Recently, I’ve been very much stuck in my own head. Full disclosure: It hasn’t been great. But after hours of something close to contemplation, I think I’ve stumbled onto something close to a profound existential question. (It’s not a question I came up with, it’s a question that people smarter than I have been asking for a very long time).
It’s a specter that haunts everything I do and see. I see it everywhere. I see it at lectures. I see it in the Jimmy Butler trade. I see it in my alphabet soup. I’ll see it at graduation. Maybe after reading this something-close-to-interesting article, you’ll see it, too.
On Vassar Activism
Last Wednesday, Nov. 7, I attended Roxane Gay’s lecture in the Chapel (humble-brag?). During the question-and-answer section, a particularly astute first-year asked Gay (this is liberally paraphrased, but whatever): “What can students at a hyper-privileged, elitist institution like Vassar do to push back against the oppressive systems that we—in one way or another—so often benefit from at a place like this?”
Unfortunately, Gay—who was educated at both Phillips Exeter and Yale—seems fiercely set on and strangely comfortable succeeding in the viciously capitalist zeitgeist. Nonetheless, in response to this unknown student’s question, she said that looking within while at an elitist institution can often be the most effective way of challenging the invidious status quo.
Indeed, at a place with a billion-dollar-ish endowment, student activism centered around how that endowment is invested can be truly impactful. So impactful, in fact, that the administration will eagerly let down its kindly facade if the Vassar Student Association (VSA) transcends its role as Bureaucratic Arm of the Vassar Administration.
(Regardless of where you come down on the 2015–2016 Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) debate, we can learn a lot from the way the higher-ups reacted to its progression. Indeed, if the VSA had enacted the change for which various politically focused student organizations were pushing, then it would have had its budget evaporated by the Administration, and thus lost any semblance of pseudo-autonomy.)
Intra-Vassar activism is rare. Even when it bubbles up—like in my first year, when discussions of both BDS and divestment from fossil fuels were circulating wildly— it rarely has much staying power. In fact, I doubt that most of the first-years or sophomores reading this article even know what I’m talking about.
More alarmingly, and more tellingly, I doubt that almost any student reading this has a robust understanding of the way Vassar invests its enormous endowment (for what it’s worth, I certainly don’t). It is an endowment so large that it dwarfs the GDP of many small countries. (For reference, Vassar’s endowment is only slightly smaller than the GDP of Grenada. Harvard’s endowment is about the same as the GDP of Serbia.)
Vassar has been around for about 160 years. The vast majority of us are here for only four years. The school is a massive machine composed of eerily similar parts and students—always different, and always the same, year after monotonous year.
Tangentially related to this central phenomenon is the fact that the vast majority of Vassar students are obsessed with their own standing within the school and the supposedly corresponding standing they will attain after graduation. Indeed, college is almost universally conceptualized as a means to an end.
That end, for Vassar students, is probably one of just a handful of things—maybe you’ll go work for a non-profit, or become a lawyer, or a doctor, or work at a think tank or a consulting firm. Maybe, particularly if you’re a white male athlete, you’ll go work in finance or energy. If you’re really different, maybe you’ll try to make it as some sort of creative in the same channels in which previous Vassar creatives made it. Maybe, instead of just becoming a teacher, you’ll work in education policy. You tell me.
And yet, there’s a very logical justification for this sort of environment. We are all striving for a certain form of personal attainment. We are doing so, at least superficially, of our own volition. We want what is best for ourselves and those closest to us, and we’re willing to make the “sacrifice” of hard work to make it happen. We are hustling. And you can’t knock the hustle.
On the Jimmy Butler Trade
On Saturday, Nov. 10, the Timberwolves dealt Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick.
The move concluded a fascinating saga, one defined by Butler throwing what was essentially a months-long tantrum just so he could finally leave Minnesota (aka, the 2012 Chicago Bulls).
The post-Decision NBA landscape has been largely defined by players realizing a previously unseen level of freedom. Perhaps most concisely indicative of this is a brief examination of the dislocations of the best players in the NBA (I won’t even bother enumerating LeBron James’ movement in the past decade, as he’s the catalyst of this moment for obvious reasons); Kevin Durant left OKC for Golden State; Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio; Paul George forced his way out of Indiana; Dwight Howard left Orlando for Los Angeles (and left being good for being bad); Chris Paul forced his way out of Los Angeles; LaMarcus Aldridge left the Blazers for the Spurs. Heck, 12 of the 15 2014 All-NBA performers are on different teams than they were just over four seasons ago. Absurd.
And what has this meant to the league? Well, that depends on who you ask. There’s a compelling argument to be made in favor of this sort of movement. For one, it speaks to our baseline ideals of liberty. These are grown people making grown-people decisions. They should be allowed to move about the market of their own volition. That’s what liberty means, in this context.
This argument makes sense to me. On its surface, I think it makes sense to just about everybody. But it stops making sense for many people when the league’s parity appears out of whack. It stops making sense if you’re a Minnesota Timberwolves fan, and Butler seems set on destroying your franchise from within for the sake of his own personal gain. But, then again, you can’t knock the hustle.
So Butler got his way. Good for Butler. In getting his way, however, he undermined not only the organization of which he was a part, but also the teammates with whom he was supposed to be in concert. In a blinding pursuit of personal gain (undergirded by the ever-worthwhile principles of personal liberty and autonomy), Jimmy Buckets is now a 76er. He went from playing with the second-best young center in the NBA to the best center in the NBA. He went from playing with Andrew “You Can’t Knock My Hustle If I Never Hustle” Wiggins to the transcendently talented, and actually effective, Ben Simmons.
He’s now on the most talented team in the Eastern Conference. If he is the winning-obsessed baller he professes to be, there’s really not a better spot for him to flourish.
On the Intersection of the Two
A common philosophy for the socially aware meritocrats (like myself, oftentimes) at a place like Vassar is that once we achieve the standing we’ve always desired, we’ll make a “difference.” Once we gain financial stability, a comfortable life, we’ll have room to be radicals. We’ll make the world a better place (smiley face!), from a shining spot atop the New York City on the hill. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, we want to be radicals with pensions or 401Ks.
But when is enough, enough? At what point will we hustling meritocrats totally alter our consciousness and stop with the game of personal gain? At what point will we begin with the world-altering activism? I don’t think the answer to that question is a particularly optimism-inducing one, nor do I think it’s at all possible to be a radical and succeed in a system that’s designed to squelch the cries of real radicals.
I ask a similar question of Butler’s new position. Butler—one of my favorite players to watch in the NBA—has been at the heart of drama for three years running (starting with the Bulls and moving to the Timberwolves). Now that he is on the second- or third-best roster in the NBA, is that enough? Will his frustrations suddenly stop? Will he be the championship-challenging superstar that he always seemed to think he could be?
Let’s conclude with Shakespeare, because that seems like a smart thing to do, and I think I’m out of smart things to say…
“What’s past is prologue.”