Getting The Last Laugh

Since I first set foot on this campus three and some odd years ago, I have been known as a
By Alexander B. Ginsberg

Since I first set foot on this campus three and some odd years ago, I have been known as a joker. I’m the goof, the comedian, the sarcastic guy, the prankster. The Crimson, an organization to which I have devoted countless hours since freshman year, held a dinner earlier this semester to welcome the paper’s new slate of executives and part with its seniors. While many of my fellow outgoing executives were eulogized for their dedication to paper and their contribution to its content, I was reassured that my “building presence” would be missed. The Crimson simply wouldn’t be the same without my obnoxious comments, intercom antics and renditions of Billy Joel. These words made me consider enrolling in Linguistics 81: Dialects of Bullshit. My successors clearly were calling me a jackass. Fine, maybe I am.

But it wasn’t always that way. In high school, I sat in the front row, took copious notes, listened intently, and if I ever quipped, it was usually with a teacher. That’s probably why I earned the superlative “Biggest Kiss Up.” I was always focused and always working. People called me “driven.” To be honest, though, it was fear of failure that propelled me. By the end of high school, my anxiety had grown to epic levels, and apprehensions about the future often would keep me awake at night. Each reflective moment was hell. Once this place sagaciously accepted me, I promised myself that I wouldn’t spend the next four years like I had the last four. I decided that it was time, first, to stop working to the point of fatigue and, more importantly, to stop taking myself-—and every detail of life—so seriously. Instead of sweating through papers and exam periods, Crimson duties and interpersonal interactions, I pledged from deep within my soul to let laughter prevail even if the heavens should fall. I’m not talking about complacency; I’m talking about enjoying life.

It’s astounding how quickly a college career passes by. These ephemeral four years have already reached their gloaming. Luckily, they haven’t been meaningless. First, I have received an indubitably superior education. I’ve been fortunate enough to take “Justice”, “Journeys” and “Jews for Jews.” Regarding the latter, I reject the alternative titles “Cruise for Jews” and “Snooze for Jews” for the sake of alliteration. Science B-29, “Sex,” is one of the better classes I’ve taken here. Those bonobo videos were considerably more explicit than anything I have since found online. Far more important than my education, however, I have been able to keep my compact with my psyche. I have coated my id—or is it my ego—with a sense of elation by engaging daily in an activity that mixes levity and creativity, humor and expression. The name of the game is “Do, Dump or Marry.” For those who don’t know the rules, I’ll explain: a friend lists three people, and you have to assign each of them a role you dump one, marry one and engage in salacious behavior with the third. The game almost always elicits smiles and giggles, sometimes even chortles. Anyone who begins to explore this valuable psychological resource should be aware of a few basic Do, Dump or Marry scenarios:

1) “Why Are You Wasting My Time?”

This scenario is quite common among novices. Given an opportunity to suggest three options, a Do, Dump or Marry neophyte enthusiastically shouts something like “Grandma Moses, Dr. Ruth and Christie Brinkley!” At this point, anyone in earshot furrows his brow and glares at the unwitting object of ridicule. Then, someone responds sarcastically and disdainfully “Dump Christie Brinkley.” Before long, the rookie catches on.

2) “Why Are You Making This So Hard?”

This scenario involves three choices, each of which is extremely compelling. For some people, it might involve three of the entertainment world’s most attractive individuals “Do, Dump or Marry: Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell.” For others, it might be the three greatest modern American writers. “Do, Dump or Marry: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner.” And, yet, for minor campus celebrity and former Crimson sports chair David R. DeRemer ’03, it was three of Harvard’s prominent female varsity athletes (whose names will be withheld). “ I really have to dump one??” DeRemer importuned.

3) “Are You Trying To Repulse Me?”

The name says it all. This is the title bestowed upon a Do, Dump or Marry scenario whose three choices are nearly or completely unbearable. The “nearly” category might involve someone’s iniquitous ex-girlfriend, his professor, who earned tenure 68 years ago, and his first cousin. If that weren’t horrible enough, the “completely” category presents choices so noxious that the respondent questions whether suicide is an option.

I’m sure it is apparent by now why Do, Dump or Marry is such a fabulous diversion from the stress that characterizes a Harvard career for many undergraduates. In very rare instances, however, this fatuous game exhibits an entirely new character—a serious one. Revelry meets sobriety. I often try to avoid playing Do, Dump or Marry in its transmogrified form; I don’t want to abandon my care-free bliss. But sometimes anger and disgust swell within me and, try as I might, I cannot continue to be a jester. My former, humorless self is resurrected... this may sound vague. Why don’t I offer an example. Recently, a friend suggested: “Do, Dump or Marry: demonstrators for peace in the wake of September 11, proponents of divestment from Israel and (my personal favorite target) Tom Paulin supporters.” It is only during instances of exigency that the sanctity of Do, Dump or Marry can be violated, that its rules may be changed. This, however, was one such instance. I immediately and passionately blurted “dump all three!!”

1) “So-called Peace Demonstrators After September 11”

I’m no war monger, but it seems fairly clear to me that our government’s decision is not always between “war” on one hand and “peace” on the other. Sometimes, that choice might be between “war” and “immense national security threat,” or it might involve a variety of other complex considerations. As far as my memory serves, the terrorist hunt that led the American military into Afghanistan after the World Trade Center attacks was of the “war vs. security threat” variety. Having watched hundreds of their fellow citizens come to a fiery demise, most reasonable Americans deemed it necessary to destroy the al Qaeda network, and the Taliban regime that harbored it, in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. No doubt, countless thousands of Americans—the friends and families—of September 11th’s victims sought retribution. This, I believe, was also a reasonable position. What I do not think was a reasonable position was that of a fair number of Harvard students who decided to rally against military action in Afghanistan. One fellow Dunster House resident, for example, sewed a peace sign on his backpack along with the message “God Bless Afghanistan.” Call it a hunch, but I feel like something was missing from this student’s political outlook. As for his moral outlook, well, let me just say that I’m glad no one close to me died that day—otherwise, I’m not sure if I could have restrained my inflamed temper. Of course, this same student, and many like him, had spent his days at Harvard joining mindlessly every liberal or progressive-sounding cause. This time, though, he followed the lemmings too far.

2) “Advocates of Divestment from Israel”

Last fall, University President Lawrence H. Summers gave a speech in which he drew a link between divestment from Israel and anti-Semitism. Though many found the remarks controversial, I considered them courageous. Summers catapulted himself onto Ginsberg’s list of all-time favorite people. The divestment movement at Harvard (it is also a national academic movement) is an effort by a variety of faculty members to encourage the University to withdraw investments from companies that do business with Israel. Their notion is that Israel is run by an oppressive military regime whose human rights violations regarding Palestinians have become intolerable and must be stopped through sanctions. On some level, I fail to see how Israel’s human rights record is worse than a large number of other Middle-Eastern nations for which no divestment movement exists. I also fail to see how the unfortunate situation in Israel, involving suicide bombings followed by reprisals, is Israel’s fault alone. Yet my real problem with the divestment movement lies not in the theory behind it, but instead relates to individuals involved in it. So, to be clear, I’ll leave the issue itself up to Alan Dershowitz; I want simply to offer some thoughts on Harvard’s biggest divestment exponents. When I first began to follow The Crimson’s divestment coverage, a couple of things struck me as odd: first, the movement’s most ardent supporters at Harvard are neither Jewish nor Arab and, second, almost none of them seems to have a direct academic interest in that part of the world or its politics—many are members of Harvard’s Psychology, Classics and Linguistics Departments. Now, of course anyone can take an interest in any issue—even a controversial one. Certainly, there is no reason that someone needs to be Jewish, Arab or a Middle-East scholar to care about the situation in Israel, and I don’t mean to imply that. What caught my attention was their adamance, their vociferousness. I also found it surprising that the masters of at least two of Harvard’s Houses became active proponents of divestment even at the risk of offending students under their care. As I said before, I was disturbed that these faculty members had singled out Israel for censure, and I could not understand why they decided to make the divestment campaign perhaps their careers’ most visible endeavor. I’ll admit that anti-Semitism was lurking in the back of my mind. It didn’t reach the tip of my tongue until a few weeks later.

3) “Defenders of Tom Paulin’s Invitation to Speak at Harvard”

In November, the English Department invited poet Tom Paulin to Harvard to recite one of his works. Soon thereafter, however, some of Paulin’s political prescriptions including the idea that Brooklyn-born settlers in Israel’s West Bank “should be shot dead” surfaced, and the department rescinded its invitation. Speculation arose that Summers had pressured members of the department to snub Paulin. Immediately, members of the Harvard community organized on both sides of the issue. Some praised Summers for preventing a well-known anti-Semite and symbol of hate from infecting the campus with his presence. Others castigated Summers for censoring Paulin. They advocated what they called “free speech.” Of course, this phrase was adopted for rhetorical purposes because most Americans hold the 1st Amendment dear. Free speech is a juridical term that refers to an individual’s right to express himself without fear of criminal punishment. To clarify, I’m fairly sure Summers didn’t want to arrest Paulin. In any case, free speech was the ostensible basis for an op-ed The Crimson published that month written by none other than one of the Psychology Department’s most vocal divestment supporters. Once I spotted the article and noted its authorship, I read further. Citing Summers’ “anti-democratic” tendencies, the venomous op-ed referred to him as “Ayatollah Summers.” I have not spoken to the author of the piece—I’ve only admired his work from afar—so I can’t impugn his motives or question his stated intentions. All I know is that the op-ed made me uneasy. I saw Ayatollah Summers as a thinly-veiled substitute for “Rabbi Summers” or something similar. That op-ed is the main reason Paulin’s free speech supporters get my biggest “dump.” I’m not even sure how I feel about the issue. He’s clearly a lunatic and a terrible poet (have you read his stuff?) so maybe he should have been censored. At least if he had come, though, I could have been in the front row jeering.

A couple of weeks ago, during a Wit and Humor lecture, English professor Leo Damrosch pointed out that, in literature, it’s often the jesters who have the greatest insights into life. Mercutio is the character with the most depth in Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff holds that distinction in Henry IV, and it is the fool who speaks the truth in Twelfth Night. By no means do I intend to claim this mantle for myself. I do, however, believe that humor and levity breed perspective. I never intended to remain a joker forever. My advice to the impressionable souls reading this: enjoy your time here because it will be over as soon as it began. Take life with a grain of salt and learn to laugh at yourself and those around you. Live at ease—that is, until you have a real reason not to.

Alexander B. Ginsberg ’03, a former Crimson Executive, is a Government concentrator in Dunster House. In high school, he was voted least likely to appear on Saturday Night Live.