George F. Will, Touch My Breast

[Warning: the following content may not be appropriate for all readers.  Please use discretion.]
Dear Mr. Will:
In response to your June 6 article, “Colleges become the victims of progressivism,” I write to invite you to touch my breast without my consent.  First, a few questions, starting with your headline:

Colleges become the victims of progressivism

George (if I may be so informal; it seems fitting, given the topic), would you please clarify the signification of this word “ victim”?  Do I understand that women are so eager to identify as victims, in order to achieve “coveted status,” that the institutions to which they pay tuition, and which are charged to provide a safe and equitable environment, are the real “victims”?  Does that mean, then, that these very universities are accorded special status and privilege as they are victimized by the proliferating women who are eager to believe themselves victimized (or who make false claims—you have not specified which, though some have claimed that you say women are lying)?  Or might an intrusive and sensation-seeking editor have misrepresented the content of your article?  It seems that your truth might have been mangled a bit.
Moving on to your text:
Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate. And academia’s progressivism has rendered it intellectually defenseless now that progressivism’s achievement, the regulatory state, has decided it is academia’s turn to be broken to government’s saddle.
Do I understand that being informed about others’ victimization, in words and ideas and reports, and being asked to craft responses and policies, is “excruciating”?  But that identifying one’s self, one’s person, as having been physically violated, is appealing, that it confers privileges?  And learning about “’micro-aggressions’” might be inconvenient or daunting, since they require a “[tutored] eye”?  Perhaps it is too much to think one might be tutored in detecting—and perhaps even avoiding—verbal interactions that lack understanding of another or that limit the other’s participation or standing in the educational process.  But, since you are a “privileged old white guy”—as many outraged citizens have been commenting—perhaps you have not been on the receiving end of micro-aggressions?  Would you like some tutoring?
Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.” Herewith, a Philadelphia magazine report about Swarthmore College, where in 2013 a student “was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months”:
“They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. ‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped. . . . And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’”
Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped. Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims. It vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.
Can you please fill me in on the use of quotations around the term “sexual assault”?  Are they what we call “scare quotes,” or are you citing an unnamed source?  Are those two words together copyrighted?  I’ve long thought this expression to be a legal term, albeit, like most legal terms, subject to interpretations and ambiguities.  Have I misunderstood?  Might you provide a citation for the identification of the “epidemic”?  I’d like to make sure I am fully informed about such claims, whether true or false.
And I am not sure I follow your point about the story you report here.  Is it true that this incident alone incited the Obama administration’s efforts at “rescue”?  I thought there were more cases than this one, but perhaps I have misunderstood.  And is it true that rape—sorry, I meant to say claims of rape—only became fashionable when that cocktail you identify came on the market?  
Since you have not identified explicitly what your interpretation is of the account above, could you please fill me in?  (No pun intended!)  Is it a facet of that prolonged adolescence?  Who is privileged?  The young man, because he assumed access to the body of a woman who said no?  Or the young woman?  Was her unwarranted privilege in trusting that she could safely don her pajamas in the presence of her platonic friend, since they had agreed to forgo sexual activity?  (What sort of pajamas were they, by the way?)  Was her privilege in believing she was entitled to say no?  In being able to put her panties back on after “he finished”?  Is it one gender that is enjoying privileges or both?  If both, are said privileges of equal capaciousness?
I’m also not sure why you mention the six weeks.  Do you mean that she should have taken longer to think about it?  Since there seem to be so many questions about identifying oneself as a proliferating victim, should she have sought tutoring on the proper definition of sexual assault?  (And what is that, by the way?)  Should she have asked more advice about whether she was overstepping her rights and mistreating her “ friend”? How long did the man have to report that he had been victimized by her?
The administration’s crucial and contradictory statistics are validated the usual way, by official repetition; Joe Biden has been heard from. The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent — too high but nowhere near 20  percent.
Education Department lawyers disregard pesky arithmetic and elementary due process. Threatening to withdraw federal funding, the department mandates adoption of a minimal “preponderance of the evidence” standard when adjudicating sexual assault charges between males and the female “survivors” — note the language of prejudgment. Combine this with capacious definitions of sexual assault that can include not only forcible sexual penetration but also nonconsensual touching. Then add the doctrine that the consent of a female who has been drinking might not protect a male from being found guilty of rape. Then comes costly litigation against institutions that have denied due process to males they accuse of what society considers serious felonies.
I am sorry to say I am not good at math.  I’m in the humanities, and it’s been thirty-some-odd years since high school algebra, when I was a little distracted by Johnny McCann stroking my backside during class.  (Now I know I can feel fortunate about that; I suppose the other girls coveted my status.  Though they didn’t need to; he touched them too.)  Now I worry that I have been misunderstanding all these years and wrongly thinking that “‘sexual assault’” is a serious problem that undermines women’s health and well-being—as well as their legal rights and access to education.  (Is the data that says men are raped too also incorrect?)  
George, could you tell me how many sexual assaults there really are on our nation’s campuses?  And how many should there be?  Does some of the confusion over numbers arise from the different definitions and shifting capaciousnesses?
Now this thing about “’nonconsensual touching’” is especially perplexing.  I’m not that informed about jurisprudence either, but my impression is that plain old assault has to do with touching someone, or with threatening to do so, when they do not want to be touched.  The University of Google seems to concur that raising one’s fist might constitute assault.  So, let’s see . . . if a stranger slaps my face without my consent, that is a crime, but if he touches my breast without my consent, that crosses a line into a non-crime that has proliferated to give women status?  Would it be helpful if we just called “ nonconsensual’” touching of sexual body parts “assault” then, leaving out that confusing word “sexual”?  (Interesting idea!) Or should those areas be fair game, with “assault” referring only to the rest of the body?
George, how do you feel about all those outraged readers (and probably some non-readers) who are registering comments along the lines of—I hate to say it, for I hate violent words (do you?)—that you should be raped to see what it feels like? 
Here are a few responses.  Please be forewarned; they could be upsetting, and I do not want to disturb your serenity:
These posts do not represent the point of view of the author!  I shudder at such hostile language.  To think that your comments on “‘sexual assault'” have met with fantasies of same.  It’s chilling.
But back to the “‘nonconsensual touching’”: I guess I wonder: would you want to touch someone who wanted not to be touched?  Again, let’s take it out of the titillating and confusing sexy area, that cocktail party that makes overgrown adolescents feel so entitled to special status.  Say you were at a professional dinner and you thought it would be nice to hold the hand of the man next to you.  Say he moved away.  Would you think you should try to hold his hand again?  Or if a woman you had just met at a benefit came up behind you and grabbed your bottom?  Would you move away, or would you tell her you were displeased?  Or that you’d rather she caress another spot?  Would you turn the other cheek?
George, this may seem bold, since we have not met, but I would like to invite you to touch my breast without my consent.  I say “breast” in the singular advisedly, since one of my “breasts” is prosthetic.  Just to show my intentions are honorable, I’ll sweeten the deal: you can touch either or both.  (Just try to go easy on the facsimile, since it punctures easily, and that gets messy and requires patching with unsightly duct tape.)  Anyway, I hereby invite you to touch me against my will.  I hope you will share with me afterward how doing so feels to you.  I’ve always wondered.  And if you would rather not touch my breasts without my consent, I won’t insist.  I won’t, for example, rub my breast against you. I wouldn’t want to force contact you do not want with someone who has not consented.
Now academia is unhappy about the Education Department’s plan for government to rate every institution’s educational product. But the professors need not worry. A department official says this assessment will be easy: “It’s like rating a blender.” Education, gadgets — what’s the difference?
Agreed.  I have little in common with a blender.  A whisk, perhaps.  Though I have always dreamed of being a cauldron. . . .
Meanwhile, the newest campus idea for preventing victimizations — an idea certain to multiply claims of them — is “trigger warnings.” They would be placed on assigned readings or announced before lectures. Otherwise, traumas could be triggered in students whose tender sensibilities would be lacerated by unexpected encounters with racism, sexism, violence (dammit, Hamlet, put down that sword!) or any other facet of reality that might violate a student’s entitlement to serenity. This entitlement has already bred campus speech codes that punish unpopular speech. Now the codes are begetting the soft censorship of trigger warnings to swaddle students in a “safe,” “supportive,” “unthreatening” environment, intellectual comfort for the intellectually dormant.
There has been some interesting discussion about this.  In fact, I have seen no evidence of dormancy.  I myself have discussed it with colleagues, and there was a cogent and eloquent essay published by several faculty members who, while sympathetic, found such a proposal problematic and counterproductive.  It’s funny though: while before I was introduced to the term “trigger warning” on feminist websites that, as part of their activism, necessarily show gruesome pictures of crimes and so on, I have often thought it useful to ask my students about any sensitivity they might have to course content.  I don’t tell them, though, that “traumas could be triggered in students whose tender sensibilities would be lacerated by unexpected encounters with racism, sexism, violence”; nor did I mention “facet[s] of reality that might violate a student’s entitlement to serenity.”  I think that wording would sound a little dramatic and might cause them upset.  But, my course material might involve the slaughter of a cow in an Eisenstein film or a Criminal Minds episode in which a “‘supposed’” rape victim shoots her “‘supposed’” assailant in the hand.  (And he’s a pianist!  How cruel!)  This year there was a clip of a group of African-American men using “the N-word,” and although the film authored by Spike Lee, I wondered how the students would react.  And do you know Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” in which the audience slices off her clothing?  Well, perhaps that one needs no warning, since she asked for it.  Anyway, I just prepare the students for the material as best I can and ask them—always, whether in a specific instance or at another—to let me know if any course content causes them difficulty.  Do you think that is “swaddling” them?  It’s funny; I’ve always observed that such explicit acknowledgment of our humanity, diversity, and vulnerability actually encourages more elevated and probing intellectual work, perhaps because the students are invited to name the signifiers and stimuli that we sometimes take for granted or neglect to question.  Isn’t a little bit like warning celiac about a glute?  Or is it ?
It is salutary that academia, with its adversarial stance toward limited government and cultural common sense, is making itself ludicrous. Academia is learning that its attempts to create victim-free campuses — by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations — brings increasing supervision by the regulatory state that progressivism celebrates.
I’m not sure “academia” is one entity or that all its members agree, but wow, the idea of “victim-free campuses” sounds pretty great!  I’d love to give it a try, though it is a daunting challenge.  Do you think we could drop the “hyper” and just aim for “sensitive”?  And maybe instead of becoming “delusional” we could just entertain the notion that we are unlikely to understand others’ experience without sprinkling a bit of curiosity, effort, and compassion in with our intellectual acumen?  Now that is a privilege I would love, both to confer on others and to enjoy myself.  It makes me wonder: could it be that if someone else’s experience perplexes me, it might be due to my inexperience or lack of understanding rather than to that person having a deranged impression of reality?  Wow, I never thought of that before.  Thanks, George, for opening my eyes to what I might be missing and what I might be denying others.
I’ve always loved the notion that academia could provide a forum for the vigorous exploration of, exchange of, and debate about ideas, though I wish this last could be more respectful and open-minded at times.  I wonder, George, do you think it might be useful to have some sort of a forum or colloquium on this topic?  Would one limit such a gathering to professional commentators like yourself who can retain objectivity?  Would it be inappropriate to invite some of the proliferating victims to come?  Perhaps they could learn from your wisdom and discernment.  I mean, if these women have been duped into believing themselves victims by faddish campus culture, then maybe all they need is another point of view in order to recognize their privilege, abdicate it, and stop all that distasteful coveting?
What government is inflicting on colleges and universities, and what they are inflicting on themselves, diminishes their autonomy, resources, prestige and comity. Which serves them right. They have asked for this by asking for progressivism. 
Do I understand  correctly that the university is being victimized by the government’s attention to this coveted victim status?  But it’s the university’s own fault, because they “asked for it”?  Where have I heard that before?  Could you remind me?
I look forward to hearing from you.  I do hope you will accept my invitation.  I have yet to have the experience of receiving “‘nonconsensual touching'” that I requested.  It could be enlightening.
Yours sincerely,

Mythic Birds of Brigadoon

Last Friday, my bass clarinet and I arrived at Music Camp on the Canal in St. Peter’s, Nova Scotia to learn that the wonderful American composer Lee Hyla had just died.  I did not know Lee all that well, but I admired his music greatly and was always happy to run into him and to encounter his calm, respectful manner.  It’s probably entirely due to Lee that I learned to play bass clarinet, thanks to hearing his “Mythic Birds of Saugerties” put into flight by the inimitable Tim Smith years ago.  Mathew and Eric introduced me to Lee’s music and Tim’s playing back in the early 1990s, when a piece like “Mythic Birds” circulated on precious, lossful, multigenerational cassettes and when its inventor could remain a mystery—no website, no Facebook™ post, no blögue, and maybe one CD released so far.  Lee’s pre-tweet birds opened up a sonic world I could never have foreseen: the bass clarinet splatting and grooving down below, then sailing up into the stratosphere to play a plaintive, mournful tune.  There was a pulse!—contrary to the “music of avoidance” identified around the same time by Scott Wheeler in his Contemporary Music Review article.  I’d never known contemporary  concert music could be so raucous and moving at the same time.

When I first came NoSco and encountered Cape Breton’s traditional music, far from the concert-music scene down South, I joked that I felt like I was visiting Brigadoon, the Scottish village that appears for one day every one hundred years and disappears again.  I thought I might just disappear into an enchanted mist of Celtic music, never to return.  I finally confessed to a Caper friend that I believed he lived on a magical, mythical island.  I thought he would talk me down from the heavens, or out of the mist, but instead he said, yes, this is a magical place.  People who live here seem to recognize and appreciate what they have.

Saturday night the Music Camp faculty all played the All-Star concert at the church.  For the second time, I was stunned to be on a program with so many of Cape Breton’s musical luminaries, while I am a part-time performer and new to Celtic music to boot.  Even more, this is the only venue where I look out into the hall and see that maybe 80% of the audience could easily be up on stage playing their own tunes.  The musical culture here is extraordinarily sophisticated, as well as generous, and it’s astonishing how much shared understanding there is.  One person starts singing “The Island” or “The Mary Ellen Carter,” or “Heading to Halifax,” and the whole crowd joins in.  A fiddler plays a reel and someone puts down a beer and gets up to dance.  A banjoist and a bodran player trade instruments and play one as expertly as the other.  A twelve-year-old girl leads a band that includes men five times her age.  But the bass clarinet, I gather, has seldom driven across the causeway to honk along.  As it turned out, I was making my bass clarinet debut in our All-Star concert, in my duo Fork and Spoon, with Charles playing guitar.  We cooked up some jigs, reels and airs, and I ventured down to the lowlands where the tunes don’t usually go.  Here in the land of the fiddle and the mando, my bass clarinet—dubbed by Charles as “The Big Fella”—made quite a few friends.  (Later Bob called it “The Bazooka,” and added, “I mean that in a complimentary way.”)  Highly aware of my role as little fish in this great pond, it was very gratifying when Roger said, “It was worth coming home just to hear that low note at the end.”  (Or did he say, “to hear it end?”  Probably not—that’s not the way musicians talk to each other over here.)  Later Roger asked me about the bass clarinet, commenting specifically on its wide range.  I told him a bit about the way the instrument breathed its way into concert music, moving from a low-register extension to a solo vehicle, expanding the sonic palette of notated music.  And even when it’s played up high, where the regular clarinet could go—well, why not have that bass clarinet cry its lonely song instead?  Why not make it a little more difficult and dangerous, and thus more poignant?

After meeting Lee’s music all those years ago in the remote island we call “contemporary concert music” (do we?), I got to know the intrepid Jean Kopperud and was fortunate to work with her on a project or two.  And there are too many other wonderful bass clarinetists/wind players to mention: Michael Lowenstern, Ned Rothenberg, and the wonderful duo Sqwonk, made up of Jeff Anderle and Jon Russell.  (I was telling Roger how high these guys can play.  Also a composer, Jon writes fabulous music for bass clarinet, including one for nine Big Fellas.)  Perhaps others were onto its beauty/beast appeal along with or even before before Lee and Tim.  But whoever broke the four-minute mile mark, there’s now a whole crew running around the tracks.  Dianne Heffner and I played in a band years ago; Alan Kay glowed through one of my CDs; I’ve met Michael Norsworthy only briefly; and I know Demetrius Spaneas only from Facebook™.  I am looking forward to working more with Amy Advocat and Matt Sharrock of Transient Canvas—Amy plays clarinets, and Matt plays marimba, another instrument that has worked itself into prominence in recent decades.  It seems fitting that these two outliers meet up in center stage.  I have begun to dream of rumbling low Cs.  Perhaps this meeting of strangers is something like my unfamiliar bass clarinet groaning through the Celtic tunebook.  I wonder if Lee liked strathspeys.

In the Cape Breton church of tunes, no one seemed impatient or uninvolved; I didn’t see any covert (or shameless) glances at glowing screens to find hockey scores (though I confess I was checking them later after the concert ended—the double overtime went almost as late as our jam session).  After Fork and Spoon finished our first set in the All-Star Concert, ending with Chris Crilly’s blistering “Jack McCann”—which requires me to shift the Big Bazooka into overdrive and to huff and puff to blow Jack up—the audience gave an unrestrained round of appreciative applause.  I told them I don’t see that too much at classical concerts.  (After we left the stage and the others played their sets, they continued to cheer, all through the three-hour program.)   But if we were to work on our cheering technique, Lee’s music would be a great place to start.

As I finish writing, by the Bay overlooking Jerseyman’s Island, a heron flies by.  A heron sighting is one of my greatest delights—perhaps made even more special by its infrequency.  Julia says they look like dinosaurs.  They might be mythic birds.  Thank you, Lee for the birds of Saugerties; I would not have brought the Big Fella to Brigadoon if I had not learned your myths all those years ago.  And condolences to those who were close to Lee; I know from your own words that you have suffered a great loss in his departure.

—Posted by Barbara A. White