Exceptionalists fill college, Capitol Hill

If you want to know why President George W. Bush ’68 thinks it’s okay to wiretap U.S. citizens without a warrant, just ask a transfer student.

I recently challenged Daniela Berman ’07, who transferred to Yale after her freshman year at Brandeis University, to tell me what her old school got right that Yale gets wrong. She posed the question to a group of her fellow transfers at dinner. Their consensus, she reported back, was twofold: First, Yalies don’t know how to walk right. Second, Yalies always think they can be the exception to the rule.

The two phenomena are linked. And the political implications are massive.

Yalies’ inability to walk correctly is not the result of any widespread musculoskeletal handicap. Rather, it is a symptom of self-absorption. Daniela referred specifically to those moments in the dining hall when two overachieving undergraduates bearing laden trays must both squeeze through the same narrow space in order to reach the salad bar, the silverware or the last remaining seat. Normal people make eye contact and yield. Yalies bump into each other.

The related phenomenon of individual exception-seeking, while less amusing than ambulatory solipsism, is far more pervasive. Daniela cited the case of one junior in Jonathan Edwards College who asked his dean for nine Dean’s Excuses in one semester. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

In dealing with the faculty and administration, the average Yalie adopts the mantra of the typical toddler: No means yes. We negotiate, we wheedle, we wisecrack, and when all else fails, we whine. Is your genius simply too overwhelming to be constrained by any existing major? Petition the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing to design your own course of study. Late charges at the library? Write the manager an e-mail explaining that an incompetent employee must have made some sort of mistake. Delicious seasonal food in Berkeley dining hall not good enough? Make like the Yale Sustainable Food Project, ignore the University’s projected $25 million budget deficit in 2007, and demand a doubling of organic produce in the dining halls next year. For extra points, circulate a petition.

Want to get into that crowded EP&E seminar? To move three people into a suite built for 12? To get an extension on that term paper because it’s Daddy’s birthday and he promised to take you heli-skiing in Alaska? All these things are possible for a Yalie with the right mix of charm, verve, dumb luck and moxie.

Our president learned this lesson well.

President Bush has played his presidency straight out of the Eli playbook. Unperturbed by existing laws restricting the use of wiretaps on American citizens, President Bush sidestepped the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment and invented his own set of rules for domestic spying. When told that torture on American soil might not go over so well with those namby-pamby ACLU types, Bush and his staff figured out a way to outsource torture operations to countries like Syria, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan. Confronted with evidence that he’d invaded Iraq with bad intelligence and no credible exit strategy, Bush booked a spot on national television, grinned his “What, me worry?” grin, and took credit for bringing liberty and freedom to the Iraqi people.

A dissertation is waiting to be written on the theme of “uniqueness” in George W’s policy speeches. See the president, upon signing a new $5.5 billion subsidy for the farm lobby: “Farmers represent the values that have made this country unique and different.” Or the president, on the prerogative to “hunt down and kill the terrorists” “We’ve been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass.” Or the president, on his “travels around the country this month” “This month, in my travels around the country, I am talking about values that make communities strong and our nation unique.”

Though President Bush’s upbringing certainly gave him plenty of opportunities to learn about exceptionalism and privilege, I wouldn’t be surprised if he picked up his fondness for the “uniqueness” metaphor during his four years at Yale. Yale, after all, is a place so unique that it has its own jurisprudence: Activities that might be prosecuted at other schools — underage drinking and marijuana use, chiefly — here are either subsidized (in the first case) or treated as an internal disciplinary matter (in the latter). Yale was here before the United States of America existed, the logic goes; why should we alter our traditions for pesky upstarts like the federal Controlled Substances Act?

Since taking office in 2001, President Bush has never wavered in his fidelity to this Yale tradition. He has boldly reinterpreted the Constitution when the Constitution has presented unreasonable checks to executive power. And he has refused to be cowed by the terrorists or the ACLU. Presidents, unfortunately, can’t get Dean’s Excuses. But with the right mix of charm, verve, dumb luck and moxie, they are free to keep up the other great traditions of Eli exceptionalism.



Daniel Weisfield is a junior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Comments