How I Squandered my Youth
I did a lot of bad stuff when I was younger. I rolled with some pretty heavy dudes: catty French scholars; a mediaeval Latinist who could take your eye out with ‘crane spears the toad’ or any number of balletic Chinese manoeuvres gleaned from a dog-eared book on kung-fu. But the worst of the lot were the Rhodes Scholars. And their dark lord and master was Bill Clinton.
Cecil Rhodes had designed the scholarship to instil the best (read – ‘worst’) of English culture into the brightest minds from the remote colonies. You might remember Cecil Rhodes as the pasty omnivore who failed to take his degree from Oriel College, Oxford, and went on to destroy any hope of self determination in southern Africa for over a century. The pre-requisites for the scholarship, as he dictated them to a brow-beaten secretary in 1902 who can take no other shape in my mind than Mr. Smithers from ‘The Simpsons’, demanded, in order that all candidates:
‘[...] shall not be merely bookworms [...] in the the election of a student to a scholarship regard shall be had to [...] (ii) his fondness and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like (iii) his qualities of manhood’
There followed some blathering about truth, courage, sympathy for the weak and the esteem of performance ‘in public duties as his highest aim’.
If you juxtapose these noble thoughts with his other writings, the goals of the Rhodes Scholarship become clearer:
‘I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race [...] if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible’
‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’
‘Equal rights for all civilized Men South of the Zambezi’. [The emphasis is my own]
I would like to think that my laziness and distinct unmanliness as an undergraduate (thus precluding me from consideration for his filthy, blood money) was an unconscious, if deeply noble, political gesture.
Unfortunately, I found myself face-to-face with Bill and Hillary on the lawn of Rhodes House in 1994.
If we were to use no other criteria than the physiognomy required by Cecil, then both aspiring leaders would have failed election to the Rhodes before the first interview began. Bill Clinton is an enormous man, shaped like a wobbly pear, and standing at least six feet, four inches tall. He towers over his awkward wife, and your attention is immediately captured by his head, the size of a watermelon. His huge, ruddy, libertine face indicates a man who rarely passes up an indulgence, and he maintains a blissful grin, as if he were absolutely replete, and had just cum all over you. He commands even more space than his tottering frame could require, and he radiates heat, charm and compulsion. He hardly moved through the crowd, but eager Rhodes Scholars flocked around him. He gave an insipid and hasty speech about ‘people being our most important commodity’ (perhaps it is now less puzzling that he won the Rhodes) and how ‘we’ all represented the future of America.
Hillary played no role in the ceremony, having recently endured the debacle as the public face of her husband’s failed health care reform. She shook hands and greeted ambitious young Americans, but maintained no presence, and left no impression on her audience. I recall she was much shorter, and very much wider than I ever imagined, and her face was deeply lined, as if she had carried for many years an inordinate share of the worry in their partnership.
No one spoke about the speech afterward, although I did compare notes with a few Canadian Rhodes Scholars, who all agreed that it had been no illusion: his face was enormous, and bright red.
The whole episode only took on broader significance years later when the Clinton administration’s unholy collusion with the forces of Goldman Sachs became clear, and when, in perspective, the economic miracle of the 1990s (or its ‘irrational exuberance’) could be traced as much to the unsteady foundation laid by Ronald Reagan, as to any conscious decisions by Bill Clinton. Dear reader, don’t get me wrong! The idiocy of George W. Bush is more to blame than any factor for the pickle we now find ourselves in, but I learned from an early age, and under the tutelage of the delinquent academic characters portrayed in this post, to ‘keep it real’ above all else.
I have since wondered if the American people wouldn’t benefit if Cecil Rhodes’ stamp of approval were quietly retired, and the remaining money disbursed, in his name, among the people he enslaved.
There is an article in The New York Times, published in 1913, that raises questions that are just as relevant today [http://bit.ly/nECqHJ]. Why would America send some of its best young scholars (or those who perform particularly well in interviews and show a propensity to boss everyone else around) to England for years? Is the arrangement good for Oxford? Stanley Went, an old Rhodes Scholar, argues convincingly that it isn’t necessarily so. Oxford remains largely unchanged.
In my own experience, US Rhodes Scholars had no particular interest in England, and would never have attended Oxford had they not won. They stuck together, and fumbled impatiently through a degree that meant little in the end. Few were true academic standouts in their new environment, and many harboured a bitter taste for Oxford that took years to sweeten, and rarely turned to nostalgia. They would sneak into the Middle Common Room in the early morning, to help themselves to the free coffee and steal newspapers, avoiding interaction that wasn’t immediately relevant to their planned congressional campaigns once the annoyance of a second BA in politics, philosophy and economics was finished (the philosophy or economics curriculum would be quietly dropped at the beginning of the second year as the workload began to pile up; and the candidate would slink away later with a half-hearted 2.1, somewhere between a ‘B’ and a ‘B+’, and would mutter for months on the unfairness or inadequacies of the Oxford degree exams until a new job with McKinsey in New York quickly led him to forget his two years in purgatory).
They would tiptoe into the computing lab late at night, greeting no one, and spend hours on instant messenger, lamenting to friends in Arkansas or New Jersey that there was no platform in England to continue whatever local flavour of community activism had underpinned their Rhodes candidacy. They shunned alcohol and scoured the internet for news of their favourite baseball teams. They would occasionally reach out with a half-articulated complaint about Oxford, England, the food, the heating, or any subject that might serve as a common enemy when they recognised that I was American, and a possible refuge from their isolation.
I’m not sure if there is a real lesson to be learned here, but, like I said, when I was younger, I rolled with some pretty bad dudes.