While the present offers plenty of liars, buffoons, imposters, and the like, it can help to look back on historical examples. The Guardian offers up a gem in the category. One of the reasons that we might not be able to learn as much as we might like about this category of human being is that few want to come forward after the embarrassment of learning that they have been taken in by said liar, buffoon, imposter, etc.
Sisman could find no girlfriend or ex-wife able to explain what attracted them. Disappointing, too, as he complains, is that Lambeth Palace refused to show him the extensive file it has on Peters, once described as “the biggest crook on the Archbishop’s blacklist of misbehaving clergymen”. As Sisman says, the Church of England has no more cause to be embarrassed than all the other institutions and individuals who were taken in by Peters, whose talent for forging references for himself on the headed notepaper of whichever institution he’d currently sneaked into would, when the going got tough, smooth his passage to the next one.
As a former administrator at several institutions of higher education, I experienced the reluctance of other administrators to do the human thing. When a crisis hits, administrators are taught to stop and call the lawyers. Doing the legal thing is not always the human thing, nor the right thing. It is the thing that will most likely save your job, and it allows the administrator to pass off a sticky situation to someone else.
Thus, it isn’t surprising to read what happened at the University of Maryland. The people in charge of the university “follow policies,” “consult” with experts, hire people to confirm the viewpoint they will use as protection. “Following policies and procedures” is a euphemism, in many instances, for covering one’s tracks. University presidents and boards hate bad publicity. They can afford luxurious rugs under which they can sweep mountains. Remember that, if you plan on sending your children to a college or university. There’s a reason the university lawyers are hired by the president, and usually have offices in the same building (usually one of the best, well-maintained, and non-moldy buildings on campus) as the top officials at the institution. The lawyers learn quickly what the president and the board members want, and, if they plan to keep their jobs, they advise accordingly. A lawyer’s self-interest will frequently factor into the decision. The lawyers craft those policies and procedures designed to limit the university’s liability.
The details in the University of Maryland case are exemplary of the reactionary behaviors anyone in the U.S. could expect from most administrators.
[T]he university waited 18 days to tell the community after learning the virus was present on campus. Officials discussed — but decided against — notifying students with compromised immune systems and residents living in Elkton Hall, according to records reviewed by “The Washington Post.”
As the days passed, more and more students fell ill.
Many parents and students have denounced the administration’s handling of the viral outbreak and the mold infestation, complaining its actions endangered thousands of students, faculty and staff on campus. In the end, more than 40 students were sickened with adenovirus, and 15 of them treated at hospitals, according to the university.
Here’s the response from the people in charge.
[U]niversity officials defended their actions, saying they hired a remediation company to remove the mold in September and provided guidance to students on how to prevent the spread of viruses. They said they went beyond what was legally required to address the adenovirus outbreak and public health officials advised that it was not necessary to inform the public about the virus. In April, the college hired two outside doctors to review the school’s response. They found the university followed policies and procedures.
One problem with this response is that it looks like no one followed up on the “remediation” company to test whether the mold problem improved, because there’s no federal or state law, i.e., policy or procedure, dictating that companies produce evidence that the problem has been fixed, or at least improved. What parents and students think would be logical steps toward a solution are sidestepped and justified under the umbrella that someone did what the law requires. In other words, in higher education the lowest level solution is the one most frequently chosen, lowest in terms of finances, time, and thoughtfulness.
Those of us who work in the humanities like to think that our disciplines are misunderstood and underappreciated. We latch on to articles that say things like, “Literature makes people more empathetic.” The discourse of the university on the humanities side turns on claims about making students “better people” in broad senses. Then Allison Johnson happens, and it becomes clear that even English majors do wretched things. All that training in reading and empathizing didn’t take for reasons that won’t be explored by anyone. Allison Johnson will be written off as an exception, an anomaly, a person potentially with “mental problems.”
Hayden White uttered this in an interview before his death:
I worked in the Vatican library for many years and I found that a large number of the people there not only studied the Middle Ages, they believed in them. They were converted to them. I heard people praise the Inquisition.
The latest Vanity Fair (March 2019) shows its readers a “messenger bag” with a flap on which “Christian Dior” is spelled out in all caps. It’s a $3,200 US bag, so you’d want the world to know that “name,” and the capitals scream the wearer’s intention. This way of speaking/screaming through our things is so common that it’s almost impossible to buy clothing, for example, that doesn’t have some kind of logo or brand name in a conspicuous place. It looks as if the practice is so common that people have ceased thinking about it. No one thought it odd months ago that the First Lady wore a jacket with an unmissable message on the back. I wondered at the time whether anyone was going to resurrect Fran Lebowitz’s essay about “clothes with pictures.” Lebowitz writes, “Frankly, I for one would not be unhappy if most people expressed themselves by marching en masse into the nearest large body of water but, barring that, I wish they would at least stop attempting to tell all by word of jacket. I mean, be realistic. If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?”
Fran Lebowitz’s piece suggests the equation: My Character = My Things. More and more people have commodified themselves, made their character the equivalent of the accumulated brands surrounding them, a version of the post-human the post-human theorists seem to have missed.
An acquaintance remarked a few years ago that she was worried about maintaining payments on her Infinity SUV, because driving that car showed her to be “a quality person.” Whether the Infinity was a good vehicle, i.e., reliable, fuel-efficient, meant nothing juxtaposed to what an Infinity accomplished for her status. She had absorbed the capitalist message that by osmosis, or some other magical process (like “provenance” on “Antiques Roadshow”), a brand transfers its alleged qualities onto the person associated with the object, or vice versa.
Part of this phenomenon is not peculiar to our time. Some readers might recall “Colombo,” a detective series started in the 1970s that played on the same effect described above from the opposite direction. The characters interacting with Colombo would misread his intelligence, his worth, because he dressed in shabby clothes, drove a dilapidated 1959 Peugeot, and claimed to be stumbling through his job. Yet, Colombo’s success as a detective did not seem to cause people to want to duplicate those lessons about economic life from the show (say, in the way Nero Wolfe has a Wolfe Pack). Colombo wannabes never reached a level anyone would label “trending.” Few want to be on Colombo’s side of the status divide.
Colombo knows how to rub people’s noses in the emptiness of value, to undermine, for instance, the importance of the original/copy distinction, so precious to Plato:
Status is the buzzword in the recent university admissions stories. An “admissions consultant,” a title that’s a clue to how putrid things have become in higher education, published a piece in The Washington Post in which she confirmed what the “Colombo” series teaches about the thoughtless craving for status.
One brilliant programmer I worked with had been recruited by Google more than once after winning several online code jams; the company didn’t realize he was still in high school. But he also had a C on his transcript from an ultracompetitive private high school in the Bay Area, which supposedly meant he couldn’t get into the universities his parents wanted him to attend. “I’m already a failure,” he told me. “I don’t even think I can get into college.”
Moments like these, equally frustrating and heartbreaking, were common. I tried to reassure students that there was a school for everyone and often asked them what it was about elite universities that they believed would make such a difference in their lives. Most couldn’t tell me, and it seemed to be that getting in was what mattered, along with the instant status that comes with a brand name school.
It’s worth going over again that Abby Mims asked students to explain why admission to an elite university mattered, and most had no response. Thinking takes time, the kind of time not involved in instant status. It would be like asking why someone spent $3,200 US on a bag with big letters on it. The answer is right there on the bag in capital letters. Claude Shannon himself couldn’t have introduced less noise into the communicative system.
The point of admission to an elite university is not to take advantage of the possibilities for learning at such places; it’s simply to tell others that you attended “X.” We have a person in a position high up in the U.S. government who went to an “X,” but has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide how he performed at “X.” To question that is to miss the point of value, which rests in the uttering or the seeing of a name with magical properties. “Abracadabra” takes too long to spit out anyway. “USC” is shorter and gets the job of status done much faster, almost instantaneously. Ask Anna Sorokin.
You will be better off leaving the literalists to themselves, those people who see “Christian Dior,” or “Infinity,” or “USC,” and conclude the person they associate with that name is a “person of quality.” Think how fun it would be to hang around someone non-literal-minded, like Colombo, who tells this kind of story:
“There was this lady walking down Beverly Drive, and coming the other way, this flasher guy in his overcoat. When he gets up to her, he whips open the coat. She looks at him and says, ‘You call that a lining?'”
Oliver Steele died last year. He was an English professor known to pace the hallways of his department. I didn’t know him, but continue to admire his one-line review of a John Barth book. The review appeared long ago, in the days before Twitter, in The Iowa Review.
In his new novel, Letters, John Barth shows that he has thoroughly assimilated his previous work and made it his own.