Laundering Privilege: How the Harvard Crimson Killed My Chapo Trap House Interview

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Laundering Privilege: How the <i>Harvard Crimson</i> Killed My Chapo Trap House Interview

When Chapo Trap House announced their April 14 show at Harvard, I jumped at the opportunity to interview them for The Harvard Crimson. I was a devoted listener of the show, a longtime Weird Twitter lurker, and I was excited by the prospect of seeing their brand of iconoclasm in these hallowed halls. The interview itself went great—but my editors, who had been fully on board with my pitch, delayed and then nixed the article, citing my use of leading questions and claiming I advocated for a particular viewpoint on behalf of The Crimson.

This criticism would make sense, had I done either of those things. What’s more, these concerns were raised only after two weeks of stringing me along with delays and ignored emails. I interviewed CTH the Saturday after their show; most articles for the Arts section come out on Tuesday, and mine was edited and on schedule to do just that. When Thursday rolled around and it still wasn’t online, I emailed my editor to ask what was up. “We actually decided to publish it in our spring supplement,” she wrote me back. “It should be published [next] Tuesday!”

It was not. It had now been a week and a half since Chapo’s live show, and I was getting impatient. “Do you have a link to the piece? I can’t seem to find it,” I wrote in another email. A day and a half later, my editor responded, “The chairs [executive editors of individual boards] told me there are some concerns about the piece, so I’ll let you know what they decide.”

Four days of gritted teeth and two more unanswered emails later, I finally got a response from one of the chairs. “When I read the piece, I had some concerns about the phrasing of the questions,” she wrote. “Statements like ‘One of the most powerful things about the show is that you don’t apologize for your rage’ or ‘even on a campus as capitalist as Harvard’ seemed to indicate the views of the writer much more strongly than I felt comfortable with… We’ve decided against publishing it.”

It makes sense. If you’re uncomfortable with the way an interviewer makes your publication look, the best way to deal with it isn’t to make your concerns known while it’s first being edited. Instead, you play the long game. You delay for a week, telling him it’s so good that you want to bump it up to a featured print article. Then you ignore him for another week, write a four-line email telling him the whole thing’s been axed because of two phrases which could have been easily removed, then hope the whole thing blows over like a pocket veto. I guess they figured that I’d stop caring about the piece eventually, but they misjudged that being a socialist on, yes, a campus as capitalist as Harvard means rage is my Adderall.

This isn’t the case of a poorly-run college newspaper dropping the ball—you don’t become a chair of any board at The Crimson without a measure of editorial competence. Nor, despite the chairs’ assertion, is it a case of malpractice on my part—to interview CTH after a show at Harvard devoted to its most evil alumni and not give them space to flesh out their critiques of the institution would have been negligence. Seeing as I emailed my editors Monday morning to ask for an explanation and as of Thursday evening still haven’t gotten a response, I’m left with no other explanation than that they didn’t run the piece because the content of the article made them deeply uncomfortable.

It’s not that The Crimson never runs stories critical of Harvard. It’s true that the newspaper relies on building trust with sources in the administration to break institutional news before national publications (e.g. President Faust’s appointment in 2007). This results in somewhat of a chilling effect that leads student writers not to take up narratives too critical of the university for fear that they lose access—but this is a problem for any publication, college or not, hoping for direct access to power. And to its credit, the newspaper does regularly put out stories criticizing discrete areas of campus life—for instance, the university’s feet-dragging on issues of sexual assault. However, besides the occasional half-baked op-ed, any direct interrogation of Harvard’s broad culture of elitism is absent from the pages of The Crimson, because no one wants to write about it.

This reflects a problem far, far broader than one student publication, a problem that shapes and saturates every aspect of student life here. Nobody who’s spent their high school years presiding over six clubs and working in a laboratory instead of getting drunk under the bleachers wants to read a piece that tells them they’re mere pawns of a fake meritocracy. To do so would unravel the investment represented by countless hours of resume-padding and leisure time denied, an investment into creating yourself in this image of objective excellence. Nor does anyone who spent their high school years getting drunk on a schooner and now studies in the library with their last name on it want to read that, through donations past and future, they paid their way here. For students born into a Harvard family, they’re not made to consider that their presence here might be due to their background, not just their resume—and for the ones who never expected to get in, why would we rock the boat? We’re grateful to be here at all.

This is no doubt what made my editors uncomfortable, that the Chapo guys came straight for the jugular of Harvard life—the foundational illusion that we’re all here because we really are the best in the world. To borrow Matt Christman’s spot-on phrase, Harvard and the meritocracy it sits atop exist first and foremost to launder privilege. He’s not wrong. If someone in one of my classes seems particularly slow or unengaged, I just have to google their last name and figure out what hedge fund their dad runs. The illusion of meritocratic success is so central to every student’s self-worth because it’s why we enrolled— “how could I say no to Harvard?”—yet collapses so quickly upon closer examination that the only response is to not talk about it. And by dropping my interview with CTH, The Crimson proved that point by their own logic.