I've just seen a dress rehearsal for a production of "Antigone" in New York. Not Sophocles' version, but a modern retelling that Jean Anouilh wrote in 1942.
I was to leave the theater thinking big thoughts about what it is to be human. I guess I did, but in a peculiar way: I was thinking about what it is to be the University of Michigan's president, Mary Sue Coleman.
What linked her in my mind with Anouilh's tragic heroine was one of the play's watchcries: "It's easy to say no."
Creon is the king of Thebes and Antigone's uncle. He has had his nephew Polynices, Antigone's brother, killed for conspiring against the city, and as a public example has left him unburied. Rather than allowing her brother's body to rot in the open, Antigone buries him herself, even though the penalty for that defiance is death.
Creon tries to dissuade her from what she views as "doing the right thing." "It's easy to say no," he tells her, and "wait for them to kill you." But wouldn't it be better to say yes? That is, grapple with the reality that life presents challenges, and strive for the possible rather than for the ideal?
Here's where Ms. Coleman comes in.Creon's message is one that voters in Michigan should heed next week on Proposition 2, which would bar racial preferences in public institutions.To say yes to Proposition 2 is to engage the real world and try to make it better.
Ms. Coleman, however, embodies the idea that saying no would be the activist position. I will never forget the 2003 photos of her beaming on the Supreme Court steps after the racial preference policies of the university's law school were upheld.
But telling black people, "You can only compete under ideal conditions" is telling not just Republicans, but also black people, no. Ms. Coleman, like Antigone, is striking a pose in neglect of larger consequences.Those prepared to vote no on Proposition 2 must look inward and consider whether their vote is for progress or a mere protest vote against "bad people" trying to "undo the civil rights movement."
For instance, one searches the civil rights archives in vain for calls to lower standards for black people to make up for the past. And that is how racial preferences typically play out. Even the Supreme Court, while upholding Michigan's law school policy, couldn't resist deep-sixing the undergraduate one, under which being black meant an automatic 20 points while a perfect SAT got you only 12.
Poverty is not the issue. Most black families today are not poor.The question is why so few middle-class black students hit the highest note on grades and test scores.
Remedying this situation means combating the tendency for black teens to tease black nerds for "acting white." It means a conversation in the black community about raising children who hit the books.
It does not mean shrinking from real competition until America is perfect.
Creon tells Antigone that giving in like this is too cowardly. He even lets her in on the fact that unbeknownst to her, Polynices was a mere "mindless party animal, a vicious little carnivore." (The production's script is a flinty translation from the French by, incidentally, Edward Teller's grandson of all people!)
In the same way, diversity rhetoric is a Trojan horse. In law schools, where lowering standards to wangle "enough" black students is routine, over half of black law students end up in the lowest 10% of their classes after the first year (one in 20 whites do). Further, the Mary Sue Colemans are so happy to have diverse faces around, but the "diverse" hate being singled out as such. "We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy," growls a guide to student life at Harvard written by black students.
As for "resegregation," how about this: The year before preferences were banned at the University of California, exactly one black freshman made honors at the University of California San Diego. But in 1999 after the ban, 20% of the honors freshmen at San Diego were black.The reason was that black students who formerly were admitted to the flagship schoolsUC Berkeley and UCLAunder the bar, now placed into fine second-tier schools like UC San Diego.This is not resegregation but reshuffling, and those who fail to see progress in it are saying no as a gesture, not out of sincere concern.
"To say yes, you have to sweat, roll up your sleeves, seize life with both hands and plunge into it up to the elbows," Creon implores Antigone. "You grab the wheel, you right the ship in the face of a mountain of water."
Yet in the end, even knowing now that Polynices was a lout, Antigone decides that she wants to live only under conditions of perfect happiness, and that therefore, dying for an idle posture remains worthwhile. We moderns might think of that utopian chestnut, the "level playing field," for instance.
She cannot say yes, and she dies. I'll be watching her die again when I attend the play's premiere next week (the company is QED Productions). I hope I will not have to see her as a stand-in for the Michigan voter who thinks that it is forward thinking to say no.
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