Archive for July, 2011


By Gil Troy, Chronicle for Higher Education, 7-17-11

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Our Moral Conversation With Students 1

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle

Most Americans have not noticed, but Canadians are still reeling from the June 15 riots in Vancouver following the Canucks’ loss to the Boston Bruins for the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup. Thousands of drunken fans trashed the city’s downtown, torching cars, breaking windows, looting stores. Canada’s trauma offers a modern morality tale, of particular interest to academics because it illustrates students’ malleable, situational, Matrix morality.

Vancouver’s leaders blamed anarchists. But thousands of online clips told a different story. These were probably the most posed for, photographed, videotaped, posted, and forwarded mass crimes in history. Unlike the balaclava-clad goons at G-8 protests, many of the rioters played to the ubiquitous cameras while burning, bullying, smashing, or grabbing. Alcohol, not ideology, stoked the rioters; they were looking for kicks, not playing politics.

Like so many drunken students who act foolishly Saturday night only to be embarrassed when their friends watch them forever after on YouTube, the rioters’ thuggery, however fleeting, went viral. As these vandals-for-a-night slept off their hangovers, the recriminations began. The Vancouver police received 600 gigabytes of data, comprising 15,000 images and 3,000 video files.

The mass postings exposed some heroes. Some citizens defended random stores, rare sentries choosing to stand for order against the epidemic disorder. Alas, sometimes footage showed annoyed rioters stomping good Samaritans.

On the Facebook page “Canucks Fans Against the 2011 Vancouver Riots,” thousands of outraged Facebookers named and shamed the rioters caught on video. Camille Cacnio, a student-athlete, was seen smiling while she looted two size-42 male tuxedo pants from a store. Outed, she posted an apology that is a document for our age, demonstrating what passes for moral reasoning among our students. Cacnio apologizes to her friends, family, school, and city, along with her teammates, employer, favorite hockey team, and the charity where she volunteers. Listed in her Facebook profile, all were implicated.

Cacnio takes “full responsibility” and is “sincerely” sorry. But, she adds, these actions were out of character. She was “influenced by mob mentality.” “I was,” she explains, “immature, intoxicated, full of adrenaline, disappointed in the loss, filled with young rage, and have a ‘go-out-and-do-it’ kind of personality. … It was a spur of the moment kind of thing and I just got caught up in the chaos.”

She admits: “As bad as it sounds, the stealing was pure fun for me.” Anyone who has watched students “party” should recognize the phenomenon. Many live an intense, hyperaccelerated cycle, working hard and partying harder. When they party, they let go. Studies estimate that more than 40 percent of college students have engaged in binge drinking.

Women have closed the once-considerable binge-drinking gender gap, and the impact is significant. In addition to abandoning their traditional role of restraining their male peers, many more drunk women now face predatory males. Inevitably, claims of sexual assault on campus have spiked—attracting White House attention this spring. One study linked two-thirds of unwanted pregnancies on campuses to alcohol abuse.

Cacnio claims to have a conscience, once the thrill and the buzz subside. “As soon as I left the riot I knew that what I did was wrong,” she wrote. “My levels of alcohol and adrenaline in my blood had seriously died down, and I was no longer surrounded by the mob.” Here, Cacnio’s Matrix morality emerges: It was not her fault. She blames the situation, and the stimulants. She is not in control, she simply responds to whatever she happens to be plugged into, much as the movie The Matrix suggests that humans in the future, plugged into simulated reality, will respond to stimuli rather than exercise free will.

Feeling absolved by her passivity, Cacnio turns her “apology” into an indignant attack against “this social media form of mob mentality” now targeting her. She denounces this “21st-century witch hunt,” echoing a blogger’s line. She characterizes herself as the victim of “this new social media court” that convicts, then publicly humiliates, without due process. Presto, chango: The looter becomes the martyr.

Cacnio and others who confessed epitomize this Matrix morality, insisting that they are good people who were seduced by the mania of the moment. More than 20 years ago, in The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom said students were, in general, “nice, as distinct from being moral or noble.” But being nice at least was a consistent and benign lodestar. Today’s challenge is these moral shape-shifters, lacking core commitments.

We in the professoriate have failed our students by abdicating moral authority, even as our campuses steep in bacchanalian excess every weekend. The occasional anti-alcohol campaign, such as the Dartmouth-led Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, characteristically avoids moral language or ethical reasoning. It approaches binge drinking clinically as a public health problem. And it fails to mobilize the most powerful army of campus role models—the professors.

Yet to start taking responsibility would require a cultural counterrevolution. Many of us academic careerists, often teaching to fulfill course requirements rather than to nurture moral grandeur, are too overextended and too cautious to lead boldly. Tackling students’ binge drinking might risk our professorial popularity ratings. Anyone who can go from happy vandal to apologetic sinner to self-pitying victim so quickly is likely to turn on professors who start upholding standards, rather than saying, “Thank you for standing for something. Universities should build moral character, not just sharpen the mind.”

It is easier to ignore the problem or blame forces beyond the ivory tower. But college acceptance now offers admission to heavy drinking, drug abuse, and risky sexual behavior. We enjoy a rich intellectual tradition that could trigger valuable debate, favoring moderation and discipline over moral sloppiness and excess without preaching or imposing specific boundaries regarding alcohol, drugs, or sex.

Teaching is not just a job; it is a calling. Most of us who become scholars believe in learning’s redemptive power. We have a responsibility to help solve the problems plaguing our universities, and so we must accept the challenge of stretching our students—intellectually, morally, and psychologically. This fall we should begin a professor-driven moral conversation about binge drinking and the culture of campus partying. Cacnio’s non-apology and the dozens of YouTube clips from the Vancouver riots would be excellent catalysts, not just to start the conversation, but also to launch a revolution.

Gil Troy is a history professor at McGill University.


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By Gil Troy, 7-10-11

Betty Ford, who died on Friday at the age of 93, in the 1970s was the most controversial First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.  During Gerald Ford’s brief presidency, from August 1974 through January, 1977, his wife Betty retrofitted the odd role she inherited to suit the modern media sensibility. Peddling the Ford marriage as a “normal” partnership struggling with the challenges of raising a modern family, Betty Ford inserted herself at the flashpoint of the country’s social upheavals.  In so doing, she became an iconic American figure even though she may have cost her husband the Presidency in 1976.

Mrs. Ford’s acknowledgment that she had breast cancer and a mastectomy in September 1974 was heroic. As thousands of women rushed to get mammograms, the legend of Betty Ford the candid political wife was born. After enduring years of neglect while Gerry Ford politicked, sometimes left at home with the four children for over 250 days in a year, Betty Ford loved the attention.

Most reporters welcomed this refreshing, “normal,” First Lady.  They tired of “Plastic Pat” Nixon, a selfless spouse who, they sneered, traveled with a hairdresser and an embalmer. Betty Ford brought controversy, fun, and a shot at the front page.

Most reporters, therefore, overlooked the fact that Betty Ford spent much of her husband’s tenure dazed by tranquilizers and alcohol. Her oldest son Michael would describe a typical evening in the White House study: “my dad will work in his chair” and “my mother will sit in her chair and she’ll read or maybe she’ll watch TV or she’ll just kind of reflect on things.”  Barbara Walters recognized that “reflection” as the “zombie”-like state of a substance abuser exhausted by her efforts to maintain appearances.

When Betty Ford was active, she was too active. On “Sixty Minutes” in August 1975, she speculated that “all” four of her children had “probably tried marijuana,” and confessed that she “wouldn’t be surprised” if her eighteen-year-old daughter Susan had “an affair”—quaint language for premarital sex. More than thirty-thousand letters bombarded the White House, with 23,308 “con” letters, 10,512 “pro.”  Betty Ford had provoked a nationwide symposium on sexual morality.

Mrs. Ford’s fans championed her as a new kind of First Lady, candid and “hip.”  Most approving letters wished she were running for president or her husband were a Democrat — implying she earned their love not their votes. At best, Betty Ford neutralized some hostility to her husband, but few liberals were willing to cross party lines to support a president they disliked just because they liked his wife.

Mrs. Ford’s detractors, on the other hand, abandoned the President. “We think this error is much more serious than anything that President Nixon did,” a Southerner wrote. “Your statements on ’60 Minutes’ cost your husband my vote,” one woman added. “Until now I thought we had someone in the White House who thought along the same lines that I did.”

Nearly two weeks after the broadcast, Gerald Ford was still trying to clarify the “misunderstanding.” His popularity had dropped from 55.3 percent to 38.8 percent. The President said that “Betty meant we’re deeply concerned about the moral standards” in the family. Feminists snapped that husbands should not speak for their wives.

At a critical moment, when the conservative former governor of California Ronald Reagan was contemplating a direct challenge to an incumbent president of his own party, Betty Ford alienated President Ford’s right flank. Within a month Nancy Reagan criticized “the new morality” for young people. Mrs. Reagan’s talk had the desired effect, garnering headlines that “MRS. REAGAN, MRS. FORD DISAGREE ON SEX.”

The “60 Minutes” controversy helped encourage Reagan’s run, which crippled President Ford during the 1976 election against Jimmy Carter—the only presidents to lose re-election campaigns in the last fifty years first faced serious challenges for the nomination.  Gerald Ford initially speculated that his wife’s remarks would cost him ten million votes—but quickly doubled that estimate. Ultimately, Carter won by less than two million votes out of eighty million cast. Despite the polls and the media adulation, Betty Ford cost Gerald Ford the presidency.

Mrs. Ford showed that in the modern era, First Ladies often do more harm than good, electorally. As a lightning rod for criticism, she personified one aspect of her husband’s character that some feared, in this case, that he was too soft. As with the Carters, the Reagans, and the Clintons, the stronger the wife appeared, the more popular she became, the weaker the husband seemed.

The political damage Betty Ford caused reveals the difficult balancing act facing First Couples. Reporters and voters often have conflicting needs. Popularity does not always translate into political success. In America’s mass-media popular-culture-drenched age, presidents and their wives cannot afford to alienate either their journalistic mouthpieces or their voting constituents.

A little more than a year after the Fords left the White House, the family staged the intervention that ultimately led to Betty Ford drying out, then establishing what became the “Betty Ford Center” in 1982. As with the breast cancer, Betty Ford’s frankness was pathbreaking and timely—Americans were ready for such openness. Her emergence as the iconic figure of America’s 12-step culture boosted her standing with the American public. Few remembered the backlash against her in the 1970s, the political harm she caused her husband. In fact, many assumed that she entered treatment during the Ford presidency, simply clumping all her candid moments into one appealing package.

As a result, for decades she was one of America’s most admired women. And, while it is difficult to prove, the adulation Betty Ford enjoyed in the post-presidential years probably did Gerald Ford a world of good. When he died in 2006, most of his most controversial moves, including his pardon of Richard Nixon, were hailed. Thus, while the evidence suggests that Betty Ford’s candor harmed Gerald Ford’s electoral chances, the evidence also suggests that, in the long run the Betty Ford legend enhanced Gerald Ford’s historical reputation.

Betty Ford was one, bold, sassy, classy lady, who successfully forded the huge divide between the traditional culture into which she was born and the modern, let-it-all-hang-out-culture she helped spawn. She will be missed.

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By Gil Troy, 7-10-11

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.

Do the Democrats have a double standard for Obama?

Of course they do.

So did the Republicans for George W. Bush—who tolerated much more idealistic national building and budget-busting spending than they would have from a Democrat.  And so did the Democrats for Bill Clinton—who would have pilloried a Republican president for establishing the kind of sexist atmosphere Clinton created in his White House.  This inconsistency is a fact of partisan life.  As long as most partisans build their party-affiliations into an identity rather than simply a series of policy positions, they will view their leader’s compromises as statesmanlike, not hypocritical, given how confident they are in their opponents’ shortcomings.

Still, the Democratic turnaround this time is particularly whiplash-inducing.  At the heart of the Bushophobia that consumed many Democrats since 2003 lay their disgust for George W. Bush’s national security policies.  Moreover, Barack Obama’s own political identity and great success in defeating Hillary Clinton stemmed from his opposition to the Iraq War—which raised expectations among at least some Democrats that he would be a pacifist, Nobel Peace Prize-winning president.

President Obama’s behavior in prosecuting the war on terror suggests we should rethink our understanding of presidential performance.  Most of us, historians, voters, and especially journalists, focus too much on the Three Ps of partisanship, personality, and promises.  As a result, we expect a revolution when there is a party turnover in the White House, and a fresh, young politician calls for “Change We Can Believe In.”  We forget the constitutional checks and balances which fragment power, making dramatic change more difficult in the American system.  And we forget that the world looks very different when you sit in the Oval Office as opposed to when you dream about winning the keys to it.

My uncle learned during half a century in the advertising business that, in America, “the one constant is change.”  But as citizens and observers, we should spend more time examining the presidency through a lens emphasizing convergence not divergence among administrations.  The many cosmetic changes sometimes mask the necessary—and unfortunate—continuities.  In Ronald Reagan’s administration, David Stockman was the most famous cabinet member frustrated by this convergence.  In Bill Clinton’s administration, Robert Reich played that role.  And under George W. Bush, the mantle was seized by Donald Rumsfeld, who could not impose on the military the sweeping changes he championed.

I confess, one of the best compliments I can give Barack Obama is that he responded to the challenges America faced, rather than sticking to the script he and his fans devised.  His muscular approach to fighting the war on terror does partially vindicate George W. Bush.  But, more importantly, Obama’s actions acknowledge the complicated challenges America faces abroad.  When Obama has approached this tough situation ideologically rather than pragmatically—contemplating  trying Khlalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, or treating the Ford Hood terrorist as a mere criminal—he has stumbled.  Obama’s use of unmanned drones to hunt down terrorists, his successful pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and his support for some of the aggressive Bush-era initiatives to eliminate domestic threats all reflect realistic judgment.  That’s leadership.  That’s good governance.

Obama’s challenge, our psychologist friends would suggest, is to “own” this convergence with Bush-era policies, rather than deny it.  By acknowledging the continuities, Obama can then also show how he has put his own, Democratic, civil libertarian, more engagement-oriented, stamp on the policy, thus offering what he believes to be a mature alternative to George Bush and John McCain—while still imposing a reality-check on the too-pacifist, pie-in-the-sky idealists in his own part.

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