I am predisposed to like “Sex and God at Yale.” Nathan Harden ’09 peddles a thesis — Yale has lost its moral compass — that dovetails with many of my columns. And I admire William F. Buckley Jr. ’50, from whom Harden shamelessly cribs his title. By all accounts, “Sex and God at Yale” should be the jam to my polemic toast.
I’ll admit: I tried to like the book. I wanted to. But I couldn’t.
Yale — along with the academy at large — needs to discuss honestly our values and lack thereof, our misguided focus on multiculturalism and, yes, issues like sex and gender. Sadly, political correctness has long stymied these discussions.
Unfortunately, “Sex and God at Yale” is not the thoughtful give-and-take we need. Harden dispenses with any pretense of nuance. He shocks his readers with graphic depictions of Sex Week and points: Look. Bad. No morals.
And by graphic, I mean I was disgusted reading page after page describing bizarre porn and body manipulations.
Well, yes, Sex Week is distasteful, very much so. I have never attended an event and never will. I almost wish I never read about it. But gruesomely gross sex is not the root problem at Yale. Something more complicated is.
Two other books help elucidate where Harden goes wrong: The first, “Chloe Does Yale,” is now properly forgotten chick lit by former News sex columnist Natalie Krinsky ’04. The second, Bill Buckley’s original classic “God and Man at Yale,” happily withstands the test of time.
“Chloe” was not written for Yalies. The racy novel sold copies because of Yale’s name, and the main character was nothing more than a vicarious thrill for anyone wanting the Ivy League experience.
“Sex and God at Yale” is much the same, a product for those outside our school. When Harden recalls info sessions on how to pierce genitals, he wants to shock middle America into masochistic repulsion — and, I imagine, to leave them feeling superior. After all, Yale can’t be much if it’s this depraved, right?
With outsiders peering into an Ivy fish bowl, Harden plays fast and loose with facts, intentionally confusing Yale and Sex Week’s organizers — not once, but repeatedly. The impression we get: The University president is inviting porn stars to campus. The reality we know: Vulgar displays come courtesy of undergraduates at extremes of the ideological and sexual spectrum. Most of us, I gather, prudishly abstain from freakish piercings, as well we should.
By contrast, Buckley wrote a good faith critique of his alma mater for her alumni — “God and Man at Yale” was for Yalies, by a Yalie. He warned his fellow graduates of Yale’s trending communism at a time when incidents like the Alger Hiss trial revealed how deeply Soviet forces were penetrating America.
As a result, unlike “Sex and God,” “God and Man” is honest, complex and still worth reading today. Unbeknownst to most, Buckley’s book carries a subtitle: “The Superstitions of Academic Freedom” — and he posits a thorough philosophical framework against free expression on college campuses.
Harden, too, butts up against the beast of free speech, but he fails to develop any argument. He wants to ban Sex Week, just like last year’s Undergraduates for a Better Yale College. Sadly, he devotes less than a paragraph at the end of the book to explicitly justifying censorship.
In fact, in 292 pages, Harden fails to mention Yale’s philosophy of free expression enshrined in the 1975 Woodward report. The best he can say is that free speech is just a “private good” that can be easily abrogated away. That seems a bit shallow from someone who claims to have “studied everything from natural law to Benthamite utilitarianism.”
No, Mr. Harden: Freedom to talk, to think, to argue is a deeply important public necessity. James Madison put it best: We cannot pick enlightened statesmen — or even good college deans. So we protect speech to protect the truth from censorship. Contrarians (including Harden and me) benefit from this freedom. Sex Week — however gross and vile and painful to watch — also falls under that freedom, a point I have made on these pages before.
So Harden titillates for a non-Yale reader. But he makes an even bigger philosophical mistake: He thinks values and free speech cannot coexist. They can. Instead of censorship or silence, Yale should vigorously condemn the things it finds offensive. We should stand for something. We can make value judgments while simultaneously recognizing that free expression is one of those values we hold dear.
In one regard, Harden is correct. In his words, we love to “promote sustainable food and fluorescent lightbulbs,” but we avoid “bold moral positions.” Too bad Harden also shied away from a gutsy and intricate stance.
At the end of the day, Harden is more “Chloe” then Buckley.