Monday, November 07, 2011
As a Metaphor
I'm not saying this is fair. I'm saying it's a metaphor for a lot of
what I'm feeling right now. We all start from various points of local
chauvinism, and we all have a bunch of those points, which entail
multiple layers of personal experience, some of them almost too subtle
to recognize. So this is an exercise in personal revelation. Make of it
what you will.
I've been listening to WIP SportsTalk in Philadelphia all morning. The
Philadelphia Eagles have a season-critical game with the Chicago Bears
tonight, but the morning guys spent 80 percent of the time talking about
Penn State. The mid-day guys took over at 10 am and promised
all-Eagles, all show. Except that the only thing they and their callers
have talked about for two and a quarter hours thus far is Penn State
and Joe Paterno. It makes me prouder than usual of Philadelphia sports
fans. What's happening in Happy Valley is far more important than
what's happening tonight at the Link. Why is it so important? All the
answers to this question are personal. Some -- hardly most -- of the
callers are prepared to defend Joe Paterno to the last codicil and
semicolon of his carefully crafted statement of non-responsibility. I'm
not. Why I'm sharing my
reasons for feeling the way I do. Some basic background...
I've probably been rooting for Penn State football for more than 40
years. When they were an independent (like Notre Dame, Army, Navy, and virtually no
one else) building contending teams, they were the Boise State of their
generation. The big-time traditional football factories automatically
received more respect, and even some spectacular, high-profile bowl
wins failed to earn them the national championship they once or twice
seemed to deserve. They were the perpetual underdog whose discipline
and focus, exemplified by their minimalist uniforms, made me admire
Importantly, though, that fan loyalty wasn't strictly geographical. I
regarded Penn State as the heir to an older tradition that had been, to
some extent, honorably abrogated. Which is a self-serving way of
admitting that I was in those days the Ivy League snob I was raised to
be. The majority of states have two large state universities, one
called "The University of [Whoever]" and the other called "[Whoever]
State University". Generally, in terms of prestige, the "University of"
outranked "State" because the latter were subsequent land-grant
creations designed to teach more technical disciplines than the liberal
arts curricula of the older schools. That ranking still obtains to this
day. The University of Michigan famously committed a public relations
error in recent years by referring to Michigan State as "Little
Brother." This differential has no greater degree of distinction in the
nation than in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where The University
of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League institution founded by Benjamin
Franklin, and Pennsylvania State University is an afterthought located
in the hinterlands famous mostly for, well, football.
Still, for the willing, there was an argument for Penn State as a
species of guerrilla avenger. The University
had been a national football power in its own right
once upon a time, until it voluntarily deemphasized the game as a
threat to its academic integrity with the formation in 1956 of a formal
"Ivy League" conference
that awarded no athletic scholarships and banned spring practice. I should also reveal that my paternal grandfather was a Penn
graduate and his son was an alumnus of Penn's inveterate and still
season-ending rival Cornell
(the only university in the nation which can boast a 2-0 record against the
Ohio State Buckeyes AND which voluntarily surrendered
a national championship
via an act of honorable sportsmanship.)
There was a sense in which Penn State was picking up this fallen
Penn's home stadium Franklin Field is not
only the oldest stadium in football but holds many other records as
well. It is the site of the oldest stadium scoreboard (1895), the
"original horseshoe" (1903), the first college football radio broadcast
(1922 on WIP-AM), the first double-decker football
stadium (1925), the largest stadium in the country (1925 to 1926), the
first college football television broadcast (1940 on KYW-TV)
and the first FCS stadium to host ESPN's College Gameday
beats Paterno's two (over how many years?), but the sense of continuity
was reinforced for snobs like me by the fact that "Joe Pa" originally
went to Ivy League Brown University and professed a devotion to the
education and graduation of his players that contrasted sharply with
other images of the time. As the son and grandson of three Ohio State
Buckeyes, I can still remember seeing a dismaying parade of no-necked
plug-uglies from Ohio State and Michigan in the 1970s announcing their
majors as "Phys Ed" before various Big Games. It felt almost seditious
to root for the Nittany Lions of Penn State.
So I liked Paterno for reasons other than those of the National Press,
who heard his accent as blue collar. I thought he had higher values
than his coaching peers. But my regard for Penn State, and Joe Pa, has
deteriorated over the years, more and more of late. Here's why, In no
Gradually, the home of Penn State -- i.e., State College, PA -- has
come to be called "Happy Valley." Wiki cites no source for this name.
But there is a source
in Nairobi Kenya:
The Happy Valley set was a group of
privileged British colonials living in the Happy Valley region of the
Wanjohi Valley, near the Aberdare mountain range, in the colonies of
Kenya and Uganda during the 1920s - 1940s. The elite social group
became notorious for stories of drug use and promiscuous sexual
The area around Naivasha, Kenya was one of the first to be settled by
white people and one of the hunting grounds of the hedonistic Happy
Valley set. The colonial town of Nyeri, Kenya, to the east of the
Aberdare Range, was the center of Happy Valley settlers.
You may think it anomalous. But I had lived in Ohio. I had a
straitlaced Roman Catholic (albeit union-loving MIT graduate)
consulting partner there who warned me about the isolated towns like
Lima and Findlay along our customary route to Detroit, where so much of
our work lay and where I once came close to being stranded by a broken
rental car. He said a few years back he'd had an assignment in Findlay,
which has no neighbors for fifty miles in any direction, and he was
shocked by the activities he was offered to participate in. Nairobi?
Findlay? State College? No accounting for where affluent boredom will
turn into something else.
I mean, you think rural locations in the middle of nowhere would be
safe places to send your daughters to school, right? Traditional
values, football the chief entertainment, yeah! Until I read about Penn State's
Empowering to some, offensive to
others, Cuntfest arrives at Penn State this Saturday.
The all-day festival, sponsored by
Womyn's Concerns and the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, is
inspired by Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, a book by Inga
Muscio. Muscio feels the word, which once had positive connotations,
should be reclaimed by women.
In her book, Muscio says 'cunt' stems
from words that were either titles of respect for women, priestesses
and witches, or derivatives of goddesses' names.
"Cunt originally started off as a good
word," said Michelle Yates (junior-women's studies), who initiated the
event. "And it got transformed into one of the worst words you can call
The word's negative connotation was not
lost on Penn State Police Services, who received a number of complaints
Wednesday about a Cuntfest banner on the Osmond building.
"It didn't take long for people to get
offended by it," said Bruce Kline, assistant director of Penn State
The police removed the banner less than
half an hour after Yates hung it, Yates said. Soon after, she told the
police she had written permission to hang the banner, and they hung it
back up within several hours.
"It was a mistake to take it down," Kline
Further explained by a student thus:
Our beloved mother tongue contains a
certain number of words that are designated as "bad" or "obscene." One
might wonder just how bad a word can be: picture it robbing convenience
stores or dumping toxic waste into the watershed.
Like Harley mechanics, the bad words of
English are a happy, useful group. Rich in Anglo-Saxon percussiveness,
full both of definite meaning and allusive complexity, they are capable
of turning vague everyday blah-blah into stuff that pisses off the
If that was the intention of the Womyn's
Concerns group at Penn State when they organized the Cunt Fest! and
then the Sex Faire, they certainly succeeded. The first of these events
was a feminist art fair; the second was an attempt to educate students
about sexually transmitted diseases, rape, the concept of consent, and
Now if you've ever tried to get the
attention of college students off beer and basketball long enough to
ponder something like feminism even for a moment, you will understand
the marketing strategy of Womyn's Concerns, who wanted to make their
events - in themselves fairly tame - sound sexy. They tried to wrap
their informational content in the black leather of bad words so that
people would show up.
State Representative John Lawless from
Montgomery County, our very own Jesse Helms, was also provoked into
attendance, and now demands that Governor Ridge suspend funding to the
Penn State system. It is not perfectly clear how much in the way of
taxpayer funds were used for these events, though it appears to be a
fairly small amount; most of the money came from student fees.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger got hold of the
story last week and lent her angelic contralto to the choiring whine of
outrage. I think it's fair to say that, like Womyn's Concerns, Lawless
and Schlessinger are pursuing the marketing strategy of provocation.
One thing we absolutely do not have to
worry about is the defunding of Penn State; if Ridge tried that he'd be
tarred, feathered, and run out to Cherry Hill on a rail. Indeed the
deepest concrete risk is that we will be seeing Lawless continually on
CNN and listening to Dr. Laura's weedeater voice into the indefinite
Perhaps the most controversial element
of the Sex Faire was the "Tent of Consent" in which students who
volunteered could disappear behind a curtain for two minutes of
consensual, or perhaps merely conceptual, activity. I do not for a
moment minimize what can happen in two minutes, but I suspect that
there was more bashful aversion than orgiastic groping. Indeed this is
a version of the pre-adolescent party game known as "seven minutes in
heaven," which in my experience of parenting twelve-year-olds turns out
to mean nothing at all.
campuses such as Penn State University Park are themselves tents of
consent, little spheres of post-adolescent experimentation, in which
the wild temptations of freedom suggest themselves but
internalized conservatism originating in the students' parents almost
always wins out in the end. Future accountants fight ineffectually for
the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal; recovering high school cheerleaders
pierce their noses. [boldface added]
As long as the nose's owner consents,
what, we may ask, the heck? Or the f**k, for that matter? Soon these
same people will be our state legislators, and then they and Lawless
can be outraged together.
Which begins to seem much more ominous than semiotic feminism when you
factor in Penn State's stratospheric ranking as a top 2011 party
Students in Happy Valley
can raise a glass because they are being recognized for partying with
the best of them.
Penn State is No. 2 on
Playboy’s 2011 Top 10 Party Schools in North America.
Playboy Magazine got
“input from students, fans of Playboy’s social media pages, alumni,
feedback from Playboy campus representatives at schools across the
country, and interviews with countless others,” they said.
Other factors like
male-female ratios, winning sports teams (go Nittany Lions), proximity
to the mountains, beaches and lively music scenes also played a role in
picking the Top 10, Playboy said.
The only school that beat
PSU on Playboy’s list was the University of Colorado at Boulder, which
like Penn State boasts ski slopes, a great bar scene and a lively music
But, Boulder doesn’t have
JoePa or the Gingerbread Man or the Dark Horse or the Deli.
We are! Penn State!
Why am I making a big deal out of the doings at a mediocre state
university that has never produced much? Penn State never belonged in
the Big Ten. They have nothing like the record of graduates produced by
Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota, or even
Ohio State. And much as I hate to admit it, my old snobbery is rising
to the surface. In the Ivies, only Princeton is consistently,
permanently juvenile, holding class reunions for every class every
year. Penn State is the public version of that neurosis.
My final point. I won't claim serendicity again, but I'll at least
propose it. Lady Laird and I went to the Link earlier this year to cheer for the underdog Owls in
the Penn State-Temple game. Before Lady Laird adopted Temple as one of her teams, I used to root for Penn State
unless they were opposing my mother's Buckeyes. The missus even rooted
for the Nittany Lions (secretly) against
the Buckeyes. No more.
She still won't admit it, but she's been rooting against Penn State
ever since. You see, the black players of Penn State are Nittany Lions,
while all the players of Temple are ghetto monkeys who need to have
racial imprecations shouted at them by drunken louts in "white-out" Penn State
jerseys. Kewl? No.
Doesn't all this come together somehow? Is there such a thing as
illiterate narcissism that can infect thousands of otherwise civilized
people, so that the Nittany Nitwit identity of their half-assed
consciousness blinds them to the simplest and deepest of moral
responsibilities? I don't expect Princetonians to be anything but
egotistical turds. But Penn Staters don't have the excuse of high board
scores. And they really do have a responsibility to explain a cosmology in
which Linebacker U. trumps human decency, geographic jingoism,
sliver-like icons half-dead in an upstairs booth (God nodding off above it all?), and the obligation to cry rape when a child is, uh, raped.
Joe Paterno is a shit. He's let down everything. As an Ivy-Leaguer,
he's just a dumb jock. As a coach, he''s a company man. As a
generational example, he's an empty shell, a fake.
Which is where we've landed. There's no one left to admire. Why I'm so
disgusted. Why we're (in my opinion today) doomed. The only person I
admire anymore is my wife.
Apart from these electronic friendships, I have no respect for anybody.
And no hope for us.
Because there's some Penn State in all of us. The program is the
program and I'll serve the program because the program is the program
and Michelle tells me this is my legacy. Whether it kills you or not.
Isn't that where we are now? Everyone and everything corrupt? I just
want to throw up. Me, I'm seeking the comparative Galahad-like purity
of Ohio State players who traded championship rings for tattooes. Where
can I get a tattoo that separates me from the countless whores who are
destroying our nation?
Done, done, done.
But think of the red Terminator eye. It goes out. But then it reignites.
Wait. I'm sure it will reignite. Sometime.
propose a pool. Pick a date and time when Joe Paterno will join Jim
Tressel as a disgraced ex-coach. The prize for the winner is a
(relevant) framed graphic from Shuteye
. (but only if we get ten entries or more... although you can enter more than once.)
one would you trust to look out for your
I mean, yeah, I know, it's awful to think of. Tressel knowingly
allowed several of his
players to make as much as $250 on merchandise their university was
making millions from. Whereas Joe Paterno is an icon in an upstairs
booth on the verge of ascending straight to the right hand of the
Football Father. Almost unearthly at this point. How dare we question him? Disgraceful times we live