Your Sunday funnies: Ross Douthat lectures his “class” on sex, drugs, and inequality

Believe it or not, I usually admire Ross Douthat as a writer. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I disagree, sometimes I’m ambivalent, but I’ve always found that he presents arguments that are worth making and that he does so in good faith. He doesn’t traffic the amphetamine-fueled namedropping fellatio of multinational corporations and their executives that is Tom Friedman’s stock-in-trade, nor David Brooks’ milquetoast reactionary authoritarianism, nor the sexual deviancy of Jesus Kristof’s lord-and-savior-of-damsels-in-distress shtick. Certainly, in a context like that, Douthat’s all right.

Usually. But usually isn’t a high enough standard when a writer’s off days result in shit like this. Douthat starts off with two and a half paragraphs of a bizarre and uncharacteristically stupid and incoherent conceit in which he is our teacher and the rest of us are his “class,” and he doesn’t think that we all read our Thomas Piketty assignment. What the fuck, Mr. D? When a writer usually comports himself like a perfectly intelligent adult and then suddenly descends into this sort of pedantic madness, one has to wonder about recent brain trauma. Just be thankful that Ross Douthat is not your high school principal. Can you imagine what an awful drone he’d be at assemblies?

To conclude this nonsense, Douthat enthuses that our next “assignment” will be better than Piketty because it’s shorter. This is like saying that all of your college research papers put together are shorter than a John Grisham novel, so you should totally anthologize that shit and sell it as an e-book on Amazon. You’ll clean up. Ironically, Douthat did an excellent job of proving that brevity can also be the soul of dum-dum; for such a short piece, his contribution to the public discourse this week was awfully slow to get to its point, and awfully annoying about it. No functionally literate reader is going to choose teacher-man literary cosplay by Ross Douthat instead of “Under the Banner of Heaven” because Jon Krakauer is too tangential and longwinded.

This is one of the great red pill insights into higher education. A lot of the assigned reading that students neglect goes unread for no other reason than it sucks. A close family friend on the Stanford faculty, probably one of the five most broadly erudite people I’ve ever known, told me not long ago that he’s disappointed that he has to spend so much time reading atrocious peer-reviewed literature and e-mail correspondence from colleagues. This stuff is written by people with PhD’s. Think about that the next time you hear a professor complain about the awfulness of his undergraduates’ writing.

The crucial corollary to this is that undergraduates just plain don’t have enough experience as writers or time outside of class to turn in research papers that don’t gloriously suck. This is generally less of a problem for English majors than for majors in other subjects. For history majors, it’s more likely to be inweaved in the extensive, as one of my lunch buddies in the Dickinson history department liked to describe stuff that was important or something in his research papers. (He’s an attorney now, and that means that R. Todd Bouldin is a colleague. Katie door the bar.) It isn’t false modesty on my part to argue that native writing ability isn’t why I’m able to publish all these high-IQ screeds. Some of them have taken me upwards of twenty hours to write, and that’s at a time when I’m nearly a decade older than most college seniors and spend a lot of time reading material that is better written than most of what is assigned in college courses. I wouldn’t be so prolific if I were fully employed; I just wouldn’t have enough time and energy. (Funemployment can be hellish, but it has its upsides.)

Douthat’s bellyaching about wasted academic potential and underachievement on the collegiate “party pathway” is sophomoric to the core. It isn’t an achievement to get an A+ for shitty work that no one with a lick of sense would read unless paid to do so. I occasionally came across students at Dickinson who seemed to have much more in the way of GPA than they had in the way of overall coherence; apparently this is a much worse problem at lower-ranked schools and in the Ivies than it is at Alma Mater, Tried and True (a school anthem whose tune one of our illustrious nineteenth-century alumni plagiarized from “O Tannenbaum”; if I recall correctly, an earlier administration had by this point expelled James Buchanan and then readmitted him in exchange for a “donation” from his father). Let’s be real: what we’re dealing with here is a very expensive credentialing system with rampant grade inflation and no credible way to measure or compare standards. Some of these schools are the sort of outfits that would give a student pilot an 80% score on a check ride ending four minutes in with an MD-80 buried headlong in the side of Upper Table Rock. Meanwhile, Douthat is worried about how party animals at elite state schools are persuading students from poor families to forsake majors in elementary education in order to study sports broadcasting. This dude is worked up about the state of affairs in academic departments at and below the level of state normal schools: not a fellow who ought to be taken seriously when he waxes eloquent about the poor health of the American academy, if you ask me.

Good old Ross knows how to concern-troll a motherfucker, too:

Their project, as conceived, was supposed to be about sex and romance. In the end, though, it turned out to be mostly about class.

That’s because what the authors discovered were the many ways in which collegiate social life, as embraced by students and blessed by the university, works to disadvantage young women (and no doubt young men, too) who need their education to be something other than a four-year-long spree. Instead of being a great equalizer, “Paying for the Party” argues, the American way of college rewards those who come not just academically but socially prepared, while treating working-class students more cruelly, and often leaving them adrift.

Much of this treatment is meted out through the power of the campus party scene, the boozy, hook-up-happy world of Greek life. This “party pathway,” the authors write, is “a main artery through the university,” and its allure is the reason many affluent out-of-state enrollees choose the university in question in the first place.
Such party-pathway students aren’t particularly motivated academically, but because they have well-off parents and clear-enough career goals they don’t necessarily need to be, and because they don’t require much financial aid they’re crucial to the university’s bottom line. (Their college careers, the authors write, depend on “an implicit agreement between the university and students to demand little of each other.”)

The party pathway’s influence, though, is potentially devastating for less well-heeled students. Some, dubbed “wannabes” in the book, are pulled into a social whirl that undercuts their practical aspirations — encouraging them to change majors (from elementary education to sports broadcasting, say) [ed: See? LOL] to imitate their cooler peers, pushing them into sexual situations they don’t know how to navigate, forcing their parents “to dig deep” for “sorority fees, spring break trips and bar tabs” and saddling them with large postcollegiate debts.

Another few paragraphs down, Douthat bemoans “a youth culture in which the only (official) moral rule is consent” taking root in “a corporate-academic university establishment that has deliberately retreated from any moralistic, disciplinary role.” My first reaction was, shit, this guy wants to bring back parietal rules. If he explicitly advocated such a thing, he’d be shouted down as a batshit crazy chauvinist, but he’d certainly be my first guess among NYT columnists for taking such a position. David Brooks doesn’t give a rat’s ass about coeds having unsanctioned nookie. In addition to the possibility that Douthat doesn’t consider adult women competent to manage their own affairs within the precincts of university campuses, there’s the off-putting likelihood that he’s now resorting to Brooksian code language to advocate for fringe positions that he’s too chickenshit (or just devious) to forthrightly claim as his own. This is quite possibly the sight of a hitherto decent man choosing to roll around in the gutter. If true, it’s a barfworthy fall from grace, or at least graciousness.

Here’s why I suspect that Douthat is plunging into dsingenuous Brooksian fuckery:

The losers are students ill equipped for the experiments in youthful dissipation that are now accepted as every well-educated millennial’s natural birthright. The winners, meanwhile, are living proof of how a certain kind of libertinism can be not only an expression of class privilege, but even a weapon of class warfare.

By this I mean that an upper class that practices and models bourgeois virtues — not only thrift and diligence but chastity and sobriety — will be more permeable, less self-protected and self-perpetuating, than an upper class that tells the aspirational that they can’t climb the ladder unless they join the party first.

Especially if no one mentions, until the tab comes due, that they’ll be the only ones who really pay for it.

Thrift, diligence, chastity, sobriety: what is this? A pitch for a Saturday night made-for-TV movie on the Trinity Broadcasting Network? It’s excellent tradcon fap material, to be sure. But the defining feature of this “party pathway” isn’t the drinking or the screwing; both of those are perfectly feasible outside a Greek Life social infrastructure. No, the defining features are extortion and influence-peddling by extracurricular organizations amounting to cults.

It’s a pay-for-play racket. The milieu could be as continent and dry as a Shaker furniture workshop, and its class effects would be no less unconscionably pernicious, its morality no less bankrupt. “Sorority fees, spring break trips and bar tabs” are, at most, tangential to the underlying lifestyle that these status-whoring extracurricular organizations are selling. At root, they’re promising sex, drugs, and companionship (but not rock-n-roll: that shit’s, like, so 1970; CCR can suck on Soulja Boy’s dick, but only if they use the resulting output as a cape-fastener for John Fogarty). It’s nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with a few cases of Molson, an iPod, and a speaker in a fourplex dorm unit in Lawrence or Madison, as long as students were able and willing to organize their own social lives without deference to and interference from blatantly malignant private clubs.

These Greek organizations are acting as a cartel, granting or withholding access to fundamental human needs. (If you’re really enjoying your celibacy and teetotalism, there should be no need to preen. Silence is its own virtue, no?) They’re a sort of after-hours OPEC, insinuating themselves into markets where they should never have been given any power or authority. Many university administrators are fully, even painfully, aware of the destructive effects that Greek organizations have on their campuses, but exceedingly few have the courage to confront them for engaging in and facilitating behavior that is often subversive of their schools’ missions and principles (test banks, guidance of students to cake classes with softball professors, deliberate sowing of divisions within the collegiate community) or felonious (rape, drugging, battery, manslaughter, false imprisonment under threat of bodily harm). Sororities and especially fraternities (the latter being responsible for the lion’s share of the really grisly stuff) maintain these privileges by running a perennial extortion racket on their host institutions, tacitly (and, for all I know, sometimes explicitly) threatening to cut off alumni contributions in retaliation if their charters are revoked. “Gee, Bill, nice endowment and annual fund. It’d be a real shame if something happened to them.” This is approximately the relationship that the Wahhabi extremists maintain with the Saudi royal family: you know, that it’d be an awful thing if the appropriations for subversive fundie clerics and their madrasas weren’t renewed and Ras Tanura blew up the next day.

If Douthat were serious about the pernicious class effects of Greek Life, he’d advocate for its abolition. At the very least he’d advocate for the systematic dissolution of chapters that do not clearly abide by laws against violence and threats of violence and that do not act with at least as much concern for the commonweal of their host institutions as they do for their own parochial interests. Instead, he’s wringing his hands about how the poors are being seduced by the temptations of wine, women, and song when they should be keeping their noses to the library grindstone. (Grinding books must be hard. Burning them seems a much easier and more festive way to dispose of their insolent ideas.) It’s fine for rich people to use college not just for general wankery but also for the corruption of their country’s socioeconomic system, but the poors need to stay on point and keep their eyes on the prize. Giggity for me but not for thee. Ross Douthat is making straight the path for the manorial lord.

I don’t think that Douthat’s real goal is to maintain dual moralities for the privileged and for the rest.  He is, however, appealing to some extremely unsavory elements in the Rush Limbaugh end of the Republican Party, specimens of total depravity who get hard at the thought of wielding the whip hand. The more charitable explanation for his welcoming such awful company into his tent is that he’s just too focused on his own Catholic populist tradcon thang to notice that he’s dog-whistling to a bunch of asshats. The less charitable explanations are that he’s too craven to care or that he’s writing these things on assignment as a mercenary in the employ of Koch-grade plutocrats. He’s still more reputable than Brooks, Friedman, or Kristof, but there’s a lot of room between those three and common decency.

Dude’s muddying the waters in any event. He took four virtues that are loosely (and not always) related to one another and bundled them together into one package so that we could love it or leave it. This is the same tactic used by authoritarian jingoists trying to chill civic dissent and by Catholic authoritarians trying to chill dissent from “cafeteria Catholics.” Wow Much binary Such fallacious. This is a fellow who loves him some splitting. Usually when conservatives try to pull that kind of shit, they argue on the crudest, most obvious kind of bad faith, as Rush Limbaugh did in his argument that contraceptive coverage is bad policy because Sandra Fluke is a slut.

Again, I can’t quite tell whether Douthat is being smooth and devious or just earnest in a way that happens to align with the goals of the most depraved elements of the hard right. His argument that college students should be chaste in order to protect themselves against destabilizing interpersonal relationships is certainly more credible at first blush than saying that college girls should keep their legs shut because he was celibate at that age and thinking about coeds having sex makes him resentful. And if he really had weird sexual repressions, he’d have aired them in his columns long ago, in the fashion of Jesus Kristof wringing his hands about Asian damsels in distress. Douthat probably loves more virtue over lunch than Nick “my name means fuck you in Arabic” Kristof will in his lifetime. He probably put the four virtues together as a package deal because doing so made him feel like a worthy heir to the Chestertonian intellectual tradition and met his standards for “thought.” Bully for him, I guess.

To see how inextricable these virtues are from one another, let’s take a look at Germany. Germany has legalized prostitution, Oktoberfest (don’t ask for a half stein; there is no such thing), and one of the world’s most robust nudist movements, known formally as FKK and informally as “we should go for a swim.” I’m sure you’ve never heard of any of this country’s industrial concerns, like Bayer, Siemens, and Airbus.  Quite the backwards, squalid hedonistic wasteland it is. Never in a million years would such a sexually dissolute country of drunkards have a industrial vo-tech high school training tradition ready for export to the Carolinas.

It may sound like I’m straw-manning, but I’m not. Chestnuts about the connection between sexual conservatism and national prosperity are rampant on the Anglo-American right wing. In particular, there was this one dude (posh English bugger, I think) who averred that he had surveyed all societies in all of history everywhere and concluded that the slatternly ones were all poor and backwards, while the prim ones were the only ones that were advanced and prosperous (like Britannia!). I never took note of this bastard’s name because he sounded like a high-hat scold drunk on the goodness of Crown and Country, but I’ve come across his little quip about sexual restraint and prosperity a number of times, often bandied about by people whose motives I didn’t trust. It’s quite popular among highbrow tradcons who don’t give a shit about poors on the Continent (“Dense Fog in Channel; Europe Cut Off”) but are chronically butthurt either about working-class Americans eschewing marriage and church attendance or about the Cockneys turning into a bunch of chavs.

Its real purpose is as a social control. Mr. Potter would prefer to have a thrifty working class. He’d definitely prefer one that isn’t culturally engaged enough with other countries to know when he’s bullshitting them. Think about this: the New York Times has one of the most cosmopolitan readerships in United States, and Germany is a close ally and trading partner, a Western country with a high rate of English proficiency. And yet Ross Douthat, one of the Times‘ more reputable columnists, is confident enough to write nonsense whose premise can be demolished with a one-paragraph summary of a few elements of German industry and culture.

We’re really, seriously culturally isolated. It’s a fucking embarrassment. We aren’t just culturally isolated from overseas countries; we’re culturally isolated enough that right-wing lunatics and propagandists are able to successfully circulate fabrications and wild distortions about Canada, a mostly English-speaking country with which we share a fucking land border. Americans actually believe the bullshit that these asshats circulate about things like the failures of Canada’s single-payer health insurance systems.

Realize that if the Mounties aren’t watching, you can walk there from Derby Line.

Casey Stangel once said that the problem wasn’t with his players having sex on game nights, but with their staying out all night looking for it. I’d add another problem, the one of unscrupulous fraternities and sororities charging for the promise of sex in a way that would never fly in countries like Germany. Shit, our “Greek” system puzzles even the fucking English, and they’re the ones who came up with Oxbridge and the “public schools.” Say, is the Southern Kappa Kappa Kappa organization part of this system? Damn, Bobby, I’ve always thought you looked fine in white! Roll, Tri Kap, Roll!

There’s nothing wrong with a little drinking and whoring, or a little pounding two tallboys right now and getting nasty with loose amateurs. Just try to be moderate about it and get some condoms at the campus health center first, and don’t stay up all night fucking around like that, our you’ll turn in the kind of crappy, rushed assignments that Ross Douthat now turns in to his editors.

And unlike him, you won’t get paid for the trouble. Don’t think that he’s one of the n00bs who gets stuck with the tab.

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