Last week I blogged about a sanctimonious and silly moral screed in the Harvard Law Review, and commented that it demonstrated that there are twerps everyone, even (or perhaps especially) at elite institutions.
I didn't expect real life to illustrate that point quite so perfectly.
The author of the unsigned student note was subsequently outed as one Phil Telfeyan of HLS. Upon noting the derision his note was drawing, Telfeyan launched a blog with the characteristically self-serious title Do The Right Thing At Every Moment to discuss the nuances of his moral analysis. The result was perhaps not quite the literary salon experience he was hoping for; when last I saw it the comments were cluttered with nearly wall-to-wall derision. He's since made the blog invitation-only.
But that is not the best part.
One of the centerpieces of the note — and clearly in Telfeyan's mind a metaphor for society's wretched failure to agree with his moral analysis — is this description of a statute in Cambridge Common, which gives his note its title:
In contrast to the undeniably prestigious institution that literally
surrounds Cambridge Common, in the middle of this park is a statue
reminding Harvard students that not everyone can be so fortunate.
The statue is composed of two figures. On the left is a wealthy man,
dressed in the clothes of a nineteenth-century aristocrat. He is standing
upright, holding in his left arm a child resting peacefully on his
shoulder. With his right arm, the man is reaching out — grasping in
the direction of the figure on the other side of the statue.
Across from the man, on the right side of the statue, a woman sits
in poverty. She is dressed in torn rags, hunched over on the edge of a
rock. The woman has a child of her own, but she is too weak to stand
and lacks even the strength to hold her child close to her. The mother
and her child are both starving, in search of food or money to get them
through the next day, the next hour, or, with any luck, the next meal.
The woman’s right arm, like the man’s, is stretched outward. From
above, he reaches down toward her. From below, she reaches up toward
him. But their hands fail to grasp — she is inches too far away
and the statue has frozen them in that pose forever.
The statue is an intergenerational depiction of inequality. As the
poverty of the woman is cast in stark contrast to the wealth of the
man, the children of each are chilling prophesies of the unequal future
that is certain to come. At the base of the statue is an inscription that
forms the title of this Note: NEVER AGAIN SHOULD A PEOPLE
STARVE IN A WORLD OF PLENTY.
There's just one problem.
Telfeyan didn't read the plaque on the other side of the statute.
As he now admits, if he had, he would have realized that his entire concept of the statute as a picture of cruelly indifferent wealth was wrong:
First and foremost, I wish to make clear that I did not realize that this statue paid homage to the victims of the Irish potato famine, or "Great Hunger." The side of the statue which I quoted in my Note made no reference to that event. I never noticed writing on the other side. I honestly believed the point of the statue was to make a statement about intergenerational equality, hence my reference to that theme in my Note. I honestly thought that the man depicted in the statue was an older, rich man, placed to contrast with a younger, poor woman and her child.
Had I seen the other side of the statue, obviously I would have investigated further, and would have uncovered the website which a commentator linked to at 1:47 p.m., indicating that the statue depicts an old poor woman and her young child and their farewell to her oldest son, and his child, who are leaving the country as a result of the famine.
I regret that neither I nor anyone, during our arduous editing process, who was checking the accuracy of what I wrote in my Note caught this error — which is doubly embarrassing because as I write this, I can see the statue outside the window of the Law Review, across Mass. Ave. on the edge of the Cambridge Common.
If someone had scripted that error as a plot development to illustrate the insufferable and clueless nature of this student's pontifications, I would have rejected it as over the top. But it's not scripted. It's real life. Phil Telfeyan didn't need to inspect the statute across the street or examine his assumptions about it before using it as the inspiration and title of his note; his feelings about it were enough for him and for the editors of the Harvard Law Review. His arguments about moral obligations are similarly unserious, unexamined, unedited, and unschooled — accurate only in the gentle, non-judgmental playground of his mind.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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