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The Yale of My Day
When the World Barged In

I entered Yale a long time ago, but graduated recently. It wasn’t the number of years that elapsed (the usual four), but their character. I spent the first weeks of freshman year submerged in a basement suite in Vanderbilt Hall, occasionally peering up at the ankles of Chapel Street. But when I came up for air during the fall of 1989, not only from my individual cocoon, but from the larger, more frenetic one supplied by the University at large, the world outside was unfamiliar. To read the newspaper, I had to squint. Political and national identities upon which I depended scarcely less than I depended on the identities of my parents, teachers, and roommates, had come unhinged. That Czechoslovakia, for instance, was a nation that shared the Soviet Union’s ideological principles was not a fact to which I had given great thought during my 18 years, but it was a fact upon which I oriented myself morally nonetheless. But one day Czechoslovakia was not a nation that shared such principles with the Soviet Union. Nor did the Soviet Union itself. And I was soon informed that Czechoslovakia was not really a nation at all. And, for that matter, neither was the Soviet Union.

At first, my friends and I thought we could close the newspaper and be free of such turbulence. In our country, after all, and in the patch of it on which we passed our college days, the ground felt stable. So preoccupied were we by the personal journeys and transformations engendered by college life that we needed to believe the landscape was fixed in order to chart our own movement. But it was not really so. As surely as a friend began referring to Henry Turner’s history survey “Germany: Great Power to Divided Nation,” as “Germany: Great Power to Divided Nation to Great Power,” the changes in the world changed us.

At first, they taught us to believe in universals. All our lives we had been told that people wanted the same things: the right to choose their governments democratically, the right to assemble and worship, the right to buy and sell freely. But we also knew that in many of the world’s countries, particularly in the swath surrounding the Soviet Union, people did not do such things. And we had all heard the governments of those countries confidently announce that what their peoples wanted was different and what they had they treasured. And, after all, not being Bulgarian, how could we be sure that Bulgarians wanted what we wanted?

But during my first years at Yale, men and women in that part of the world—a world that seemed so hostile and so alien—poured into the streets to say: We do. The officials who had told us their peoples were irredeemably different gave way overnight to leaders who quoted the Declaration of Independence. And this bred in us a growing, if unstated, confidence that we could make assumptions about those around us by extrapolating from ourselves. Watching students in Prague ’s Wencenslaus Square wearing headbands in memory of the students of Tienanmen, it suddenly seemed obvious that people dreamed of translatable things. For a moment, difference was subdued, and we were liberated from the overwhelming burden of what we did not know.

It is that moment which is long ago. And it was, in a way, childlike. University life, after all, is supposed to infuse us with awe at what we do not know, not at what we do. And as someone studying history, I should have known better than to be seduced by the notion that we had reached a resting point. And soon enough, difference roared back. In parts of the former communist world, struggles against tyranny turned into struggles against national impurity. And the West’s unwillingness to defend a liberal, multi-ethnic Bosnia against the sectarians who menaced it bred cynicism about whether our leaders truly believed such principles were universal either.

And once again, we were not immune. If the Berlin of 1989 left us giddy about transcendence, the Sarajevo of 1993 produced cults of particularity. It is no surprise that my final years at Yale spawned the profound relativism that would come to fruition on the right in the recent works of Charles Murray and Samuel Huntington, and on the left in the mindless apostles of difference who chanted about the end of apartheid, on Beinecke Plaza, “It’s a black thing—you wouldn’t understand.” It was that ethos that formed the intellectual backdrop to graduation, and since it remains dominant today, I feel I graduated recently. But I can still taste 1989, and it is with that time that I associate my Yale days, not simply as an act of memory but of belief.  the end





The Yale of My Day

Young Lords and Lower Classes

Distant Thunder

New Haven On Stage

From White Shoe to Combat Boot

Defying Dink

Harold Bloom and the “Orc Cycles”

Vietnam On Our Mind

Of Reading, and a Wink

A Confusion of Lures

Chronicling a Cauldron

Surviving “Grim Professionalism”

Diary Daze

A Not Unwelcome Senselessness


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