A Freedom by Any Other Name: Serbia’s Article 43 and the Resurgence of Hate

Kevin Hazlett
Serbia emerged as an independent republic in 2006 following over a decade of ethnic conflict and civil unrest. This unrest began with the rise to power of Slobodan Milošević, who became the first president of the newly created Republic of Serbia in 1991. In the course of the following decade, Milošević invaded both Bosnia and Herzegovina (in 1992) and Kosovo (in 1998); following numerous accusations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Milosevic was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 1999. Distancing itself from its legacy of opaque and undemocratic government under war criminal Milošević, the Serbian government has since taken steps toward “democratization” and “Europeanization” by emulating the Western European community, hoping that it may become a member of the European Union (Orlović 92). Its constitution, adopted in 2006, even draws from the same liberalism underlying the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Article 43 of the 2006 Serbian Constitution reads, “Freedom of thought, conscience, beliefs and religion shall be guaranteed, as well as the right to stand by one’s belief or religion or change them by choice.” This new constitution marks one step forward in distancing Serbia from the Milošević regime.
It should come as no surprise that Serbia’s transition has imported the democratic ideals of other nations, with Article 43 being particularly important to this transition. The freedom of expression is perhaps the central root of democracy as a political concept: it underscores that political change can come from ideas, not just guns. Where the ethnic Serbian majority previously inflicted untold suffering on ethnic minorities, it seems natural that allowing greater freedom to those minorities to voice their sentiments would be a positive step in Serbia’s “democratization,” a sentiment with which Robert Dahl, a political science professor at Yale University, agrees. He lists “freedom of expression,” characterized by “[citizens having] a right to express themselves without danger of severe punishment on political matters” (Dahl 188-189), as one of the minimum requirements for a modern democracy. Serbia’s adoption of Article 43 would therefore appear to serve what Dahl describes as the democratic principles of “enlightened understanding” (196) and “effective participation” (196) required in a free and democratic government.

But Serbia’s move toward Dahl’s vision of democracy has yielded far different results. In October 2012, the Serbian government banned a Belgrade gay pride march for the second consecutive year, due to security concerns and pressure by the Serbian Orthodox Church to prevent such a “parade of shame” that would cast a “moral shadow” on Serbia (Stojanovic). This action prompted Amnesty International, a non-governmental human rights organization, to condemn the Serbian government for “going against its own legal and constitutional protections” (Amnesty International). Surely this is not the face of Dahl’s modern democracy.

The disparity between theoretical and practical democracy lies in the fabric of the nation itself. Serbia, unlike much of contemporary Europe, has a longstanding and marked tradition of suppressing free expression. This tradition, in a culturally conservative nation like Serbia, stands particularly strongly against gay rights. Mere legislation of “freedom of thought,” as Serbia’s Article 43 attempts, fails to surmount the massive barrier of tradition suppressing such symbolic speech as a gay pride parade. So what would make Article 43 legitimate, even if it is not fully practiced? To call Article 43 valid as law would depend on the theory of “legal positivism,” or the idea that the source of the law, and not the mores of the society, determine whether a law is valid. The question here is whether we should see the validity of such a law as it is written or as it is practiced; such a question becomes especially important when debating such a fundamental, democratic right as the freedom of expression and thought. To understand why the Serbian government is unable to carry out Article 43, we must look at its overreliance on the theory of legal positivism as well as its insurmountable tradition of undemocratic suppression of free expression. A nation without a history of freedom of expression can no more legislate that freedom than any historically undemocratic nation can merely legislate democracy; it must instead take a willing role in protecting and creating an enforcement mechanism for such a freedom. The case of Serbia thus has broader implications both for fledgling democracies and for agents, like the United States, invested in spreading democracy.


Because understanding the problem of legislating democracy and freedom of expression hinges on cultural mores and historical precedent, let us paint a fuller picture of Serbian history. Serbia is a relatively young sovereign state, and examining the Serbian free expression tradition must therefore not begin with its independence but instead with its existence under foreign rule. For the majority of its modern history, roughly from the end of the medieval era until the beginning of the 19th century, Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. This submission to a foreign entity, says political scientist Walter Clemens, fostered a Serbian nationalist mentality (258). Clemens notes that the Ottoman Empire’s administrative treatment of Serbia, and particularly its subjection of the non-hierarchal Serbian Orthodox Church to the Greek patriarchy, left behind “a legacy of hate” (258). But the Ottomans also left behind a legacy of Serbian “ethnocentrism.” By disassembling important Serbian institutions (like the Orthodox Church) and subjecting them to outside control, the Ottomans instilled a Serbian antipathy toward outside cultures. This ethnocentrism preceded Serbia’s great nationalism and sense of cultural superiority. These factors, claims Clemens, contributed to Serbia’s undemocratic nature (258).


The Serbia of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was hardly more progressive. While Serbia ushered in some democratic reforms at the turn of the twentieth century with the constitutional reform under Peter I, such as limited freedom of press and local self-government, many Serbians criticized the Constitution for being “too liberal and too advanced for the Balkan peninsula” (Vucinich 67). Even under these reforms, Serbia’s political system remained undemocratic; indeed, the ruling party employed political discrimination and intimidation to suppress the opposition party, and Peter’s cabinet usurped powers granted to the parliament in matters like the budget and the army (Vucinich 67). These undemocratic elements were exacerbated following World War II, when Serbia, now part of the Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), reversed many of its reforms. In Serbia Now, Dr. Pavle Nikolic of Belgrade University laments that “[i]n half a century of totalitarian rule [under the SFRY] . . . Serbian statehood, constitutionalism, and democratic tradition have been shattered” (Nikolic, Perovic, and Protic 7). Whatever movement Serbia may have made toward democracy after its independence from the Ottoman Empire, it did not last long enough to create a tradition of democratic free expression, especially without an equal undertaking by the State to support its constitutional provisions. The decades following it eradicated the idea of those freedoms from the minds of the new generation.

Arguably, the problems inherent in Serbia history climaxed under the Milošević regime, in which the government stifled the spread of information, virtually eliminated the freedom of the press, and waged a genocidal war in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Although instances of journalists being beaten or imprisoned were widely publicized, the bulk of the government’s suppression of the press was much subtler (Gordy 78). The government attacked and discredited independent media with the charges that they were “irresponsible, controlled by foreign influences, and lacking in objectivity” (78). Eric Gordy, author of The Culture of Power in Serbia, relates a reader letter to a pro-regime newspaper condemning an independent newspaper of being “credited and financed by the biggest Western scam” and of “direct[ing] all of its attacks on everything which is Serbian” (80). Of course, government suppression of the press is not necessarily equivalent to suppression of the freedom to express controversial or inflammatory ideas; it is also likely not everyone in Serbia held such radically pro-regime views. But a government that restricts politically harmful ideas in the press while allowing politically favorable opinions is just as unlikely to allow the expression of unpopular ideas through other channels. At the peak of Serbia’s troubling history of ethnic cleansing and civil war free expression was nowhere to be found. This peak of Serbia’s troubling history was only a few years before the dawn of democratic reforms and “Europeanization.”

In this brief survey of the past few centuries of Serbian history, I have emphasized that understanding Serbia’s current problems with the freedom of expression needs to be understood in the context of its history. To put it succinctly, there has never existed a longstanding culture of democracy or of freedom of expression in Serbia. Over the course of the twentieth century especially, the democratic systems and freedoms of Serbia have disintegrated, culminating in the despotic policies of the Milošević regime in the 1990s. These policies, odious to the framework of democracy, have prompted three Serbian scholars to issue a biting criticism of the Serbian government. In the conclusion of Serbia Now, published in 1996, they assert, “All the Balkan nations have political systems founded on more or less the same principles: . . . [including] a political system based on democratic processes and a respect for human rights. Only Serbia stands apart from this single direction” (Nikolic, Perovic, and Protic 48). Written at the peak of the conflict in Serbia, the conclusion urges reforms and laments the lack of a “fundamental change” (Nikolic, Perovic, and Protic 48) in Serbia’s government. A constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of expression, however noble a step toward democracy, can hardly effect this “fundamental change.” The law scratches only the surface of Serbia’s deep-seated undemocratic tradition, and it cannot alone mend the antipathy toward free expression endemic in Serbian history. 


The question, then, is how Serbia must go about ensuring a fundamental change in how the law works in practice. Specifically, how must it address its tradition of suppressing free expression, and how must it mend its tradition of undemocratic principles to achieve a more democratic and free state? The answers to these questions abound, but here I consider the course that the new Serbian government has taken since its formation in the wake of the 2006 breakup of Serbia and Montenegro. The new constitution drafted by this government hopes to breathe democratic and liberal ideals into Serbia, and Article 43 specifically guarantees the freedom of expression. But the theory of legal positivism that underpins and legitimizes Article 43 does not quite actualize that “fundamental change.” In short, in the absence of a tradition of democratic government and freedom of expression, Article 43 cannot be internalized culturally without an additional undertaking by the Serbian government to proactively foster change. This shortcoming, as we will see, is woefully evident in the government’s reaction to the Belgrade Pride parade.

Before getting to the Belgrade Pride parade, let’s first take a closer look at what we mean by “legal positivism.” It is, at heart, a nebulous concept, but for the purposes of this essay, I define “legal positivism” using the simplified definition provided by John Gardner in his essay, “Legal Positivism: 5½ Myths.” In his essay, Gardner makes a distinction between “hard” legal positivism and “soft” legal positivism, with the latter sometimes conditionally incorporating morals into its philosophical framework; however, since he focuses on the former, I, too, will refer to “hard” legal positivism in this essay. Gardner offers a proposition of legal positivism that “[i]n any legal system, whether a given norm is legally valid, and hence whether it forms part of the law of that system, depends on its sources, not its merits” (Gardner 199). This definition means that a law, independent of the “merits” or morals that underlie it, must be considered legally valid so long as the “source” of the law is some “relevant agent or agents” with the legal power to create, invoke, and enforce the law (200). That is, legal positivism concerns the source of the law, and the source only, when considering the validity of a law. It is independent of prevailing morals or cultural practices. In that sense, legal positivism means that the law does not depend on how it is actually lived out; it is, as Gardner puts it, “normatively inert” (202).

Far from “normatively inert” is Article 43 of the 2006 Serbian Constitution. Article 43, as noted before, declares that “[f]reedom of thought, conscience, beliefs, and religion shall be guaranteed, as well as the right to stand by one’s beliefs or change them by choice” [emphasis added]. In a country with such an undemocratic past as Serbia’s, can the state so easily legislate these core values? At stake here is whether, in the absence of tradition, Serbia can simply implement freedom of expression as a cultural value. According to the working theory of legal positivism, it can. Legal positivism underpins the theory of Article 43, questioning only the authority of the Serbian government to enact a valid law and neglecting whether the underlying cultural and moral “merits” legitimize that law. Article 43 rests solely on a claim of legitimacy by the government, ignoring the Serbian cultural framework and shunning any government responsibility to enforce the provision. That is, Serbia’s constitution takes the mere existence and validity of Article 43 as sufficient, while not providing any true obligations (or opportunity) to enforce the guarantee. Legal positivism essentially ignores Serbia’s long history against such freedoms, and it has troubling implications for Serbia’s future.

In other words, at no time in its modern history has Serbia enjoyed the “freedom of thought” or of “conscience” and “beliefs.” In each of the periods of Serbian history in the past five centuries, no period has granted extensive freedoms to the Serbians: not the Ottoman period, not the monarchic period, not the SFRY period, and not (at last) the Milošević period. At all times in its modern history, the tradition and culture of Serbia have contradicted the principles that the 2006 Constitution now seeks to impose on Serbia with Article 43. To put it bluntly: Article 43 expects to conjure something out of nothing, flooding water into a fallow field of tradition and expecting to cultivate a bountiful crop of civil freedom. However apparently well-meaning Article 43 is, its execution fails. Without an active effort by the government to enforce and support its guarantee of the free expression, through the courts or through tolerance of public events like Belgrade Pride, Article 43 exists only as a constitutional formality. It relies not on the hundreds of years of culture and tradition within Serbia but instead on state authority to implant, but not foster, the doctrine of free thought and expression where it did not exist before. In this way, Serbia draws on tradition in only one way: its worrying history of State disconnect with the People.


So how has the theory of legal positivism actually failed at allowing (and much less embracing) real freedoms of expression in Serbia? In the years following the enactment of the 2006 Constitution, there have been real consequences. In some instances, the gap between theory and reality has been so apparent as to completely contradict the wording of Article 43. In the past two years, for example, the Serbian government has not allowed “Belgrade Pride,” an annual gay pride march in the country’s capital. The government’s reasoning for the ban is, ostensibly, a security concern: during the 2010 parade, anti-gay rioters threw Molotov cocktails and fought with police officers, resulting in over 100 injuries (Vec and Stojanovic). The government’s motive in banning the parade, however, is suspect. First, Article 43 would require the government to actively protect the freedoms it espouses, and that would mean ensuring the security of such a parade rather than shielding the government from the responsibility of providing security. Second, the Serbian Orthodox Church acts as a barrier against this form of free expression that the government ostensibly supports, and its vociferous opinion may have influenced government against protecting the rights of the Belgrade Pride marchers. The Orthodox Church has condemned Pride as a “parade of shame” on religious grounds, saying the parade would cast a “moral shadow” on Serbia (Stojanovic).

Whatever the motive for banning the gay pride parade, the Serbian government acts outside of its Constitution and fails to meet the lofty goals established by Article 43. If the government merely uses security concerns as a scapegoat for agreement with the Orthodox Church, then it has failed to provide not only the freedom of expression present in Article 43 but also its guarantee of “the right to stand by one’s beliefs.” This is a plainly visible, egregious violation of the Constitution. But even if the Serbian government acts out of security concerns, it does its Constitution injustice. By prohibiting Belgrade Pride in the name of “security,” the government protects the hate and violence of the anti-gay rioters at the expense of the freedom of expression of the gay pride paraders.

To see how Serbia can protect the freedom of expression and freedom of belief for both Belgrade Pride and the Church, we can briefly consider a similar case in the United States. In Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), the Supreme Court protected the right of Arthur Terminiello to use derogatory language in a rally even though it ended up provoking a large riot outside. Writing for the majority, Justice William O. Douglas asserted, “That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above the public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest” (Terminiello, 4). Terminiello involved a local government unwilling to enforce a constitutional provision, and a court of higher authority taking a proactive step, even in the face of controversy, to enforce it. The case of Terminiello essentially demonstrates that the freedom of expression cannot be actualized without an enforcement mechanism, and it demonstrates a set of parallel issues for Serbia’s response to Belgrade Pride. What the Serbian government missed here was the freedom of expression, not the freedom of violent expression. Nowhere in the Serbian Constitution does it guarantee the right to violent expression, yet the Serbian government bolstered rioters while essentially prohibiting the nonviolent expression of the Pride parade. Certainly, this was never the intent of Article 43.


One may naturally question the purpose of Article 43. If it does not achieve the kind of freedom it describes, how else will Serbia eventually reach it? And even if it cannot yet actualize the ideals inherent in Article 43, does this invalidate the article’s presence altogether in Serbia’s constitution? Another way to frame this question is to ask whether a law ought to be in the constitution if it cannot be enforced, or whether the constitution is the ideal to which a nation aspires. Either way, we may be more forgiving of Serbia’s struggles with Article 43. But at issue here is not that Serbia has written free expression into its constitution. The issue is altogether something else: it is Serbia’s flawed approach to free expression, which allows it to merely legislate certain freedoms without providing some form of an enforcement mechanism. It is an approach that makes it almost too easy to see Article 43 at best as uneven enforcement and at worst as mere lip service. The Serbian government, in the absence of any culture or tradition of freedom of expression, mandated such freedoms in a single sentence in its constitution.

But without a firm backing in the form of governmental support, such a decree cannot stand, and it will crash to the ground as it has in the government’s Belgrade Pride blunders. The European Commission, a human rights advocate, has called for Serbia to better enforce its constitutional guarantee of the freedom of expression (Holzhacker 16). Likewise, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern that the Serbian government has not taken steps to enforce or legitimate court decisions (Hammarberg). The Serbian government’s lack of accountability has led it essentially to abandon Article 43, leaving its promise of the freedom of expression without any governmental support or enforcement. In short, enforcement is necessary to give the law weight beyond positivism and to allow it to effect real change in Serbian culture. The absence of Serbian government support has failed to fill the “moral” or “merits” void in Article 43, leaving only the “source” found in legal positivism. The resulting empty shell can no more usher in freedom of expression than a despotic government’s decree of democracy could result in a democratic state. The Serbian experience is a sobering lesson that no government can spurn enforcement of its laws even if legal theory considers those laws “valid.” That is, the government must work to foster an enforcement framework that can hold the law together. Only then can the government effectively translate its laws into policy. Only then can governments like Serbia prevent a shameful disregard of their own laws.     

A constitution, by any measure, is a set of laws that guides the government, that tells it where it may and may not tread, and that instructs it on the minimum it must guarantee for its citizens. A constitution is an ambitious and positive goal for any new democracy to flesh out and establish the basic rules for the nation. But the point here is that a constitution cannot exist wholly independently of the life of the citizens it is meant to protect. A constitution must be the arm of the government, and not simply some fleeting set of promises. The Serbian government, in drafting Article 43 as part of the 2006 Constitution, neglected the necessity of enforcement. It left Article 43 to an almost Spartan existence, trusting it to survive on its own amid the hostile forces of an opposing culture and tradition. What’s more, Serbia’s failure to enforce Article 43 reflects a worrying trend: the legislation of democratic principles for democracy’s sake. True, Serbia’s inclusion of Article 43 represents a noble step forward in “aspirational constitutionalism” (Scheppele 299), the process in which a country uses its constitution to articulate a set of goals or ambitions that the country hopes to achieve. But setting these aspirations out in the text of the constitution is only the first step. If the Serbian government truly does hope to guarantee freedom of expression, it must act vigilantly to protect the right of its people to express themselves, whoever they may be. And as democratic nations hope to spread democracy elsewhere, they must keep in mind that “aspirational constitutionalism” is aspirational, not a self-fulfilling prophecy. The case of Serbia serves as a reminder that establishing democracy must always be a process fostered and welcomed at the most local levels, with the consent and willing support of the people.


Works Cited

"Serbian Prime Minister bans Belgrade Pride." Amnesty International. N.p., 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://www.amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/serbian-prime-ministe....

Bridoux, Jeff and Malcolm Russell. (2012) Liberal Democracy Promotion in Iraq: A Model for the Middle East and North Africa? Foreign Policy Analysis, doi: 10.1111/j.1743-8594.2012.00181.x

Clemens, Walter C. Jr. Ethnic peace, ethnic conflict: Complexity theory on why the Baltic is not the Balkans. Communist and Post-Communist Studies Vol. 43 (2010): p. 245-261

Dahl, Robert A. What Political Institutions Does Large-Scale Democracy Require? Political Science Quarterly Vol. 120 No. 2 (Summer 2005): p. 187-197

Gardner, John. Legal Positivism: 5½ Myths. American Journal of Jurisprudence. 46 Am. J. Juris (2001): p. 199-229

Gordy, Eric D.. The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Print.

Hammarberg, Thomas. "Flawed enforcement of court decisions undermines the trust in State justice."Council of Europe . N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. www.coe.int/t/commissioner/ Viewpoint  

Holzhacker, R. (2012), State-Sponsored Homophobia and the Denial of the Right of Assembly in Central and Eastern Europe: The “Boomerang” and the “Ricochet” between European Organizations and Civil Society to Uphold Human Rights. Law & Policy. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9930.2012.00371.x

Nikolić, Pavle, Slobodan Perović, and Stojan Protic. Serbia Now: Constitutionalism, Ownership, Politics. Belgrade: Center for Serbian studies, 1996. Print.

Orlović, Slaviša. Europeanisation and Democratisation of Parties and Party System of Serbia. Politics of Europe Vol. 3 No. 1+2 (2007): p. 92-104.

Scheppele, Kim Lane. Aspirational and aversive constitutionalism: The case for studying cross-constitutional influence through negative models. I.CON Vol. 1 No. 2 (2003): p. 296-324

Stojanovic, Dusan. "Gay pride march banned in Serbia." Associated Press. N.p., 3 Oct. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/gay-pride-march-banned-serbia>.

Terminiello v. Chicago., 337 US 1 (1949),

Vec, Jovana, and Dusan Stojanovic. "Rioters Throw Molotov Cocktails At Gay Pride Parade In Belgrade, Serbia." The Huffington Post. N.p., 10 Oct. 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/ 10/10/serbia-gay-pride-parade-riots_n_757329.html>.

Vucinich, Wayne S. Serbia between East and West: the events of 1903-1908. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1954. Print.





A New Narrative for HIV/AIDS? How Tory Dent Made Her Way through the Prevailing Rhetoric of Identity, Death & Disease

Claire Atwood


When we talk abour HIV/AIDS, we are not just talking about disease. We are talking about any number of dimensions that the disease might take: the science behind its replication and treatment, the politics behind its funding and coverage, the activism behind our awareness of it.  There is no talking about HIV in some kind of unfettered state that is not associated with a from a preloaded narrative about it. So says G. Thomas Couser, who in his book Recovering Bodies explores the challenges ill and disabled people face when writing about themselves. He explains that much of the difficulty in talking about HIV/AIDS results from the fact that “AIDS is culturally constructed, or ‘written,’ as a series of narratives” (Couser 84). These narratives end up manifesting themselves as “hegemonic scripts or metaphors” (Couser 86) that inform or, worse, determine, how we talk about HIV/AIDS. Couser sees these metaphors and narratives on large, aggregate stages, and he addresses how those large stages end up directing the way individuals talk about HIV/AIDS, whether or not they are aware of it. Take, for example, the way AIDS diagnoses are couched as death sentences. Or, as Lee Edelman notes, how legislators and even doctors can imply that people contract HIV by surrendering themsleves to unfavorable sexual or drug habits, a “dangerous discourse of mastery” (81) that has prompted gay rights activists “to defend themselves” (81) against the distorted relationships of their bodies and their sexualities (80). As both scholars and activists have pointed out, and which has become increasingly clear to a wider public, these overriding narratives often are defeating for persons with AIDS .

         The prevailing solution to this issue has its own problems. As Couser points out, activists and persons with AIDS have typically attempted to subvert these stigmatizing narratives by going personal (79), and we have seen many memoirs and testimonials try to establish a more compassionate and individual narrative of the disease. These more personal narratives, claims Edelman, have not entirely freed HIV/AIDS from the larger, more imposing narratives of the disease, and they can even end up recycling similar stories and similar attitudes. In Edelman’s words, writing and speech on HIV/AIDS has been a history of “homophobic and antihomophobic forces alike generat[ing] . . . discourses that reify and absolutize identities” (86). That is, all sides of the debate tend to emphasize identity in a way that cannot actually contain the various ways in which a person can identify. What’s more, these personal narratives of AIDS can end up being interpreted ungenerously by a public readership, whose attitudes toward AIDS have already been determined by its larger (and often phobic) narratives. As such, the voices of individual stories tend to get absorbed into the politicized din of AIDS. Even in the creative media of art and literature, where persons with AIDS may have more say in representing their illness and themselves, the specter of those public narratives still hangs over their work. Such narratives make it difficult for writers and artists to separate their voices from those of politicians, scientists, and even friendly activists. They struggle, in other words, to find a voice that faithfully expresses their experiences without being subordinated to some greater agenda about death, promiscuity, or morality, among the many more we can imagine. Although the authors of autobiographical AIDS narratives have, in Couser’s words, “the potential of countering hegemonic scripts” (89), they are then faced with the problem of how to represent their experience when all available language they might draw on seems better built to serve an agenda.

This is the problem in which Tory Dent rather elegantly, if cryptically, inserted herself. Dent, a poet who wrote of her own experience with AIDs, passed away in 2005 of AIDS-associated illness after having written three books of poetry, winning the James Laughlin Award, and being honored by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. Reading her poetic sequence, “HIV, Mon Amour,” the title poem of her second book, reveals a possible solution to the problem of defining one’s voice, and therefore one’s own experience, when addressing HIV/AIDs. Her sequence is structured as a series of lyric love poems, all written to HIV, and here is where she first distinguishes herself from the prevailing literature on HIV/AIDS: her lyric poetry is as far removed as possible from journalistic, scientific, and political expression. This is not to say that she is the only or first poet to write lyrically about HIV. Hers is a poetry, however, that stands out for the way it codes the most prosaic experiences in metaphors so imagistic and visceral that the poems overwhelm any influence of those larger, socially prescriptive narratives. While Dent adopts stigma by the very act of writing about HIV/AIDs, she uses it unconventionally; Edelman notes that the prevailing narratives are “strain[s] of metaphor that can appear so natural” that they seem to be true (91), but throughout her poems Dent adopts these narratives in a way so blatant as to make them seem anything but natural. In one poem Dent describes herself in terms of immorality and promiscuity, two prominent narratives surrounding HIV, but conveys these scripts in their most graphic form: “I float, a corpse offered up as carrion . . . / stretched out, a canvas, a salt lick, a virgin, for only a god would seduce a virgin / until she becomes a whore” (XXVII 11-13). The effect is to strip the sex-shaming narrative of its allure by bringing it out into the open and to assert the poet’s individual voice as more powerful than that of the public. But such lines are just as likely to alienate Dent’s speaker from AIDS activists and the language they use. In this sense, Dent leverages alienation to assert autonomy. What we will see, then, is that Dent appropriates certain narratives of AIDS by taking them to jarring metaphorical extremes. She builds, in these extremes, a language for herself that tears itself away from our prevailing notions of HIV.


To better understand Dent’s relationship to those prevailing narratives of HIV/AIDS, it will be helpful to view them through the lens of Erving Goffman’s theory of stigmatization. Goffman outlines this theory in his now-classic book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Examining Goffman’s ideas will be particularly useful in understanding how public narratives of HIV/AIDS often end up determining how individuals with AIDS relate to themselves, to their disease, and to the world around them. Goffman claims stigma is usually attached to some personal “defect,” either in appearance, character, or group identity (4), that prevents others from giving the stigmatized individual “the respect and regard” (8) they are due. That stigmatized individual, says Goffman, ends up internalizing the stigma itself, often “finding that some of his own attributes warrant it” (8-9). The resultant “discrepancy . . . between an individual’s virtual and actual identity . . . spoils his social identity, cutting him off from society and himself” (19). Stigmatized individuals end up playing two social roles as a result of this discrepancy between their identities, and they become adept at switching between those roles. On one hand, they will go to great lengths to identify with other stigmatized people, and on the other, they will go to equally great lengths to identify with the larger public as a normal person (134-5) Although most of the stigmas Goffman mentions are physically visible (deformities, for example) and non-life-threatening (16), the existence of a stigma surrounding AIDS is undeniable. Arguably, the deadliness and visual undetectability of AIDS only add to its stigma by adding paranoia and fear (do they have it? could they spread it to me?) to a disease already conflated with sexual transgression in the public’s thoughts.



As such, we may apply Goffman’s theories to HIV/AIDS narratives and to Dent in particular, reaching the preliminary conclusion that Dent’s extreme appropriation of HIV/AIDS narratives is her way of rebelling against stigma by destroying all trace of the role of the normal within herself. Our analysis is complicated, however, by the fact that Dent does not belong to the demographic that has been most heavily stigmatized for HIV/AIDS in the past: gay males. After all, Couser says of HIV/AIDS that “though it is by no means confined to gay men, [it] remains associated in the minds of many with male homosexuality” (100). At issue, of course, is not whether HIV narratives affect Dent, but whether prevailing narratives of HIV would take her into consideration. As poet and critic Wayne Koestenbaum explains, it is not just the demographics of persons with AIDS but the demographics of representation that have shifted; representing AIDS is no longer dominated by gay men. As time goes by, Koestenbaum observes, “heterosexual transmission of AIDS gains publicity, and . . . the dividing line blurs between straight and gay as identities (as opposed to behaviors)” (168). This means that writers like Tory Dent are still inevitably faced with stigma when weighing in on HIV/AIDS, even if that stigma originated from a different sexual demographic. Although Dent might or might not participate in the specific sexual practices that have been stigmatized most in HIV/AIDS narratives (Koestenbaum 168), the blurring of sexual identities with respect to the spread of the disease means that the demographic boundaries of stigmatization break down as well. Given these conditions, the alienation that Dent uses to eke out an autonomous voice can be seen as a consequence of her uniquely alienated position with respect to the HIV/AIDS epidemic: she is burdened with the stigma that affects all persons with AIDS, but she is not a part of the demographic that was originally stigmatized. Her disruption of our expectations of a person with AIDS will be the first of many that Dent leverages to make an autonomous voice for herself.



We now can turn to Dent’s poems to see how she manages these prevailing narratives by turning alienation into autonomy. What we might first notice is that alienation in Dent’s poems stems largely from the lyric form: the poems are explicitly closed off from the outside world and its narratives, and this allows Dent to create her a language isolated from the politics of HIV/AIDS. Doing so also lends credibility to her subversion of those narratives. Throughout the collection, Dent makes no overt address to her fellow AIDS sufferers or the officials who have controlled the perception of HIV/AIDS. Nor does she attempt to locate herself within a community of fellow sufferers. In fact, she suggests that she does not feel any more connected fellow persons with AIDS than she would to strangers picked out of a phone book; she imagines “[her] name / composed within a disseminating list as if it were from the phone book whence [she] came” (XX 5-6). In this way, Dent rejects any comforting (but ultimately, she implies, contrived) narrative of solidarity as much as she rejects any narrative of condemnation.

As an alternative to any form of community, Dent depicts herself as utterly alone but for her one intimate and addressee, HIV. We see this when Dent writes that in the “amphitheater” of her life’s performance, “[n]o one was there as the beholder but us” (XIV 7-8) – here “us” should not be read as talking to us, her readers, but to her sole addressee. Because Dent is imagining herself and HIV as social actors, we can view her writing alongside another component of Goffman’s theory of stigma. Goffman theorizes that stigmatized people have “back places” (81) where they can be with people who have similar problems and “find they need not try to conceal their stigma” (81). Within “HIV, Mon Amour,” it seems that Dent’s only “back place” is structured into the conceit of the poetry: the space of close conversation between herself and HIV. Other figures only play into the poetic sequence briefly as emblems of the malevolent discourse from which she so pointedly distances herself. For example, take the following lines: “‘I think women who are HIV positive that have children are murderers, don’t you?’ / said the woman on a lawn chair” (VIII 5-7). The clever line break gives us momentary pause as we are unsure who is uttering such mean-spirited words. In response, Dent “look[s] to the swimming pool for alliance” (VIII 8), showing the extent of her alienation from those who stigmatize AIDS as much as her own potential supporters. So while Dent generally writes in a way that alienates her work from the narratives surrounding AIDS, she does feel isolated from them. Her “eyes exempt themselves from compassion, from cultural interests, from the peripheral vision of human potential” (VII).

What does this exemption say about Dent’s stigmatization and her relationship to those narratives surrounding HIV/AIDS? The answer lies in the way her isolation from society and other persons with AIDS allows her to appropriate their stories and iconography in a way that negates the meaning of those narratives. She does not, in other words, simply place her voice within the politicized narrative of HIV. In poem VI, for example, Dent imagines a symbol of HIV/AIDS solidarity, a red ribbon, that “tapes my mouth, blinds my eyes, erases my genitals” (11). That Dent has called the ribbon “simple” and a “factual litany / shaved down to the particular” (9-10) in the previous lines shows that she doubts the validity of the too-reductive ribbon as a symbol at all. The fact that it is the ribbon, not the disease, that she envisions “string[ing] me up, a carcass in an icebox” (12) shows her resistance to what it symbolizes: letting AIDS (in a distilled and palatable form) define her identity and, by extension, her writing. The figure of the ribbon is Dent’s response to what scholar Judith Williamson describes as the “complete absence of meaning” of HIV infection (69). That Dent imagines what is (for her) a trivial symbol as the cause of her own death reflects that the fatal stigma of HIV/AIDS seems arbitrary due in part to the lack of any physical marking of the disease (it needs a ribbon to give it physicality), and also to Dent’s sense of alienation from the community that the ribbon implies. This sense of arbitrariness alienates Dent from what Williamson describes as the “narratives that seem to be going somewhere” and through which “AIDS is invested with meaning” (69-70) in order to fit into a social agenda. Specifically, Dent is eschewing the “melodrama . . . whose sentimentality is the flip side of horror’s brutality” (Williamson 71). The ribbon is a perfect example of such melodrama, drawing persons with AIDS into a united front of solidarity with strangers, celebrities, activists, the research organizations funded by sales, and the merchandisers who incorporate the ribbon into products. By taking the narrative embodied in the ribbon to violent extremes, Dent is alienating herself not only from PWA but from the discourse associated with them, which seeks to subordinate individual experiences with illness to broader socio-political goals.

Indeed, Dent attempts to free herself not just from the reductive narratives of stigmatizers and activists, but also from the construal of discourse as a politicized tool that simplifies or categorizes reality. The fundamental unreliabilty of such discourse is a particular issue for HIV/AIDS because, as Lee Edelman describes, the very concept of talking about HIV/AIDS has been imbued with political significance. AIDS stigmatizers have viewed discourse on HIV/AIDS as a direct means of spreading  homosexuality (Edelman 87), while activists have viewed “the production of discourse . . . as a mode of defense . . . against the opportunistic infections of demagogic rhetoric” (Edelman 87-8). Dent rejects these approaches by detaching herself from the use of language as a social tool, which helps to explain the abstraction and inaccessibility of her words as a deliberate attempt to retreat from the political fray. When describing her anticipation of death in poem XVII, for instance, Dent states that the “innocence of abyss arches its trajectory of deletion across the image repertoire of your failures” (2-3). Such lines are representative of Dent’s preferred style of using large words and creating insulated images whose sensory aspects are subordinated to the abstract. This loftiness of tone makes her language difficult to understand in demagogic socio-political terms, but it also makes it hard to understand in terms that might be more friendly to persons with AIDS. Dent’s poems lack rhyme, varying line length, and the other formal features that make poetry more visually and mentally palatable. Instead, they form imposing blocks of texts on the page with long lines and phrases. Thus, the formal structure of the collection rejects inattentive reading and the simplicity of ideas that often comes with demagogic rhetoric. Together, the style and structure of the poems help to ensure that Dent’s poetic idiosyncracies are understood as clues to her complex personal experience, rather than as something more generalizable or applicable, such as an attempt to chronicle the experience of HIV. Dent makes her writing difficult to shove into any prevailing wisdom on the disease.



Given that isolating herself from all socially and politically charged discourse on HIV/AIDS is Dent’s chosen route to creating an autonomous voice, we should ask ourselves an important question: does such an approach not simply construct new narratives that unfairly impose their order on the meaninglessness of HIV/AIDS? Other writers have dealt with similar problems, most notably the authors of AIDS diaries. The scholar Ross Chambers examines this genre of writing in his book Untimely Intervention, in which he reexamines Goffman’s theories of stigma in light of the way AIDS diarists represent their illness and themselves. According to Chambers, autobiographical chroniclers of the AIDS experience are seen to be de-legitimatized as voices because they speak from an “ungrammatical” (61) perspective, meaning that their prerogative for writing about AIDS is perceived to be in question because they dare to perform the suspicious act of taking a stigma onto themselves (61). In order to justify their writing, says Chambers, AIDS diarists become preoccupied with “understanding [their] own rhetorical status” (63) while simultaneously representing their experience (63-4). A similar self-questioning can be seen in Dent’s poetry, which periodically questions its own reason for existence. Within her collection, these moments when Dent candidly admits to her sense of futility end up reinforcing her independent voice and its freedom from the narrative agendas that often color representations of HIV and of persons with AIDS.

To assert her personal identity in this way, Dent expresses doubt in the project of her poetry by acknowledging the conflict between her wish to impose narrative on her life (and, by extension, her poetry) and her skepticism about trying to make any sense of her experiences. This dilemma is introduced in poem I, when she lays out the project of the collection while at the same time remarking on its futility. When she describes “reverberations of light” (11) that “attempt to forestall the entropy of horizon from the sun” (11), Dent is alluding to her attempts to order her experience through writing as regulated and beautiful as light-reverberations, but which will ultimately prove powerless to stop the chaos signaled by “entropy.” The figure is effective precisely because it plays off of the familiar narrative in which the emphasis, as Couser explains,  on the “invariable fatality” of AIDS causes sufferers to “see themselves prematurely as doomed” (82). The vivid and unusual phrasing of the metaphor serves an analogous role to the extreme appropriations of narratives; even though Dent is speaking about inevitability from within a familiar narrative, she asserts her voice by acknowledging the impact public discourse has on her self-perception while making sure that the lyric imagery of her work makes a stronger impact than the imposed narratives. In this way, she lets the individual voice dominate the socially imposed one.

True, employing her own poetic voice at times becomes a chore for Dent, who in poem XXII expresses her frustration that she must keep making figures of speech and images out of prosaic life because “it’s not enough to love . . . work . . . pray” (5-6). These moments, like the self-questioning in Chambers’ AIDS diaries, might seem at first to be a compromise of her literary ideals, but in reality they serve to enhance the writer’s credibility. Allowing cracks of exhaustion, self-doubt, and anger at her project to appear through the veneer of beautiful poetic imagery emphasizes that Dent is not giving us an idealized portrayal of HIV; the tone of the poetic sequence seem to fluctuate based not only on what is most artistically sound but on how well Dent might be feeling on a given day. These reflexive self-doubts increase in frequency towards the end of the collection. In poem XXXII, Dent wishes she “could fast forward, dismiss my stand-in, cancel / my performance . . . fulfill my misery quota and be done with it” (2-4). Once again, we see Dent attempting to appropriate and subvert a particular AIDS narrative – this time, the perception (as identified by Couser) that “seropositive individuals . . . somehow [are] deserving [of] their disease” (83), as if Dent could do penance for it to stave it off. The difference between this particular appropriation and her other, more extreme, violent, and vivid appropriations of narratives, is this: her language here is unadorned and even falls into cliché with “fast forward” and “misery quota.” Where the earlier appropriations were made extreme to take back the language of HIV/AIDS, this one is so half-hearted that it becomes a poignant expression of Dent’s humanity in the face of possible death. Because the numbered cycle can be interpreted as a chronological record of Dent’s experience with HIV/AIDS, making the poems retain lofty imagery all the way through would itself ring false. Instead, letting her image-making capabilities vacillate with her vacillating health preserves a vital component of Tory Dent’s autonomous voice: the jarring reminder of her existence and her real experience beyond the page.



The reader of Dent’s “HIV, Mon Amour,” then, is presented with a chronicle of deceptive humanity whose sometimes prohibitively lofty or jarring language can be understood as part of a poetic mission of appropriation, subversion, and willful self-alienation in the quest for an autonomous voice. Numerous features of Dent’s poetry, from the central conceit of HIV as a lover to the entire scheme of conquering narratives by adopting them, reflect a deep understanding that social stigma and public narratives are inescapable for the individual person with AIDS. These features of Dent’s poetry also reflect the understanding that countering the effects of these stigmas on one’s self-image requires more sophisticated measures than simple denial of their efficacy. As Koestenbaum says, by “[s]peaking about AIDS, one becomes a citizen of it, and obeys its rules. The first rule: . . . [e]very word takes place within the syndrome’s parameters” (169).

Dent’s ingenuity in breaking these parameters is a large part of what made “HIV, Mon Amour” a remarkable achievement for its time. In the context of HIV/AIDS’ politically fraught history, Dent’s poetry put the insidious potential of language out in the open and affirmed that the narrative of HIV/AIDS can be reclaimed from within. Today, however, the discourse on HIV/AIDS is in danger of falling silent altogether. “HIV, Mon Amour” was published in 1999, arguably past the peak of HIV/AIDS’ media attention, and since then it seems the issue has only grown more distant from the public’s mind. In 2009, the nonpartisan non-profit Public Agenda released a report on attitudes towards HIV/AIDS among the general public; by and large, the focus groups they interviewed felt HIV/AIDS was “no longer a serious issue” and noted that there was “little to no continuing dialogue concerning AIDS” (13). As such, we have compelling reasons to revisit Dent’s poetry today. While combating the stigma of HIV/AIDS is an important task, works like Dent’s do more than subvert stigma and oppressive narratives – they create their own narratives  that assert the complex human lives behind the statistics and red ribbons. No matter what the era, Tory Dent’s poetry will remain an exemplar of how personal, frank, and potent HIV/AIDS representation can be. Whether in literature, film, art, or journalism, portrayals like hers have the potential to sway minds and sympathies. They have worked well against hysteria; perhaps they will be able to do something about apathy.























Works Cited


Chambers, Ross. Untimely Interventions : AIDS Writing, Testimonial, and the Rhetoric of Haunting. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2004. Print.


Couser, G. Thomas. "HIV/AIDS and Its Stories." Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life-Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1997. 81-176. Print.


Dent, Tory. HIV, Mon Amour: Poems. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow, 1999. Print.


Edelman, Lee. "Equations, Identities, and "AIDS"."  Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1994. 79-117. Print.


Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Print.


Koestenbaum, Wayne. "Speaking in the Shadow of AIDS." The State of the Language. Ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks. Berkeley: University of California, 1980. 163-70. Print.


Rochkind, Jonathan, Samantha Dupont, and Amber Ott. Impressions on HIV/AIDS in America: A Report on Conversations with People throughout the Country. Rep. Public Agenda, May 2009. Web.


Williamson, Judith. "Every Virus Tells a Story: The Meanings of HIV and AIDS." Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics. Ed. Erica Carter and Simon Watney. London: Serpent's Tail, 1989. 69-80. Print.



An Unsuspected Ideal: Reassessing the Treatment of Representational Art in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art

2013 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing

Olivier Simon


In his 1925 book The Dehumanization of Art, José Ortega y Gasset seeks to delineate, justify and champion modern art and its move toward abstraction. Central to his argument is a progression he sees from representational art to modern art, which he describes as a fundamental move from “human” or “realistic” art to what he calls “dehumanized art.” Representational art, says Ortega y Gasset, seeks to act like “an extract from life” (12) by creating a lifelike illusion of figures, scenes and situations as we might see them in real life. Behind this aim of representational art lies the idea that clarity and accuracy can give us, as Ortega y Gasset puts it, “imaginary intercourses” (21) with the depicted objects. Such an art for Ortega y Gasset, however, is “impure” (11) because it does not directly appeal to “true artistic pleasure” (9) that should arise from an enjoyment of artistic form alone. In this sense, we become enraptured by the story representational art tells us rather than by its lines, colors and composition. In other words, in representational art we cease to see what makes it art, and visually latch onto the representation itself. Modern art for Ortega y Gasset thus attempts to retrain our eye to look at the art itself, in large part by refocusing us on its formal features in a way that makes “purely aesthetic elements predominate” (9). The only way to achieve this goal, Ortega y Gasset contends, is for modern art to “dehumanize” itself, that is, to move drastically and consciously away from lifelike depictions so as to render reality in abstraction. He suggests that such an abstraction actually captures the essence of the object itself while foregrounding the aesthetic considerations of the media in which an artist is working. The slightest anchors that these dehumanized works of art have to reality, Ortega y Gasset suggests, collectively work to give us enough pause to begin to decipher the abstraction. From this Ortega y Gasset concludes that where traditional art makes its viewers experience “a state of mind which is essentially undistinguishable from their ordinary behavior” (9), modern art is revolutionary in that it “leaves [the audience] locked up in an abstruse universe, surrounded by objects with which human dealings are inconceivable” (21-22).

This summary of Ortega y Gasset’s theory offers us a credible account of what makes modern art unique. But can it be true that representational art is incapable of arousing in us the same kind of response that modern art does? To answer this question, we will test Ortega y Gasset’s theory against the 17th century painting Self-Portrait with an Easel by Nicolas Régnier. This French Renaissance oil on canvas depicts a painter in front of a large easel as he is painting a bust portrait. The scene is shrouded in shadows and two figures stare at the audience, building tension between the artwork and us. But however representational, Self-Portrait is a particularly interesting case study because it does not lend itself so easily to being classified in either of the two categories defined by Ortega y Gasset. In short, it is a painting that represents in literal human form the representational qualities Ortega y Gasset seems to question, but it also captures a moment of making art. Surely such a painting that captures the art of making art would cast into doubt the discreet classifications of representational and dehumanized art. Balancing Ortega y Gasset’s theory against Self-Portrait, in other words, will reveal that a work of representational art can go beyond a blank emulation of reality and “leav[e] us locked up in an abstruse universe” (21-22). While Self-Portrait is definitely “realistic” in its formal features, it also invites the sort of response that Ortega y Gasset attributes to modern “dehumanized” art. More important, it does so in a way that is not explicitly discussed by Ortega y Gasset. Ultimately, attempting to reconcile Ortega y Gasset’s theory with the evidence of Self-Portrait will reveal a foundational but subtle point in Ortega y Gasset’s argument and suggest a reassessment of his purpose. We will see Self-Portrait, in other words, as an unsuspected ideal of Ortega y Gasset’s theory of dehumanized art, in large part because it makes us hyper-conscious of its play on reality. That play with reality, much like dehumanized art, unsettles us, and draws our attention to the painting’s own formal composition over its depiction of reality.


Understanding why Self-Portrait with an Easel appears to complicate the Ortega y Gasset’s theory requires us first to assess the dichotomy between realistic and dehumanized art. Specifically, we need to address the dichotomy in terms of the mechanisms that Ortega y Gasset claims each type of art uses to elicit specific responses from us. Representational art strives to recreate our everyday affairs by embracing what Ortega y Gasset calls “human realities” (11), or the set of experiences framing human existence. This art presents lifelike, intelligible content that we can easily relate to and, more important, get emotionally involved with. This kind of art, for Ortega y Gasset, essentially “reduces the strictly aesthetic elements to a minimum” (11) so as to depict everyday figures and scenes as accurately as possible. In short, artists who deal in this kind of realism do not want to distract our attention from the human story they seek to tell in their work, which Ortega y Gasset derides as wanting to “let [their] work consist almost entirely in a fiction of human realities” (11). Realistic art is meant to be a simulation of real life, and Ortega y Gasset claims that this prevents us from properly engaging (and enjoying) the aesthetic elements of the artwork itself; rather, we “look right through [the work of art] and revel in the human reality with which the work deals” (11). Thus, for Ortega y Gasset, realistic art is not only lifelike but also reliable and comforting because in it the objects of our lives “are at once recognized” and “are our good old friends” (21).

Modern art, on the contrary, essentially seeks to unsettle us, to give us pause upon misrecognition, and to distance us from those recognizable objects of our lives. This dehumanized art for Ortega y Gasset spawns from the recognition that “[a]n object of art is artistic only in so far as it is not real” (10). In other words, the very purpose of an artwork is to be valuable and exist independently from the reality that might have inspired it. In order to address directly our aesthetic sensibilities, Ortega y Gasset claims modern art must impose a fictitious nature on the canvas by doing away with lifelike depictions. It instead must create fictions in which there is as little subject matter as possible, leaving us to see the artistic form itself. So, while a modern artist may “paint a man who resembles a man as little as possible” or “a cone miraculously emerging … from what used to be a mountain” (23), in practice, such shapes become unrecognizable, the colors unrealistic, and the content abstract and ambiguous. Again, the idea is to leave in the composition as little as possible those “human realities” that would otherwise distract us from a purely aesthetic enjoyment of the work.           

We will come to see that an important element of Ortega y Gasset’s theory is the role of consciousness, intention and purpose. He emphasizes that the modern move toward dehumanization does more than simply suppress realistic content or, worse, fail at capturing it: “It is not that the painter is bungling and fails to render the natural” (21). Rather, the painter challenges reality through “an explicit act of dehumanization” (22). In other words, dehumanization creates a new universe of seeing by actively and deliberately disfiguring or distorting reality. “The question,” Ortega y Gasset contends, “is not to paint something altogether different from a man, a house, a mountain; but to paint a man who resembles a man as little as possible” (23). This is why, Ortega y Gasset claims, modern art is unique and “leaves us locked up in an abstruse universe” (21-22). Modern art is unsettling to the viewer and constitutes for the artist “a triumph over human matter” (23). We therefore see how the distinction between dehumanized and realistic art for Ortega y Gasset essentially lies in two spheres: the type of response that each form of art purposefully seeks to elicit in its respective audience, and the formal choices that each relies on in order to do so.


While the contrast between realistic and dehumanized art appears definite in Ortega y Gasset’s framework, Self-Portrait with an Easel, an oil canvas by French artist Nicolas Régnier (1590-1667), seems to blur the lines of this sharp distinction. Put briefly: it adopts the form of realistic art and yet invites the sort of interactions with the artwork typical of dehumanized works. At first sight, Self-Portrait appears to epitomize Ortega y Gasset’s description of realistic art. Indeed, the degree to which the personages in it appear like real living beings is highly impressive, and even the title of the work announces the extent to which it aims at realistic representation. Almost everything about the painting seems representational: it depicts a painter in front of a large easel, palette in the hand, while he is busy painting the bust portrait of a man; the painter is dramatically dressed in a pitch black robe and wears an imposing and equally black hat; the man on the easel has a noble, fatherly allure and wears a red coat with a large furry collar; and the easel is positioned so that his bust is oriented toward the artist in front of him, yet his head is slightly tilted to the right so that he faces us. In an entirely parallel manner, the painter has his body facing his artwork but, instead of looking at his easel, turns his head left toward the audience. The result is a breathtaking symmetry between the painter and his easel, both personages confronting the audience with correspondingly powerful gazes. The painting, even with a cursory viewing, is visually intelligible. We can narrate what is being depicted.


In other words, it seems Régnier, much like the anonymous 1860 painter that Ortega y Gasset discusses in his book, had as his first concern “securing [the] likeness” (21) of his subject. Indeed, Régnier would seem to have “wanted nothing so much as to give the objects in his picture the same looks and airs they possess outside it when they occur as parts of the ‘lived’ or ‘human’ reality” (Ortega y Gasset 20). The human figures, the canvas, the hand, palette and eyes—all are highly detailed and carefully crafted so that we may recognize all of those human realities without effort. The brushstrokes are invisible, so that the painting looks almost like a color photograph. Throughout the composition, the traits are fine and precise, the colors and textures are smooth, and the shadows shrouding the background of both painted scenes (the one within the canvas, and the one within the easel) are entirely naturalistic. Self-Portrait is a work of art that Ortega y Gasset would readily identify as a realistic work of art, one that embraces a lifelike rendering of reality and that leads its audience through a reenactment of everyday life rather than through pure abstraction.

However, deeper considerations should make us hesitate in labeling Self-Portrait so readily representational. Recall that Ortega y Gasset’s distinction between realistic and modern art relies on a pairing between specific formal choices and specific responses from the audience. The representational features of realistic art, Ortega y Gasset theorizes, elicit a sense of familiarity and emotional involvement while the abstract features of dehumanized art elicit surprise and disorientation. The first clue that Self-Portrait does not fall into this simple division comes from the initial response the painting generates. While we expect realistic art to reify our lived experiences, to depict objects that are emotionally intelligible and that require only our “human sensibility and willingness to sympathize with our neighbor’s joys and worries” (Ortega y Gasset 11), Self-Portrait is somehow unsettling in its depiction. The strange symmetry of the composition is certainly involved in this effect, for it permeates the scene with something unnatural. The likeness between the painter and the figure on the easel, from their postures and their traits to the identical nature and direction of their gaze, seems too coincidental not to be constructed, construed or otherwise unnatural. The farther edge of the easel disappears into the background shadows so that the man on it protrudes strangely from his canvas, as if ready to step out of it and into the painter’s reality. As a result of this symmetry, the oval portrait on the easel functions like a central mirror, building a dual reality in the middle of the canvas that confounds us: who is the painter and who is the painted? The palette and brushes stand between the two figures, further blurring the distinction. More troubling still are the symmetric gazes of the personages, commonly and intently fixed upon us. Together they draw us into in the aesthetic process of a visual mise en abyme, in which an image contains in it a reference to or a copy of itself, suggesting infinite regression. This mise en abyme challenges us to evade the sense of vertigo that comes from staring at (and in turn being stared at by) the painting of a painter painting. The work of art seems so self-referential that it legitimizes its own reality over the reality its viewer, just as Ortega y Gasset contends a work of dehumanized art would.

Of course, Self-Portrait still operates on a realistic conceit, and the painting within the painting, as well as its resulting visual confusion, could readily be identified as mere visual tricks or play, not strategies that truly estrange the viewer from reality or constrain him to alien interactions for which he has no landmarks. However, even on this ground, Self-Portrait is akin to a work of dehumanized art. In terms of interactions with the artwork, Ortega y Gasset emphasizes that realistic paintings are appealing to us because we see in them “figures of men or women whom it would be interesting to meet” (9). In Self-Portrait however, the technique of mise en abyme prevents such a familiar interaction with the painting. First, if we attempted to imagine ourselves in a discussion with the working painter, we would be at a loss trying to determine which of the two figures we should address as the “real” painter. Second, the mise en abyme places us in a position in which we are not allowed to initiate and lead a normal interaction. Indeed, elements of the painting suggest that we are in fact the ones being painted, or even that we are the painting and that they are viewing us. The implied mirrors, the last one of which would be the physical plane of the painting itself, mingles so much what is an image with what is real that the painting casts our own reality into question. This would explain why the painter, holding his palette, looks at us as if we were his subject or his canvas. Even the title Self-Portrait with an Easel makes it unclear who is the “self” being painted, implying that it could as well be us. Thus, the painting strips us of our privilege position as exterior onlookers, making us vulnerable and thus “compels [us] to improvise other forms of intercourse completely distinct from our ordinary ways with things” (Ortega y Gasset 22). “With the objects of modern pictures,” Ortega y Gasset claims, “no intercourse is possible” (21). For Self-Portrait also, the kind of “imaginary intercourse” (21) in realistic art is impossible. This is because we cannot be part of an intercourse that endangers our status as outside viewers (or at least makes that status uncertain). Making us unsure as to where we stand in the triangle of viewer – painter – portrait renders us, in a sense, speechless. Such a painting, in other words, carries us to the same brink as dehumanized art.


What we have seen is that Self-Portrait with an Easel invites a response radically different from the kind Ortega y Gasset attributes to typical representational art. In this, we can readily see that Self-Portrait problematizes Ortega y Gasset’s argument about dehumanization. For all its representational features, it is difficult to deny that there is a fictitious, unreal quality to Self-Portrait, and that this quality likewise unsettles our notions of reality and therefore puts our focus on the painting’s formal elements (and particularly its composition). We can argue that this painting too “is brazenly set on deforming reality, shattering its human aspect” (Ortega y Gasset 21), and that it substitutes reality with a fiction: a world embedded in duality, where a painter, the figure he paints and even the audience are one and the same. Important here is the element of intention: we should not read this subversion of reality as a mistake or failure. This is something Ortega y Gasset himself would recognize. He refutes the claim that modern artists might simply be read as “fail[ing] to render the natural” (Ortega y Gasset 21) and that they are “going more or less clumsily toward reality” (Ortega y Gasset 21). Dehumanized art, for Ortega y Gasset, demands different standards. Again, the modern artist “is brazenly set on deforming reality” (Ortega y Gasset) rather than representing it. The implication here is that representational art can be judged by the degree to which they are “going more or less clumsily toward reality” (Ortega  Gasset 21). But even though Self-Portrait is representational in form, judging it on this crude criterion is equally inadequate. It would miss the very play on reality in the painting, a play that aims, to use Ortega y Gasset’s words, “to construct something which is not a copy of ‘nature’ and yet possesses substance of its own” (23). And in Self-Portrait, this “something,” this new reality, imposes itself through a wide spectrum of elements that goes from the impressive size of the work to the hypnotic gaze of the personages. The figures in the painting, for all their resemblance with human creatures, are not truly men. They are surreal, inhuman; they are not “our good old friends” (21).


So it is possible for even highly representational works of art to be more than mere emulations of reality and to provide a space for the reinvention of reality as modern art does. This is not to argue, however, that Ortega y Gasset does not account for a work like Self-Portrait. On the contrary, Self-Portrait actually illustrates a subtle but central point of Ortega y Gasset’s theory, one that is easy to overlook because The Dehumanization of Art does not expand on it explicitly. Indeed, Ortega y Gasset suggests a way for us to look at representational art in a dehumanized way. The suggestion comes when he justifies the move of modern art toward abstraction as a response to the difficulties the common viewer faces in displacing his sense of appreciation away from the subject of an artwork and toward its aesthetic rendering on a canvas. Looking at a work of art, Ortega y Gasset contends, is like looking at a garden through a window (10). We can adjust the focus of our eye to look through the transparent window and see only the garden in its details, or we can “deliberately disregard the garden and, withdrawing the ray of vision, detain it at the window” (10). This is where the suggestion that we can look at representational art in a dehumanized way comes in. When we detain our vision at the window, the garden itself blurs, its image now “a confused mass of color which appears pasted to the pane” (10). In other words, we no longer see the garden but rather the garden as it projects itself on a medium, the window. Similarly, Ortega y Gasset argues, appreciating a work of art requires a capacity to readjust our “perceptive apparatus” (11) to focus not on the human reality that is the subject behind the artwork, but rather on the aestheticized form of this subject on a medium. Hence, he emphasizes that “to enjoy Titian’s portrait of Charles the Fifth on horseback, we must forget that this is Charles the Fifth in person and see instead a portrait – that is, an image, a fiction” (10). We must not judge the portrait as a more or less efficient proxy for Charles the Fifth, but rather readjust our mind’s eye to judge how the portrait performs as an aesthetic exercise, independent from its subject.

This necessity to readjust our “perceptive apparatus” (Ortega y Gasset 11) is difficult. Ortega y Gasset contends the general audience fails to operate this kind of adjustment. To speak in the terms of Ortega y Gasset’s analogy, we are not quite skilled enough to maintain our eyes’ focus on the window. Upon seeing representational art, we can’t help but dive right in and “revel in the human reality with which the work deals” (Ortega y Gasset 11). Dehumanization then comes as a solution to this problem. It gives us reality as little as possible, and thus forces our attention on the act of aestheticization. Thus, it is not per se impossible for a representational artwork to function as a dehumanized work; it is rather that Ortega y Gasset judges the audience inept at operating the required adjustment of the “perceptive apparatus” (11). This reveals how Ortega y Gasset initially places the burden of artistic appreciation on the viewer rather than on the artist. He does not advocate so much for a new way to make art as for a new way to see art. Under this light, it appears that Ortega y Gasset would allow us to conclude that representational works like Self-Portrait in fact reach beyond a mimicry of life. He does, however, dismiss them as imperceptible to the audience of his time.


Because Self-Portrait with an Easel brings out the type of artistic interactions that Ortega y Gasset suggests are present in representational artworks but harder to perceive, the painting appears as another kind of ideal in Ortega y Gasset’s theory. It reveals how an artwork can use realistic formal choices to reach the same end as modern dehumanized art, namely, to “leav[e] us locked up in an abstruse universe” (Ortega y Gasset 21). Again, Ortega y Gasset suggests these mechanics but does not expressly consider them, in large part because he doubts the audience’s ability to focus on the aesthetic quality of an artwork whenever it contains representational features. Instead, Ortega y Gasset emphasizes the need for modern art to contain “deviations [that] point in a direction opposite to that which would lead to reality” (21) as way to buffer ourselves against our instinct to see the lived reality represented in such works. “Reality,” Ortega y Gasset theorizes, “waylays the artist to prevent his flight” (23), and so he must flee it at all costs. Yet, Self-Portrait offers an alternative. It realizes a “triumph over human matter” (Ortega y Gasset 23) not by fleeing reality, but rather by magnifying it to disorienting proportions. Thus, Self-Portrait functions like a trap, using the mechanisms of realism to trick us into unreality. To use Ortega y Gasset’s words, Self-Portrait lets us “look right through it” (11) and “invite[s] sentimental intervention” (9) by constructing an engaging illusion of life. When we start noticing the strange details of the painting’s dual universe, from the acute resemblance between the two figures to the suggestion that we might be the subject of the painting, it is already too late. The mise en abyme has closed on us, left us “locked up”; we are already prisoner, as Ortega y Gasset puts it, to the “abstruse universe” (21) of the work of art.

This ultimate understanding of Self-Portrait with an Easel as an unsuspected ideal of Ortega y Gasset’s theory explains the apparent difficulty in labeling Self-Portrait either as representational or dehumanized. It is certainly highly realistic in some of its features, yet it engages the viewer in interactions proper to dehumanized modern art. Ortega y Gasset only quickly considers the possibility of works like Self-Portrait, and even then, that consideration really only comes through the analogy of the garden and the window. But this, too, has its reasons: though being able to look at realistic artworks in a dehumanized way is part of Ortega y Gasset’s ideal, it appears that he did not think the general audience of his time would be able to do it. This is an interesting question to study from our twenty-first century viewpoint, now that we have been immersed in the modern world of abstraction for nearly a century. In fact, we almost expect to see art that goes beyond a more or less successful emulation of reality. In other words, we can understand why early commentators on modern art, like Ortega y Gasset, would cast a somewhat distrustful and perhaps elitist attitude toward the audience of art. Such attitudes would seem radical. Yet, maybe this radicalism was necessary to initiate the percolation of those ideas across the cultural matrix of the twentieth century. In other words, it may be because of a theorist like Jose Ortega y Gasset that it is even possible for us to see and experience a work of art like Self-Portrait with an Easel for what it is: art.


Works Cited

Régnier, Nicolas. Self-Portrait with an Easel. About 1620. Oil on canvas. Harvard Fogg Museum, Cambridge. Gift of Mrs. Eric Schroeder, 1982. 1982.116

Ortega y Gasset, José Ortega y Gasset. “The Dehumanization of Art”. The Dehumanization of Art and other essays on art, culture, and literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968. 8-23. Print.


Chinese Civic Identity Twenty Years After Tiananmen Square

Francesca Annicchiarico
During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Chinese activists, made up mostly of university students, occupied Beijing’s large city center, demanding democratic reforms and recognition of their civic rights. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of a progressive reformer, whose public mourning in Tiananmen Square shortly turned into protests across China. Still, the students who took the streets of Beijing lacked clear-cut programmatic goals, though they generally voiced the need to redefine civic identity within the communist regime. The protests continued until China cracked down on the demonstrators, mobilizing some 300,000 troops to end the popular uprising; it culminated in a massacre of protesters on June 4, 1989. It has been some twenty years since the wide-scale media coverage of these protests, and we now see Tiananmen Square as the first significant instance in which the Chinese people attempted, in modern times, to establish their status as citizens.

The Tiananmen Square protests, it could be argued, were overshadowed almost as soon as they erupted. The Chinese state rather quickly and violently repressed the protests in images that have now become iconic of state power over its people. The move to bring tanks and other militaristic machinery into Tiananmen Square not only marked the end of the efforts to establish civic rights, but it also effectively blocked any possibility that the ruling class would become more open towards its people. What is more, the tactic seems to have worked: some twenty years after the massacre, the Chinese people think of themselves as subjects of a coercive state apparatus more than they conceive of themselves as citizens in a political community. That such a status has become entrenched during China’s high-velocity economy of the past several decades only underscores the problem of Chinese civic identity twenty years after Tiananmen Square. The possibility for citizenship to emerge during the Tiananmen Square protests has since been eclipsed by China’s own economic emergence in the decades that have followed.  

I open with this review of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre because of the profound and controversial shift currently taking place in the country. China’s place in global politics and economics potentially positions its people to become citizens of our now globalized world. To understand this shift for China as a nation, and the transition toward citizenship for its people, means having an insight into the future political paths China might take. As Edward Steinfeld argues, the economic development and liberalization of China has allowed people to upgrade their status from “subjects” to “citizens” (9-15). However, we should be wary of equating China’s economic rise with its people’s civic emergence. Even Steinfeld hints at the essential problem, saying that the Chinese are still apolitical (11). How do we make sense of this apparent contradiction between being citizens and being apolitical? If civic identity plays a critical role in self-consciousness and in the relationships between individuals and the collective or the political, how can the Chinese be called citizens if they have no stake in the state apparatus determining their relationship? This paper argues that, even though the Chinese state is promoting the values of citizenship on a theoretical basis, its people do not yet identify themselves as citizens.

We will see this disparity between the views of the state and the views of the people in Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law, a book that documents two Chinese social groups, the old economy “rustbelt” workers and the new economy “sunbelt” workers. A quick reading of Lee’s book might indicate that the sunbelt workers seem to be emerging as citizens, as they demand legal rights and therefore seem to participate in the political process, but there are problems with such a reading that we should guard against. In short, we might easily misread their civic awareness and their demands for legal rights as a potentially emergent class of citizens. The key to understanding why their civic awareness does not raise them to the status of citizens rests on how we understand citizenship itself, and whether citizenship is determined by the state or by self-consciousness. Since these sunbelt workers do not identify themselves as citizens, we cannot conclude that China’s economic growth and liberalization has graduated its subjects into citizens.


How do we define citizenship in a modern context? We can think of citizenship from two perspectives: first, the way governments define their people, and second, the way individuals think of themselves. Steinfeld, for instance, approaches the issue of citizenship from a state perspective. He argues that dismantling the work units and a rising private sector has caused a remarkable change in the structure of society. Moreover, according to Steinfeld, the legitimacy of the state depends on forms of political participation by its people, such as paying taxes, even while prohibiting access to the political realm (7-9). However, such a view has its problems, and Steinfeld himself sets up a contradiction within his book by claiming that the Chinese have become citizens despite their apolitical status. He concludes that “[w]hat the government must do, therefore, is persuade ordinary, apolitical citizens that it rules in their interests and thus deserves their loyalty” (11). Important here is that Steinfeld acknowledges the Chinese people are apolitical; his suggestion is that if the Chinese can be persuaded that their government acts in their favor, they will see that they are citizens by default. But by adopting such a top-down approach, Steinfeld significantly limits the broader issue of citizenship. The other critical component of the argument over citizenship – that is, how the people think of themselves politically – is missing. At the very least, we could argue that recognition from both parties (the state and the people) would be necessary to discuss the possibility of citizenship in a modern context.

The distinction between what the state says and what its people think is especially important because of the mismatch between the Chinese government’s perception of its people and people’s perception of themselves. In fact, in Against the Law Lee argues that “the promulgation of laws, and the associated discourse of citizenship and legal rights, allow workers to view the self as public and to recognize the discrepancies between legal prescriptions and experiences of the absence of legal rights” (24). In other words, at a legislative level China recognizes its people as public entities, or citizens; this recognition, however, does not match the people’s real experience of denial of their citizenship status. Given this discrepancy, we can better approach the issue of civic identity in China by measuring citizenship in terms of how people think of themselves. Therefore, we should consider citizenship as a particular condition that invests the individual with some share of political power as well as a set of legal rights, such that it allows the individual to be aware of that political power and those legal rights.

The essential problem with the concept of Chinese citizenship can therefore be traced to this contradiction: individuals do not have a stake in the political system and they do not see their legal rights recognized by the state. We, too, can see this problem in two social groups that Lee analyzes in her work, the “rustbelt workers” and the “sunbelt workers.” Rustbelt workers served the communist regime in the state-owned enterprises of Northeastern China, once the center of China’s heavy industry but now characterized by economic stagnation. Many of these rustbelt workers are retirees whose pensions go unpaid by their former employers; others have been laid off or have had their jobs suspended indefinitely. Sunbelt workers are the generation of employees who are riding the wave of liberalization by migrating to the new coastal industrial poles in search of employment, often in privately owned factories (Lee, 1-8). Lee argues that both the rustbelt and the sunbelt workers are demanding an advancement of their legal rights. Speaking of the sunbelt, she writes that “[c]laims made on the basis of equality before the law and of citizens’ right to legal justice are impassioned and firm, as in the rustbelt” (195). Lee goes on to argue that even though both of these groups appeal to equality and legal justice, what they mean by those two concepts is vastly different. In the rustbelt, “The civic citizenship they have in mind is one that dovetails with the regime’s project of ‘rule by law’ rather than a ‘rule of law’ system” (Lee, 117); in the sunbelt, workers demand a “rule of law.” In other words, Lee claims that the rustbelt accepts the superior position of the government relative to the law by demanding only that the old social contract be respected; the sunbelt, on the other hand, demands that the government submit to the law, and thus requires them to implement a new legal contract. As we will see, the problem of citizenship within the rustbelt workers readily rises to the surface, but the problem of citizenship within the sunbelt workers is more nuanced. In the sunbelt, the problem of citizenship relies not so much on their relationship to their rights as their relationship to themselves. In both social groups, there is ultimately a problem with self-realization when it comes to citizenship.



We will start with the rustbelt workers. The essential reason why the modern concept of citizenship sounds foreign to them is that their legal rights are not guaranteed. As Lee explains in her book, even though the state is trying to spread a new civic identity throughout the old working class, what the rustbelt demands of the government is merely to be guaranteed the services and goods that were previously provided by the communist regime (71). When asked about legal rights, a rustbelt worker’s response is “Workers’ thinking is not that advanced!” (Lee, 116). Reactions like this show the extent to which this sector of society seems to be strongly bound to a social contract that has positioned them to be mere subjects. Moreover, Lee concludes that within rustbelt workers, “There is no criticism of the lack of popular participation in legislation, no demand for independent worker organizations, no questioning of the adequacy and rationale of law and policy set by the central authority” (117). Even the quickest read of Lee’s book, in other words, reveals to us that the lack of civic consciousness among the rustbelt workers means they lack the political experience to make claims on citizenship. Since rustbelt workers do not demand their legal rights to be guaranteed, they tend to be less concerned with political participation. This is the essential problem when discussing citizenship in the context of Chinese identity: the perception of oneself as a civic agent within a community is necessary to claim political power and therefore necessary for claims on citizenship.

Lee portrays, over and over, this kind of political powerlessness among the rustbelt workers. The protests she addresses in her book were in fact so unsuccessful that they did not involve any political breakthrough. In one instance, Lee concludes rather succinctly that “[t]he mayor refused to meet with the workers […] When darkness fell, seeing no prospect of obtaining any results, they disbanded and went home” (69). This is not to argue that success in either the political process or because of protests would be necessary to make claims on citizenship; it does, however, show the extent to which the state, even when it does nothing, can affect how the rustbelt workers relate to themselves. Even in cases in which the state agreed to the demands of the workers, it did so in such a way as to temporarily appease the protestors rather than recognize their political power (Lee, 82). We may be tempted here to read the rustbelt protests detailed in Lee’s book as indicative of their political activity, but even here there are problems. Their claims are not political in nature and they remain mostly unheard by the state, which excludes the possibility of a political outcome. Even when these claims are heard, the nature of the claims themselves are not political but economic; as one rustbelt worker described it, “We block city roads with only one demand: give us our money and we will go home” (80). While there are important ties between a modern state’s economy and its political determination, the rustbelt protests seem to have the singular goal of ensuring their livelihoods, not their political lives. As a result of the nature of their protests, the Chinese in the rustbelt cannot be considered citizens because they do not have a stake in the political system.



The sunbelt workers, however, present us with a more nuanced problem when it comes to citizenship. We might easily misread their civic awareness and their demands for legal rights, in other words, as indicating they are an emerging class of citizens. Unlike those in the rustbelt, sunbelt workers do demand the implementation of legal rights at the local level: “Once we saw the terms of the Labor Law,” one sunbelt worker relates, “we realized that what we thought of as bitterness and bad luck were actually violations of our legal rights and interests” (Lee, 170). Such an awareness of their “legal rights and interests” might lead us to conclude that they are participating in the political process. The problem here, as elsewhere, is that the sunbelt workers do not identify themselves as citizens. But can they be citizens without knowing it? The short answer is no, and this lack of identification as citizens quickly turns, in Lee’s book, into an acknowledgement that they are subjects of the state. The local governments, when they respond negatively to any claims concerning the sunbelt workers’ legal rights, drive the protesters into deep disillusionment: “We are second-class citizens, and not even that sometimes, just beasts in the eyes of the police” (Lee, 198).

We thus enter into a loop of mutually necessary conditions for citizenship: the people must perceive of themselves as citizens, and the state must recognize them as citizens. It is difficult to know which condition must be met first, but we can summarize the problem in a question: how can the sunbelt workers see themselves as citizens when the state does not guarantee their most basic labor rights? A garment worker, as a member of this sunbelt class, reported that he was told by his supervisor: “I am the boss. This is my factory. I can pay what I like to pay” (Lee, 166). Another worker clearly expresses his civic conditions: “We don’t have an inkling of citizen rights. There is no government department responsible for punishing bosses who don’t pay workers” (Lee, 199). Since the state does not intervene to protect the workers in cases like this, it is reasonable to argue that, although there might be legal rights on paper, they are not enforced. Some may argue that this contradicts my original definition of citizenship, for a state perspective is now involved in the argument. However, what is really at stake here is the impact of state policies on a citizen’s self-perception rather than how the government defines its people. As a result, sunbelt workers do not consider themselves citizens because their legal rights are not protected. It also means that, though their claims are political in the sense that they are rooted in legality, these sunbelt workers do not have a share of political power.

It is true, however, that this social group has become conscious of the existence of the theoretical rights created in their interests, and that this awareness determines a set of political actions. As one sunbelt worker put it, “The more we read these legal reports, the more we understand the legal issues involved in our own case” (Lee, 172). Addressing an illegal wage contract, another worker reported that “Some of us refused to sign, and we went to the Labor Bureau to complain about that as well” (Lee, 165). Nevertheless, their political actions do not translate into effective political power. In fact, Chinese bureaucracy subtly yet firmly blocks every political advancement attempted by the sunbelt workers. Lee explains this situation by claiming that “Chinese lawyers are prone to screening out labor cases, adopting tactics of discouragement as an indirect refusal mechanism, and misinforming and miseducating clients about the legal merits of their cases” (186). This is confirmed by the report of a worker who says that “Whenever the court was scheduled to hear our case, it was either canceled or postponed” (Lee, 188). Such mistreatments translate into a sense of political powerlessness: “We are a pitiful lot in the cities,” one worker observed (Lee, 199), while another one asked “Who cares about a weak group like us?” (Lee, 200). Clearly, the sunbelt workers do not have a stake in the political system, which causes frustration about their civic identities. They are subjected to (rather than part of) a political community, and therefore they do not view themselves as full citizens.



It should be noted that the analysis presented in this paper is limited to the cases of the old and new working classes as presented by one book on the subject. A further study of this issue would take into consideration the civic identities of the Chinese middle and upper classes. In fact, we might be tempted to read my argument that the concept of citizenship is inapplicable to the Chinese as a generalization, and to argue that there is a part of the population that does feel consider itself to be citizens. However, even though the middle and upper classes may see their legal rights implemented on a more regular basis, they are still absent from participating in the political process. Even the Chinese who have an advanced economic status or hold an influential position in the legal apparatus do not have political power because of the authoritarian structure of China. They therefore do not fit into the definition of citizenship; although they may be guaranteed a set of liberal and even economic freedoms, they are still apolitical.

Lee’s book essentially reminds us that we should be cautious in equating the economic and social rise of China to a rise in citizenship and political participation. At most, we might conclude that such an awareness of themselves as citizens slowly has been forming since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but we must also recognize that at this point, most Chinese cannot be considered citizens given the absence of their legal rights and political power. The Chinese working classes, within both the rustbelt and sunbelt, have demonstrated the problem of citizenship in China. When, in case of a privileged social status, their legal rights are recognized by the state, they are still cut off from the political field. This issue has a compelling political significance not only because being “political agents” (Lee, 72) constitutes a big part of our role in the world, but also because of what it means for China’s future: the fact that people do not view themselves as citizens might lead to ever greater discontent in China, and eventually cause the government to lose legitimacy.


Works Cited

Lee, Ching Kwan (2007). Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steinfeld, Edward S. (2010). Playing Our Game: Why China’s Economic Rise Doesn’t Threaten the West. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.



Cloak of Meritocracy Harvard’s “New Plan” of Admissions and the “Jewish Problem"

Jacob Moscona-Skolnik

2013 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing


In 1909 Abbott Lowell replaced Charles Eliot as  of Harvard University. This event represented a major turning point in Harvard’s history not only because of the stark differences between the two men, but also because their differences magnified the omnipotence of the Office of the President in University life. Analyzing Lowell’s presidency, historian Elliott Perkins (Harvard College ’23) notes, “Harvard was still small enough, but only just, to be run as a one-man show. [Lowell] seemed to be everywhere, to know everything, to have his finger in every pie and, as far as the College was concerned, he was and he did” (qtd. in Bethell 46). Correspondence about the daily workings of the University passed through Lowell’s office; Harvard alumni and affiliates wrote Lowell directly with questions, suggestions, and complaints about Harvard and the culture of its community. Lowell utilized the unilateral power of his position to influence not only the direction of the University but also, he believed, to determine the composition of the future American elite. Indeed, the authority of the Presidential Office highlighted the sharp contrast between Lowell and Eliot, especially as Lowell’s vision for the University grew further and further from the path that Eliot had prescribed. Much ink has been spilled to showcase Lowell’s power and influence, linking each alteration of University policy and practice to Lowell’s grand design. However, Lowell was often just the most visible emblem of a much broader consensus. This was especially true as Harvard began instituting policies to exclude minority students. Lowell’s bigotry was not unique. Eliot, rather than Lowell, had been the outlier by keeping the dominant prejudice at bay.

The two Harvard presidents held widely divergent opinions of Jewish and other minority students and community members. Their differences were manifested in their approaches to both national politics and university policy. On the national scale, Lowell had participated in a campaign to prevent Louis Brandeis’ nomination to the Supreme Court. Eliot, conversely, supported then President Wilson’s appointment of Brandeis—a Jew—to a position of significant national authority (Pollak 113). Eliot (President 1869-1909) had campaigned on behalf of Jews throughout his tenure at Harvard; nearing the end of his presidency Eliot even asserted, “It would please me to be followed by a Jew” (Pollak 113). Lowell’s administration, however, after just a few years in office, sensed that Jewish students were becoming an unseemly large percentage of Harvard matriculants. Lowell not only proposed a quota system for Jewish applicants, but also initiated a policy to bar black students from freshman dormitories and dining halls. In the early 1920s, new admissions procedures were devised and, in 1923, executed for the first time.

Under the direction of Lowell, the Harvard Board of Overseers established a committee in 1922 with the purpose of altering admissions policies so that Harvard “will be properly representative of all groups in our national life” (Report). Far from establishing the quota-based system that Lowell proposed, the committee reported that it had devised a plan to make admissions more just for applicants from all walks of life. The opening of the report of the committee’s findings (named “Statistical Report of the Statisticians”), presented to the University board in April 1923, asserts that the committee did not attempt to alter the racial distribution of the Harvard student body, but rather to promote a “policy of equal opportunity regardless of race and religion” (Report). Based on its collection of statistical data about the student body, the committee suggested improved procedures to “accomplish a proper selection of individuals among the available candidates for admission to Harvard College” (Report). Put simply, qualitative factors like personality and background, rather than test scores, would now carry more weight—a democratizing “sifting” process. For the first time, students who had scored poorly, but who had less-tangible strengths to offer the Harvard Community, had a leg up in admissions. Sidestepping Lowell’s brazen condemnation of particular ethnic groups, his committee had ostensibly crafted a policy of inclusion. Despite this meritocratic rhetoric, however, personal correspondence among members of the Harvard community suggests that a primary goal of the changing policies was in fact to curb the admission of minority students, especially Jews. Moreover, the desire to exclude Jews from Harvard College was not limited to Lowell or select members of the Harvard administration, but rather a sentiment broadly shared by many faculty, students, and alumni.

The committee’s proposal was praised for its diversification of the attributes and origins of Harvard students and it implemented several changes to the admissions process. For the first time, applicants were made to note their race, religion, and the origin of both parents’ last names. Moreover, the committee report suggested a measure, later approved by Harvard’s Board, to admit students attending an “approved [high] school” if they received a personal recommendation from the school—these students would not have to take an entrance examination. The committee also advocated for admitting a higher number of individuals from the US West and South, decreasing the number of admits from (more ethnically diverse) metropolitan regions (especially New York City, see discussion below on Columbia University). A follow up study that evaluated different methods of admission further advocated “comprehensive entrance examinations” (undefined in the document) and evaluation of the “qualitative standard” of a given applicant rather than empirical comparison (Beatley 1).  Rather than use a standardized examination, Harvard would instead rely on these subjective standards left undefined by Lowell’s committee and by the Harvard administration. While the proposed policy lacked objectivity, it seemed—on its surface—to rebuke the quota system and other forms of direct discrimination proposed by President Lowell.

This essay argues that, despite the claims of Harvard administrators, the new admissions criteria—birthplace, race, athleticism, personality—grew from a desire to subjectively exclude rather than include particular individuals. The result was a plan with the same underlying motivation and similar impact as the quota system proposed by Lowell, veiled in a socially conscious, novel policy. In the absence of definite and specific qualifications for admission, the administration could easily justify not admitting students with the strongest academic performance using the new “qualitative” criteria. Previous research into this pivotal period in the development of higher education has found individual Harvard administrators guilty of prejudiced action, specifically identifying Lowell as the driving force behind Harvard’s exclusionary policy. I argue, however, that a broader movement within the Harvard community gave impetus to bigoted university policy and transformation. The limited opposition to Harvard’s changing policy emerged almost entirely from the Jewish community and, like subsequent research, vilified President Lowell rather than critiquing the new admissions procedure and the bigoted social climate that inspired it. Sadly, the Committee’s prejudice—cloaked in broadening the meritocracy—won public approval that endured for decades. This broad approval is illustrated by the personal correspondences—among President Lowell, individuals in his administration, and members of the larger Harvard community—that form the body of my evidence and research. The result of this extensive campaign of exclusion is unambiguous. With University President Charles Eliot out of the picture, Jews were left largely alone in their protest against the committee’s findings and decisions. These decisions were motivated and then praised not just by President Lowell, but also by broad swaths of the Harvard community.


Before understanding how Harvard’s new admissions policy veiled widespread prejudice in meritocracy, we must first get a better handle on the new plan itself. The plan provides bare-faced evidence that Lowell’s committee, and the broader Harvard administration, employed the euphemistic term “equal opportunity” as a cover for a pernicious program. University records illustrate that clear attempts to stigmatize and eliminate Jews from college life underlie the Lowell administration’s changes to the admissions procedure. The 100+ pages of “statistical data” on which Lowell’s committee relied all pertain to Jewish students and their activity (Statistical Report). The report’s exclusive focus on the Jewish community suggests deep flaws in the formulation of the report itself and leads to the conclusion that, rather than a comprehensive review of Harvard’s admitted students, the report was a launching pad for criticism of Jewish students. Moreover, the statistical report was kept secret so that “few people outside the committee on methods” ever saw it (Synnott, Half-Opened Door 105). The report addressed questions that range from Jewish student participation in social clubs and athletics to the percentage of Jewish students on financial aid as compared to “gentiles.” It concludes with a discussion of the professions that Jews occupy after graduation and the percentage of Jews that end up donating money to Harvard College as graduates (Statistical Report).

The introduction to the chapter documenting participation in social clubs affirms that “the percentage of Jews belonging to social clubs (including Jewish fraternities)…was 27.4%” while the percentage of “students other than Jews belonging to social clubs was 58.6” (Statistical Report). Subsequent pages provide numerical data of the number of Jews in 20 social clubs that include final clubs and fraternities, asking why Jews neglect to participate in the social life of the University and why those that do feel the need to participate in ethnicity-specific organizations (e.g. Jewish fraternities). A letter attached to the final version of the committee report remarked that “in morals, he [the Jew] seems to be more prone to dishonesty and sexual offenses” (Synnott, Half-Opened Door 105). Not only does the statistical report consistently find Jews less desirable than gentiles in non-academic spheres, but it also contains a lengthy discussion of methods for identifying Jewish students both for the purposes of the report and for the purposes of categorizing applicants. All the “potentially Jewish” students were divided into categories J1, J2, and J3 depending on the committee’s level of certainty of the student’s Jewish-ness.  For example, the report notes that while the student’s last name can be illustrative, it alone cannot be used to determine whether a student is Jewish (Statistical Report). Harvard’s administration and Lowell’s committee had more than “equal opportunity” on their minds.

The ulterior motive behind changing the policy for admission was not limited to Harvard’s administration, as it is clear that even students at the time were well aware of the propensity to discriminate against Jews. Students themselves believed that if any group of students were to be excluded from the college, it would be the Jews. In 1922, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics Richard C. Cabot asked the following of his students: “For the good of all persons concerned, is a college ever ethically justified in limiting to a certain percentage the number of any particular race who are admitted to the Freshman class?” (emphasis added) (Ham 225). This question was contemporaneous with a campus-wide debate about the merits of instating specific quotas for individual ethnic groups (Karabel 100). Important messages from the survey are twofold. First, a large plurality—41 out of 83—of the students responded that limitation of certain races is justified (several other students were “on the fence” neither opposing nor advocating for limiting particular races). Second and most important, all students assumed that the professor was referring to Jewish students even though no race was singled out in the prompt. Moreover Jewish students were especially critical of any race-based admissions policy: of the eight students “with Jewish names” that responded, one was “on the fence” while the rest rejected the idea of race-based exclusion. All of those in favor of exclusionary policies were “gentiles”—and these responses explicitly referred to Jews (Ham 225). One student asserted, “Imagine having an alumni so strongly Jewish that they could elect their own president and officers. God forbid!” (Ham 226). Another remarked, “The Jews tend to overrun the college, to spoil it for the native born Anglo-Saxon young persons for whom it was built and whom it really wants” (Ham 226).

Many alumni, in private correspondence, also assumed that the root cause of changing admissions policies was Jewish students. Writing to Lowell in January 1923 about his Committee’s suggestions, James P. Kohler stated, “I fully approve your views concerning the Jews and am in accord with your sentiment that it is up to him to remove the so-called prejudice of which he complains” (Kohler). Similar letters to Lowell and other members of the administration were common; while Lowell consistently responded that despite rumors to the contrary, he was not an anti-Semite,[1] these letters suggest that informed members of the Harvard community understood the driving force behind suggestions made by Lowell’s committee. Historian Oliver Pollak, in a study on anti-Semitism and “the roots of reverse discrimination” (113) at Harvard, accurately asserts, “Historical analysis reveals that the roots of the Harvard Plan [new admissions plan] were a mask for discrimination” (Pollack 120). Pollak also writes that “the most significant proponent of restricting Jewish admissions was Harvard’s President Lowell” (whom Pollak refers to as a “snobbish Massachusetts aristocrat”) (Pollak 113, 114). Lowell, however, was not the sole or even primary advocate for limiting Jewish matriculants, and Lowell, ultimately, was not the architect of the exclusionary New Plan. In his book The Chosen, a large-scale study of changing admissions policies at elite US universities, Jerome Karabel, like Pollack, contends that Lowell was primarily responsible for the discriminatory policy; he notes that in 1922 “Lowell moved decisively” to change admissions (Karabel 89). In Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Marcia Synnott recounts this moment in Harvard’s history as a chronicle of Lowell’s individual actions—she deems changes in admissions procedures to have been Lowell’s own “scheme of limitation” (106). However, placing responsibility for the changing policies and procedures on Lowell’s shoulders overlooks the crucial ways in which this decision in fact resulted from a broader internal campaign and was frequently met with approval by many students, alumni, and members of the Harvard community.



An examination of personal correspondence between members of Harvard’s community reveals that the New Plan grew from a pervasive desire and, ultimately, a campaign to preserve Harvard’s—and the country’s ruling elite’s—traditional racial and religious composition. The Plan, contrary to previous analysis, was not merely motivated by Lowell or a handful of bigoted individuals. An expansive campaign to redouble confrontation of the “Jewish problem” and to develop new mechanisms for “sifting” through applications developed during the first quarter of the 20th century at Harvard. Indeed, the amount of correspondence about Jews was so great that Lowell wrote “Jews” at the top of hundreds of sheets of correspondence and personal documents in order to categorize them. While it is possible that the inscriptions were not made by Lowell himself, they match his handwriting on other documents and the records provide no reason to believe that his personal correspondences were passed through a third party. Whether or not Lowell personally wrote “Jews,” however, is less relevant than the fact that a majority of Lowell’s papers related to admissions in general were categorized (and assumed by the administration) as being explicitly related to the ‘Jewish Problem.

Harvard graduate and attorney Morris Gray Jr. wrote Lowell in 1920 to first voice his approval of the way that Harvard was “dealing with the Negro” but also note that “the question of the Jew is, however, more difficult and, so far as Harvard is concerned, more serious” (Gray 1). Gray continued, “Somehow or other the enrollment of the Jewish students must be limited” (Gray 2). He asserted that a successful admissions policy would “eliminate a large number of the Jews and at the same time not eliminate many men we want…and we need not state we are aiming at the Jews” (Gray 2). Financial investor Hall Allen similarly wrote to Lowell in 1922 that his own experience with “adults of the [Jewish] race” in business led him to conclude “a rigid restriction…against the Jews is not only necessary but most desirable” (Allen 1).  Alumnus Albert Bardes wrote to Lowell the same year: “For many years I have been one of your ardent admirers. You deserve credit for your outspoken, but all too temperate view upon the Jew question” (Bardes 1). According to Bardes, Lowell had not pushed hard enough to bar Jewish entrants (Bardes 1). An anonymous letter in Lowell’s file addressed “To the Jewish Kehillah”[2] states that despite all the opportunities Jews have had to learn from various cultures and countries through which they have traveled, Jews “instead…have brought all [their] old vices and not a few of other Nations” (To the Jewish Kehillah 1). Therefore, according to the author, they should “heed the warning” and stop competing with gentiles for success in  “the American Nation” (To the Jewish Kehillah 1).

Alumni wrote to Lowell suggesting changes to the admissions criteria even before he established his Committee to serve that purpose. In 1920 alumnus Francis C. Woodman penned to Lowell, “Is it not important to adopt some system, other than the present, for determining whether or not a boy shall be given a trial in Harvard College?” (Woodman 1-2). Woodman notes the importance of several factors other than academic scores that later formed part of the Committee’s recommendations presented in 1923: “Should not other tests and considerations be brought to hear on each case—such as the ‘Army (mental) Test’; the statements of accredited schools; the recommendations of trusted individuals who have made a sympathetic study of the character [emphasis is mine] and qualifications of the candidate in question?” (Woodman 2-3). Woodman stresses the importance of “good character” throughout the letter (Woodman 4). Indeed, in the statistical report Jews were similarly criticized for being solely focused on academics and neglecting participation in activities like sports, social clubs, or the Harvard Union. These non-academic criteria that shape the “character” of an individual or institution are culturally informed markers of success that do not transcend ethnicity and, in fact, that can be used to bar particular groups. Importantly, this early suggestion for revised admissions procedures as well as more general criticism of the Jewish presence at Harvard did not emanate from President Lowell, as many scholars suggest, but may likely have emerged from an extensive protest against Jewish students.

While indeed in a powerful position, Lowell was not the driving force behind the masked bigotry of the new admissions plan, which even appeared to repudiate Lowell’s bent towards overt prejudice in choosing among applicants. It has perhaps been more palatable in previous scholarship to attribute the unseemly impulse to Lowell and thereby avoid addressing a widespread sentiment. However, evaluation of the original documents reveals that the responsibility was far broader. In a rare moment of collective decision-making, a communal effort gave impetus to a new admissions policy that, contrary to popular belief at the time, was designed to bar particular students rather than to diversify the student body.

Once it became apparent that Lowell intended to restrict many Jews from entering Harvard through the new application procedures, alumni rushed to congratulate and encourage him. Harvard affiliate Somers L. Myers wrote to Lowell, “Please accept my heartiest congratulations for your frank, real American stand upon the Jewish problem” (Myers 1-2). Myers’ statement conveys that many saw Jewish enrollment in prestigious universities not as an isolated problem on college campuses but as a national, “American” problem. As illustrated above, recognition of the “Jewish Problem” was also not unique to President Lowell. After a New York Times article in January of 1923 quoted a statement made by Lowell on the “Jewish student question,” journalist Jacob Benjamin wrote to Lowell, “As a Jew, this discussion is of vital importance to me and I have written several articles pointing out the causes that produce much of the anti-Semitic feeling, hoping to show my race their weakness” (Benjamin 1). This member of the Jewish community was eager to throw his support behind Lowell’s discriminatory sentiment. In the summer of 1922, Harvard alumnus James E. Turnbull penned to Lowell, “As one of the very least of Harvard’s sons, I wish to voice my hearty approval of any steps the governing powers of the University have taken, or plan to take, to exclude Jews from Harvard” (Turnbull 1). Harvard alumni and affiliates not only first recommended changing University policies toward Jews but also egged on attempts by the administration to take decisive action to exclude Jews from Harvard. Lowell’s omnipotence in campus life and notorious bigoted rhetoric has overshadowed the more subtle but pervasive drive to restrain the admission of Jewish students. Moreover, the newly devised admissions plan seemed to oppose Lowell’s open prejudice by broadening meritocracy. The formulation and consequence of the New Plan, however, suggest a vastly different motivation.

The “New Plan” grew not from President Lowell, or the bigoted views of a handful of individuals, but rather from the countless letters and recommendations that circulated in the Harvard community as a whole. Harvard did not refute but rather bolstered the national trend during the 1920s to exclude newer arrivals to the United States from American institutions. Fear of a perceived surge of Jews in institutions of higher education paralleled national trepidation in response to the influx of immigrants during the economically successful 1920s.  In her earlier study of evolving admissions policies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton 1900-1970, Synnott writes, “Once immigrants had sufficient political and economic leverage, they would be in a position, the native-born feared, to impose alien cultural norms” (Synnott 286). The realm of education, which many felt was a determining factor of success in the United States, thus became a battleground for disagreements about the ethnic composition of the United States and of its future leaders.

Exclusion from Harvard (and peer institutions) was thus not merely exclusion from education but rather viewed as exclusion from future leadership and decision-making power. In comparison to other minority groups, such as Catholics, Jews were “singled out,” according to Synnott, “because they…sought admission to such private institutions as Harvard, Yale, and Columbia”—they chose to compete with ethnic groups that had traditionally attended top universities and assumed leadership of the United States (Synnott 287). Karabel notes that the “Jewish problem” was perceived to be so great at Columbia that by 1921 “the sons of the protestant elite had abandoned Morningside Heights, never to return” (Karabel 87). Columbia’s dean as early as 1914 noticed the ‘problem,’ stating that Columbia had become “socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement”—Karabel, using a phrase common at the time, refers to this phenomenon as “WASP flight” (Karabel 87). One common “college song” from the 1910-20s proclaimed:

Oh Harvard’s run by millionaires,

And Yale is run by booze,

Cornell is run by farmers’ sons

Columbia’s run by Jews. (Karabel 86-7)

A step ahead of the national anti-immigrant trend, active members of the Harvard community preemptively acted to prevent Harvard’s Columbia-like fall. While practices that exclude minority groups—ranging from Native Americans to African Americans to Chinese Americans—had existed for centuries, a turning point in US policy came in 1924 with the signing of the Immigration Act of 1924 (also called Johnson-Reed Act). The law reduced immigration quotas and aimed especially to decrease immigration into the US from Eastern Europe (the origin of most Jewish immigrants), Southern Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia. In the same vein as Harvard’s new admissions policy, the Immigration Act was fundamentally designed “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity” (Office of the Historian, US Dept. of State). The passage of this Act, and its less radical predecessor, the Immigration Act of 1921, came after debates within Harvard about excluding immigrant groups based on national or ethnic origin.



Persuaded that curbing Jewish admission was in the best interest of the University—or genuinely convinced that the New Plan repudiated the anti-Semitism of Lowell and his administration—few criticized the revised policy. Jews themselves were left alone to wage an ultimately futile counter-campaign. Like present-day scholarship, early criticism of anti-Semitism at Harvard singled out Lowell as the primary supporter and enforcer of exclusionary practice. According to Oliver Pollak in “Anti-Semitism, the Harvard Plan, and the Roots of Reverse Discrimination,” while individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, spoke out against Lowell’s apparent anti-Semitism, “the report [made by Lowell’s Committee, mentioned above] appeared to rebuff Lowell’s blatant anti-Jewish plan” (Pollak 118). While the New Plan proposed in the committee report was indeed inspired by pervasive anti-Semitic sentiment (and was fully supported by Lowell himself), its rhetoric won over even those individuals who had accused Lowell of discrimination. “Editorialists praised the report,” continues Pollak, and “Rabbi Louis I. Newman … described the plan as moral victory” (Pollak 118).

The Committee report was not considered a logical extension of the anti-Semitic sentiment of Lowell and others, but rather as a repudiation of discrimination. A member of The Jewish Advocate Publishing Co. wrote a letter pressing Lowell to reveal his opinions about Jews “for the consumption of the Jewish people”; the letter concluded, however, by stating, “The view of the committee, to which you refer, is another matter. We are all waiting patiently for its decision” (Jewish Advocate 1). The “decision” of the committee—to push for more qualitative admissions procedures—was persistently disassociated from the bigoted views of those that motivated its formation.

While, unlike President Lowell, the committee report never overtly suggested the use of a quota, in practice its policy served the same purpose. Furthermore, it served as a model for admissions policies at other top colleges. In 1924, “Yale aimed at stabilizing its Jewish representation at around 10-12 percent [and] Princeton almost halved its number of successful Jewish candidates,” notes Synnott (Synnott 291). Beginning with the class of 1930, Harvard’s Jewish population was deliberately reduced to roughly 10 percent from 25 (Synnott 291).  The new application made Jews easy to identify. The fact that many last names are distinct to Jews led the Harvard administration to add a question to Harvard’s application for admission: “What change, if any, has been made since birth in your own name or that of your father? (Explain fully)” (Application). The ‘New Plan’ application also asked the applicant his “race and color,” “religious preference,” and “maiden name of mother” (Application). Yet while Lowell and members of Harvard’s administration were criticized, the New Plan emerged unscathed. Indeed, disparagement of the Lowell administration was built on largely “latent anti-Harvard resentment,” according to Pollak, diverting attention from the bigotry within the Harvard community to instead focus on a more general perception of Harvard’s elitism (Pollak 115). Thus early forms of a “counter-campaign”—much like scholarly research on the subject—vilified individuals without acknowledging the widespread push within the Harvard community to comprehensively alter admissions policies to exclude particular racial and religious groups.

Broad-based approval of a policy of race-based exclusion meant that opposition to the New Plan and to its justification emerged primarily from within the Jewish community. In 1919 Judge Julian Mack, the first individual with whom Lowell consulted about his plan to “limit Jewish enrollments…contacted ex-president Charles Eliot, then 89 years of age, and enlisted his support against Lowell’s plan” (Pollak 116). Removed from the University, however, Eliot had little power to direct policy; only Jews themselves were left to question the New Plan. However, the public and, more importantly, the Harvard community were unconvinced by appeals from the Jewish community. A newspaper clipping in Lowell’s file from the Chicago Tribune recounts Rabbi Abram Hirschberg’s speech from the previous day in which he compared Harvard University’s “narrowness” to the Ku Klux Klan’s “bigotry” (Chicago Tribune). Hirschberg further noted, “The Jew recognizes the democracy of learning that every one ought to have an equal opportunity” (Chicago Tribune). The newspaper article was sent to Lowell by a Chicago-based Harvard affiliate who attached a note maintaining that while the Rabbi’s speech “is not very good propaganda” for Harvard, Hirschberg’s “hatred of Harvard University for the Jews is hardly what might be called fanatical” (Carpenter 1).  Unconvinced by the Rabbi’s appeal, the note’s writer concludes by proposing increased “newspaper propaganda showing our point of view” (Carpenter 1). Not only were many members of the Harvard community unimpressed by Hirschberg’s plea and others like it, but they responded by redoubling their campaign in support of the New Plan.

Jewish organizations often wrote to President Lowell or media outlets with criticisms of the New Plan; similar critiques from non-Jews are for the most part absent from Lowell’s records. Julian M. Drachman published a poem “You, Too?” in The American Hebrew that begins, “You, too John Harvard?...Will you add your name/ To the long, crimson chronicle of shame…” (You Too 1). The Union of Orthodox Rabbis wrote to Lowell on behalf of Jewish applicants when Harvard’s administration refused to administer examinations on any day other than Shabbat in 1923 (Orthodox Rabbis 1). Harry Starr, Harvard ’21 and leading Jewish advocate after graduating, wrote an article in 1922 for the Harvard undergraduate publication The Menorah Journal condemning the exclusion of Jewish students (Wolfson 1). Thus, Jews themselves became the primary critics of the New Plan; their protests, like their applications for admission, were met with disdain by many members of the Harvard Community.  The very immutability of the New Plan demonstrates the failure of the counter-campaign and the scale of indifference to exclusionary policy in the larger Harvard community.



The evolution and refinement of admissions policies is an ongoing process, but the “holistic” admissions approach has become widely accepted as ideal. While current admissions policies at Harvard are far removed from their origins in Lowell’s committee, and invoke genuine inclusion rather than disguised exclusion, the history reminds us that even well-intentioned policies may have unintended consequences. This story has not ended and its implications extend to the present day. The Lowell administration’s New Plan was the precursor to present-day holistic admissions policies and the history of Harvard’s transition to the New Plan provides a unique window into contemporary debates about admissions procedures and who “deserves” to attend the country’s most selective schools. As applicant pools become more diverse, increasingly international, and larger in numbers, questions about the process of selecting candidates for admission become more difficult and more essential. While the holistic admission process today is broadly considered a just system, and is accepted by most elite institutions in the U.S., its familiarity should not render it immutable or unquestionable. The story told by the research in this essay illustrates that the subjective criteria of holistic admissions can be used against the stated desires and objectives of educational institutions. A March 2013 article in the Harvard Gazette provides a summary of Harvard’s current admissions criteria: “holistic admissions “involves reviewing academic excellence as demonstrated by original writing and research, extracurricular activities, and community involvement.  Personal qualities and character are also fundamental to every decision” (Harvard Gazette). Indeed, subjective personal attributes—especially “character”—remain as essential and enshrined today as they were to Harvard alumni campaigning for modifying admissions policies during the 1920s. What defines good “character” or positive “personal qualities” in a candidate? These criteria—what admissions officers search for—are necessarily shaped by the social and societal context. During the 1920s, a more holistic process was used to satisfy societal demands that were influenced by prejudice toward a particular group. While today’s social climate is vastly different, can the holistic process remain just in the face of newly emerging biases, a rapidly evolving applicant pool, and a changing role for higher education? 

Today, although it is unlikely that any admissions officer is consciously motivated by prejudice, particular ethnic groups are still stereotyped in the context of higher education. The Lowell era teaches us that the impact of popular stereotypes and prejudices cannot be underestimated. Asians and Asian Americans, most notably, are still stigmatized as being overachievers, anti-social, too bookish, and over-represented at elite educational institutions (Lewin 1). While the colloquial term “Asian Invasion” (Hartlep 1) is most often used jokingly, it rings of historic resentment of successful immigrant groups. The dispute over admissions policies during the early 1920s was not a discrete event but rather one moment of tension in a continuous cycle of immigration and diversification (and, unfortunately, of intolerance) that defines the history of the United States.  In a 1922 letter to the Harvard Crimson, just a year after his graduation from Harvard College, Harry Starr wrote

We cannot have tolerance until we recognize the real issues involved, until we perceive why social and ethnic prejudices persist, why Jew and non-Jew cannot get together and have ‘plain talk and high thinking’ without being hampered by stultifying self-consciousness … For tolerance is not administered like castor oil, with eyes closed and jaws clenched. (Starr to Crimson 1)

The problem was not a handful of individuals—such as Lowell and his immediate advisors—but a cultural context shared by students, faculty, and alumni that fostered ethnic division and prejudice. Present-day qualitative admissions policies do not stigmatize particular groups by design; nonetheless, certain individuals benefit from admissions policies while others stand to lose.  If policies are not questioned by individuals participating in all facets of the admissions process, unspoken prejudice—against particular racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation groups—can slip through despite egalitarian intentions. While history infrequently repeats itself exactly, those who profit from one generation’s policies often shape and interpret the policy of the next generation. In the 1920s at Harvard, a broad consensus that Jews were over represented on campus led to a new admissions policy, and today’s holistic admissions procedure is fundamentally an iteration of that initial plan. Protests from the Jewish community were futile against this sweeping social dynamic. Yet even decades later, scholars compartmentalized this societal failure by blaming only a bigoted minority in Lowell’s administration.  The winners wrote history.


Works Cited

“Admissions, Beyond a Single Test.” The Harvard Gazette. 25 March 2013. Web

Application for Admission Under the ‘New Plan.’ UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Beatley, Bancroft. “The Relative Standing of Students in Secondary School, on Comprehensive Entrance Examinations, and in College.” UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Bethell, John T. Harvard Observed: An Illustrated History of the University in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Print

Daniels, Lee. A. “Henry Starr, Leader in Advocacy Groups for Jews, Dies at 92.” New York Times. 28 July 1992. Web

Drachman, Julian M. “You, Too?” attached to Letter to President Lowell. First appeared in American Hebrew. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Ham, William T. “Harvard Student Opinion on the Jewish Question.” The Nation. Vol. 115 No. 2983: 225-227. 6 Sept 1922. Print

Hartlep, Nicholas D. “The Model Minority Myth: What 50 Years of Research Does and Does Not Tell Us.” Diverse Issues in Higher Education. 29 April 2013. Web

Harvard University. Records of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider and Report to the Governing Boards Principles and Methods for More Effective Sifting of Candidates for Admission to the University. 11 April 1923. UAI 5.160.6. Harvard University Archives

Harvard University. Records of President Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Statistical Report of the Statisticians. UAI 5.160.6. Harvard University Archives

Karabel, Jerome. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print

“Ku Klux Klan, Bryan and Harvard, Hit in Rabbi’s Talk.” Chicago Daily Tribune. 2 Oct 1922. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to Harry Starr from H. A. Wolfson. HUD 922.4 Box 1998. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Albert Bardes. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Benjamin Carpenter. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Francis C. Woodman. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Hall Allen. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Jacob Benjamin. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from James E. Turnbull. Box #1056. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from James P. Kohler. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Morris Gray Jr. UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from Somers L. Myers. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from the Editor and Publisher of the Jewish Advocate. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to President Lowell from the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States. UAI 5.160 Box 183, Folder 76. Harvard University Archives. Print

Letter to the Editor of the Harvard Crimson from Harry Starr. HUD 922.4 Box 1998. Harvard University Archives. Print

Lewin, Tamar.”Report Takes Aim at ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype of Asian-American Students.” The New York Times. 10 June 2008. Web

Office of the Historian. “Milestones 1921-1936: The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act).” US Department of State. Web

Pollak, Oliver B. “Antisemitism, the Harvard Plan, and the Roots of Reverse Discrimination.” Jewish Social Studies. Vol. 45 No. 2 (1983): 113-122. Print

Starr, Harry. Harvard A Place of Tradition, letter to the Harvard Crimson. HUD 921.82. Harvard University Archives. Print

Synnott, Marcia G. The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979. Print

Synnott, Marcia G. “The Admission and Assimilation of Minority Students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900-1970.” History of Education Quarterly. Vol. 19 No. 3. (1979): 285-304. Print

To the Jewish Kehillah. UAI 5.160 Box #1056. Harvard University Archives. Print.


[1] See UAI 5.160 Box 197, Folder 387, throughout.

[2] It is not entirely clear what is meant by “Kehillah” in this context.  The anonymous author (not Lowell himself) may have been addressing the local Jewish community (“Kehillah”) as a whole or a particular Jewish high school. In either case, the content of the letter reflects the opinion of this member of the Harvard community.




2013 David Rice Ecker Short Story Prize

Anita Lo
You’ve taken showers with your older sister since you both listened to the same bo-po-mo-fo recordings over congee in the mornings.
It’s more efficient, says your mother. Two at once gets the job done faster. Sometimes you wonder if she ever complains that you were not born twins, so much does the two-for-one frugality manifest itself. This is the same bargain logic she exercises when she erases your sister’s answers from SAT books and gives them to you to recomplete. Your sister always pressed hard enough that you could see that the answer was C, though you don’t usually need the help.

Showering together all the time also means that you know your sister has two dimples painstakingly installed on her inexplicably tan left thigh, while she knows that the skin on the back of your knees is so pale that your veins underneath look like carved inlets and that you have a sinistral scapula that could sculpt diamonds. During middle school, when you are both on the volleyball team, you compare burst forearm capillaries and furtively glance at each other as you strip down into spandex shorts, cold critics of appearance. Not that this was incongruous with Waipo and mother’s bimonthly appraisals.

I was also chubby as a teenager, Waipo declares. You can’t tell: her cheekbones and chin are exquisitely angular, her dark hair bound into a bun at the nape of a tense, slender neck that your mother has inherited. She brushes your sister’s hair with broad, soothing strokes, parting it so that you can hardly tell the difference between their two faces.

But you’ve gotten fatter as you got older, your mother comments to your sister as she imitates Waipo’s motions for your hair. They twist deftly, pinning the sleek coils in place with chopsticks and tradition.

And why are you so sickly-looking? Waipo asks you. You shrug your pale lopsided shoulders, looking only at your sister whose eyes are full of summer and whose freckles crumble around her nose in an avalanche of melanin. She’s managed to net the genes that make relatives ask if she’s half, while keeping the ones that make her exotic enough to crave. In the future, she will lose the pins when her white boyfriends tell her that her hair looks better down.


The joint showers continue until maybe the summer before freshman year when in the bathroom she takes off her underwear and finds sticky red streaks oozing from between her legs like some sort of jiaguwen calligraphy. When you see this you laugh at her and she walks out of the bathroom in her towel and goes to bed without even turning off the light. You tattletale to your mother and she discreetly buys an extra box of sanitary pads the next day.

This is around the time when your father gives you a Rubik’s Cube. Unlike the multiplication table poster that he decorated the room you share with your sister with on her 5th birthday or the upright chestnut Yamaha that appeared on your 8th, you practice this for three hours every day willingly and without parental supervision. Unlike the multiplication table and the piano, your sister has no interest in it, does not become better than you, and your parents consequently do not spend your high school parent-teacher conferences asking how you can be more like your sister in the Rubik’s cube’s respect.

On the cube, you twist and shout like you might if you had the confidence of a white girl. But because you are a Ching Chong-Hong Kong hybrid, you become a weirdo bodhisattva: quiet, cross-legged under a tree, holding the meaning of life in a bizarre mudra of red green blue orange yellow and white.

Master Mulan and Mini Mulan, yell the baseball team as you and your sister walk home. Your sister blows them a kiss and flips them the bird.

You aren’t even that yellow, you complain to yourself. The paint chips at Home Depot indicate that you are Sweet Cream. Your sister, though, Sandstorm and Golden Chrysanthemum, spreads flavivirus among the hapless colonials quicker than mosquitoes, so they whistle at you both. You keep your head down and focus on creating monochromatic cube faces.

You explain your obsession to the two girls who sat next to you at the Asian lunch table (Emily and Amanda, two of the laziest names a Chinese mother could give to a daughter because she probably heard them from the mother next door, or the fifty other mothers who also have Emily or Amanda porcelain-faced China-doll daughters). You’d met at one of the infinite Asian parties that you were shepherded to—the ones where the parents and sunflower seeds and Qin Dynasty clay teapots occupy the main dining table and the kids occupy the play room, trying to ignore the the one-upping bloodbath of My daughter made Dean’s List again and My son is going to math camp at MIT.

There are only two ways to turn a face and only six faces Right-Left-Up-Down-Front-Back RLUDFB, you say. When you turn a face clockwise, you simply name the face and let the change remain silent; when you turn counterclockwise, you call it i—inverted. And at the end, every cube is in the one correct position that it can be in. Emily and Amanda nod while you all wrap your chopsticks back up into Saran wrap and repack your lunch bags.


For the next umpteen months, you screw around with the algorithms while your sister screws her JV quarterback behind the school (some sort of affirmative-action Harvard-bound amigo whose massive deltoids don’t prevent him from shooting up his hand to answer every question about partial derivatives). Your parents give you the birds and the bees a.k.a. boys are the earthly incarnations of Lucifer himself lecture—at the same time, of course. While eating lychee one night, you both argue with your mother about whether or not you should be allowed to use tampons.

They’re more convenient and I bet they don’t smell as bad says your sister as she rapidly disrobes each rust-colored globe. She subscribes to the cracking method, in which she pinches the fruit’s shell until a lengthy fissure appears and the cloudy white flesh is exposed.

Your family soaks the peeled lychee in salt water before eating them—it’ll get rid of the worms, your father claims that your grandfather told him. It takes most of your childhood to stop thinking about the worms, but not even your sister likes lychee without the initial salty hint anymore.

They’re dangerous, your mother says, frowning at your sister. What she really means is that they involve sticking something up there, which is as far as she knows a heretofore uncharted territory for her two daughters, even though from what you’ve heard, your sister could take up genital cartography as a side job if she was interested in anything other than writing self-tortured little vignettes on her Macbook (you’ve read them, secretly; her imitation of Foer is instead extremely clouded and incredibly verbose).

They’re not dangerous if you know when to change them, you say, refusing to look at either of them. You prefer to peel the lychee’s outer skin off piece by piece, flicking each sticky fragment into the pile of seeds and shells.

Well, your sister jokes, I probably would be too lazy to remember to change them.

You would be, you start to say, but you think better of it and pop the lychee you were just peeling into your mouth, biting your tongue and drawing blood in your haste to spit it out when you remember that you were supposed to soak it first.



Your mother and father both work full time, which gives your sister plenty of opportunity to parade her latest concubines in and out of the front door without fear. She tries halfheartedly to convince you that the traffic is all platonic, though the exits from the kitchen to your shared bedroom—Hey, I have a book that I want to show you—are never as well-written as you know she could imagine if she treated her spoken scripts to the same revisions as her poems. Even while plugged into Holst, you can hear the evidence against her. She, of course, makes no sound; her captives, on the other hand, could be the second coming of the Society of Righteous and Harmonious fists, loud and skilled but not nearly a match for her intoxicating invasions. Mars, Bringer of War.

She is always showered and clean by the time you hear the garage door drone open, gravely bent over another dead white man classic when they enter your room. How was school? your father asks. You rhythmically spin RI-BI-R-B, the finishing algorithm, on the almost-finished cube and let her answer.

Fine, she says, and unrepentantly conjures a description of how much she enjoys studying the supply and demand curves in economics. A mercantile tyrant, really, you almost say aloud as you think of her stingy supply and unquenchably high demand; you instead turn up the volume on Mercury, the Winged Messenger. And of course you never tell a soul, because what kind of sister would you be otherwise?



The new year brings new clothes for new luck as always, though you can’t remember a time when you wore anything other than the same blue jeans and cheap cotton threads from the clearance rack. Your mother is more than willing to buy your sister racerback tanks and skater skirts, clothes that make her look hot hot, clothes that convince even you to take pity on the boys that sit next to her in calculus. A wicked gorgeous heartbreak for the males and for your parents.

You should buy nice clothes too, urges your mother as she crowds you both into the tiny dressing room of a pungent clothes-and-dried-herbs gallery in the bowels of Chinatown and presses another sundress into your hands. You will look nicer, men will look at you.

The owners of every store of this type are shrunken and gray-haired, overwhelmingly solicitous and irritatingly persistent. They spend their spare time hacking and hawking phlegm with impunity, keeping one spotty, watery eye on you to make sure you don’t knock racks of silk scarves into the jars of preserved sea cucumber in the next aisle. Like Waipo and your mother, they are liberal with their judgments. You are reluctant to step out of the dressing room for fear of having to hear the words small, skinny, or pale ricochet through your ear canals in a well-rehearsed cacophony of traditional You are not the daughter we expected. Your sister hates that chorus as well, though it seems that her self-esteem has calloused itself enough that the lyrical criticisms no longer hold her spellbound.

You two strip down, don the proffered garments, and stand in the mirror for your mother’s reaction. She tugs at the waists, asks you to bend down, reminds your sister to try squatting in the shorts to make sure they’re comfortable, and turns us around in the mirrored cubicle.

Cute, she will sometimes say, an attempt to mimic the chirpy advertisements of tall white women ecstatically wearing polka-dot dresses on the beach. Not your style, she says when your sister tries to buy a sheer blue tube top (even though she is delighted every time she sees a white boy double-take at your sister). In the end, she always allows that It is your choice. To which you respond by obligatorily picking the plainest options possible, while your sister inevitably bags the risqué remainder. On the car ride home, your mother reminds you to never, ever let boys touch you.

A girl who is not pure is like a flower bud ripped open early, she tells you as she drives past the racks of orchids that Home Depot is selling this year. Later that day, your sister reminds you that it was also your mother who taught you the He loves me, He loves me not flower-dismemberment game in Cantonese when you were both in kindergarten, making you think that all the white girls in first grade had stolen it from China.



Soon, the time it takes for you to physically segregate the tiny colored cubes is less than the time it takes you to recite the twelve-times table. You grease the cube with Vaseline like Youtube says to do. Your sister buys Shiseido with her essay-writing contest money and swears off boys for a while, though you know that she allows a few Steroids-and-Adderall muscular geniuses to court her on her angrier days. You begin reciting your favorite pattern—R-U-RI-UI—in your sleep and your sister, on the top bunk, mocks you in the morning.

Are you, are I, you I, she asks, and you laugh because you don’t understand anything she says anymore.

She picks up a particularly dainty way of swearing three-quarters of the way through high school, probably from one of the college intellectuals that she lures with poetry-ridden overtures that, in all honesty, are getting New Yorker-good. She pronounces the “ck” sound in “f_cking” very clearly and cleanly. “Godd_mn” is used often but gingerly—staccato, delicate, almost sing-songy. “Motherf_cker” even more so: you might believe that she was actually speaking with your father. Not that it is cautious or restrained—her speech is colorful enough to paint an entire frigging Monet. Girl is an artist, you explain to your first boyfriend, Andrew Lee, one of twelve Andrew Li/ee’s in your school district that you assume were also born out of lazy naming. And you suspect that’s why he eventually ditches you and asks her out—because she cusses and you don’t and you very clearly think it’s rebellious and incredibly edgy. She turns him down because she’s a great sister. A great frigging sister. It takes you fifteen seconds to unscramble the Rubik’s cube now, and your fingers are compulsively twitchy.

You deserve way better, she tells you from the top bunk in one of the quicksilverish hours after three in the morning.

Don’t you?

What do you mean?

A boy that you want for reasons other than cancelling out mother’s mandate.

No, I guess not.

Why not?

You fall asleep within what feels like a few seconds of hearing her first snore.



It’s easy to despise her after she conquers the Ivy League and is elevated to the status of crown jewel in your mother’s empire of Things My Children Have Done. But when she calls for you from behind the lacquered bathroom door two weeks before graduation, you quickly BI-R-BI down the hallway and jiggle the door handle to unlock it.

Don’t tell Mom is the first thing that she says and you know you won’t. Because this time the red strokes are less jiaguwen and much more kaishu, calculated and precise and elegant up and down her arms.

Don’t tell, she says again. You nervously flick the front layer of the cube back and forth while staring at her new duilian. They’re luckier in pairs.

I won’t, you say. A gilded coup de grace that promises nothing, because have you ever done anything to help her?


She holds out her arms and you’re not sure if she’s trying to ask for help or prove that she is hurt. You use an entire roll of toilet paper and at least a cupful of hydrogen peroxide to censor her calligraphy of the flesh, and you advise her to wear an ironically scarlet Christmas sweater after she washes herself off even though it’s communist red hot outside (the landlords sweat as much as the proletariat under Mao Ze Sun). 

When you two shower together for the first time in four years, the spray feels colder and livelier than it did before. And you can see it, see the white laminate shower floor staining as vital bodily fluids drain into the pipes and the sea and all you can hear is Are You Are I You I; are you, are I? You, I; and the sound of your sister rummaging so desperately through her veins for a mother's accidental curses lodged leech-like behind her navel that she folds in on herself a la origami and twists you in as well. There are only two ways to turn a cube face. When it is to the right, it is silent. When it is not right, you call it I—I—me—are you, are I, I, I, I.


How to Decrease Adolescent Smoking Using Cognitive Neuroscience to Lower the Prevalence of Smoking among Young Adults


Shirley Mo


Cigarette smoking causes nearly one in five deaths in the United States (CDC, 2012). Its death toll is greater than that of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, and murders combined (CDC, 2012). Furthermore, tobacco has been identified as an even more powerful gateway drug than alcohol in increasing the likelihood of subsequent use of illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, crack and marijuana (Johnson, Boles, & Kleber, 2008). Yet, it is also in many ways the single most preventable health concern (CDC, 2011). In 2010, about one in five adults aged eighteen or older were smokers (ALA, 2011). Of these people, nine out of ten began smoking before the age of eighteen (Rosenberg, 2012). Research has shown that smokers who began young are much more likely to develop into long-term users and have much greater difficulty quitting later as adults (Xiao et al., 2008). This finding suggests that adolescents remain a key segment of the population to target in order to decrease the prevalence of smoking as a whole.

In the past, efforts to curtail smoking have mainly focused on preventing adolescents from starting (Carpenter, 2001). Policymakers’ rationale for this has traditionally been based on the belief that getting adolescents who have already started smoking to quit is close to impossible given their propensity for risk taking (Carpenter, 2011).  Recently, it has become apparent that while current efforts are working, the downward trend in adolescent smoking has slowed (Johnston, 2012). Since adolescence is a critical period before people progress into long-term smokers, policymakers should focus on helping adolescents quit smoking. Ignoring such an important segment of the population would greatly hinder ongoing efforts to decrease tobacco use. A close examination of the latest research in cognitive neuroscience suggests that there is hope for finding more effective ways to help adolescents quit smoking before they become regular, long-term smokers. Currently, policymakers have advocated for punishment-based approaches such as graphic warning labels or an increase in the legal age for purchasing tobacco in order to decrease smoking prevalence.

However, adolescents’ brains are still developing, particularly in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and ventral striatum regions which are important for successful integration of emotions and logic during decision-making and providing mental resistance to peer pressure, respectively. Consequently, adolescents often exhibit shortcomings in decision making in response to risk’s causal complexity, the allure of reward during decision-making, and social influences.  Thus, such punishment based teaching methods should actually be avoided. Instead, efforts should be aimed at developing a smoking cessation program that appeals to rewards based learning, augments their ability to resist negative social influences, and increases their ability to identify and understand the actual danger of risks with high causal complexity. 



With brains that are still developing in many regions, adolescents have a particularly difficult time decision-making about risks and rewards, which involve the simultaneous application of prior beliefs, emotions, and logic (Evans & Feeney, 2004; Navqi, Shiv, & Bechara, 2006; Tversky and Kahneman, 1982). A common scenario that adolescent smokers might face is whether or not to accept a cigarette offered by a friend while surrounded by a group of friends who also smoke. In considering, they must decide whether the dangers of smoking or “punishment” are worth the possible “rewards” to be gained from accepting the cigarette. The rewards to be gained from accepting include a sense of peer acceptance and the neurochemical pleasure caused by the nicotine in tobacco. On the other hand, possible punishments include increased risks for lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases (CDC, 2012). Using this cigarette scenario as a starting point, further analysis of the neurocognitive features of the developing adolescent brain is necessary to reveal what exactly causes adolescent smokers to go wrong in their reasoning.  In particular, we will examine three consequences of underdevelopment of the vmPFC and ventral striatum: distorted prior beliefs of the risks of smoking as a result of the combined effect of causal complexity and decreased loss aversion, unresponsiveness to punishment, and an inability to resist social pressure, each followed by some better strategies that harness adolescents’ cognitive tendencies to elicit the optimal results in smoking cessation.


Since adolescent smokers by definition have smoked before, the past experiences of smoking will most likely influence them to develop a set of their own perceptions of the risks of smoking. These perceptions make up their prior beliefs and will guide them throughout the decision making process. It is important to note that people’s perception of a risk may not always correspond to the actual magnitude or danger of the risk. This imbalance is due to risk’s causal complexity, or the intricacy of causes and effects. According to Grotzer, Miller, and Lincoln’s (2012) causal complexity taxonomy, there are six dimensions that define a risk’s causal complexity. They are: reliability, obviousness, spatial proximity, agency-distribution, agency-intentionality, and time period. Within each dimension, perceived salience of a risk varies inversely with complexity (Grotzer et al., 2012). Thus, risks that are perceived as having low salience have high complexity and tend to be probabilistic, non-obvious, distant, decentralized, non-intentional, and have long time delays. The opposite holds true for risks with low complexity.

In the case of smoking, some of the hallmark negative effects include lung cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease, and emphysema, a respiratory based disease (CDC, 2012).  In terms of time, all these diseases are slow developing in nature, involving long periods of delay between the cause—smoking—and the associated effect—these serious illnesses. Choosing to smoke a single cigarette on one occasion will likely not cause an immediate, noticeable difference in the overall health of an adolescent. Negative effects will typically become apparent only with long-term smoking. This long time delay corresponds to high causal complexity according to Grotzer et al.’s (2012) causal complexity taxonomy and low perceived salience. Furthermore, the effects of smoking are mostly non-obvious in nature. While some of the negative effects of smoking such as stroke may be easily perceptible when it occurs, other diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and emphysema are difficult to perceive externally unless they have progressed beyond a certain point or threshold. Even then, the diseases are difficult to identify unless people are specifically looking for the signs. The non-obvious nature of smoking adds to its overall causal complexity and low salience. Finally, a third factor is the reliability of negative effects to the cause. When an adolescent smokes, the chances of experiencing the negative effects likely depend on a multitude of factors such as genetic disposition and lifestyle choices. Some adolescents may be predisposed towards getting certain diseases due to race or heredity. Others may be more likely to develop heart disease because of a diet consisting mainly of fast food and a lack of exercise. Thus, the risks are very probabilistic in nature, which means they are of high complexity and low perceived salience. The combination of three highly causally complex aspects of smoking will likely lead adolescents to perceive smoking as less dangerous of a behavior than it actually is.  This low perceived salience forms a fundamental part of adolescent prior beliefs about the risks of smoking.



In addition to low perceived salience, adolescents’ natural lack of loss aversion as compared to adults due to neurological immaturity forms a vital part of their prior beliefs as well (Blakemore & Robbins, 2012; Pfeifer, 2011). Loss aversion is defined as a decision-making bias where any change that may result in a loss is seen as not worthwhile despite the potential for gains (Sunstein, 2002). In other words, even though a change may bring potential rewards, people tend to focus on the loss it may incur. Adolescents have a still-developing ventral striatum and ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), two regions activated when loss aversion reasoning occurs (Pfeifer, 2011; Tom et al., 2007). It has been discovered that adolescents exhibit less activation of those two regions than adults during decision-making (Pfeifer, 2011). This lack of activation in adolescents likely leads to a decreased sense of loss aversion, in which adolescents demonstrate a tendency to try or explore new things with less fear of loss or negative effects. While this attitude is generally beneficial during people’s adolescent years, a time for learning, when this phenomenon is coupled with an already low perceived salience, this may lead to prior beliefs that cause adolescents to seriously underestimate the risk of smoking and make dangerous choices.

The combined effect of causal complexity and loss aversion in distorting adolescents’ prior beliefs of risk can be seen in their current misunderstanding of the actual risk of smoking. Despite the best efforts of policymakers to educate adolescents, a study conducted by Romer and Jamieson (2001) has found that while adolescents generally understand and even overestimate the risks of getting diseases like lung cancer, they either do not know or underestimate the actual chances of dying from smoking-related diseases after getting it. They also tend to be overly optimistic when estimating their ability to quit when they would like to (Romer& Jamieson, 2001). This misjudgment of the extremely addictive nature of cigarettes further exemplifies how underdevelopment of the adolescent brain causes an imbalance between adolescents’ perception of risk and the actual risk of smoking.



To address this tendency to underestimate the dangers of smoking and overestimate their degree of self-control, new efforts in helping adolescents quit should first help them realize the causally complex nature of smoking and everyone’s natural tendency to discount the danger as a result. This can be done through introducing the idea of Grotzer’s complex causality taxonomy and presenting case studies where adolescents are given a chance to first estimate a health risk and then assess it according to the six dimensions of the taxonomy. Additionally, policymakers should extend the curriculum to cover not only the chances of getting serious illnesses as a result of smoking, but also the chances of death and other negative outcomes of the illnesses themselves. This addition would fill in any gaps in adolescents’ current knowledge of the risks. To make up for the lack of loss aversion, the curriculum should also include an aspect that teaches adolescents to value and appreciate what they have in terms of family, love, happiness, etc. By promoting appreciation of their current lives, adolescents may develop a sense of greater attachment to it and exhibit more fear of losing what they have. This modification in the curriculum will hopefully increase adolescents’ sense of loss aversion in face of risks such as smoking. The three changes would address the specific shortcomings and barriers in educating teen smokers about the true risks of the behavior.

In addition to the influence of prior beliefs, adolescent decision-making in the cigarette scenario also involves the application of both logic and emotions. Since adolescents can not predict with certainty the likelihood of experiencing the negative effects of smoking, adolescents will likely have to resort to heuristics and biases as logical mental shortcuts to weigh the pros and cons (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). Emotions form the other key aspect of the reasoning process, subconsciously influencing people to make choices that result in the maximum reward and minimum punishment such as in the cigarette scenario (Navqi et al., 2006). The vmPFC has been found to be important for successful integration of emotions and logic in the decision-making process (Sanfey, Hastie, Colvin, &Grafman, 2003). The Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) is a test often used to measure the functionality of people’s vmPFCs (Sanfey et al., 2003). Performance trends on the IGT have led researchers to propose that the vmPFC may be involved in predicting emotional consequences of potential punishments (Navqi et al., 2006). That is, it acts as a bridge connecting the logical and emotional components of decision-making. A lack of a functional vmPFC likely results in a disconnect where the person does not feel the emotions of dismay, anger, or loss normally experienced when one loses money such as during the IGT simulation. As a consequence, they are not able to respond to punishment based learning as well as reward based learning (Wheeler, 2006). Hence, they will likely continue to make disadvantageous decisions because their decisions are based on immediate rewards rather than long-term negative consequences (Bechara, Tranel, &Damasio, 2000).  

Given the known relative underdevelopment of adolescents’ vmPFC region when compared to adults, several studies conducted on different populations of adolescents have confirmed that adolescent performance on the IGT to be worse than that of normal adults (Hooper, Luciana, Conklin, &Yarger, 2004; Overman et al., 2004). An additional study demonstrated that 10th grade adolescent smokers who have smoked within the past week performed even worse on the IGT than normal adolescents who are nonsmokers or those who have smoked within the past 30 days rather than the past week (Xiao et al., 2008). This result suggests that  adolescent smokers have even less mature or more dysfunctional vmPFCs than normal adolescents. Although the directionality of the relationship between smoking and a less functional vmPFC is unclear, one possibility is that this neurological difference plays an important role in predisposing adolescents to become smokers in the first place and choosing to continue to smoke once they begin. It is also possible that smoking may hinder development of the vmPFC in adolescents once they begin and works to perpetuate a continuous cycle of poor decision-making.

The especially immature vmPFCs of adolescent smokers likely compound normal adolescent tendencies to value immediate rewards in the cigarette scenario. A neuroanatomical explanation for this is that adolescents’ vmPFCs lack the network of white and gray matter seen in adults (Overman et al., 2004). From this, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the network of white and gray matter in the vmPFCs of adolescent smokers are even less developed than that of the average adolescent. Thus, adolescent smokers will likely be more neurocognitively predisposed to accepting the cigarette than normal adolescents or less frequent smokers in light of the tantalizing rewards of both peer approval and pleasure from nicotine. At the same time, they will likely be less responsive to punishment or potential negative long-term consequences such as heart disease, cancer, or respiratory diseases as well. The neurological immaturity of the vmPFC region may bias adolescent smokers in their logical consideration of the cigarette situation. It will likely lead adolescent smokers to see only the rewards as on-screen, or at the forefront of their minds, while the punishment or negative effects remain mainly off-screen (Sunstein, 2002).



The on-screen-off-screen bias associated with adolescent smokers suggests that recent initiatives to decrease smoking prevalence through a punishment-based approach may be misguided. These initiatives include efforts to initiate government mandated labeling of cigarette packets with large graphic images of the negative outcomes (Young, 2011). Policymakers have also suggested increasing the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 as a possibility (Steinberg, 2011). While both ideas seem promising at first glance, such methods do not take into account the cognitive neuroscience behind decision making by adolescent smokers.  Since adolescent smokers have particularly underdeveloped vmPFCs, they react much better to reward based learning than punishment. Therefore, using punishment based methods such as negative images on cigarette packets, which may be emotionally disturbing, will most likely have little effect since their immature vmPFCs allow them to easily place negative future consequences off-screen. Similarly, increasing the smoking age would take the right to legally smoke away from adolescents, which is another punishment-based approach. This initiative will likely not be very effective because adolescent smokers are neurocognitively unable to integrate the negative emotions elicited by the punishment resulting from breaking the law into future decisions. Currently, even with a legal smoking age of eighteen, nine out of ten smokers still began smoking before the age of eighteen (Rosenberg, 2012). The numbers indicate that increasing the age limit would have little overall effect in smoking cessation. Adolescents will likely continue to find ways to obtain cigarettes and smoke no matter the consequence. In both circumstances, the target audience, adolescent smokers, would be largely unreceptive. Thus, pursuing either of these initiatives would be an ineffective use of time and resources.

Since adolescent smokers have especially dysfunctional vmPFCs that make them unreceptive to punishment, as an alternative, policymakers should concentrate efforts on developing an adolescent smoking cessation program that appeals to rewards based learning. Rewards in the cessation program should be two fold, both material and psychological. Potential material incentives could include offering monetary or other concrete rewards during the cessation program. Psychological incentives might include teaching adolescents to find pride and satisfaction in maintaining self-control and not succumbing to the temptations of smoking. Both kinds of rewards should be simultaneously given over the course of the program because different adolescents may respond better to one over the other depending on their personal traits. However, after the cessation program ends, continuously providing material incentives to every adolescent ex-smoker seems rather impractical in light of the enormous cost. For this reason, continued abstinence from smoking after the end of the program would mainly have to depend on psychological rewards to encourage permanent cessation. While material rewards can be used up, psychological rewards such as satisfaction and pride remain since it originates from the mind. Thus, such rewards would be helpful in reinforcing continued cessation.

Of the rewards that are on-screen, social approval will likely hold particular importance for adolescent smokers. The weight placed on it is a third consequence of the underdeveloped adolescent brain—specifically in the ventral striatum region in comparison to adults. The ventral striatum has been, found to be an important reward-processing center responsible for providing mental resistance to peer pressure (Pfeifer et al., 2011). With weaker ventral striatums, adolescents will be less able to overcome the allure of peer approval. Since peer pressure is a prominent factor in the cigarette scenario, it is likely that the underdevelopment of the ventral striatum will augment the effects of a social cascade. A social cascade is a heuristic-like process where one person’s strong beliefs in something that others are unsure about initiates a chain reaction where other people come to agree with the belief because they think everyone else agrees (Sunstein, 2002). Researchers have found that whether one’s friend group smokes is a major factor in influencing smoking in adolescents (McLeod et al., 2008). According to the cigarette scenario, since everyone in the group is a smoker, the act of offering a cigarette will likely trigger an immediate social cascade in which there will be a transfer of opinion from the group to the adolescent being offered the cigarette. Since adolescents are particularly weak at resisting the allure of peer approval, they are more likely to give in and accept the cigarette than adults with normally functioning ventral striatums.  Hence, an underdeveloped ventral striatum likely augments the effects of a social cascade, ultimately significantly reducing any doubts or reservations the adolescents had about the risks of smoking or negative effects.

In order to enhance the ability of adolescent smokers to resist negative social influences, cessation programs should also include a component thattrains adolescents to resist peer pressure and other negative social influences. The training would help counteract adolescents’ weakness and tendency to give in to peer pressure due to a lesser developed ventral striatum. This may be done through tasks that simulate situations where one is offered a cigarette and teach proper ways to react. These tasks would provide mental preparation for what to expect in such social circumstances. Another possibility would be to design tasks that boost adolescents’ self-esteem. With self-esteem, adolescents may feel less of a need to conform with their peers. This aspect of the cessation program will play a critical role in preventing adolescents from relapsing into smoking after quitting.



Smoking has been a devastating but preventable health concern for far too long in the U.S. With recent advances in cognitive neuroscience, we now have the knowledge to decrease smoking prevalence as a whole by focusing on helping adolescent smokers quit. Although many factors, including causal complexity, mental heuristics, social circumstances, and an underdeveloped brain especially in the vmPFC and ventral striatum regions likely cause adolescent smokers to choose to continue smoking, we can also use the neurocognitive shortcomings of the adolescent brain to our advantage in developing a better smoking cessation program. A close analysis of adolescent brain functions demonstrates that policymakers should work toward implementing a program that helps adolescents quit through teaching with reward-based approaches, honing resistance to social pressure, and correcting misperceptions of risk due to a lack of loss aversion by emphasizing a comprehensive view of the actual risks of negative outcomes. The implementation of such a program will likely provide the necessary impetus to rejuvenate the downward trend in the prevalence of smoking in the U.S. Although this program may not be a panacea to eliminating smoking completely in society, it is an important first step to saving numerous lives.



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