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Ned LeBow and the New Victorians

with a dose of reeducation camp spirit to boot.

Folies Bergère Poster.jpgThere was a time a great many years ago when the very thought of women’s undergarments was a source of titillation. Petticoats and pantaloons were considered risqué, and as the attached poster from a bawdy Paris nightclub shows, men would pay real money to see some ruffle and frill.

This Victorian sensibility even extended to forbidding references to the stomach, for example, because the stomach leads to the intestines, and — trigger warning — we all know where the intestines lead.

Similarly, at that time spoken references to women’s undergarments elicited a frisson or worse. Hence the amusement when an elevator operator in a department store would announce that the lift had reached the floor where certain almost-unmentionable goods could be purchased: “Ladies lingerie” he wouldn’t intone to general merriment.

In a certain way (like mother-in-law jokes or references to pollution off the New Jersey Turnpike) the trope entered the language and it endured long after elevator operators had been replaced by automatic buttons (I have made the joke myself in elevators on several occasions — without an untoward reaction by listeners), and it continued even when the time came that actress Jayne Mansfield could pitch a Playtex 18-hour, long line bra on television as being particularly appropriate for “us full figure girls.” Personally I recall the time in the 70s when the word “bra” could first be spoken in polite company.

Ned Lebow.jpgThat’s a long run up to a current controversy which has members of the International Studies Association all atwitter because former Dartmouth Professor of Government Ned LeBow, a 76-year-old man, had the poor grace to invoke the “ladies lingerie” joke in the elevator at an ISA conference. An attendee, Simona Sharoni, age 56 and a professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, announced herself to be grievously offended, and she filed a formal complaint with the ISA.

No, I am not kidding.

Simona Sharoni.jpgWhat kind of person, let alone a college professor, is so bereft of common sense as to take offence at a somewhat tired joke? Humorist P.J. O’Rourke wrote about the perennially indignant, but at least such folks protested about things of greater moment than a flip remark. And if I told you that Sharoni had a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University? Unreal. You’d think she would have ceased being upset by such things when a boy first called her a poo poo head. In the sandbox at nursery school.

But not only did the ISA conference organizers take Sharoni’s complaints seriously, they ordered LeBow to apologize “unequivocally.”

In other words, he couldn’t apologize in a manner that sought to explain or justify his lighthearted comment or that cast doubt upon the reaction of the faint-hearted feminist academic who heard his joke. He had to issue a mea culpa in no uncertain terms.

Again, no, I am not kidding.

In mandating a specific type of apology, the ISA has moved from the support of an ever-so-precious Victorian morality to a kind of Communist re-education that I thought had ended up on the ash heap history, at least in Eastern Europe in 1989. I understand that such things still take place in North Korea and China.

LeBow, to his credit, is fighting back against the scolds and the commissars.

If you want to read more about this irredeemably silly controversy, it has been reported on in the Washington Post, the Valley News, Inside Higher Education, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Associated Press.

I guess that there are no other more important topics to discuss at our colleges and universities.

Addendum: The next time you wonder why a significant percentage of Americans feel disdain for higher education, the above might be Exhibit 1 in your argument.

Addendum: Several alumni wrote in:

  • Professor LeBow: This is what you get when you hang around with “gender studies” people.
  • I think it was Mel Brooks who said, “Everyone laughs at a fart joke.” I guess that this may be one of the basic problems with academia.
  • Great post on the Ned LeBow tempest in a teapot. And your conclusion is on the money!
  • I read with interest your post of May 9th regarding the Ned LeBow and Simona Sharoni “incident” and just wanted to Thank You for showing what is a rare display of common sense from a Dartmouth source. Having endured 4-years of close minded idiocy from virtually every encounter while my child was there, I am startled whenever something bordering on normal is referenced within 6-feet of the word Dartmouth. Standing in the crenels isn’t easy for either side and it was a pleasure to read your article today.


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