Fighting Words


In these troubled times, let us be thankful for House listservs, which are the Birthplace of Democracy. If you thought that was Greece or Massachusetts, you’re mistaken; Harvard predates them both. Here is liberty of speech in its purest form: the idea without consequence. Unhampered by censorship or taboo, we have little incentive to restrain ourselves, and a thousand petty flowers bloom.

It’s over my House list that I first read the open invitation from Andrew P. Winerman ’04 to join his newly formed “anti-tyranny” group for Liberals (with a capital “L”), as in those who wish to Liberate the world from Leaders besides our own. Let’s Go! Immediately, a flurry of confused responses followed from good citizens who took him at his word—thereby missing the point. Would-be critics were up all night filing amicus briefs in our inboxes supporting Winerman’s right to form his group and solicit membership under whatever terms he pleased. The idea of invading countries to replace their current leaders with ones conducive to American national interests is noxious and simple-minded in itself, but cloak the notion in the rhetoric of Tom Paine and Michael Sandel and you’ve got yourself an Idea, and with it a veritable army of defenders. In an environment of extreme rhetorical posturing founded on rigorous and uncompromising tolerance for speech on its own—a present-day Napoleonic code of inaction—Harvard is the very place for such warlike pageants to flourish.

On Monday, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., came to Harvard to test an idea he thought we should find scary: if poor people are to be sent abroad and killed, everybody should have to—even Harvard students. Rangel claims he was surprised by how little direct opposition his proposal met with. What he didn’t understand is that we still don’t get it. Rangel’s idea of a universal draft is interesting and vaguely threatening, but most of us still have to jump on an elliptical for twenty minutes in order to break a sweat.

Professional scholars, in contrast, seem to recognize the threat war poses to their interests. At the Faculty meeting on Tuesday, University President Lawrence H. Summers attempted to put an end to their hand-wringing by reassuring them that his PATRIOT-ism jibes with the University’s commitment to academic inquiry and civil liberties. Above all, the University must avoid admitting it is implicated in the oily mess overseas. When Adams House Masters Sean and Judith Palfrey sent an e-mail to Adams residents explaining why they had attended a peace rally, Summers declared it “unfortunate.” The Palfreys did succeed in sparking a discussion, but it turned out to be one primarily concerned with the propriety of mass e-mails and Masterly etiquette toward House residents in general. This community seems incapable of engaging in a serious and sustained discussion about the war. Instead, our polite aversion to moral gravity turns every such opening into a meta-debate until we are bored away from the subject altogether.

On Wednesday, some poet-professors took the bold step of giving a reading at the Loeb Drama Center in support of “a non-military response to the crisis with Iraq.” Eschewing tatty anti-war sloganism for refined resistance, their message was still clear to the TV cameras and 150 people present. Looking slightly toward the heavens, Marquand Professor of English Peter M. Sacks declared: “I say this directly to the White House: we oppose....” There is a nobility in this sort of grandiosity that I think few students recognize. The readers and the poems they read used speech in a powerful, nuanced way—like they meant it—and together they made speech matter in a way that astounded.

Maybe it was easy for them, but so it is for all of us. Too often we avoid unequivocal language where it’s most called for; our tendency is to let meaning lie dormant while we study how to better manipulate it. Perhaps this is why we have so much trouble taking each other seriously. As a University community, we are protected by the mutually reinforcing powerlessness of our ideas. The freedom derived from this makes Harvard what it is.

And now more than ever, everybody wants in. According to 8 Garden Street, the ranks of applicants this year swelled to over 20,000—that’s more than the total of Anglo and allied forces who gave their lives to defend civilization in the Battle of Waterloo. These young ones are eager to enlist, but are they prepared to join us in fighting for the common cause of students, faculty and administrators alike: defending the innocence and emptiness of our speech? We guard the border between ourselves and meaning with think-tanks from which we fire blanks wildly at will.

Harvard’s enshrinement of speech can only exist within the unapologetic autocracy of its governance structure. On things that matter to the University, we have no say at all. What does it mean that administrators blithely “support” student efforts to keep shopping period even as they prepare to do away with it? Our attempts at organizing and political self-expression are regarded as a mere instructive exercise. We are encouraged to think while at Harvard and to act outside of it, for the institution, itself immutable, is supposed to confer upon us the power to change the world.

But this frightful fantasy of omnipotence is coming to an end, and Harvard students are resolutely the last to know. Alma mater is tightening her purse strings, drying up the very source of our imperviousness. Meanwhile, Harvard students are far from having succeeded either in justifying the war or in stopping it.

Lately in Cambridge, when the temperature rises just enough for the snowy season to become the wet season, the red brick of the university appears stark and unflattering to its pretensions. In these times one has to squint hard to see Harvard in its own all-powerful image, the one after which we create ourselves.

Madeleine S. Elfenbein ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.