Category Archive 'Niceness'

29 Jul 2013

America the Nice

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Jay Nordlinger, in one of the most enthusiastically fulsome reviews I’ve ever read, quotes one of the characters in Mark Helprin’s new novel In Sunlight and in Shadow making a post-WWII prediction.

Humankind, or at least American-kind, will lose its edge as we produce more and more pipsqueaks and everyone gets nice. Whole generations of pipsqueaks will be so f***ing nice you won’t be able to tell a man from a woman. It will get worse and worse as people mistake nice for good. Hitler was nice, supposedly, most of the time. A lot of good that did. Luxury and prosperity breed pipsqueaks. A century from now the country won’t even be able to defend itself.”

19 Sep 2011

Ivy League Meritocracy and Niceness

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There has been a fair amount of comment in certain alumni circles about the latest Ivy League kerfuffle: Harvard University’s effort, at the beginning of this year’s Fall Term, to “encourage” freshmen to sign a kindness pledge.

Harvard’s new initiative provoked some serious criticism noting that students were likely to feel pressured to sign (as a copy of the pledge with each student’s name and a space for a signature was placed hanging in each entryway), but Harvard then apologized and retreated (being so nice, after all).

Not surprisingly, the incident produced a good deal of coverage, and some mockery.

Ross Douthat
(who attended the little school in Cambridge) responded to Virginia Postrel’s reaction in Bloomberg by explaining that there is a bit more to elite Ivy League nicey-goodiness than may be recognized by outsiders not fully acquainted with the culture and patterns of expression of this particular tribe.

[There is an] element of ruthlessness that runs through the culture of elite colleges, and… the prevailing spirit of deference and niceness is a defense mechanism and a facade — a kind of ritualized politesse, like the elaborate bowing and flowery compliments of a 17th century European court, that conceals the vaulting ambitions and furious rivalries that actually predominate on campus. (The essential ruthlessness of the meritocracy was one of the themes of my own subsequent attempt to distill the culture of elite education.) Which is why I appreciated how Postrel’s column finishes up.

    Harvard is the strongest brand in American higher education, and its identity is clear. As its students recognize, Harvard represents success. But, it seems, Harvard feels guilty about that identity and wishes it could instead (or also) represent “compassion.” These two qualities have a lot in common. They both depend on other people, either to validate success or serve as objects of compassion. And neither is intellectual.

Rochefoucauld observed that hypocrisy was the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

I suppose it would be fair to say that constant poses of kindness and compassion are the tribute, these days, that the excessively ambitious and success-obsessed pay to failure.

“My board scores and grades were infinitely better than yours. I’m going to Harvard and on to a prominent bank or law firm and seven figures annually. But I will support plenty of welfare entitlement programs for you losers down in the bad neighborhood.”

Hat tip to Frank A. Dobbs.


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