“The real world” is of constant interest to Harvard students. Its beck and call is apparent when a humanities-oriented freshman capitulates to the “advice” of his parents—that medicine, for instance, worked out as a decent career choice for them and might do so for the progeny as well. Potential aid workers put fuzziness aside and take French. Those who see MBAs in their future seek entry to final clubs for valuable connections or manage Harvard Student Agencies divisions. We do, in short, what we can to prepare for that day when we are forced to summarize the collegiate experience into a resume intended for a would-be employer’s hand.
Beyond the practical, though, there’s an unambiguous difference between Harvard and most of America that undergrads are woefully unable to deal with: the realm of everyday ideology and politics.
At some points, Harvard’s prevailing liberal winds have rendered a few organizations’ core goals more or less satisfied. Look to “Gaypril,” the month-long string of political and social events run by the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) for evidence of this. ROTC is banned from campus. Gay students, on the other hand, have a vast wealth of resources at their disposal—BGLTS tutors are in nearly every House, weekly support groups meet in throngs and many rooms in a good deal of dorms has a “safe space” sticker on it. Even in conservative circles, gay students are welcomed with open arms. All of these accomplishments have made the gay rights agenda at Harvard radically different from the agenda elsewhere—where similar organizations might still be in the “we’re here, we’re queer” phase. Nowadays, Harvard’s BGLTSA prefers to host sex toys and S/M workshops, two prominent Gaypril events, and focus its political activism on the University’s “heteronormativity”—manifest in the group’s most recent project of tallying the gender-specific bathrooms on campus and demanding they become unisex.
This leads to great coming-home stories. A fellow Montanan, returning home from an Ivy League school, dropped the newly-reclaimed word “queer” at the family dinner table only to be stared back at with doe-eyed gawks. Perhaps this is Harvard’s curious way of preparing naive bumpkins for ideological persuasion on provincial battle fronts. But it’s peculiar that while BGLTSA unflinchingly welcomes a group called the “Lesbian Avengers”—I’m not sure what they’re here to avenge—a handful of “blue states” are debating gay marriage, and the rest of the country is stuck on the vintage, and less amusing, question of whether homosexuality is, as the Los Angeles Times asked poll respondents this past week, “against God’s will.” (Six in 10 said it was). To use Harvard terms to describe this finding might yield, as one contrarian Salient editor emeritus put it in a Salient e-mail list posting, a headline along the lines of: “Poll: Most Americans are anti-gay bigots.”
I’m willing to cast ballots against those who would pass a federal amendment banning gay marriage, just as I would against those who think an S/M workshop is A-OK—but whatever someone’s personal misgivings about the issue is besides the point. Rather, what’s tragic about the gay rights fight in the Capitol and the “gay rights” fight at Harvard is that they so often resemble two ships passing in the night.
Likewise, the debate over Iraq at Harvard isn’t so much whether to keep intact American control of the Coalition Provisional Authority or to hand it to the United Nations. Instead, the options debated (or, at times, shouted over Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice megaphones) betwixt the Left and the Far Left are whether to hand control to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan or to “end the occupation” altogether.
And the list goes on. Do you want the Bush tax cuts repealed, or should America transform into Sweden version 2.0? Will you welcome ROTC back with open arms only when Congress abandons “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or do you shudder at the notion of the military on campus, period? Do you really hate Bush, or would you kill him if you had a chance?
Some groups have wisely focused on struggles that start at Mass. Hall’s doorstep and don’t sound so silly: giving more workers full-time jobs or stopping layoffs. Whatever the logic of the crusades of the Progessive Student Labor Movement, at least that organization is connecting with the real concerns of hardened folks—though, as happened at Yale, it seems inevitable that there will come a day when “worker’s rights” for a Harvard student means nodding gleefully at unionization for both dining hall staff and teaching fellows.
One thing stands out about all these debates—they’re arguments of privilege. The grunts of revulsion at Bush’s eighth-grade vocabulary, more puerile than funny three years into the term, represent an unthoughtful disdain that ostensibly worldly Harvard grads can hardly afford. It reflects a bourgeois kind of liberalism that doesn’t belong to either the vast swathes of “red” country or to most of liberal America, where the gristle of labor unions or socially conservative minorities dominates. Unless “the real world” for a typical Harvard student will mean an eternally sheltered life in academia, the perennially-fuzzy international community or Long Island, I detect a deception.
Travis R. Kavulla ‘06 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.