Vanity Fair Tours Brown, Approves of Shenanigans

The text for the first sermon of the new year:

“Western capitalism (the multinational entertainment oligopoly) will soon accomplish what the century’s more murderous tyrants, with all their poisonous calculations, could only dream of doing: effacing the cultural memory of entire nations.”

This is taken from “Dark Age,” an essay by Thomas Frank (author of the recent, much-discussed The Conquest of Cool , published by the University of Chicago) that concludes a collection entitled Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos From “The Baffler “(Norton, $15). On bended knee, I beg you to get a copy. The Baffler is a Chicago journal-edited by Thomas Frank-which I suppose might be called “liberal,” since in tone and target it certainly descends from the 60’s (a decade of high idealism along with admittedly much foolishness, some of it dangerous), but it strikes me that this passage might just as well have appeared under the name of Allan Bloom or in The New Criterion . The latter, a conservative journal, recently published an equally indispensable series of essays, collectively a simultaneous lament and call to arms, under the rubric The Future of the European Past .

Earlier in his essay, Mr. Frank observes: “By some act of economic providence, the American population seems to have become incapable of acting on its own behalf; ‘rational choice,’ at least for us sub-C.E.O.’s, has disappeared without a trace from the sociological radar screen … In one side go the objective circumstances-the most vicious attack on the public well-being by private wealth in decades; and out the other comes the mysterious response-the most abject reverence for private wealth to characterize our public culture in decades.”

As a polemic must, Mr. Frank’s piece frequently overstates its argument, but the findings upon which it is built seem to me to be irrefutable. In further proof, I offer yet a third item in evidence: Jennet Conant’s article on Brown University in the February Vanity Fair , which is quite the most depressing report from the educational front lines that I think I have ever read, and I lived during World War II. If this is what it turns out to have been all about, as it may be, Ms. Conant’s article leaves me with the feeling that every life or limb or living moment sacrificed for this nation has been sacrificed in vain.

What Ms. Conant describes is disgusting. I think she has put one over on the glossy suck-book, which-given its editor’s ambitions to rise in the esteem of those he considers to be “everyone” ( as in “When I left, everyone was reading The Observer “)-wouldn’t be too hard, given the cataract effect that social-climbing has on eyes the Good Lord thought He was giving us to see clearly with. I am too much a gentleman to imply that Graydon Carter may have children whom he would like to see someday mingling on the shores of Narragansett Bay with people he obviously considers “quality folks.”

Whatever the reason, what Ms. Conant describes, I doubt she endorses. She is the granddaughter of one of this country’s most distinguished public servants in the postwar period, James Bryant Conant, among Harvard’s greatest presidents, as well as High Commissioner to Germany and one of the leading lights in American science. Could someone so descended seriously write the following: “At Brown you’ll see plenty of tweed blazers, Chanel jackets, clove cigarettes, even the occasional Hermès bag sitting on a lunch tray next to the beef Stroganoff. ‘It really broadened my cultural background,’ says [’93 graduate Lisa] McFadden …”

If that isn’t satire, I can think of at least one late High Commissioner’s grave where the tachometer is already in the red zone.

In VF ‘s paean to Brown, the operative word is “hot,” a term of approbation that appears to signify an ability to attract NARKs to a degree unprecedented even back in the days of Stover at Yale. Readers of my last column may recall that NARK is my acronym for a new, especially repellent species among us, the Notionally Achieving Rich Kid. NARKs, who have interesting P.R. jobs where Daddy’s on the board or run the old clothes departments of auction houses or “decorate” or “do fashion,” and who in most cases spring from the new, tri-petaled overclass family unit, which consists of a BP/M or F (Birth Parent/Mother or Father); an ESP/SM or SF (Economic Stepparent/Stepmother or Stepfather); and, finally, the UP/M or F (Unmentioned Parent/Mother or Father, although in the case of poor little Ivanka Trump, UP also stands for Unspeakable Parents). The latter is the birth parent dislodged by the ESP in the affections and investment accounts of his or her former mate for perfectly understandable financial, couturial, social or fellational reasons. The UP is doomed to stand on the outside looking in; indeed, I can think of at least one instance where a UP was excluded from its own daughter’s wedding. Some might find this shocking, but should remind themselves that in today’s hard-charging (sic) social world, nothing is done by half-measures. As noted earlier, you can keep up with their doings in a shopping giveaway called Manhattan Vile .

As described by Ms. Conant, “hot” has nothing to do with academic distinction, or so I infer from the fact that it is really unnecessary to take any courses at Brown, which I surmised some years ago when one of my kids told me that it had become the “hot” college among the jeunesse dorée . “Brown?” I exclaimed. “Brown? Obviously, you don’t have to go to class!”

It turns out, I was right on. As it happens, Brown’s present (non)curriculum was largely designed by Ira Magaziner as a warm-up for his health-care achievements. On this point, I need say no more.

Furthermore, it seems the college gives no failing grades, a presumptive reaffirmation for its affluent student body that all you need in life is money and connections. And it gets better: In the eight or so pages of the article, you will find mentions of the hairdresser Frédéric Fekkai, student rooms repainted in eggshell, Concorde weekends in Paris, students whose social distinction consists in having an “uncle [who] was married to socialite Nina Griscom” (Ms. Conant has to be putting us on!), and student “entrepreneurship” in the form of a soft-porn Web magazine. (Try http://www.nervemag.com if you want to see what a lack of talent and taste really looks like, notwithstanding that the site was puffed by Walter Isaacson’s print version of Prince: the Magazine Formerly Known as Time .) You will find lists of names, U.S. and Eurotrash, drawn from the Forbes “400,” The Hollywood Reporter , the Almanach de Gotha and Debrett’s, and the Monrovia shipping registry, as well as others identifiable only as brass plaques outside the offices of Lichtenstein and Guernsey lawyers. But nowhere in the article will you find a single professor named or praised, let alone quoted.

There must be someone at Brown who actually teaches-I know there is, because those magazine ads for great teachers on tape star a Brown professor of literature named Arnold Weinstein-but you’d never know it from VF . The only “academics” quoted by Ms. Conant are a couple of unaffiliated people involved in college placement. Would no one talk? When this article gets around the faculty, I predict there will be hell to pay, which is not a good thing, since anyone involved in serious education at any level knows one overarching truth: The faculty is the key, for better or worse. Among the several constituencies that make up a given educational institution, it is not the administration, not the alumni, not the board of trustees, not the student body that determines the real (as opposed to Vanity Fair ) character of the place at a given time, but its faculty.

Former Brown president Vartan Gregorian does get a certain amount of ink in Vanity Fair , principally for his skill at raising the endowment at Brown, and for the above-the-salt types with whom he hangs out (including a gratuitous run-through of some of his old New York Public Library benefactors, presumably as a way to work Brooke Astor’s name into the piece). I like Mr. Gregorian, and he is a world-class schmoozer-fund raiser, but I have to say that, by my lights, my particular candles being the late A. Whitney Griswold and A. Bartlett Giamatti of Yale, along with Jay Oliva of New York University (and I confess admiration for John Silber’s leadership at the University of Texas and at Boston University), a great university president does more than show the money; he sets an abiding stamp on his institution and comes to be known as much for the great names he attracts to the faculty, and the intellectual and moral respect commanded by his institution, as by the size of the portfolio or the grandeur of the buildings. There is nothing about Brown as described in Vanity Fair to command an iota of any truly educated-indeed, any truly decent-person’s respect.

Ultimately, the character of a nation will be shaped by its schools. Brown gives little cause for optimism. What we have in Providence, it would seem, is the New Global World Order’s version of France’s famous Polytechnique, a single, quasi-academic locus from which a ruling class can issue forth year after year and perpetuate itself, largely through old-boyism (in its postmodern, gender-neutral version). The Polytechnique is regarded as a symbol of French “elitist arrogance,” which Thomas Frank explored in a Newsday Op-Ed piece (Jan. 4) about the “France-bashing” that has been going on, France being the perceived Public Enemy No. 1 of the New Global Economy, with its reluctance to accept the 80’s-90’s gospel “that the market is somehow identical to democracy; that regardless of what the market does to our cities, our industry, our environment, our medical system, and our lives, it is incapable of acting in anything but our best long-term interests,” as Mr. Frank put it.

Of course, now that the Great Greenspan himself seems to be having the sort of deflation-tinged second thoughts about the market that this column has long predicted, all bets may be off, and I may be worried for nothing-because there may be nothing left to worry about.

Vanity Fair Tours Brown, Approves of Shenanigans