Each spring the students at Smith College set aside a weekend for violent partying, an activity Smith is not exactly famous for. Creatively dubbed "Spring Weekend," it's a last hurrah before final-exam madness begins: a million parties, a million boys bused in from various Ivies. It's one of the rare times that Smith students are encouraged to lighten up. You wear hoochie-mama clothes, go to a string of parties, drink crappy keg beer, grind with some Amherst College alcoholic or the girl from your African-American class (or both), smoke too much and stumble home.
Spring Weekend always falls on the first weekend in April, which coincides nicely with the satirical April Fool's edition of Smith's student newspaper, adding to the comic, fuck-politics-let's-party! feeling on campus. This year's paper was better than ever: "Simmons announces new 'Emotional Studies' Department"; "Alcohol, marijuana, fun replaced by house mothers, naptime"; and a day-in-the-life of the "Official Smith College Gay Agenda" ("12 a.m.?Insert tattered copy of Bound into Talbot House VCR. Masturbate gloomily").
This year, the Student Government Association, along with some other campus organizations, kicked off Spring Weekend in a new way: with an appearance by Politically Incorrect's Bill Maher. No one really knew what was going to happen. The fliers didn't say much?only that there would be a student forum. We didn't know who would be chosen for the panel?which, naturally, upset those students who were not allowed a voice in choosing the panelists, as a woman from my American Studies class said Thursday. The silenced students would boycott the event, she proclaimed. I assumed the forum would be a replica of the television show, and that four Smith women would sit onstage and talk campus politics. That is, we, the audience, would watch an ideological war, with Bill Maher in the middle of it.
On Friday night, the auditorium was full?of Smith students, the usual fratboys imported for the Spring Weekend parties, and various townies, including three elderly women in front of me, whose hands would fly to cover their mouths in horror whenever Maher said "blowjob." Maher performed his hourlong stand-up routine, which consisted of typical libertarian material: the government is a mafia, don't buy into advertising, let people smoke and do drugs, the right and the left are both inane, have more sex. Then four Smith students were brought onstage for the forum: Katie and Keisha, two outspoken liberal campus leaders; and Ravi and Elizabeth, two outspoken conservative leaders.
The forum's action mainly consisted of Keisha and Elizabeth, who walked onstage with huge chips on their shoulders, ready to fight. Their war had been fought before?in classes, at dinner tables, in anonymous posts on Smith's online campus forum, www.dailyjolt.com?and now they were sitting face to face, sizing each other up. It was like something from Jerry Springer: "And today, college students fight over who gets to be the victim! Watch them duke it out over access to resources and control of campus politics!"
Keisha was itching for action. She looked ready to kick Bill Maher's ass at any moment. The forum began with an assault on Smith's political atmosphere.
"The problem on this campus is dialogue," she said. "There's not enough dialogue."
What? Smith loves dialogue, especially about raceclassgender. (That's how it's said, one word, the components strung together in a rope with which to hang whitemaleprivilege, also one word.) And unless someone wants to wake up talking about raceclassgender and complain about it nonstop all day, I don't know how our campus could dialogue about it more.
"Dialogue," by the way, is one of those vague p.c. terms that doesn't seem to have an actual definition. It is both a noun and a verb: "Let's dialogue about this issue"; "We're bringing in so-and-so in order to spark a dialogue." It's one of the most popular acadspeak words around (along with "problematize," "complicate" and "disrupt"). At Smith we don't argue, we don't debate and we don't go to academic forums to listen to roundtable discussions. We dialogue. We have dialogues. We create safe spaces for dialogue, spaces in which no one is silenced.
The strangest use of the word dialogue comes in those contexts when a dialogue's authenticity is being questioned. Smith women want actual dialogue, real dialogue. As opposed to what? Fake dialogue? I've never understood this need to qualify dialogue. If people want real dialogue, that presumably means they want a fiery debate, an exchange that leaves the audience thinking. But as far as I can tell, that's not what dialogue means to Smith students. "Dialogue" just means a bullshit way of buffering yourself in an argument. It means a nice fireside chat with tea. It means that no one's feelings are hurt. Dialogue means that, sure, we'll talk about activism on campus/the rights of transgendered students/racial profiling. And we can even disagree?but not too much, and do it in a nice way, please, because this is an emotional issue for me. You know my counternarrative.
What occurred during the Bill Maher forum was not, by anyone's standards, a dialogue. Keisha mentioned whitemaleprivilege, which Maher immediately questioned: You're saying that every day, white men are keeping you down? How?
No one could answer this. Keisha brought up college admissions. It seems that minority students and women are no longer attending college. Katie pointed to the SAT test, skewed in favor of men. "Give me one question," Maher said, "that you can remember that favored men over women." Katie could not, but the audience could.
"Questions about football!" they yelled out.
Then came the outright fascism. Maher had to interrupt Katie in her bumbling SAT speech?effective campus leader though Katie is, she was obviously nervous here and making no sense. Some students shouted, "Let her speak! Let her speak!"?cries that continued when Maher interrupted Keisha. The silencing had begun: Bill Maher, rich white heterosexual male, was interrupting the liberal girls. The audience became chaotic.
"I've been doing this for eight years," Maher said. "I know when to cut someone off."
Exactly. And thank God, because they were beginning to sound incredibly stupid. They had no evidence to back up their arguments; they were just ranting. This is what happens at a college where no one questions their own preconceptions about the pervasive evil of the patriarchy. You mean I might have to some day explain why whitemaleprivilege is my sworn enemy? People won't just hug me?
Hadn't any of these women ever seen Politically Incorrect? Don't they know that Maher calls out everyone, that his show isn't centered on beating down poor black women? That it's his job to point out weaknesses in an argument, to play devil's advocate, to keep the show quick and entertaining? His job was not to create a safe space for a real, thorough discussion of every issue Smith students wanted to address. Smith paid him not to bring us closer together as a community, but to be funny. To make fun of us, and to make fun of everyone else. Jesus?laugh, you're in college. These girls were acting like Maher had spent the previous hour backstage, plotting to infiltrate Smith's sacred community, when I'm sure he was just counting his cash and smoking a joint.
After this exchange between Maher and the audience about whether to interrupt the panelists, Elizabeth, the conservative one, spoke about the silencing of conservative views on campus. And the same girls, the girls who had been demanding that Maher "Let her speak!" when Keisha and Katie talked?they were now yelling, "Shut her up! Shut her up!" I looked around in disbelief. Did no one else find this slightly hypocritical? Who's silencing whom?
At exactly 9:30 Maher jumped up, hurriedly said goodbye and left the stage. Katie took the mic and announced that the forum would continue with a different moderator. As we started to file out, Keisha yelled, "Did anyone think this was a real dialogue? Because I don't. Please stay if you want to hear a real dialogue."
I didn't stay. I went downtown with friends and smoked and drank and listened to a rock band. And later I saw Maher out at a shitty local bar with two girls from my house, who acted like they didn't know us. It was Friday night, and Spring Weekend: I was ready for a drink, not another two hours in a stuffy auditorium to swap sob stories about Maher's oppression of women.
Now, though, I wish I had stayed. I read later, on Smith's online forum, that the rest of the Politically Incorrect event was full of Bill Maher-bashing. He was offensive, chauvinistic. He used bad language. He silenced the liberals in the forum and the lesbian contingent in the audience. One post read: "For Smith, this supposedly feminist institution, to bring Bill Maher to this campus as a means of bringing people together and sparking dialogue, is an outrage. So how is this shifting the paradigm of power and control? How is this not misogynistic?"
Needless to say, "shifting the paradigm" has to be the agenda of every speaker who sets foot on Smith's campus. There's no such thing as entertainment.
This is the problem with hypersensitive liberals who can't understand the difference between The Enemy?conservative Republicans?and libertarians. Maher's a libertarian. It's different. He's not right-wing. He's not left-wing. He critiques both.
And yeah, so he talked about sex. So he mentioned eating pussy. It's not as if Smith students don't know anything about that. So he said "finger-fuck." As in, "the U.S. government is finger-fucking the tobacco industry." Which, in an hilarious moment of only-at-Smith paranoia, was criticized on the online forum, because finger-fucking is an activity only lesbians engage in. It's lesbian sex, not straight sex, so obviously?of course!?Maher was attacking lesbians.
A woman who responded to a question about why people left the event wrote the most intelligent and truthful comment I saw on the online forum.
"I'm tired of thinking about everything," she wrote, "and on my free time I don't want to think anymore. I'm a stereotypical human being who bases everything on her own and her small circle of friends' experience...and I'm not that out of the ordinary."
Right on, sister. Fight the power.