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Things that make you go hmmm ... Part 2: The missing link

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Tuesday, 31 October 2000


This is the second instalment of Kirsten's discussion of sex and politics in Ivy League universities. Part one can be read here.

What on earth can these two issues – the death of political idealism and my inadequate sex life – possibly have in common? Well they both cause me enormous frustration. Boom Boom! But seriously, I link it back to the Ivy League.

Ivy Leaguers dominate US Presidential politics. Hill and Bill went to Yale Law School and Bush Sr and Gerry Ford to Yale College. Gore is a Harvard College grad, Lieberman is Yale College and Yale Law, Bush Jr also went to Yale College, as did Dick Cheney until he flunked out (seriously). Even Ralph Nader was educated at Princeton College and Harvard Law. When I look at the pale-faced nerds scurrying off to class I know I am looking at the future leaders of the free world and it scares the hell out me.

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The death of idealism around the US is so pronounced that there are books and articles about it. One of the most famous books is written by a former classmate of mine – Jedidiah Purdy and is called For Common Things. The book got a lot of publicity for a bunch of stupid reasons – the name; Jed is only 24 and he has written a book; he attacks the American deity Seinfeld for being "irony incarnate"; and he looks so young, fresh-faced and innocent in his book jacket photo you just want to adopt him. But I think he makes some really interesting points, especially in their application to a similar Australian cultural trait.

His basic thesis is that among Ivy league attendees emotion is out and irony is in. God forbid that you get passionate about anything – that is way uncool. He looks at popular magazines like Wired and notes how they glorify a lifestyle that is completely removed from common institutions, using mobiles, palm pilots and lap tops for complete freedom and disconnectness. As Jed points out, the cult of ironic cool and removal from ordinary life come at a time when we need to be the most passionate and the most involved about deteriorating public institutions (our common things) like the environment, public education and health and welfare. He states:

"For more than 200 years, politics has been among the great sources of inspiration and purpose, giving shape to many lives. From the radical period of the French Revolution onward there has stood the promise that politics can change the human predicament in elemental ways…All that is now so thoroughly gone that it is difficult even to recall. In roughly the past 25 years politics has gone dead to the imagination. It has ceased being the arena of moral and historical drama. It has come to seem petty, tedious and parochial. Americans who came of age after 1974 have never seen the government undertake a large-scale project other than highway maintenance and small wars, and relatively few are inspired by the idea that it should."

Could this trend of cynicism towards political idealism and public institutions extend to sex? Could Ivy Leaguers be too cool even for love and romance? Jed thinks so. He stated he was going to start his book with the comment "It is a bad time to be writing love letters". He goes on to deplore the Harvard College tradition of scheduling a special time during orientation to watch Love Story (the tragic drama about a Harvard Law student and his terminally ill lover) and mock and jeer rather than feel and cry. He wrote an outraged letter to a Harvard newspaper to complain about it. It did not make him popular. Neither did his book. As Jed puts it:

"Something I've realised since writing the book is that it invites being read as a self-righteous series of moral pronouncements, as a declaration that I have had the good fortune to lead a virtuous and morally instructive life, and that this qualifies me to decry the failings of my contemporaries, my elders, and really anyone who comes into my sights … That would be obnoxious, and to the extent that that is what people took it to be, I'm in sympathy with their impulse to excoriate it." The Guardian (London), March 8, 2000

Now some of you might be thinking "if young Jed isn’t ‘getting any’ maybe it has more to do with the fact he is a cheesy-movie-loving sap who talks like an utter wanker". You would not be alone, and don’t get me started on the revelation in his book that he and his sister (home schooled in West Virginia till the age of 14) loved to "frolic amongst the wild flowers and slather mud over our naked bodies". But here is the catch.

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To the immense consternation of my better built and more handsome law school buddies he started to date one of the most beautiful girls in the law school. They muttered she was in it for his money and fame but what about the only other open law school couples? There were two. One was Jed’s best friend, book editor and head of all social justice activities at the law school, Bob (names have been changed to protect the innocent), and his beautiful and equally socially committed girlfriend Kirsty. The other included Bob, the chief representative of disabled prison inmate Jonathan Hicks and a another very beautiful girl (whom I don’t know but she also works in social justice). This year they have been joined by another publicly affectionate couple, my friends Billy-Sue and Jordan – both are involved in the provision community legal services.

It may not be a statistically significant sample but I think I am onto something. Passion in public life can lead to passion in private life, or they can at least co-exist – but only a brave few are prepared to publicly show either, let alone both, in today’s Ivy League schools.

So what happens when these guys leave the Ivy league and go into politics? The relationship between sex and politics has never been more bizarre in the US. Cheating Bill Clinton had his highest approval ratings ever at the height of the scandal about Monica Lewinsky. But everyone thought poor old apparently-faithful Al Gore would lose the election because of the very same scandal – huh? Fortunately he got himself back on track by first appointing as Vice President an orthodox Jew who was the first on the Senate floor to complain about Clinton, and then he got his wife up on stage at the Democratic Convention and gave her an enormous tonguey sandwich. Now I only heard about it and, to use an American expression, I nearly tossed my cookies. Even Bob and Blanche in their matching terry robes spared us the sight of actually going for it on national television.

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world canít seem to get her a boyfriend.

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