Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Not you guys again!

Why is Harvard Law School a magnet for crazy-ass drama? Despite its graduates being quite similar in qualifications and prospects to those from other top schools, HLS is, as one blogger put it, "unique in its shitstorms." Why?

1a. Size matters. It's 2-3 times as big as its peer schools. More students, more nutbars.

1b. No, size really does matter, your ex lied to you. With 500+ students per class, there's a critical mass of people with just about any belief or interest. Some of those beliefs are racist. People who would have elsewhere had to keep things to themselves, under the impression that nobody else thinks those thoughts, find kindred spirits! And they talk about crazy things! And sometimes, they get a little too comfortable and let slip some of those crazy things in mixed company.

2. What is best in life? To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women. Every student group is large enough to constitute a faction and to include at least one wannabe Roberts/Obama type. And if a member of an opposing faction can be discredited before s/he starts that meteoric rise, it's all for the good of the country.

3. If I get stoned and sing all night long, it's a family tradition!: HLS has a long and storied history of drama. Elena Kagan presided over years of relative peace in the faculty ... maybe the drama torch has been passed to the students?

4. Say my name: I'm sure media sites have data on this sort of thing, but I would bet money that putting "Harvard" on a post or article title gets more clicks than either no school name or a less-famous school name (even if the school is equally good).

5. I don't know how to put this but I'm kind of a big deal. If there is anyone who pays an even more disproportionate amount of attention to Harvard drama than your mom reading the NYT website, it's the students themselves. Asserting yourself against bigotry at Fancypants U is Taking A Very Important Stand, not just calling out an asshole for being an asshole.

This episode isn't the first bit of swirling HLS drama and it won't be the last. Of course, it would help if HLSers tried a little harder to not be racist or plagiarize people's work.

UPDATE: Isabel Archer on how events like this may drive epistemic closure:
Apparently it is never appropriate for an attorney or future attorney to venture to say "Controversial Idea X may be true, or Opposite of Controversial Idea X may be true" in samizdat private e-mails to one's friends. Rather, members of our honored profession are only supposed to discuss controversial ideas behind locked doors. Preferably in whispers. ...

Tarrings and featherings like this deter some conservatives and libertarians from wanting to speak or write anything remotely controversial. Put another way, PC increases the marginal costs of controversial speech.

Some conservatives or libertarians of more moderate temperaments are less willing to pay those increased marginal costs. Some people aren't willing to pay costs, once they rise above a certain level. They'll happily retreat to blogging about lemon tarts and polka dot dresses (not that there's anything wrong with that!) That leaves the Ann Coulters and Michelle Malkins of the world, who aren't deterred easily by raised stakes to free speech. So one winds up with a chattering class that's disproportionately slanted to the intemperate -- and thus the emergence of the epistemic closure phenomenon that everyone's discussed so much.
This is not just about the chattering classes---it is potential career suicide for a practicing attorney to make attributable, controversial statements of any kind, as discovered some years ago when I tossed off a post about how eating certain foods raised unwanted memories of financial insecurity, which somehow turned into "Amber hates poor people!" with predictable opprobrium. You can be sanitized for your own protection or you can be Ann freakin' Coulter. But there's not a lot of comfortable space in the middle.

Some friends have complained about how recent nominees for SCOTUS and other appointments lack substantial records---that they haven't taken positions to engage with or assess. This is why.
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