Fenno

BY

“I would use the word [“nigger”] to show people I have the right to use it, but I don’t condone it. I’m not a racist. My wife is Asian, my best friend is from India and I share an office with an African-American whose friendship, knowledge and resources I value.”-Matthias Scholl, quoted in the Harvard Crimson, April 5, 2002.

“If you, as a race, want to prove that you do not deserve to be called by that word, work hard and you will be recognized…. [A]s a result of your complaint I have actually begun using the ‘nigger’ word more often than before the incident.”-Matthias Scholl, in an anonymous e-mail to F. Michelle Simpson, April 1, 2002.

Fenno sat in the Lemann Lounge, feet propped up on one of its oddly heavy tree-stump tables. He put down his copy of the Crimson and sighed. He had never understood why some white people seemed to care so much about that word. Like Scholl, they talked about the “right” to use the word, as if by crying “nigger” they would let slip the forces of freedom and the First Amendment.

Fenno had always thought the word was like a really big sword. For a long time, whites swung it at blacks. Then times changed, and (most) whites finally realized they should drop it. So they did. Blacks later picked it up and started using it among themselves. But the way they used it was more like fencing – hit-and-release but no cutting. Some whites began to ask why blacks got to have all the fun. They wanted to play, too, but got frustrated when blacks wouldn’t let them. Which is where people like Matthias Scholl and Kiwi Camara, Harvard Law School’s very own broadsword lexicographers, come in.

What Fenno couldn’t understand is why they wanted the sword back. Scholl had told the Crimson that perhaps because of a language barrier – Scholl is Polish – the e-mail might have come across more offensively than he intended.

Stupid Polacks, thought Fenno, who suddenly thought of a variation on an old joke: “How do you sink Matthias Scholl’s legal career?”

“Send his e-mail to every firm and judge he applies to.”

Fenno chuckled. He also wondered if anyone had thought about sending Herr Kiwi’s outline to firms. Might be interesting to see what the Boy W√ľnder would do with that.

Due to the efforts of these two geniuses – and of course the anti-Semitic pamphleteer who opined, with a bold disregard for spelling and grammar (“Jews should ‘rot and hell’ with their ‘yarmukas'”), that HLS cares more about Jews than blacks – Harvard Law School was now embroiled in a mini-race war that seemed to become both more poisoned and more absurd with every passing day.

How did we get here? wondered Fenno, as he began to recall the events of the past few weeks.

It had all started with Kiwi, of course, which should have surprised no one. Puberty’s a bitch. So is being the smartest person at your tiny-ass school in Hawaii and then coming to Harvard Law School. Fenno snickered. Reality bites, huh Kiwi?

Then came that day in Rosenberg’s class. This one really disappointed Fenno, who had long admired the man’s deft balancing of education and abuse.

(Fenno had recently come across a copy of the latest Federal Litigation “core theory” composite, in which Rosenberg peppered anonymous excerpts of his students’ assignments with comments like “are you a pod person?”, “Commie, don’t you have a narrower position?” and “how cold was it Johnny?” Tough love, but what other member of the HLS faculty gives line-by-line feedback to students?)

Rosenberg’s careless dismissal of the contribution of “women” and “blacks” to tort theory – when what he meant was feminist and critical race theory, both fair game for the give-and-take of academic criticism – seemed to have taken on a life of its own. When approached after class, Rosenberg foolishly offered only a faint and awkward semi-apology, instead of simply saying, “I’m sorry, that was out of line, and I shouldn’t have said it.”

But the response was mushy-brained liberalism at its worst. One member of Rosenberg’s class, who clearly should have gone to Yale, convinced the administration to have speakers come in twice a week right after class and present – and here Fenno recalled the student’s e-mail – “alternative and marginalized perspectives on accident law” including “things like the feminist critique of Rawls’ original position and critical race theory.”

“The feminist critique of Rawls’ original position”? Fenno would have loved to see Rosenberg’s response to any sentence that contained both the words “feminist” and “position.”

The students actually seemed proud that they’d “convinced” the administration to agree to this plan. Fenno wondered how long it would take them to figure out that they’d just convinced the administration to (pleasepleaseplease!) ,i>let them spend more time in class. Must have been a tough sell.

Then, just when that fire was dying down, Matthias Scholl had to send out his little manifesto, in which he felt compelled to share that he now uses the word “nigger” more often. And that if blacks didn’t want to be called that, they should just work harder.

Fenno wondered what Scholl’s dear friend, the black officemate whose friendship Scholl so cherished, thought of that one. Fenno bet the officemate enjoyed a hearty laugh.

And then to top it all off, someone who apparently felt that the administration wasn’t responding sufficiently to the concerns of black students had to distribute his semi-literate anti-Semitic gem, which actually made CNN with the headline “Racist flier at Harvard Law School.” (If Fenno’s “special friend” were half as responsive, Fenno would be home right now instead of sitting in Langdell.) And people wonder why we’re number three….

Fenno shook his head. The price of freedom, Fenno thought, is that self-satisfied, underworked, reputedly smart people have enough time to make fools of themselves. Do you think anyone standing in a bread line in Russia had time to be racist?

Oh, and where was Charlie Nesson during all this? Calling for a mock trial of Scholl and offering to represent him. Fenno smiled. Good Time Charlie to the rescue! Someone get that man a joint and a giant ball of twine, stick him in a round room, and tell him to go sit in the corner.

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