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Censoring the menu

The 'Fat Bitch' sandwich is the latest target of the language cops on one US campus.

Norman Levitt

Topics Politics

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The university at which I teach – Rutgers, in the state of New Jersey – was founded 240 years ago as a seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church. It is named after an early (and none too generous) donor. Long ago, it became detached from the parent church and, about 60 years ago, it was taken over by our state government, so that it has long been, in effect, the New Jersey counterpart of the University of California, Ohio State University, the University of Virginia, and so forth.

As such universities go it’s pretty good in terms of research productivity, having some top-flight scholars and world-class departments. As regards undergraduate enrollment and student culture, it’s a rather proletarian, not to say gritty, place. The graces and pretensions of high intellectualism such as might be found at, say, Harvard, are largely absent. So too the politicised bohemianism that sets the tone at the University of California, Berkeley. Rutgers undergrads form a polymorphous mixture of middle-class and working-class, old-stock Americans and immigrants from all over the world, earnest pre-meds and indifferent slackers, frat boys and feminists, jocks, jock-sniffers, and jock-haters. It is not a place aflame with intellectual curiosity.

The student publications tell the story. There are a few newspapers put out by various university divisions, in addition to the major, all-university daily. They’re pretty godawful and tend to be filled with pointless ‘news’ of little interest to anyone, overwrought university sports reportage, and unfocused op-ed pieces. The writing ranges from pretentiously tin-eared to outright semi-literate. Among these, however, there is one that far outstrips all the others in its capacity to embarrass my institution. Supposedly a humor magazine, this rag, named the Medium, has all the wit and sparkle of a puking drunk. It is coarse, scurrilous, dimwitted, infantile, nasty, and incredibly foul-mouthed, all to no apparent humorous or satirical purpose. It is replete with brainless personal attacks and with smirking gibes at women, homosexuals, and various ethnicities.

Yet in a circumscribed but important sense, I love the Medium, despite the fact that I rarely look at it other than to check that it’s as emetic as ever. The reason I love it is that a host of local crusaders have repeatedly tried to shut it down or at least force it to clean up its act. These enemies include people who have been personally mocked, outraged student pressure groups, and the occasional university official driven past the point of exasperation.

But the enemies of the Medium have never succeeded in seriously intimidating it, or persuading it to temper its puerile and nauseating style. In fact, the paper still receives a tiny subsidy from the student government. Plainly, the reason it survives is not that it is greatly admired, but rather because it provides an excellent outpost for the first-line, uncompromising defense of free speech. The reasoning seems to be that if the authorities can’t squelch the Medium, they’ll have a damned hard time squelching anything else. Even more important, the continuing example of the Medium has forced the Rutgers administration to acknowledge openly that its authority to shut people up is highly limited.

Officials who have wanted to crack down on the Medium have always run into a brick wall in the form of the university’s own legal advisers, who are obliged to point out that, as a state institution, the university is bound by constitutional principles. Specifically the First and Fourteenth Amendments bluntly bar proscriptive or retaliatory measures against a publication on the part of governmental agencies. So the administration grits its teeth and the Medium just goes on its heedless (and worthless) way, unapologetic and uncensored.

This does not mean, however, that our bureaucrats have abandoned their ultimate agenda for creating an undergraduate environment pure in word, thought, and deed, where no hostility may be expressed by one group of students toward another (other than the officially mandated hostility toward racism, sexism and homophobia). Indeed, within the last few days our administration has found another and far more defenseless target for its lustrations, the university’s notorious Grease Trucks.

The Grease Trucks are lunch wagons, large vans clustered in a corner of a centrally located university parking lot. They are a mainstay of Rutgers prole culture and modestly famous – at least within Central New Jersey. Every day, they serve thousands of the students (and faculty) who scurry about the crowded campus trying to accommodate themselves to its frenetic schedule. If you can’t make it to a regular dining room at the appropriate time, or if you’re stuck on campus late at night, you can usually swing by the Grease Trucks for emergency rations. The trucks all seem to be run by Arab immigrants, and they all have pretty much the same menu. Shish kabob on pita dressed with tahini sauce and with a little tabouleh on the side is always available, in addition to conventional burgers and tuna sandwiches. But the crowing glory of Grease Truck cuisine is the Fat Sandwich, that is, a loaf of pita vastly overstuffed with something or other in order to create an optimal artery-clogger.

It all seems to have started with the Fat Darrell, christened for the customer who dreamed it up, some now-forgotten student. (The Fat Darrell, by the way, has since been named the best College Sandwich in America by the magazine Maxim.) Others, like the Fat Moon, and the Fat Koko, soon followed, most of them given the name, or nickname, of their gluttonous inventors. At this point, there are perhaps 30 Fat sandwiches on a Grease Truck menu. All well and good, one would think – except for those spoilsports concerned with obesity, vascular disease, and the like.

Ah, but there are other spoilsports nosing about! A couple of weeks ago, the local organisation that claims to represent ‘lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and the transgendered community’ announced that it was mortally offended by the Grease Truck bill of fare. Somehow, sandwiches named Fat Bitch and Fat Dyke had made their insidious way on to the Fat roster. A little thought about probable etymology suggests that one inventive customer likely reveled in being labeled a bitch, as some women surely do. Another, presumably, was a proudly open lesbian, showing the same terminological insouciance as leading militant organisations, for instance those representing lesbians with children (Dykes with Tykes), or lesbian motorcyclists (Dykes on Bikes). (Recall that, while it was once poor form to call someone a queer, it now seems obligatory, at least in university literature departments.)

No matter. The very presence of the words ‘bitch’ and ‘dyke’ on a publicly visible sign was deemed inadmissibly offensive and was held responsible for creating a ‘hostile environment’. (That’s a splendid locution, by the way, for anyone trying to suppress the public expression of something with which he happens to disagree.) The complaint swiftly made its way upward to the ears of the higher administration. The answer came rattling back down (via the director of parking operations) to the besieged Grease Truck operators. The Fat Bitch and the Fat Dyke would have to go. Likewise, just to be on the safe side, the Fat Filipino and the Fat Indian Veggie – named, presumably, for the ethnic origins of the comestibles with which they are replete, rather than for some portly Asians – were also sentenced to euphemisation.

As distinct from the Medium situation, the university, alas, has sound legal support for its censorious ways. The Grease Trucks are, in effect, businesses operating under license from the school, and thus subject to its whims. The fact that the poor Grease Truckers are going to have to buy new signage would seem to be far more unjust and discriminatory than the display of harmless sandwich terminology. But one can’t expect university administrators to be much moved by common sense in matters like this. This script has been laid out for them. The algorithms for determining good and evil are narrow and rigid and give enormous leverage to those of the correct race or sexual proclivity who claim the right never to be offended.

It is interesting, however, that the undergrads, for once, seem to be more thoughtful, insightful, and fair-minded than their masters. The great Grease Truck purge seems to have hit a nerve, and the student papers have been flooded with letters and columns not only protesting the silliness of it all, but tying the matter to deeper questions of freedom of opinion and expression. Perhaps it took the sense-memory of a Fat Bitch, consumed on the run at 8:30 in the evening, to galvanise the social and political conscience into action. Whatever the reason, this response is quite welcome.

Meanwhile, ironically, the Rutgers neighborhood has been the scene of a prime piece of lesbian baiting, but this has gone almost unnoticed among all the fuss over indecorously named sandwiches. The Dutch Reformed seminary that was the eighteenth-century institutional germ of the university still exists, serving a theologically and socially conservative constituency. It has no formal connection with Rutgers, but it continues to occupy a small enclave right in the middle of Rutgers territory. Last week, the long-term president of the seminary was fired. The reason? He had the temerity to officiate at the wedding of his daughter – to another woman. Despite years of faithful and presumably meritorious service, he was swiftly given the boot for this offense.

Rutgers, however, has not seen fit to comment on this arrant bigotry. The university’s closemouthed stance is likely quite judicious; the affair is really none of the university’s business. Yet there is still something a little odd about a bureaucracy that observes a discreet silence in a case like this, while raising hell over a lousy sandwich.

Norman Levitt is professor of mathematics at Rutgers University and author of Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture.

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Topics Politics

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