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Two weeks ago, I earned my first-ever speeding ticket. It was an educational experience: I learned, for instance, that police officers often prowl Massachusetts highways in unmarked Ford Expeditions; that batting your eyes and acting apologetic will succeed only if you happen to be female (my beard didn’t help, obviously); and that this fair state charges $50 for the first ten miles over the speed limit, $10 for every mile thereafter, and then tacks on a $25 surcharge for the “head injury trust fund.” Thus, my ticket (handed out in a 65 m.p.h. zone) came to a remarkable $275.
While my mathematically inclined readers scramble to figure out just how fast I was going, I should point out that during my sadly-vanished adolescence, the only car I ever drove was a sturdy 1989 Volvo station wagon. The wagon was a lumbering maroon beast, well-equipped to take out a panzer on a muddy Belgian field, but utterly incapable of breaking the 70 m.p.h. barrier without shuddering and shedding loose parts across Connecticut’s crowded highways. On this fateful day, however, I was driving my friend Sarah’s spanking new Mercedes-Benz, in which 50 mph feels like 20, and 70 like 40, and 95—well, you get the idea. I am used to gauging my speed based on the protestations of my automobile, in other words, and this treacherously well-built car let me down.
But the quality of the automobile was only part of the problem. The larger reason I was speeding—well, that’s somewhat more embarrassing. You see, while I held the hammer down, I was grooving to the exciting, pulse-pounding, adrenaline-boosting music of none other than. . . Garth Brooks.
Now there was a time, before I knew anyone from points south and west of Pennsylvania, when the very idea of Garth Brooks was enough to make a haughty sniff rise in my northeast coast nose. Country music of any kind was considered by my friends and neighbors to be déclassé and faintly ridiculous— the music of rednecks and trailer-park dwellers and yes, Republicans.
But Harvard has changed me. They say that the most important part of our education takes place outside of the classroom, and my unexpected fondness for the man who sings “Friends in Low Places” and “Thunder Rolls” is living, fiddling proof of that maxim. True, it hasn’t been easy to overcome my anti-Garth bigotry; indeed, the first time my freshman year roommate blasted “Rodeo” (It’s bulls and blood / it’s dust and mud / it’s the roar of a Sunday crowd) in our cramped dorm room, I felt every snobbish joint in my body stiffen, and I slipped on my headphones and pumped up Radiohead, or something similarly trendy.
But honestly, who sings along to Radiohead? Heck, who even knows what a Radiohead song is about? (Yeah, I know— “fake plastic trees.” Wicked cool.) With Garth Brooks, things are simpler: there are songs about truck drivers whose wives cheat on them, songs about rodeo cowboys, songs about people running into their high school girlfriends and thanking God that they didn’t marry them. There are songs for Republicans, like the rousing “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” (It represents the hardhat, gun rack, achin’-back over-taxed, flag-wavin’, fun-lovin’ crowd!), and there are songs for Democrats, like the treacly “We Shall Be Free” (When the last thing we notice is the color of skin / And the first thing we look for is the beauty within / When the skies and the oceans are clean again / Then we shall be free). And the man does have an amazing voice.
Of course, country music is tacky and sappy and simplistic and sung in a Southern accent. And of course it’s tailored to a certain mood—like cruising down a nearly-empty highway, with only a harmless-looking Ford Expedition for company. But it’s also an entertaining and uniquely American art form, written in the language of our vast country— the language of pickup trucks and open roads, of cowboys and honky-tonk bars.
This is a language that Harvard speaks particularly badly. We like diversity as long as it relates to third world countries or oppressed sexual subcultures; we take mediocre artistic efforts seriously when they represent the work of Chicano immigrants in California, or spunky lesbians in lower Manhattan. But when it comes to the mediocre art that millions of Americans love, in Baton Rouge and Nashville and Denver and all the other places that Garth Brooks sings about, we roll our eyes and go back to downloading German techno.
College, we are always told, is a time for learning tolerance, for having our preconceived notions challenged. That’s why Harvard works so hard to micromanage diversity, using randomization and blocking groups to socially engineer the student body, while relying on affirmative action to maintain the perfect mosaic, or tapestry, or whatever metaphor happens to be in fashion.
But only up to a point. If you’re “afraid of anal sex,” as the latest Contact poster blares, and need someone to talk you out of that silly phobia, than Harvard is the place for you. If you want to learn about French cinema or the Russian avant-garde, attend Taiwanese cultural festivals and watch Filipino dances, then come aboard, Harvard can help. If your idea of diversity is a freshman class, like mine, where roughly five hundred students hailed from either Massachusetts or New York, than this University is as diverse as they come.
But if you’re multicultural enough to be curious about the inhabitants of the country that exists between the Sierra Nevada and the Appalachians, then you’d better hope you make a friend who’ll teach you how to sing “Ain’t Going Down (Till the Sun Comes Up)” while you’re doing 90 on the Mass Pike.
Just watch out for Ford Expeditions.
Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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