Columbia Daily Spectator                      January 17, 2001  


By Ben Letzler
Columbia Daily Spectator

Sometimes Wrong, Never in Doubt
                    It is the critic's task to make the reader look at life afresh, to provoke what
                    Edmund Wilson cribbed from Herman Melville to call ''the shock of
                    recognition.'' This is not just a literary vocation. It is a way of life, to be
                    carried with one always. This is why I amuse audiences by drinking red wine
                    vinegar, chasing it with bicarbonate of soda, and burping tremendously. This
                    is why I watch Marx Brothers movies with friends and weep. Every situation
                    and every place demands the shock of new forms of slapstick self-ironizing. 

                    Columbia's biggest critical-humorous tradition is in the balance, now that the
                    administration has been pushing around the Marching Band again. Orgo
                    Night, the grand festival of heckling the studious in Butler Library with
                    anti-establishment school spirit, is among Columbia's longest-lived rituals;
                    with three decades of history, it competes with the Columbia Yule Log for
                    longevity and beats it hands down for musicality. The administration now
                    threatens Orgo Night with expulsion from Butler for having drawn crowds of
                    hundreds larger than the fire code maximums. Continuing the tradition in
                    Butler is impossible, they say.

                    The administration has a legitimate responsibility to maintain safety around
                    campus. But the whole ethos of Orgo Night is to force harried students to
                    give up their books the night before the organic chem exam, relax, and enjoy
                    some laughs. The Marching Band is one of the most articulate, and certainly
                    the most entertaining, critic of the way Columbia is run. The Administration's
                    pushing it out of Butler without so much as a proper apology, or better yet a
                    compensatory budget boost, smells of muzzling. It seems consistent with
                    years of Administrative harassment of the Marching Band, one of Columbia's
                    few great lasting institutions. 

                    CUMB is an astounding group of people; ''the cleverest band in the world'' is
                    Columbia's ambassador to prove her superiority over Harvard, Princeton and
                    Yale. (Their claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the highest form of flattery
                    comes from the Brown marching band, which is a carbon copy--not quite as
                    good, but highly entertaining--of ours.) And for the ingenious lyrics, the
                    logic-redefining arrangements for brass band, their stalwart stewardship of
                    Columbia's rousing standards like ''Roar, Lion, Roar'' and ''Who Owns New
                    York?'', CUMB has been rewarded at every step of the way by Dean of
                    Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis, who has worked to reorganize the
                    Marching Band to have less freedom and less funding.

                    The Band deserves better than this. Criticism of Columbia, by Columbia
                    students, within the setting of Columbia--like Gaudeamuses and libations of
                    fine New Jersey vodka--is intimately tied to the sweetness of college days.
                    Poking fun at Columbia is a question of what should best be said where. If I
                    call Dean Yatrakis ''a contemptible, escargot-sniffing goose-stepping
                    Brooklynite Xanthippe'' in these pages, this is engagement with campus life. It
                    is, indeed, school spirit. If I, however, so much as call her poorly groomed in
                    the New York Times, I am a disgrace as a Columbian. Almost three years
                    ago, I inaugurated my tenure at this paper with a polemic against Columbia's
                    food. It was, I think it fair to say, a column of withering brilliance. Moreover,
                    I kept it within the family. 

                    But when sloe-eyed Hollywood wench Julia Stiles made the same complaints
                    to millions on late-night television, that was another matter. She even called
                    the work-study John Jay serving staff ''mole people,'' something I, having
                    empathy for those of us whose wardrobe is not photographed for InStyle
                    magazine and whose tuition is not paid by Twentieth Century Fox, never did.
                    The whole grotesque business can most charitably be described as morally
                    suspect. Colleges, like genitals, are most prudently exposed to public scrutiny
                    with a delicate sense of context.

                    Butler Library and the inspired Columbia Marching Band--this is an ideal
                    context for pointed fun at the expense of the distant, sometimes autocratic
                    Columbia Administration. Dean Yatrakis and her running dogs would do well
                    to reread Roland Barthes' essay, ''Operation Margarine,'' on the power of
                    self-criticism to promote inferior merchandise. If margarine ads admit that
                    margarine is objectively worse than butter, but that nobody really cares, it
                    inoculates consumers against the cheapening of their lives through margarine.
                    Without the gentle, healing humor of the Marching Band, we could well have
                    a new full-scale student uprising soon underway. Why 1968? Too much
                    high-hat Admin--not enough Orgo Night!

                    The only sensible thing to do for an Administration that values their jobs and
                    their institution to do is to go back to the Marching Band, the brightest star in
                    the constellation of campus humorists who do so much to make life here
                    bearable, with their hats in their hands and tails between their legs. Tell the
                    Marching Band that the fire safety codes must be met, even if Columbia has
                    been known to operate condemned buildings for years at a time, and
                    supplicate them to find a solution. Offer as much money and resources as it
                    takes. Broadcasts on WKCR, expanded space in the main reading room, or
                    complimentary fire extinguishers for the whole crowd! Otherwise, in the
                    words of Saint-Pierre, Tout le monde s'ecria--Voila l'ouragan!

                    Post scriptum: I do not want to seem uncharitable to Dean Yatrakis, who has
                    brought to her job a professionalism and an intensity of purpose little seen
                    since Juan de Torquemada. Let me extend a hearty mazel tov to her daughter
                    Catherine, who only last summer wed Alistair Economakis in happy nuptials
                    shamefully neglected by the Spectator, but, fortunately, not by America's
                    Newspaper of Record. Mrs. Economakis is a successful young urbanite who,
                    according to the Times, previously worked as a vice president at Yanni
                    International Management Corporation, ''which represents Yanni, the musical
                    entertainer.'' Uh oh. Oh no. Shock of recognition! Shock of recognition!