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As is obvious, I spent a lot of time watching tennis these past two weeks. The entire Wimbledon tournament was entertaining and competitive, and both the Ladies and Gentlemen’s finals featured fine tennis from champions Novak Djokovic and Petra Kvitova. The men’s final also featured inspired tennis from Roger Federer, who played as well as he has in years. His comeback from 2-5 in the fourth set was truly stirring, especially since he had to come back against a man who was giving absolutely nothing away.

In defeat, Federer was his usual well-spoken self and, I think, not quite as bummed as he might have been had he not played so well. Djokovic was gracious and generous in victory, dedicating the win to his future bride, Jelena Ristic (his wedding is next week), future child (due toward the end of the year), his “team,” and most significantly to his first tennis coach Jelena Gencic. Djokovic, a Serb, carries an entire country’s hopes and identity on his back every time he plays in a Grand Slam tournament. He has borne that weight with grace.

After all the bookmakers are paid off, I did OK in my Wimbledon predictions. Before the quarter finals were played, I picked Djokovic to win it all, though against Wawrinka rather than Federer in the finals. On the ladies side, I picked Halep over Kvitova in the finals. I was not sorry to see Kvitova play well enough to humble, if only for a moment, Eugenie Bouchard, who plays beautifully, but is slightly insufferable about her destiny to be a star. I was definitely rooting for Simona Halep in the semi finals against Bouchard, and she might have won were it not for spraining her ankle 14 minutes into the match, and getting an unlucky net cord against her when she was up 4-2 in the first set tie breaker.

Overall, I rejoice in the classiness of tennis, compared to the rampant thuggery of football. I look forward to my own return to the game, which I hope will elevate the collective blood pressure of the over-60 crowd in central Vermont.

Indulgent reader, is it possible that you don’t care for tennis and yet are still reading? Well, for you, and for the tennis fans who might share my peculiar constellation of interests, here is an abrupt change of subject.

I am working on a theory that needs some real world testing. The theory is this: within the first month of matriculating at Harvard University, students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are somehow taught that when engaging with academic colleagues or even with social peers, the way to appear humble and disarm future adversaries is 1) agree with some aspect of everything they say, and/or 2) thank them for the opportunity to speak and respond, and/or 3) compliment them on the astuteness of their comment. The next step is to provide a brilliant insight that clearly separates the speaker from the pedestrian perspectives of the rabble.

In fairness, this is an academic trope in full flower at many institutions of higher learning, not just at Harvard, but I have encountered it especially by people who have attended Harvard, so I hereby unfairly attribute it to that institution.

Most recently I came across this in an otherwise informative interview between Danielle Allen and Diane Rehm, host of the “Diane Rehm Show” on NPR. Danille Allen is a professor in the School for Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. (There is Harvard in her pedigree – she got one of her two PhDs there.) Before I finish this mini-rant on academic obsequiousness, I need to encourage the reader to hang on until the end of this post, for while I find Ms. Allen guilty of unctuous academic obsequiousness, I find the intelligence and insight of her scholarly work very interesting and significant.

You can hear Ms. Allen thanking and congratulating (ad nauseum) the intelligence of Diane Rehm and the intelligence of the callers on this rebroadcast of the show from July 3. She was invited on the show to promote her newest book “Our Dec­la­ra­tion: A Read­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence in De­fense of Equal­ity,” which I will read as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

Maybe her niceness won’t bother you. And “being nice” is certainly far preferable to being nasty but, having spent ten years at Cornell, I can assure you that being overly nice, especially to those who are not thought of by the speaker as academic or scholarly equals, is a facade. Give me an honest, respectful acknowledgement of the questioner’s point of view – minus the toadying congratulations – any day. Even tennis players who, by tradition, are supposed to congratulate their opponents, sound more authentic than some Harvard grads I’ve known.

But the content of Danielle Allen’s scholarly work is really interesting, so don’t be put off by my grumpiness about what is nothing more than academic style. Briefly, Allen, who is political theorist (and a MacArthur Fellow among other qualifications), contends that a period commonly inserted in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, incorrectly skews the Declaration toward a reading/interpretation of asserting individual rights over the assertion of equality of all citizens – with profound implications to our political and justice systems.

The sentence as written by Jefferson was this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inherent and unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

As argued by Allen, this “sentence forms a syllogism. The first three ‘that’ clauses constitute the first premise; the fourth ‘that’ clause is the second premise; and the fifth ‘that’ clause is the conclusion following from the premises (Allen 2014).

Thus:
Premise 1: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;
Premise 2: that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;
[Implicit Premise 3]: that people have a right to whatever is necessary to secure their rights;
Conclusion: that whenever any form of government become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

When a period is inserted after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as has become customary due to a complicated series of interpretive and scribal decisions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the emphasis changes from equality to individual rights. Allen’s argument, as summarized in a New York Times article, claims that this is a significant and erroneous interpretation.

Here’s the link to the draft paper by Allen, dated July 1, 2014, on the significance of The Period, which is really great, really well-argued in the best and most rigorous academic tradition, and really long.

It’s even longer than this post – but it reads like a whodunnit, and will, I hope, cause a stir among “original intent” right-wing ideologues. Please read it. Thank you for reading it. Thank you. You’re so smart that having your eyeballs on her words will help give her words the significance they deserve. You have such nice eyes.

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