At Harvard, Thoughtcrime on Crack

Image result for Thoughtcrime 1984

Eventually, tech theorist Clay Shirky has argued, so many people will have nude photos on the Internet that there will be no shame in one of them being yours. Privacy will no longer be necessary. It will be a halcyon time for politicians: no matter how much dirt your enemies dig up, none of it will stick because having done bad things and making stupid mistakes will be considered normative.

Eventually isn’t here yet. So in the meantime, people who are either too boring to have done anything wrong or so lucky that they haven’t gotten caught are deploying social media in a vicious online pogrom against those deemed politically incorrect. It’s Orwell meets the Salem witch trials via “The Lord of the Flies,” social justice warrior-style.

Thoughtcrime is already a prosecutable offense. A U.S. federal court has indicted WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange for thinking about, merely for what-if musing in conversation with Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, about hacking a government computer. The government admits there was never an actual hack. Undercover FBI agents entice young Muslim men into nonexistent terrorist plots in order to entrap them. An Ohio man on probation for possession of child pornography was sentenced to seven years in prison for a handwritten diary he had written for his own use that depicted rape and torture of children—disgusting but purely theoretical.

Coming of age pre-Internet I rest secure in the knowledge that most of my screw-ups and youthful indiscretions remain blissfully undigitized and unsearchable. I was wrong, I did bad things, hopefully I learned and won’t repeat the same ones.

People under age 35 or so don’t have that luxury. As Edward Snowden remarked, “They understand what it means to make a mistake, have someone with a smartphone in the room and then have it haunt you for the rest of your time in high school or college or whatever.”

If and when Shirky’s vision is realized, it won’t matter. Digital evidence of intemperate language and drunk texts and obscene selfies will be so widespread that their revelation will be met with a collective shrug. Until then, we will have cases like that of Kyle Kashuv.

Kashuv, 18, is the right-wing counterpart of David Hogg. Both men survived the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida and both got into Harvard College. Unlike Hogg, however, Kashuv is a right-winger and speaks at pro-gun rallies. Also unlike Hogg, it has been revealed that Kashuv spewed a bunch of racist and anti-Semitic slurs online when he was 16. After Kashuv issued a series of apologies, Harvard rescinded his acceptance.

Let that sink in: when he was 16.

Kashuv claims to have become “a better person.” Maybe, maybe not. But even if he hasn’t, even if he’s still and really a bigot, how are his private and political thoughts any of Harvard’s business as long as he keeps his racist BS to himself?

Harvard is extremely unforgiving of its prospective freshmen. They previously rescinded admissions from ten kids who shared dirty memes about the college on Facebook, and also famously from a woman who served time in prison for murder, because she didn’t reveal her record on her application. Why should she have to? She did her time. Let her study up and move on.

It is notable that Kashuv apologized at length, eloquently, repeatedly. The only way to fix bad words is with good words and he did that. Was he sincere? Only he knows that; frankly, that should be enough.

The admissions officers are punishing something even more ephemeral than thoughtcrime. Call it post-thoughtcrime.

Harvard is turning this guy away either because they suspect he is insufficiently repentant or, more likely, because they think that what he said two years ago was so awfully distasteful that he deserves to be sanctioned despite and after he recanted, reformed and (claimed to have) stopped being the person who wrote those racist and anti-Semitic comments. Thoughtcrime is sinister and invasive; post-thoughtcrime goes still further because it eliminates even the possibility of redemption.

This, Harvard College is telling the world, is not a young man, a tabla rasa whose future is unwritten. His racist comments at age 16 make him as forever toxic as Chernobyl, a filthy demon worthy only of scorn and contempt. Harvard chooses to believe that he is as he behaved at his worst, two years ago. They choose to ignore him as he claims to be now, better. The evil must be true; the good must be a lie. Apologies are worthless, merely the self-serving rhetoric of the justly condemned villain. There is nothing for Kashuv to do but slink away and die.

Social media comments about Kashuv applaud Harvard’s lack of mercy. It never occurs to the howling mob that someday they or someone they love might need and want some mercy themselves.

Harvard’s attitude is no outlier. It is an interesting iteration of a society that sentences criminals to the longest prison terms in the world—and they’re getting longer. If and when you get out, the system forces you to tell employers that you’re an ex-con—so you can never find a good job. In America all it takes to ruin your life is one bad decision.

Even in “1984” all that Orwell’s totalitarian state required of its citizens was to love Big Brother. Former dissidents cured of their heresies by terror and torture were permitted to live out their lives. The Party didn’t hold the fact they hadn’t always loved Big Brother against them.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)



  • I hear you, Ted, but this is a private school. There is no inherent right to attend Harvard, and the school should be allowed to maintain its (perhaps overly-judgmental) standards for its own image.

    • But is “Harvard” really a “private” institution?

      It may be run like a corporation (with a CEO called chancellor and boardmembers called trustees). But apart from how these elites* get chosen nobody would notice if Harvard were nationalized tomorrow. (*power elites, certainly not elites of the intellect, let alone wisdom) .

      A cursory glance at the money mechanics of any ivy league research university will show that the overwhelming financing for research comes from state funds, through NIH, NSF, and science funding channeled through the Pentagon. You will likely find that even the little private research money is leveraged to the hilt with public money. Even more so on the teaching side, where “private” student tuition is funneled straight through federal credit lines (complete with exception for personal bankruptcy).

      Apart from that, Harvard as an educational institution is accredited, and they would risk losing their accreditation if they violate minimum standards of fairness in admission (i.e. if they were to unfairly reject minority or women applicants, which they historically did).

      In the final analysis, accreditation standards are set by elected officials, and Ted’s point stands that they could pass a law tomorrow (re-)affirming that people who did their time, repudiated crap they spouted before they were of legal age, etc. must not be discriminated against. End of story.

      Harvard admissions won’t even mind, as they can hide behind that law. They have no values apart from money, they just want to cover their ass and are afraid of “controversy” – i.e. the exact opposite of what their “university” mottos are droning on about.

    • If Harvard wants to have its own standards that’s fine. Their rescissions always seem to happen after the main college application process, and scholarship application processes are over. Not wanting someone is one thing. Screwing over their chances at somewhere else is another thing.

  • > It never occurs to the howling mob that someday they or someone they love might need and want some mercy themselves.

    Why of course they won’t! Rough justice is only for bad guys, and I’m a good guy… The jackboots would never torture me

    > Coming of age pre-Internet I rest secure in the knowledge that most of my screw-ups and youthful indiscretions remain blissfully undigitized and unsearchable

    Well, there was that time in college when my girlfriend was in photography class and we took some pics in compromising positions. Several different compromising positions. Somebody swiped the negatives from the darkroom while they were drying and we never knew where they landed. Those certainly *could* be digitized. ‘course I wouldn’t be embarrassed if they did turn up.

    O Yeah! Lookit them muscles, not an ounce of fat on that stud! And get a load of that sex kitten he’s with …

  • Harvard loves right wing assholes.

    They let right wing asshole George W. Bush pass through, didn’t they?

    No, I think they like right wing hater-types that can pass for liberal Compassionate Conservatives.

    Kyle Kashuv’s apology was probably so ring-of-truth convincing that Harvard’s dictorial board shivers at the thought of the defector to right winger-ism that they almost allowed into their Satanic temple.

    That’s like the priest who really believes in God, who is apt to upset the Church’s business model.

  • alex_the_tired
    June 25, 2019 8:06 PM

    The part I find most alarming?

    Kashuv had already accepted Harvard’s offer and is now in a position of not being able to get in anywhere for the upcoming year (as someone else on the thread pointed out). The collective response to this is something on the order of “He can apply next year. This isn’t a tragedy. It’s a gap year.”

    Here’s the reality that Kashuv will face (I suspect).
    Even though his grades were higher than those of David Hogg (who also survived the shooting and who is also going to Harvard, and who will, almost certainly be the valedictorian, regardless of his GPA), Kashuv will find that none of the Ivies will touch him. He has been marked with the Crimson Letter by Harvard’s rejection and the subsequent media coverage.

    His rejection letters from those institutions next year will run something like: “Although you clearly have a remarkably rewarding and enriching college experience ahead of you, and your grades were exemplary and your extracurriculars show a student committed to seizing a bright and promising future filled with opportunities, Ivy State University is, regretfully, unable to offer you a place in our university this year.”

    As Ted observes, Kashuv has been marked bad in all the books for the rest of his life. The students at the various universities will not see anything wrong with this. It has always been this way; young people shriek about respect and understanding and compassion, and then pull out the longest and the sharpest knives to dispense vigilante justice. And when they finish college, mommy and daddy hand them the first check from the trust fund, and, having destroyed as many “unmutual” persons as possible, take early retirement at 24.

    • Exactly, Alex, exactly. And what’s incredibly surprising is that nobody worries about the fact that they might be next. Today’s political orthodoxy is tomorrow’s heresy.

      • alex_the_tired
        June 26, 2019 10:58 AM

        Hell, I worry about it all the time. Back in 1984 (the year), when we read “1984” (the book), we had nothing like social media. No Internet. Not even a glimmer. I think electronic bulletin boards were still a couple years off in the distance.
        This shit now? I think it’s gonna be a race between climate change and social media outrage to see which renders civilization untenable. When everyone who has an opinion, popular or unpopular, is rounded up and chased from the employment pool, there won’t be enough “acceptable” people left to keep things running. There goes the electricity, there goes the water. Whoops, there goes a city block because the guy who knew how to hook up the natural gas correctly was a little too much to the right for the moral arbiters who couldn’t put in a light bulb to save their lives. Now we have to stop and have a respectful discussion about the people who think vaccines are dangerous–hang on, let me get my therapy animal–and we must remember not to use unacceptable language that disrespects anyone’s ideas or ideals. Well, except those fucking scientists who think they’re going to get us to just accept their mind-control serums.
        (And I just started reading the Year of Loving Dangerously.)

  • I think idea of so many people having nude pics or a badly drunk video from their high school or college days on the net reaching the point where colleges and employers fast foward past them is FAR, FAR away. I am betting a persons past on the net will used to reinforce class hierarchy.

    Your past bad decision will judged lighly if you come from the 1%

    In December 2013, State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced a North Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, to 10 years’ probation for driving under the influence and killing four pedestrians and injuring 11[11] after his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison.

    If your in the bottom 25% your past will be judged harshly, red states will want to cut all your benefits, employers will turn you down, if you ever get them to talk they will point the video and say your past raised issues of poor judgment and untrustworthiness..

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