My forever self-consciously arriviste alma mater, Dickinson College, has invited James Stavridis to deliver its commencement address this year. It could have dredged up someone worse (e.g., Bill Durden, its own president emeritus), but there’s still something really seedy about a college trying to polish its own image by giving a socially climbing admiral an honorary degree, a bully pulpit, and, I assume, an honorarium for preaching at a captive audience instead of encouraging those associated with it to think critically, as college men and women are ostensibly expected to do, about the admiral’s accomplishments and character. As the sitting NATO generalissimo, Stavridis commanded the international military campaign against Libya that catalyzed Muammar Qaddafi’s assassination by sodomy and other blunt force and did nothing to fill the inevitable power vacuum created by the toppling of a strongman in a country with no working civil society infrastructure or separation of governmental powers. Of course chaos filled the void; what else did anyone expect to be the result of giving air cover to a bunch of vengeful regional militias with religious axes to grind in an Arab country that had been ruled for two generations by a goofy but ruthless John Travolta/Smokey Robinson lookalike who had promoted himself from lieutenant to colonel upon the completion of his successful coup? Like Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi was a thug, but also like Saddam, he was a stabilizing force in a fractious country with shit for independent civil institutions, and a reasonably competent administrator.
To generously assume that there were no ulterior motives behind what History Liberty Resistance Glory Revolution might have called this greasy ratfuck, Stavridis was still responsible for an acute, countrywide humanitarian nightmare that could have been prevented by showing the restraint not to take sides in a strange country’s dubious civil war, and which might have been alleviated by a more concerted postwar peacekeeping and reconstruction effort than NATO and friends have been generous enough to support in their foreign playgrounds in recent decades. An officer, and a flag officer no less, ought to feel some shame and show some public contrition, if nothing else, for being responsible for such a clusterfuck. Instead, Stavridis is cashing in and basking in the glory that one gets for being Serious. He was reportedly considered as a runningmate by Hillary “We Came, We Saw, He Died” Clinton, who personally greenbaited a reluctant Barack Obama into authorizing shock and awe on the Barbary Coast.
We should expect more of our military officers. We should demand accountability of them and make public life unpleasant for them if they insist on being weasels. Even if we’re unable to strip them of their sinecures or cut off their kickback cash flow, we can openly treat them as men of ill repute, and that’s a start. By virtue of his command of the botched Libya campaign and his decision to solicit baksheesh after the fact instead of repenting or quietly withdrawing from public life, Stavridis is far worse than Fat Leonard’s naval pals. Those guys were sleazy as hell, but in terms of casualties, what they did was pretty fucking harmless. As far as I’ve heard, no one got killed or seriously injured as a result, and a truly heartless bastard has no difficulty getting his peons killed in rear-echelon supply operations. (For a useful comparison, look at our friends (very sic) in Qatar.) They diverted a bunch of ships to some fat high roller’s facilities in exchange for dolce vita shit including nice dinners and escorts, and in the process they poured a liberal helping of the US Treasury down a hole, but if pouring the treasury down a hole isn’t the point of the US Military, what is? Let’s not kid ourselves. These officers got some port girls to lick their flags, but theirs is the business of the self-licking ice cream cone.
Unfortunately, I think I understand why Dickinson College has invited Stavridis for this weekend of honor. My sense of ongoing disgust and shame at its currying favor with the disreputable powerful, or any similar sense that other students, alumni, parents, or faculty may have because they think for themselves and notice that their primary honoree has several thousand skeletons in his closet, is immaterial. These shitheads aren’t in business to impress the dissidents with their good character. They’re in it to impress the amoral social climbers they’ve assiduously cultivated with an aura of prestige and influence. In this case, they’ve landed a guy whose particular form of prestige and influence is formal state power expressed through an international military alliance. Dickinson greatly fancies itself an internationalist institution (why study a broad when you can study abroad?), so the details, like that we threw a flaming ball of shit at one hornet’s nest (Libya) after sticking our national dick into two others in quick succession (Afghanistan and Iraq), are beside the point. This is statecraft and shit, so surely it will impress young people who presume themselves qualified to take up their own statecraft at public expense, or whatever the fuck else they can find work (sic, mostly) doing for some insipid think tank or PR firm.
The Admiral’s place of honor has a more general purpose as well, one that could be filled with anyone who has been in the news for something less blatantly shabby than unadulterated celebrity gossip. The year I graduated, the commencement speaker was John Jones, the federal judge from the Dover School District evolution case. Jones, a Dickinson graduate, seemed an upstanding fellow, and just by being basically down to earth he was a refreshing contrast with all the stuck-up preppy fuckjobs who are always swarming Dickinson’s social events. Honoring an alumnus for having quietly and dutifully served as a reputable judge on a regional bench would have been fine, but that is not why Dickinson honored him. It’s obvious that Judge Jones was honored because he had had the luck, for good and for bad, to be thrust into fifteen minutes of fame because his docket had recently gotten clogged with a big pile of shit from some religious busybodies who had taken over a local government in York County. Dude was given the bully pulpit and the honorary degree because his office had forced him to steer into the path of a huge floater and do something about it. It was bad news that Pennsylvania was having public shouting matches over Scopes Monkey Trial bullshit. Jones was actually one of the few parties to this bullshit with the integrity not to come away tainted. For the affluent liberal base at Dickinson, his place of honor was another opportunity to make fun of York County for being a bunch of poor, backwards rubes; for the affluent conservative and reactionary bases, who are numerous and more prominent and vocal at Dickinson than their counterparts are at many colleges, it was an opportunity to sneer back at the liberals for dissing their conservative values and, usually more discreetly, for dissing the GOP’s useful idiot pool; and for the godbotherers down in Dover, it was their latest opportunity to proclaim their own persecution by godless liberal elites in the universities and the courts. In point of fact, the Dover School District covers a fairly affluent swath of York County, so this old time religion revolt wasn’t coming from the usual hayseed suspects, and no one in power really wants to deal with York County’s most glaringly tangled mess of poverty, low achievement, and poor prospects: York City.
The whole episode was emblematic of the Dickinson community’s fundamental irresponsibility and immaturity. There we were honoring an alumnus who had frankly been coughed up at random due to his brief, incidental adjudication of a tempest in a teapot that had been stirred up by a ramshackle collection of religious grandstanders who had wormed their way onto a school board an hour down the road, and no one seemed to find anything amiss about it. I didn’t have the courage at the time to express my own misgivings about this spectacle, because they were inchoate and unpopular among most of those close to me.
The point of this judge’s invitation into the pomp and circumstance was all too simple. We were to honor him because we had been instructed to honor him. We were all reduced to the lowest common denominator. An upstanding, modest judge had been initiated into a cult of celebrity; it was the judge’s role to put up with it for the weekend, and it was our role to admire him and the institution that had told us to admire him. All of this, of course, took place under the auspices of college graduation ceremonies, which are almost inevitably surreal in their grandiosity and stuffiness.
For Dickinson specifically, it would have been wrong to say “almost.” Let’s be frank: these are compliance rituals. Dickinson’s student body tends towards the philosophically conservative and compliant, so it doesn’t take much at all to convince a few thousand people to meekly shut up before some blowhard like Ed Rendell (whose homily I barely missed as a graduate but watched from the farther lawn seats as a member of the general audience). As Red Devils, of all things, we aren’t ones to get fed up at the sight of some dipshit giving us advice worthy of the book section at FedEx Office for $500 an hour or whatever the school effectively pays these fuckers to give a talk and be presented at some cocktail hours. Jones’s speech was a pretty damn good one for a commencement address, as I recall; Rendell’s was mostly horseshit, roughly the regression to the mean that one would expect from the greaseball. As paying audiences go, college graduates and their parents (yeah, mainly the latter) pay through the fucking nose, so if any audience has cause to walk away from a crappy or insulting speech, it’s them. There’s no reason that the grounds need be moral; all it takes is, dude, why the fuck is that asshole wasting our time driveling on with that shit? It’s hot out here and I’m wearing a fucking black robe, like a chode, man.
Jacob Bacharach is absolutely right: commencement speeches are performances, so booing Lawrence Summers for giving an obnoxious performance is no more wrong than booing a shitty band for fucking up its set. (Okay, not any shitty band: when Bob Dylan forgets his lines at the Jackson County Expo, the audience is too stoned to give a shit.) I’d go a step beyond that and say that it’s even more justifiable, since it’s an effort to correct boorish behavior by a guest. If you’d be hostile to a graceless dinner guest for polluting your dining room with his bad company, why would you be any less hostile to an obscenely overpaid public figure for polluting the public sphere of an institution that your family paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for you to attend and expecting you to sit through his tirade like a good little bitch? When I put up with bad manners from tourists in inclemently hot weather at Hersheypark, I got a paycheck every fortnight for my trouble. Dickinson expects us not only to pay tuition for the privilege of being lectured by grandiose dipshits under social conditions verging on duress while exposed to Carlisle’s unpredictable elements, but also to give charitable (violently sic) donations to Alma Mater, Tried and True out of a combination of gratitude for the quality of our education (which is NOT provided by any of the practically anti-intellectual racketmen in the administration) and an expectation of future reward (goods which, for reasons I still can’t grok, have yet to be delivered to me).
Our Harvard Man Summers above features in an anecdote from Elizabeth Warren, possibly in the apocryphal Russian tradition of the term, about her early days in Ow-ah Fe-Ah City. According to this story, Summers invited Warren to dinner, calling to mind the time a kindly old priest (the same one who was saddened by the loss of life “in the recent tusami in Indonesia”) told us at a Newman Club meeting, “Our parishioners would love to have you for dinner.” I mention this partly in the interest of poor taste, but mainly because the heavy hitters with the serious appetites for the body and the blood, so to speak, don’t dine out at church, nor are they so sloppy in their language. (Father was always the most sweetly earnest old man, but I’m not entirely sure that he wasn’t also the most talented deadpan comic on the East Coast.)
Most of this must sound like a really disturbed Hozier song. Did we really need an entire paragraph of it, and weren’t we supposed to be discussing Larry Summers hosting Elizabeth Warren for dinner? No, we were actually starting a story about Warren hosting Summers, in the eucharistic and medical senses of the term. To overly moralize tapeworms, Summers shares their morality, and Harvard is one hell of a feasting ground for a fellow like him. The story goes that as the Diet Coke bottles piled up, Summers crudely told Warren that there are outsiders, and then there are insiders, and while the outsiders can speak truth to whatever power offends them, the insiders, once inside, dare not speak ill of other insiders.
I’m forced to take this story with a grain of salt because it’s told by Elizabeth Warren about Elizabeth Warren, and Elizabeth Warren isn’t the most credible historian about these things. She seems to have a vaguely Millingtonian idea of storytelling, so I wouldn’t put it past her to communicate to create her own version of events. Gee. That again. As Robert Dziekanski put it, I’m getting really energized right now; you’re killing me, big guy!
No, I am not as crude as Lawrence Summers. I don’t come close. That’s the thing about Warren’s account of this dinner: it has the ring of truth. Even if it’s fictional, it’s true. Summers is one coarse bastard. He’s exactly the sort of person who would say something so blunt and crass to a faculty member under his authority. He’s a rich man’s Mike Mersky. I’m not convinced that he was quite so forward with Warren specifically in the dramatic one-on-one confrontation that she describes, but I imagine that’s about as politic as he was in private around the campus. He was previously famous for his women suck at math comment, which he made in public. If the Harvard faculty or other faculties were promoting unqualified women into math positions due to their sex, the specifics would have warranted examination and reform, and some of the reactions to his comment were over the top, but he didn’t have to be such a fucking pissant. If he was anything like that in small groups without an expectation that recordings would be made of his comments, or in one-on-one meetings without witnesses, he must have been a real pest.
I have no trouble at all believing that this half-assed mob enforcer wannabe would tell an upstart dissident that that’s the way things work around here. What strikes me about this incident, however, is something very different from the likelihood that Larry Summers would blurt out crass, thinly veiled threats at a subordinate during a private dinner. It’s that I don’t recall anyone at Dickinson being treated to such a formal sit-down lecture from an authority figure and cannot imagine anyone around there who was seriously going places needing such a lecture in the first place. Spelling it out would have been like telling a socially climbing student to study hard, jump through academic hoops on demand like a show dog, and run for officer positions in a bunch of extracurricular organizations. It would have been superfluous, as pointless and artless as reminding adults to wipe their asses.
The need to submit to the arbitrary whims of authority figures was assumed to be understood by those who needed to know it prior to their matriculation. I had a few creepy fellow students try to sheepdog me when they thought I was getting out of line on my own, but I mostly stayed away from them when they started pulling that kind of shit, and whenever bigshots in the administration confronted a group of aggrieved students in a hostile, demeaning, or belligerent fashion, they provoked an open insurrection: wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I also, etc. They didn’t usually confront the intransigent over trifles, although they did over matters close to their own hearts. This is why one of the creeps I mentioned above insinuated that I had violated some kind of unwritten two-party consent rule by recording a Student Senate meeting in which Bill Durden verbally abused students at the top of his lungs over the Go Hard Big Dick T-shirts. That bullshit excuse for student representation was a junior version of a communist central committee until two or three of its members reached some tipping point and turned it into a vulgarian’s House of Commons under the gavel of a petty Ceausescu in training. Unless I threw out more old junk than I think, I still have the audiotape of Durden expressing his rabies over the Go Hard Big Dick T-shirts somewhere.
If Elizabeth Warren actually had to be sat down and lectured by that schmuck about deference before the nobility, it suggests that she either really was an outsider or was taken seriously as one. I find that more encouraging than her Senate career as a whole. The mere likelihood that Lawrence Summers has an active enemy with a personal ax to grind in Congress is a good sign. May he have many such enemies in all branches of government, and at all levels. I don’t expect those who make his public life unpleasant to be blameless saints; I merely expect them to make his public life unpleasant. After all, he gets paid better to be heckled by people with a hundredth or a thousandth of his net worth than I was ever paid to be bugged by mouthy little punks all evening at Hersheypark Games.