Thursday, July 29, 2021

Supercharged Penumbra

Royal Bengal Tiger at Nehru Zoological Park, Hyderabad. Photo by Karthik Easvur, 2016, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reading it so you don't have to, because this could be one of those pieces that may be briefly famous, or infamous, from celebrated socialist firebrand and anti-abortion activist Elizabeth Bruenig at the Atlantic, defending the right of Yale Law School faculty members to groom future reactionary Supreme Court justices:

A natural provocateur, Chua has vexed the Law School for years: First with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothera wry ode to the high-pressure parenting tactics of Chinese matriarchs, which didn’t thrill the gently-brought-up sorts who sometimes pass through New England’s finest universities....

"Wry ode"! "Matriarchs"!

There once was a lady called Aeode
Who was good at composing a wry ode,
   But mental distress
   Turned her into a mess
And more polarized than a diode.

Let the record show that many thousands of ethnic Chinese persons, some less gently brought up than others, were revolted by Chua's embrace of Orientalist stereotype to defend her abusive upbringing of her kids. My old lady, who certainly wouldn't enjoy being called a matriarch, herself born in the Year of the Tiger (and at night too, which is said to make for still fiercer women, to the extent that her mother used to joke that that was the reason she had to marry a foreigner), being one of them, though she too was very keen on the kids getting good grades and having music lessons (I know circles where that's called "being Jewish" but let that pass).

But say what you will, she's great at transferring her favorites, including one of her daughters, finally freed from the piano practice terrorism, into the Elect, for instance as clerks for Justice Kavanaugh. Isn't that just what a committed socialist like Bruenig stands for?

Chua’s gift for relationships has also vested her with a great deal of power. Chua does know judges; she does have connections. It’s inconceivable that anyone on staff at Yale doesn’t. But Chua’s roster is either unusually expansive or perceived as such or both, and her status as a legal-career “kingmaker” has cast her in a supercharged penumbra.
My new band name is Supercharged Penumbra. It too will have an unusually expansive roster, or be perceived as having an unusually expansive roster, or a roster that is both unusually expansive and perceived as such.

Moreover Bruenig seems to admire Chua's spirited defense of her husband, Professor Rubenfeld, against cruel, though apparently substantiated, allegations!

A decade hence, Dean Gerken hired Jenn Davis, an independent Title IX investigator, to look into a range of allegations concerning Rubenfeld’s behavior with female students, from drunken, unwelcome, off-color remarks to unwanted touching and attempted kissing, on and off school grounds. Rubenfeld has categorically denied the claims. In its report, Yale Law Women said that fear of retaliation by Chua—concern that she would sabotage opportunities for career advancement—discouraged women who resented Rubenfeld’s advances from complaining about them to the administration.

Well, it seems that Chua is the victim of tattletales, including a first-year student (who Bruenig calls "the Archivist") who found himself reporting, apparently not quite accurately, that she was hosting a couple of his friends ("the Guest" and "the Visitor") at alcohol-fueled advisement sessions of a type Chua had specifically been forbidden to continue conducting. And nobody likes a tattletale, as Bruenig's grandmother, a "housewife of the '60s", taught her in her "suburban North Texas" childhood:

I don’t credit homespun wisdom with any special salience. But the suggestion that it may be useful to morally evaluate oneself before volunteering to monitor everyone else’s conduct isn’t a ridiculous one. It’s wise to be careful that, in one’s zeal for justice or fairness or the more prosaic things that ride beneath those banners, one doesn’t lose sight of one’s own moral obligations or aspirations. And it’s decent, if you have a problem with someone, to take it up with them before running it up the nearest flagpole.

That first dreadful sentence stuck me for a good three minutes. I think it means that she doesn't believe her grandmother was infallible, which is why she devoted a long paragraph to working her into the story, in which she plays no further role. But had the young informant in fact failed to morally evaluate himself? Clearly Bruenig doesn't think so, but I'm not so sure, judging from the way he seems to have "taken it up" with his friends before he even started looking for a flagpole:

Feb. 18. I go over to [the Guest’s] to do my laundry. While at his apartment, I hear him call [the Visitor], who explains to him that Chua has just invited them over for dinner tomorrow. They discuss what to wear and what they should bring (ultimately deciding to bring a bottle of wine). [The Guest] makes zero mention of going over because of any personal crisis. After the phone call, he says that he’s been invited to a dinner party at Chua’s. [The Guest] implores me not to tell anybody so that Chua doesn’t get in trouble.

Bruenig's main takeaway from this seems to be that it actually wasn't a dinner party, merely cheese and crackers, and Chua herself only drank seltzer ("canned"), and therefore arguably not a violation of Chua's agreement to avoid "drinking and socializing with students in all out-of-class settings", which, if those were the terms of the agreement, would be an iffy argument to make, in my opinion, but Bruenig doesn't say whether they are or not, or why she puts them in quotation marks, so I can't be sure whether she's actually saying that or not.

Why am I reading this? I don't care what happens at Yale Law School, other than the way it serves as a site for the reproduction of the worst of the ruling class, in which I guess Chua and Rubenfeld are perhaps no less guilty than their enemies in the administration, though the latter do seem to me, if not to Bruenig, to at least have a genuine and legitimate interest in seeing that Rubenfeld should not grope students (Rubenfeld was not present in the socializing reported in this article anyway). Bruenig's main interest seems to be describing a case in which snitches ought to get stitches, in her opinion, and the kid who reported the incident, which got Chua sanctioned for breaking her agreement, I think, though Bruenig isn't sure how important his testimony was or clear to what extent she did get sanctioned, is the villain of the piece.

Though to me that frightened first-year trying to negotiate all these high-power figures is the only sympathetic character in the whole piece, and his panicky texts to other friends as he tries to figure out what to do, among the documents he eventually compiled into a "dossier" on the affair,

The Archivist, however, was perturbed. Earlier that day, he’d texted two friends that the Guest and the Visitor were “going to dinner” at Chua’s, which, he added, they were “banned by the law school from doing.” One friend replied that this was weird, to which the Archivist replied: “Weird is a nice way to put it!” Chastened, the friend tried again: “So they are still ok with nepotism and complicity as long as it benefits them?” That was the ticket. “Yup!” the Archivist replied. Moments laterthe Archivist sent a text that seemed to be more of a press release than a remark: “I think it’s deliberately enabling the secret atmosphere of favoritism, misogyny, and sexual harassment that severely undermines the bravery of the victims of sexual abuse that came forward against Rubenfeld,” he declared. How, why, or whether the Guest or the Visitor actually did any such thing was evidently left to the reader to infer.

are its only authentic voice.

To Bruenig, who may not have ever met anybody under 25 (she's 30), that sounds like a "press release". It seems to me like a pretty clear, if cliché-choked, contextualization of why a first-year student should be worried about the company his friends were getting into.

Bruenig leaves a lot to the reader to infer too, and she's a recently engaged staff writer at the Atlantic. If the piece couldn't be better edited, it could have been killed. I don't know why the Archivist is called an archivist, or what his race is (while she specifies that the Guest is a "half-Korean" man and the Visitor is a Black woman). The story is hard as hell to follow, and not just because "guest" and "visitor" are so similar in meaning and I keep forgetting which is which, and I'm still not quite sure how it worked out, though the Visitor received some pretty nasty anonymous texts apparently from fellow students, and the Guest may or may not have failed to get a prestigious campus fellowship he applied for, or at least been told that he might not get it because of a "concern about candor" that seems to derive from those texts from the Archivist's "dossier", which were underlined by the dean of student affairs in a copy she sent him, which is Bruenig's main source for the whole thing, quoted extensively with and without the literary criticism, though she's also decided, I think, that he's an unreliable narrator. 

Bruenig's upset about this possible setback to which the Archivist's snitching could have contributed, but not at all worried that Chua has a reputation for retaliating against her husband's victims if they make a complaint.

It certainly doesn't change my mind about Yale Law School, but reminds me somehow that Yale was also the breeding ground for the CIA in the agency's worst period (i.e., most of its history), as I contemplate the documentary tradecraft followed by faculty and administration in prosecuting their internal warfare, which sounds like something from Le Carré. And it doesn't change my mind about Bruenig either.


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