus in Harvard College admissions. I think Mansfield knows this. So why does he persist in making a point that is, at best, insubstantial, and at worst, willfully incorrect?

This wonderful dialogue, with all of its mixed motivations, has carried, at times, the masturbatory smarminess of a Ross G. Douthat-cum-National Review blurb. Both sides appear to be more involved in the rhetorical exchanges and in cementing their personal stakes. The BSA condemned Mansfield, which it has the right to do, but then played into his game. I am not criticizing a student group for being involved in politics--just asking it to be aware of what it is arguing. As a scholar who Mansfield knows well once titled a chapter, "How Very Wise It is To Pretend to Be Mad at the Right Moment."

--Marc J. Ambinder

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