Finding Insight in Unlikely Places

By January 31, 2007

A front page article about Barack Obama’s Harvard Law School days in Sunday’s issue of The New York Times started off by recounting a piece in the 1990 Revue, the annual parody issue of the Harvard Law Review, of which Obama was president at the time. The 1990 Revue, the Times tells us, ridiculed Obama’s heritage, saying his father was a Norwegian fisherman and his mother a backup singer for Abba. The mock-autobiography had the “Faux-bama” say that since his arrival at Harvard he’d been “empowering all the folks out there in America who didn’t know about me by giving a series of articulate and startlingly mature interviews to all the folks in the media.” From these statements, the Times author draws conclusions about Obama’s campaigning style and personality.

Seeing political insight being plucked from the Revue’s politically incorrect derision brought to mind the sentiment coming out of Johns Hopkins around the time that Justin Park was hung out to dry. Hopkins President William Brody penned an article in The JHU Gazette on December 11 saying that speech should not garner protection unless it is “of a substantive and serious nature.” Speech that is overtly political is fine, but scant little expression, according to Brody, “rise[s] to this standard of seriousness of purpose or intent.” Anything resembling a “breach of civility of the sort that is so commonly displayed in disparagement, mockery or epithets drawn along racial or ethnic lines” is out the window. I doubt that the 1990 Revue piece, teeming as it is with jibes at Obama’s heritage and racial identity, would make it through to print if it were written at Hopkins today (or at Harvard, for that matter—remember, Harvard Law’s end-of-year roast, “The Parody,” has been the site of controversy time and again, leading to a promise last year to take concerns by offended community members into account before the performance occurs).

But who would have thought in 1990 that seventeen years down the road the Revue’s dubious tribute would appear on the front page of The New York Times—above the fold!—for the purpose of fleshing out popular perceptions of a presidential hopeful’s personality? When administrators shut down speech that they see as needless ribbing with no practical application, they not only rob their university communities of character and good times, but smother expression that could bear fruit in years to come. It’s often a matter of humility—even powerful presidents should not assume they know where future conversation will go; what seems unimportant or offensive today could indeed be fodder for works of importance in years to come.