Rand Richards Cooper
Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.
By this author
The riveting and painful news accounts of the St. Paul’s School rape trial are unusual only for being set at one of the most privileged and wealthy private schools in the country. But the story itself has been way too familiar in recent years on college campuses, where the issue of sexual assault has brought colleges massive protests, scrutiny from the federal government, and much institutional soul-searching. Our state university here in Connecticut settled for $1.3m with five plaintiffs who alleged that their complaints of sexual assault and harassment were ignored by UConn, and my alma mater, Amherst College, got a lot of press when a student’s harrowing account of date rape went viral three years ago. Some statistics suggest that as many as 1 in 5 female college students will be sexually assaulted during their college years.
This swirl of dismal realities led me to catch up on a book I’d meant to read when it came out last spring: Missoula, journalist Jon Krakauer’s account of several sexual assaults that occurred – or were alleged to have occurred – at the University of Montana. Krakauer first became known for Into the Wild, the story of a college kid who fled civilization to head out, alone and unaided, as far away as he could get - a tragedy that ended with his death from starvation in a remote reach of Alaska. Krakauer later became famous for his chronicle of a doomed Everest expedition, Into Thin Air, which again betrayed his fascination with the harshness of nature and those who choose to risk their lives in it.
Given these preoccupations, Missoula seems a strange book for him to have written, and maybe just a strange book, period. It’s part police procedural -- a kind of extended Law and Order episode -- part social-work trauma primer, and part indictment of the inadequacy of the police and criminal justice systems vis-à-vis victims of sexual violence. Krakauer reveals that the book’s origins lay in surprising revelations by a younger female friend about having been raped by an acquaintance years ago; stunned, Krakauer decided to educate himself about the subject. Looking for survivors who would tell him their stories, he set out “to comprehend the repercussions of sexual assault from the perspective of those who have been victimized.” The resulting book lies somewhere between lurid exposé and earnest advocacy journalism.
On a vacation at a ranch we met a family that included Harry, a three-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. He couldn’t yet speak words, and expressed himself via loud exclamations that sometimes ascended into a strange and unfamiliar kind of cackling laugh. The first time I heard it in the dining room, not seeing the source of the noise, I was startled and thought, What is that?
A new essay in the Atlantic is making the rounds among those interested in life on American campuses. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, announces that “something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
Lukianoff (a lawyer) and Haidt (a social psychologist) argue that in a misguided effort to create “’safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable,” colleges have embraced an ethic of “vindictive protectiveness,” attempting to safeguard students by punishing those—students and professors alike—who violate expressive norms derived from progressive political values. Such protectiveness, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, is a poor preparation for professional life. Worse, it “is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety.” Political correctness, in other words, may teach young people “to think pathologically.”
Essays of this type typically summon anecdotes to convey a dismaying sense of enforced conformity in the academy, and “The Coddling” doesn’t disappoint. There are the students who ask their law professor not to lecture on rape law, or even use the word “violate,” for fear of the distress it might provoke in class. Or those who call for attaching thematic “trigger warnings” to such books as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny, physical abuse), “so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma.” Haidt mentions that in a class of his own, at NYU’s business school, he was discussing Odysseus and showed a painting of the Sirens—whereupon a student complained that the image of topless mermaids “was degrading to women, and that I was insensitive for showing it.” And then there was “Hump Day” at the University of St. Thomas, modeled on the popular GEICO ad, where the option to pet a live camel was deemed insensitive to people of Middle Eastern descent—and the group behind the event announced its cancellation because “the program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment.”
My wife and daughter and I spent two days at the Jersey shore. One afternoon the sun was fiery, the motel pool crowded. One family caught my attention. They were enjoying the pool—at least, Dad and the two little boys were. As they disported themselves, splashing and laughing, Mom was sitting in a chair alongside, looking on with a stony expression. She didn’t seem to be having much fun. Maybe it was because she was swathed in neoprene—a black dive suit that covered her from wrists to ankles. Plus a black head scarf covering her head and pulled close around her face.
If you bridle at the many advice columns written by and for overinvolved parents, you might want to skip this and stick to dotCommonweal’s usual roster of world events and philosophical inquiries. I want to say a few things—partly confessional—about helicopter parenting, and you might not find them interesting, except perhaps as self-incrimination (mine, that is).
There are plenty of self-diagnostic tests parents can take to “find out” if they are helicopter parents. But the two prominent symptoms are 1) omnipresence, and 2) interference: you want to be there all the time in your child’s life, and you want to fix everything. These are the errors that serve parents up as objects of well-deserved mockery. For instance... University of Georgia administrator Richard Mullendore reported some years back on a student who woke up one morning to discover that her dorm lacked hot water. She called her father, a Georgia bank president, and by 8 AM he had already called Mullendore. (Such excesses are facilitated, Mullendore observed, by what he called “the world’s longest umbilical cord”—the cell phone.) Closer to home, a friend of mine who’s an executive with a large company tells me that it is now far from uncommon for a young college grad to show up in his office for a job interview, accompanied by... guess who?
Nine years ago, when our mother was dying of lung cancer, my sisters and I considered moving her to a hospice. Like many who are dying, my mother viewed hospice with ambivalence and dread, and by the time she agreed, she was too fragile to move. Which was too bad, since the facility I toured—the nation’s first residential hospice, in Branford, CT—was a remarkable place, with an aura of sunlit serenity and a view of the Connecticut coastline that looked strangely Californian.
Like many Americans, I do some “guilty pleasure” reading each summer. Do you make this distinction? For me, guilty pleasure means a novel I enjoy reading, even can’t put down, but don’t particularly admire. During a recent vacation I read four novels: Eight Black Horses, by Ed McBain; The Girl on the Train, the bestseller by Paula Hawkins; Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity; and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, by the Anglo-Australian novelist, Evie Wyld. Two guilty pleasures; two un-guilty.
Can I say a few words in defense of Germans? The Euro crisis that’s been building for years now, with Greece as its molten core, is hard to comprehend. I mean, I get the general idea. Two dozen nations (give or take) are united by one currency but lack a governing entity that can set fiscal policies. It’s like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor. But is it in fact true, as Paul Krugman has been repeating for years, that Brussels and its technocrats are “trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics”? For an untrained person, the fine points (or any points) of macroeconomics and international finance can get pretty murky.
What has been clear is the role increasingly assigned to Germany, at least here in the United States: villain. A recent article from the New York Times, ominously titled “Germany’s Destructive Anger,” faults the Germans not merely for being selfishly shortsighted in their economic policies, but for being rigid, vindictive, self-righteous and dyspeptic. The article is by an economist, and that’s significant. Most “average” Americans may only vaguely know that a Euro crisis is happening (“you mean, the soccer thing?”), but if you sketch for them the outlines of the current situation, most will say that the Greeks need to clean up their act and pay their debts. Why should the Germans be blamed? But the opposite opinion prevails among economists, almost all of whom see Germany at fault. The main points:
1) Austerity in Europe has been a mistaken policy. When financial crisis hit here in 2008, our government responded with bailouts, government spending, and cheap money to inflate the economy. Europe should do the same.
2) Germany fails to grasp its own self-interest. If lesser countries are allowed to leave the Euro zone—or forced out—it will over time almost certainly damage Germany’s powerful export machine. But Germans are choosing to punish Greece, rather than taking a coolly systemic view of the situation.
3) Germans are conveniently forgetting the role debt and debt forgiveness played at critical moments in their own history: after World War I, when massive debt destabilized governments and led to fascism; and after World War II, when the victorious allies chose the Marshall Plan (another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, which sought to keep Germany perpetually under-developed, was rejected), forgave war debts, and laid the foundation for the postwar “economic miracle” in West Germany.
Increasingly, though, the critique rests on the idea that Germans are mean and vindictive.
Every summer for two weeks we rent a cabin in the woods of Vermont while our nine-year-old daughter goes to a Quaker-run farm and wilderness day camp nearby. Our getaway seats us in the very lap of nature. Birds of all kinds sing outside our windows; giant variegated moths drowse on the screens; the staccato tree work of woodpeckers forms a background percussion. Some unidentifiable creature howls in the woods at 2 a.m. That’s enough to make me rethink sleeping outside in my tent.
But what truly scares some potential renters of the cabin, its owner tells me, is not the presence of wild animals, but rather the absence of something else: internet. The cabin, christened “Off the Grid,” offers no TV, no WiFi, no computers, no cellphone reception. To make a call, we drive a mile down the road to a little spot between the hills where you can get a signal. To triage my email, I drive over to Woodstock twice a week and spend half an hour on the computers at the library.
The prospect of an unplugged vacation turns out to be highly polarizing. “It pretty much instantly rules out two-thirds of the people who inquire,” the cabin’s owner says. “The other third wouldn’t have it any other way.”
We are—and very happily—in that other, neo-Luddite third.
My jeremiads on the topic of handheld-addiction and digital distraction are well known to my friends. Among those friends are many who, in theory anyway, share my belief that digital devices have become a kind of mass addiction, yet still find it really hard to unplug for any substantial period. That’s a widespread reality these days. Every few months, it seems, I read an essay breathlessly touting some device-free getaway camp whose adult attendees rhapsodize proudly about unplugging—for a weekend!
Being away from screens for two weeks poses some logistical challenges, especially in trying to clear work and correspondence away beforehand—and catch up afterward. But the benefits, for my wife and me anyway, outweigh them. Time and space to read more. To exercise and be outdoors more. To prepare a real meal, instead of throwing something together in haste, as is (alas) too often the rule at home.
And, most of all, de-screening spurs conversation.
David Brooks wrote recently in the Times about what he calls “The Robert E. Lee Problem.” The column assesses the implications of scrubbing symbols of the Confederacy from the South and elsewhere. By now the Confederate battle flag has come down from the South Carolina statehouse and elsewhere (I’m fascinated by the tipping-point dynamics of this move -- once Walmart gets on board, you know the thing is irreversible). But what about other symbols and figures that may bear a similarly odious taint?
Among the historical figures dear to the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee is paramount – and the map of the South is dotted with sites bearing his name. Brooks notes that Lee was, in his private life, a man of rectitude, intelligence and charm. Yet he joined the slave-owning insurgency, betrayed his oath of duty as an officer, owned nearly 200 slaves himself, and led the forces of a rebellion that triggered the deaths of 750,000 Americans. Should he come down, along with the Stars and Bars?
Brooks says yes. “Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture,” he writes. “We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain.” He goes on to recommend removing Lee’s name from “most schools, roads and other institutions.”
I lived for years in Germany, among places and institutions dedicated to opponents and victims of the Nazis – all those Bonhoeffer Platzes and Sophie-Schollstrassen, streets and schools named for the rejected and reviled, the murdered and the martyred. There were no Himmler Parks to be found anywhere. Nor would anyone expect there to be. When a country is vanquished, or a despised ruling power toppled, the transitions of memorialization are simple: the statues come down. In a civil war, the challenge can be more complicated – especially one, like ours, in which a high premium was placed on national political reconciliation, and certain core conflicts and resentments were never worked out.
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