Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Ross Douthat

One of the nice things about travel is that you have lots of uninterrupted reading time. Today, I was able to blow through Ross Douthat’s Privilege, a memoir of his recently completed undergraduate days at Harvard (he’s Harvard ’02). He is an engaging, but not terribly demanding, writer.

My first thought as I was reading the book is that I’m glad I’m not one of his acquaintances, not because he wouldn’t be an interesting companion or interlocutor (I think he might be), but because he seems to write about virtually every consequential encounter he had at Harvard. Few people come off looking good. (To his credit, Douthat is not afraid to display his own shortcomings.)

My only hope for salvation is that, had I for some reason blundered into Harvard (I think I applied for admission back in 1974, but MSU made me an offer I couldn’t refuse), Douthat and I wouldn’t likely have moved in the same circles. Like Tom Wolfe’s
Charlotte Simmons, Douthat turns out to be very status-conscious (even though he sometimes rails against the system). I wouldn’t have attracted his attention since I would likely have always had my nose in a book (not--Douthat confesses with, I think, some genuine regret--his sole mode of undergraduate being).

Douthat is, as I said, a good writer and a sharp observer, capable of ironic distance even as he plunges, sometimes despite himself, sometimes drunkenly, into what seems to be one misadventure after another. His book can profitably be read together with I Am Charlotte Simmons, plausibly qualifying and correcting Wolfe’s overemphasis on sex and bringing out more clearly the striving and climbing that characterizes what Douthat calls "Yarvton." He effectively shows that this Ivy League "meritocracy" is, by and large, old-fashioned privilege with just a few new players, who rely, yes, on native intelligence and hard work, but also on all the advantages that accrue from the opportunities and stimulations that their relatively affluent circumstances have afforded them. The book is worth reading, especially if you have a long plane ride.

BTW, Douthat blogs here.

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