The Shadow University

[Amazon Link]

Subtitle: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. This book is © 1998, seventeen years ago as I type. (Yes, it took a very long time to get to the top of the to-be-read pile. Sue me.)

One author, Alan Charles Kors, is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; the other, Harvey Silverglate, is a Massachusetts lawyer. After this book came out, they founded FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, still going strong.

The book starts out with a particularly egregious example: 1993's persecution of Eden Jacobowitz, a student who yelled "Shut up, you water buffalo" out of his UPenn dorm window to a group of boisterous students below. Unfortunately for Eden, the targets of this shouted demand were mostly black females, who complained. Penn administrators demanded a disproportionate and unjust punishment. But unlike most students, Eden fought back. (Prof Kors was his advocate, to his good fortune.) Eventually, it became a national cause célèbre and Penn backed down.

Eden's case had a happy conclusion, but the drawn-out battle, wasteful, draining, and contentious as it was, was its own punishment. And, as Kors and Silverlate show, it was hardly an outlier.

One might expect universities, of all places, to be champions of free and unfettered discussion, due process for accused misbehavior, and tolerance for oddball, unpopular views. But, as Kors and Silverglate show with sometimes mind-numbing recitations of case after case, exactly the opposite is true. Mostly drawing from the 1980s and 1990s, they detail arbitrary penalties and unfair procedures, mostly aimed at the unfortunate minorities deemed to be politically incorrect. They are predictably and justifiably outraged.

The roots of this behavior, the book argues, lie in the 1960s, where are generation of deep thinkers learned Herbert Marcuse's Marxist philosophy, with special attention to his theory of repressive tolerance: the notion that fair treatment of all ideas only benefits capitalistic domination of the masses. Hence, some ideas should be "more equal than others", and there's nothing wrong with people holding "correct" views suppressing rival opinions.

Now, to be fair, only a small (but very vocal) fraction of today's university personnel are true Marcusean social justice warriors. But the strident oft find allies with the spineless. In this case, go-along-to-get-along administrators whose primary interest is in keeping controversy and contention (with its attendant bad publicity) to a minimum.

The results, over and over, are episodes that seem like they could spring from a novel co-written by Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand: secretive and power-drunk villains deploy their full arbitrary powers against (at best) minor infractions and offenses. As in Eden's case, the good guys usually prevail, but only after excruciating legal procedures and publicity.

There are a lot of New Hampshire roots in the book, going back to 1942's Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, based on an incident that happened just up the street in Rochester, which generated the regrettable "fighting words" limitation on First Amendment rights. There was also Wooley v. Maynard, the irony-inspired case of the free thinker who got in trouble for taping over the "Live Free or Die" motto on his license plates.

New Hampshire's university system is also (sadly) well-represented here, going back to the 1950s, the state's efforts to hassle then-professor Paul Sweezy about his (acknowledged) Marxist views and associates is discussed. In more modern times, there was UNH's efforts to discipline Professor J. Donald Silva for allegedly creating a “hostile and offensive environment” in his classroom with his (um) colorful analogies and examples. Up north at Plymouth State, Leroy Young, a graphic design professor was summarily canned after allegations of sexual harassment of his students. (I'm not sure how Young's suit against Plymouth and USNH turned out.)

[Well after the book came out, UNH showed that it hadn't learned much about free expression by evicting a student who posted a satirical flier in his dorm's elevator. UNH continues to have a red light rating from FIRE for its unconsitutionally overbroad policy on "sexual harassment".]

So: while you might expect a 17-year-old book on then-current events to be dated, it turns out (regrettably) not to be at all. The mentalities and procedures it describes are still in vogue in American higher ed, as any look at recent headlines shows. (See, for example: here; here; here, all easily-found stories from the past few weeks.) Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, or as President Eisenhower [never actually] said: things are more like they are today than they've ever been before.

A relatively new wrinkle is the Obama Administration's aggressive (and probably unconstitutional, but what's new) push to force schools and colleges to cut back on due process and free speech via an expansive interpretation of its authority granted by anti-discrimination statutes, like the famous Title IX. This book doesn't cover that, obviously, but it's easy to see how it could be the source for Volume II.

Jersey Boys

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

As a kid, songs by the Four Seasons were in my soundtrack. Like most baby boomers, I suppose. I wasn't a major fan, but I can still rattle off (at least partial) lyrics from their hits.

So this was a natural choice for the Netflix queue. It is based on the hit Broadway musical, and directed by the immortal Clint Eastwood. It relates the story of how the group came together, their connections (mostly innocuous) to mobsters, inner frictions, family woes, and—well, I think it hits every cliché about celebrity rise and fall you could imagine. But I suppose sometimes things are clichés because they're based in fundamental truths. Millions of years of evolution did not prepare mere humans to deal with superstardom.

It's a pretty good yarn—I stayed awake for the whole thing, anyhow, which is increasingly rare these days. But it's way too long (134 minutes). I was surprised to learn that the songs were actually performed live on set by the actors, many of whom were from the Broadway cast. They're good!

Christopher Walken appears as a benevolent gangster, I kept wishing for him to drop a "more cowbell" line.

Rated R, entirely for bad language. (Except in New Jersey, where it's rated "G": a child is likely to hear far worse in the home.)