Post #6: The End of Adversarial Culture

Last week’s blog post concluded with a recent exchange of e-mails, quoted verbatim, between myself and the current editors of The Oberlin Review.  In the course of defending  their decision not to publish  a short letter I submitted  about their latest editorial , “Media Coverage of Gibson’s Verdict Misses The Mark” (June 18, 2019) , they insisted  that  

“…the Review has consistently maintained the same high standard of ethical judgement in its coverage of Gibson’s. For these reasons, we feel it would be inappropriate to publish your submission.”

With as much sarcasm as I could muster, I agreed , unhesitatingly, that The Review has been nothing if not consistent with regard to the ethical standards it  has maintained throughout its coverage of the Gibson saga. And, to be sure:   there’s always  something to be said for consistency. I suspect, for example,  that the editors were simply being consistent when they  decided not to send anyone from their staff to  attend any of the six week long trial. 

Similarly, there is no evidence that the editors—or any of their staff writers —even  bothered to read any of the publicly-available transcript of the courtroom proceedings. But given their commitment to consistency, this  makes perfect sense: What would be the point of suddenly changing their journalistic strategy by reporting on what actually transpired in court rather than continuing to “channel”  the counter-factual “spin” fed to them by their corporate benefactors in the college’s Office of Communications? And their straightforward, unembarrassed admission that they will not be publishing my letter  (not this summer, not next fall…) demonstrates their willingness to go the extra mile on behalf of their Administrative co-conspirators.

Along those same lines: here’s an additional irony, one that will surely warm the cockles of the hearts of those who work for  the College’s Office of Communications. A full six months before the Gibson’s incident , I was contemplating whether or not to take early retirement in response to a “buyout” option the administration had unexpectedly offered  to all senior members of the faculty above a certain age. 

But I got cold feet when I discovered –buried in the contractual fine print–a “non-disparagement” clause that  would have prohibited early retirees like myself from ever saying or doing anything that might be construed as “disparaging” of the College.  (So much for Oberlin’s  continuing commitment to First Amendment freedom.)  

Shocking as this might sound, the non-disparagement clause was a full-fledged gag order,  requiring its signatories to “sign away” the very free speech guarantees that had attracted many of them to academia in the first place : the so called “academic freedom” that faculty like myself had routinely exercised every time we’d published an “opinion piece” in the Review.  

Now, it’s also true —and it would be disingenuous of me not to admit– that by then   (the spring of 2016)  I no longer wanted to be employed by Oberlin College. I was fed up and I wanted out, especially if the college was willing to “buy” me out. But I wasn’t willing  to “sell out.” I wasn’t willing to exchange my First Amendment freedoms for a year’s worth of salary and benefits (i.e. the financial incentive being offered to those who were willing  to retire by the end of the following academic year.) And it was only after a series of very loud —and very public –complaints on my part that the administration relented and dropped the non-disparagement clause from the buy out contracts. 

Had I signed such an agreement, the college could have subsequently sued me for publishing an essay in The Review   (in September of ’17)  which “disparaged” their treatment of the Gibsons. This was the very same essay that led Dean Raimondo, in one of her now notorious e-mail disclosures,  to contemplate “unleashing the students” on me. 

But for all practical purposes, that’s what she did. I have no way of knowing whether the current editors of the Review solicited her  guidance before  deciding not to publish my most recent criticisms of the College.  But the end result is the same: the Review’s editorial board  can now pride itself on having accomplished something the college alone was unable to.

That is By exercising their veto power (aka:  their editorial discretion vis a vis “letters to the editors” ),  they can now guarantee their friends in the upper echelons of the Administration that they will no longer have to suffer  the indignity of finding themselves “disparaged” in the pages of their own pet publications.

And over the years, the College’s PR potentates have learned  that it pays to cultivate student journalists in the hope that they will continue to do the College’s bidding after they’ve graduated. Certainly, their investment in 2011 graduate E.J. Dickson has payed off handsomely. She recently wrote a wildly pro-Oberlin, anti-Gibson article for Rolling Stone  –a publication you’d expect to be extra-vigilant with regard  to conflicts of interest and hidden agendas (given its legal problems following the discredited –and retracted– story about gang rape at the U. of Virginia several years ago. )

True, in the interest of full disclosure, Dickson  was honest enough to inform her readers that she’s an Oberlin grad. But what she failed to tell them is that upon graduating in 2011, she was employed for  four years by the College’s Office of Communications and that one of her responsibilities was to groom writers for The Oberlin Review.  What goes around, comes around. 

And yet, the willingness of the Review’s editors  to hunker down, pucker  up and kiss administrative ass may have some unintended consequences. It threatens to deprive the Review’s readers of the racier, more  primal satisfactions that have turned “Gibson’s Bakery vs. Oberlin College” into such a media sensation. 

Let’s be honest.  The reason(s) this story went viral,   both in print and on-line, wasn’t just the eye-popping size of the damage award. It was also a consequence  of the foul-mouthed, excruciatingly embarrassing conversations that senior administrators were having with one another when  when they thought no one was listening –text and e-mail exchanges that were never, ever (not in a million years!) intended to see the light of day.   

Just for starters: “Fuck him”….”Unleash the students”…”Smear the brand,” etc. Those cringe-making tag lines, mantras, and memes  will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has been following this story in the press—anyone that is, except those poor, deprived readers whose only source of information about the trial is  The Oberlin Review (which has failed to cite a single such  eye-brow raising revelation. ) 

In so doing, the   The Review has denied its readers the satirical satisfactions of one of the great comic traditions in Western art: the deflating of  academic pomposity, a mischievous enterprise that animates many of the plays of Aristophanes and Moliere, the epics of Rabelais and the novels of David Lodge,  as well as films like Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct,” Lindsay Anderson’s “If” and yes, even John Landis’ “Animal House.” (It’s worth noting that the founders of The National Lampoon  cut their  comedic teeth as  writers and editors for The Harvard Lampoon. ) And I can say with absolute, if nostalgic,  certainty that when I worked as a student journalist for The Daily Northwestern in the late 1960’s, we would have had a field day with this sort of uncensored “raw”  material.  

To be sure : the prim -and -proper among us will  argue that The Oberlin Review is taking the “high road” by refusing to run  tabloid-style “click bait” designed to increase  its on-line readership by catering to the baser instincts of its readers.  But clearly, that’s a sacrifice its editors are willing to make in order to avoid embarrassing their administrative overlords. 

In the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s by contrast, students newspapers took it for granted that their relationship to the college or university administration, was, by  definition, adversarial. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that such   ingrained , “anti-establishment” prejudices were problematic in their own right, especially if they blinded us to the truth of those occasions on which the administration had been right all along. But better I think, to be unduly skeptical of power than to be boot -lickingly aligned with it and fatally compromised by it. 

This problem is by no means confined to The Review.  Even Oberlin’s alternative publications like The Grape offer no alternative whatsoever when it comes to their coverage of the Gibson case. In fact, The Grape  assigned itself the task of convincing incoming students that to be seen entering or exiting the bakery  would stigmatize them in ways that would surely be  injurious to their social lives. Shortly after the protests, one of the Grape’s then editors Sophie Jones , offered this piece of coercive advice to first year students: 

“The social implications of being seen at Gibson’s are much worse than any freshman faux pas I can imagine.” 

Oberlin prides itself on not having fraternities  and sororities, but we have our own rigidly enforced codes of social conformity. In her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl,  Lena Dunham (Oberlin class of ’08), writes 

“One of my first, self, defining acts , upon arrival was to join the staff of The Grape, a publication that took undue pride in being the alternative newspaper at an alternative college.” 

That was a mere ten years ago. How quickly things have changed. Go back in time another two decades and you will encounter varieties of student journalism that would be, literally ,  unthinkable today. For example, as an Oberlin student in the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s, Daniel Radosh– a long time senior writer for  “The Daily Show”   help found a student publication called Below the Belt.

After it ran a  raucously scatological portrait of then Oberlin president Nancy Dye, it was hounded out of existence by Dye and angry members of her inner circle. But, for obvious reasons, neither the Review nor the Grape  need worry that a similar fate might befall them today.

P.S. No new video diary this week; but I’m excited to be able to announce that President Ambar has agreed (in principle) to sit down with Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog for a wide-ranging  interview. We need to coordinate her schedule with Triumph’s , but as soon as that can be arranged, we’ll let you know. 

1 thought on “Post #6: The End of Adversarial Culture”

  1. Sent July 10 to an email group of some of my OC classmates;

    Economics class introduced somebody called “the rational man.” He’s a kind of economic newtonian stimulus-response automaton. Accordingly, economic behavior is supposed to become comfortably predictable. The rational man operates like water seeking its level. The rational man is you. Supposedly all of us are him, both as individuals and organizations.

    It’s through this lens among others that I watch Oberlin College’s post-trial deportment. Economically rational as it is, and should be, the College is probing for the path from where it is now to the economic outcome of optimized, minimal economic detriment. And it perceives one with some reasonably decent promise. If it has been blamed for defaming Gibson’s– and nobody including the College claims Gibson’s wasn’t defamed– the College wants to plead not non-defamation but misplacement of the blame. Defamation? Yes. Blame? Yes. On the College? no, no, no wrong guy. So then on whom, who dunnit?

    Fortunately there were crowds of students out in the open on College Street for two days loudly defaming Gibsons. Unlike the College, that the students defamed Gibson’s isn’t arguable. That the College also did, on the other hand, is debatable.

    Dean Raimondo as well as the students participated in the racism protest. But there are a lot of reasons she might have done that. If she was protesting, she was defaming. But was she? A reason is needed for the Dean’s participation in the racism protest different than “to protest racism.” And the College gives two: to protect the students’ right to exercise free speech, and to ensure lawful order. (Whether those purposes are necessary, plausible, appropriate, accurate is a different discussion.) But that’s the opening toward minimum detriment. Scoot through and it’s open field to the goal line. It can be convincing, if only there’s a forum and audience to convince. So I suppose the plan is a legal appeal as the new forum, with its judge (jury?) as the new audience.

    The line of thinking is clear and sensible. It could succeed. Given what there is to work with, I think it’s pretty smart. The College is not driven by free speech, core values, lawful order, or high-mindedness notwithstanding alumni letters and FAQs that cloak it in the lofty sanctity of those laudables. Like all litigants all of the time they just don’t want to pay. Nothing could be more understandable. The College and I are on the same page: we are rational men. I know because they taught me. And well.

    David Morgan


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