Morehouse Man In The Mirror

Now, if you’re blue
And you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where fashion sits
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Different types who wear a daycoat
Pants with stripes and cutaway coat
Perfect fits
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super-duper

Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers
Walk with sticks or umberellas
In their mitts
Puttin’ on the Ritz

      — Irving Berlin, “Puttin’ On The Ritz”

Morehouse College, one of the flagship HBCUs in the country and the alma mater of generations of prominent African-American males, including Martin Luther King, recently conjured up some controversy by establishing a dress code on campus.  The new policy prohibits do-rags, hats, sunglasses, hoods or offensive clothing in class.   It also bans such items as “decorative orthodontic appliances” (A white female friend who is much more “Black” than I am tells me that these things are known, in the vernacular, as “grillz.”), pajamas, sagging pants, and bare feet.

However, the part of the policy that has drawn the most attention from the media — including a certain Philadelphia Negro — states “No wearing of clothing associated with women’s garb (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at College-sponsored events.”

Some believe, and I think that they are correct, that this policy is a not-so-subtle attempt by the College administration to control homosexuality and transgender identification on campus.  Homosexuality is one of the most sensitive issues in the so-called Black community; and it is an open secret that Morehouse has a large population of gay men.  For the record, I do not believe that Morehouse is atypical in this regard.  College is (or should be) a place of experimentation and exploring boundaries.  If we expect intellectual awakenings on a college campus, why should we be surprised that sexual awakenings occur there, as well?  Given the generally conservative orientation of Black society, the freedom of expression generally associated with the college campus can be even more powerful for young Black men who do not define themselves — openly or otherwise — as heterosexual. 

By choosing to implement a dress code that at least appears to target a specific population of the College community, Morehouse is treading on difficult ground: the fault line between individual expression expected in an academic setting and the culture of conformity — including the “rules” of what it means to be a Black man.   Though I have certainly ranted against the extreme informality of undergraduate dress and — in my angrier moods — have even advocated a dress code, I find that ultimately, I cannot support this kind of regulation.   While being a “Morehouse man” does carry a certain mystique — in more ways than some would care to admit — attending Morehouse is not, or should not be, like joining the military.   The latter needs to engender conformity in order to prepare its members to undertake the serious business of killing people.   (The armed services can talk all they wish about education and training opportunities; but the bottom line is that they train people to inflict harm upon our enemies as quickly and efficiently as possible.)   Like other institutions of higher learning, Morehouse should encourage the creativity and diversity of its students — even if it means that a few of them look rather stunning in a nice frock.    

Each day I am more conscious of the fact that I am from a different time than the one I share with my students.  I wear button-downs and khakis, and whistle Mozart and Cole Porter.  I voted for Ronald Reagan.  The Establishment works for me.  I like it.   Would I prefer more “conservative” apparel on campus?   Yes.   But fighting for this is a waste of powder.   Morehouse would be wise to invest its resources in the development of young men of character and not the regulation of cravats.    

Ultimately, the late Bart Giamatti said it best when he chose to call his book about the purpose of the university Free and Ordered Spaces.   He believed that on a college campus (and everywhere else), freedom should not be subordinate to intolerance disguised as discipline.   He was right.

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Let’s Do It!

“Birds do it.  Bees do it….Probably we’ll live to see machines do it.”  Cole Porter wrote his classic toe-tapper “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” in 1928, decades before the first computer and the birth of what we now call AI (Artificial Intelligence, not the basketball star Allen Iverson).  Yet he somehow foresaw a time when machines would not only think like human beings; they would also fall in love and—presumably—have sex like humans as well.  That makes me wonder if Porter, another proud Yale Man like yours truly, was a visionary like the British mathematician and computer science founder Alan Turing—or just a pervert ahead of his time.  Or maybe he was just after a clever song lyric—of which he was an absolute master.

Anyway, suppose that we do someday create machines that can fall in love with each other and quite “naturally” desire some type of “physical intimacy.”  What would that look like?  Would computers overload their servers with streams of erotic (to them, at least) code?  Would there be such a thing as computer porn?  Would humans pay to see it?  (Of course we would.)  Would global networks crash as the supercomputers that control every aspect of our modern, continually-connected lives spend all of their time generating real cyber-porn instead of working?  Would computers want to marry and reproduce?  Would computers be a single gender or some new binary conception of heterosexuality?  Or would they cast off the concept of gender entirely?  Would some computers be homosexual?  Would same-sex relationships between computers be allowed?

Cole Porter and his wonderful little tune really open up a can of worms for us.  How are we going to deal with the coming onslaught of super-intelligent, love-struck, and horny machines who want equal rights—and can freeze our bank accounts and shut down the Internet?

Literature and popular culture are awash with works that examine the uneasy relationship between people and machines that see themselves as something more than their human creators had intended.  Two favorite examples come immediately to mind.  In his classic 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick explores the meaning of humanity and the moral consequences of ridding society of synthetic beings (androids) who appear human in every meaningful respect.  At the other extreme, The Terminator franchise imagines a world in which sentient machines decide to exterminate humanity.  Between these two poles of annihilation fraught with moral ambiguity, Cole Porter’s quaint notion of machines falling in love sounds, well, de-lovely.