I can’t recall where I first encountered them.  It must have been in one of the rundown bars, like Clarence’s or The Shack, in the redneck section of Chapel Hill.  Let’s call them Larry and John.  I was one of a handful of notorious hard-core reactionaries in the student body, and they were among the most radical of the radicals.  It was the 60’s, and radical was fashionable, but they were over on the far-left margin beyond what was In.  Our barroom discussions were loud, long, and sometimes even interesting.  John came from somewhere up north and probably had communists in his family.  One of his favorite pastimes was driving around at night and defacing church signs with obscenities.  Larry was more serious.  He came from an apparently respectable North Carolina family.  It was said, and I never knew if this was true, that he had turned radical after failing to get into West Point.  The last I knew of John was a grainy news photo of a group of American students who had gone to Cuba to help Castro harvest his sugar cane.  Larry had some stature in the radical circuit, and I heard of him from time to time.  The last was when he and his wife were slaughtered in a shootout between rival factions in the Black Panther headquarters in New York.

When we first came to Columbia in 1971, we rented from her.  She was a South Carolina lady with a lot of old-fashioned poise and dignity.  This was somewhat in contrast to her work as a nurse.  She had been under fire on hospital ships in the Pacific in World War II.  Probably from that experience she became head of the unit of the state department of health that dealt with venereal diseases.  One day in the early 70’s, she came home visibly shaken.  She had been required to attend a lecture by a representative of the federal Department of Health and Welfare (or whatever they called it in those days).  This visiting nabob was an immigrant from the Subcontinent, doubtless with the irritating singsong accent they invariably have.  The assembled South Carolina health workers were informed of a new policy commanded from Washington, D.C.  They must get rid of their prejudices against homosexuals and learn to treat them with compassion and the fullest possible service.  (This was over a decade before AIDS became a household word, but perhaps we see here signs of an enabling policy that helped it spread.)  I thought: Alas, this is a perfect example of what “America” has become.

At a lavish dinner given to alumni of my university, the latest president gave an uplifting speech about great advances anticipated in educational quality and prestige.  One guest had the temerity to point out that our school had lately slipped several notches down from its already low place in the well-known U.S. News & World Report college ratings.  The president was moved to deliver a tirade about how that “dirty rag” at the capitol and the bad repute of “You lie!” were preventing the advance of the University of South Carolina.  The “dirty rag” was the Confederate flag, and “You lie!” referred to our congressman Joe Wilson, then notorious for calling President Obama’s bluff on a false statement.  Of course, what he really meant was that these things had caused him embarrassment among his peers.  They had nothing to do with the real educational setbacks.  He dared not mention vastly overpaid and useless deans of this and that; admission standards destroyed by affirmative action; noncontributing, absentee, and exorbitantly paid celebrity professors; or the relentless addition of mediocre new faculty zealous to enforce p.c. and unable to teach anything except worthless specialties alien to the students and the community.  To address these problems would not make for fashionable sales talk to clueless trustees, cynical politicians, and his peers.  Note his reaction is that of a threatened bureaucrat, not that of a man of learning.

I have long harbored a suspicion that college administrators are actually an advance invasion force of aliens.  They all spout exactly the same patter of insincere clichés.  They all fix on the latest educational gimmick so simultaneously that some form of telepathic communication must be involved.  Perhaps most tellingly, they are a kind of special rootless national caste, moving smoothly from place to place for another step up the ladder.  They are surely enemies of the American people, tirelessly spreading stupidity that will make us easier to take over.

Grandmother, my beloved mentor in manners, always said that if you have to criticize, try to add something nice.  I suppose this university president can’t be an alien or all bad, because his wife is a gracious lady who is teaching the students about gardens and natural foods.  Perhaps someone who has convinced himself and others that you can have both excellence and equality in education at the same time deserves a bit of pity.