Monday, September 7, 2009

A Certifiable Larynx

If like me you are primarily dependent upon the New York Times for your political information you may have been unaware of the presence of one Van Jones in the Obama administration until he was out of it. Despite the fact that the “Van Jones controversy” was briefly a Big Deal, the story clearly fell outside the parameters of “news fit to print”, making it a nearly compulsory topic for talk radio, blogs, and twitters. It was out there in some murky inlet of the electronic swamp that I accidentally encountered Mr. Jones, one of President Obama’s numerous recently appointed administrative “czars”. (Actually Jones was merely a czarevitch reporting to a czarina, but the czar-metaphor was already stressed and would collapse completely if subjected to any requirement of accuracy.) Mr. Jones is a colorful character. He is an empirically black man who according to the yellow press was actually a red. He was an expert on green jobs, but he swore a purple streak as far as the You could Tube.

In the Q&A following a public address he had described Republican legislators as assholes, immediately adding the statement, which he had just rendered redundant, that he himself could be an asshole. Even before a highly partisan audience in Berkeley he surely could have found a more appropriate body part: larynx, perhaps, windpipe, jawbone, or epiglottis, something to do with the mouthiness of those who so ardently love the sound of their own voices that they will say almost anything. I shall leave the fate of Mr. Jones to the partisan bloggers who seem, in nearly equal numbers, to be celebrating or lamenting his departure from the President’s administration. It is enough that he has answered for me a question left hanging from a committee meeting I attended nearly thirty-five years ago.

It was in fact my first meeting as a member of the Committee on Discipline, a committee composed of representatives of the student body, the faculty, and the administration, charged with hearing discipline cases that fell outside the purview of the Honor Committee, which deals with cheating. The case before us had to do with an episode of inebriated fisticuffs that had occurred in the wee hours of a Sunday morning at the corner of Prospect Avenue and Washington Road in Princeton, NJ. Two drunken students, one a lacrosse player and the other a hockey player had had an altercation.

These two guys, now sober and avoiding any eye contact with each other or any member of the committee, were hauled before the tribunal to testify. The hockey player had hit the lacrosse player so hard as to break his jaw in two places. This double fracture was apparently rather sensational from the osteopathic point of view, and played a major role in the testimony. Certainly the effect was dramatic. The lower half of the victim’s face was held together by a kind of wire birdcage. They both were men of few words, and fewer still grammatical ones; and the native inarticulateness of the victim was considerably exacerbated by interference from his auxiliary chin of metallic mesh. We strained to understand him, but the story did come out.

There are moments in life when one is led in a very short time to alter an apparently sound and fixed opinion. We all began with sympathy for the guy with the broken jaw and potential hostility for the guy who had broken it. Within about three minutes those valences had been exactly reversed. That was because the hockey player came across as a penitent delinquent while the lacrosse player was such a—well, an obnoxious boor. What had seemed an open-and-shut case suddenly seemed perhaps more complex, and one of our deans, who was then a wise young woman and is now a wiser yet middle-aged woman, started asking a few questions of the assailant.

“Tell me, Mr. X,” she said, “before Mr. Y. hit you, had there been any exchange of words?”

“Uhhhh,” said the wired man, barely intelligible through the mesh.

“What’s that?” asked the dean.

“Uhhh….guess so….maybe…yeah, I guess.”

“Did Mr. Y. say anything to you?”

Long pause, followed by “Uhh, can’t remember. Don’t think so.”

“Well, did you say anything to Mr. Y? Before he hit you, I mean.”


“Come again?” said the dean.

Really long pause. “Yeah….sure…ahhggr.”

“Well?” asked the dean, and when there was no response she added, “I mean, what exactly did you say to Mr. Y?”

Really, really long pause. “I said…” and here he struggled to make himself clear despite the prosthesis… “I said, 'ASSHOLE!'”

This had a dramatic effect on the elder members of the committee, though the students seemed to take it in stride.

“I wonder,” asked the dean, carefully suppressing any possible sarcasm of tone, “I wonder…Have you considered whether what you said might have had something to do with what he did?”

For the first time the wounded man seemed to fully engage with the proceedings. Certainly for the first time he gave evidence of a convincing sense of grievance. He had obviously been shocked and offended by the dean’s question. Speaking slowly to make himself clear he struggled to master his indignation. “What kind of a place would this be?” he asked. “I mean, what kind of a place would this be…if you got slugged every time you called somebody an asshole?” Mr. Jones’s experience has given me the answer that eluded the flabbergasted Discipline Committee all those decades ago. What kind of a place? It would perhaps be a slightly more civil kind of a place, that’s what.