Monday, December 22, 2008

Sheepish Lord (2001)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Dec. 22 - Last week's protest at the New School University reminded me of this piece below, which appeared on back in May 2001. It's been interesting for me to note my own attitude shifts during the last seven years. Two wars have imparted me with this decade's sensitivity towards veterans; if I'd written about Bob Kerrey now, I would probably err, rightly or wrongly, towards conciliation. Likewise, my tolerance of hippie bullshit has entirely evaporated since '01. After three days of the protesters' self-important proclamations, grandiose declarations of "autonomy" and the self-parodying Major Victory text (item one being amnesty for the protestors themselves), it was a bit of a letdown that the 6th precinct didn't swoop in and pull a Tiananmen Square on all involved.

May 14, 2001

By now, the Bob Kerrey dilemma has been heard by all; distinguished ex-Senator is hired as president of prestigious university in February, distinguished ex-Senator is outed as mass murderer in April. But isn't this what the NY's New School University wanted? The responsibility of any academic president is, first and foremost, to generate publicity. When the New York Times accused Kerrey of ordering the deaths of 13 unarmed civilians in Vietnam three decades ago... well, hey, that's publicity! And when Bob "Sheepish Lord Of Chaos" (as the Wu-Tang name generator waggishly calls him) Kerrey continued to agonize publicly about his role in the massacre, his own tortured admissions of guilt thrashing through repentance to defensiveness to hostility, well, that's just more fuel for the old PR machine. Not many administrators out there can command attention from America's political cartoonists for two weeks straight.

me in '88

War, atrocity, generational anguish... where the hell was this guy when I needed him? For the record, I attended the New School a dozen years ago, as an undergrad at Eugene Lang College. Lang is a cozy West Village enclave of 500 or so students nestled snugly in the New School's crush of 32,000. Kerrey calls the tiny college "enormously important to our being a university." 'Twas also the scene of the Outrageously Racist Painting Protests of 1990. Can't seem to recall the uproar? Let me refresh your memory. That was the year a touring Japanese art exhibition had the sorry misfortune to turn up in the lobby of Parson's School Of Design, a nearby member of the New School campus. One of the paintings reworked a Japanese soda can label image of a cartoon "black Sambo" in full minstrel awfulness. Was it postmodern appropriation? Social commentary? Didn't matter: Lang professor Sekou Sundiata discovered the painting and scrawled "this is racist bullshit" across the work with a sharpie.

photo by Jason O'toole

I was taking one of Sekou's classes at the time, and it's safe to say the guy was the most beloved man on campus. Normal class size caps - 15 students max - were waived by popular demand, so that twice a week Mr. Sundiata would orate to a packed room of breathless college kids (Ani Difranco was a fellow student in '90 and may have met Sekou in this very class... last year she released his second LP on Righteous Babe Records). The man's magic drew the majority of the black campus population and these gatherings produced some painful exchanges across the racial divide. Sample;

White Student to Black Student: We're here to learn about YOU.

Black Student to White Student: ?????????

Me: (silently drawing cartoon mushroom clouds in notebook)

By the time the Japanese painting had been defaced, the atmosphere was ripe for campus revolt. Word got out that Sundiata was due for mild rebuke from the administration - he had, after all, destroyed a presumably expensive piece of fine art - and the campus revolted. Classes were skipped. Hallways were commandeered. Speeches were made in Sekou's defense. If it seems kinda oafish that this was the worst thing students in Manhattan could find to protest, let me tell you - it was even stupider in person. I can't say these silly doings were the sole reason I left the school, but they certainly didn't help.

So how do Bob's mass atrocities stack up against an ambiguous Japanese painting? Some newspapers report campus "unease". Kerrey himself held a schoolwide meeting described by the Village Voice as "crucial". Supposedly 40% of the students are inclined to contemplate Bob's removal. Meanwhile, the guy has deftly pulled a full Oprah Cheese Attack to the 14th degree of new age introspection. Pinned an old man to the floor of a hut with your knees, did you? The better to help a fellow Navy SEAL slit the man's throat? What matters is that you express a "desire to be reincarnated as a Vietnamese". The story has already been shunted under layers of plastic empathy. "I have chosen to talk about it because it helps me heal." Imagine (as the US News & World Report pointed out) any of the Diallo shooting cops trying to pass this line. No one is interviewing the families of the 13 killed. But where the hell are the rioting Lang students??