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The Columns That Haunt Us

“Without hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.” Martin Luther King Jr., Oberlin College Commencement (1965)

Bending the Arc

If I ever become a “man of note,” my columns might come back to haunt me like a tricky spirit back from the dead—not to punish me, but to annoy me.

My opinions will likely change over the years, but those that I hold now as a strapping young undergraduate will remain immortalized on these pages. If a critic—or aspiring young journalist—ever digs up old columns of mine, they might find some lines I might not be as proud of ten, twenty, thirty years out.

Were this hypothetical ever to become reality, I would not be alone. There’s been a number of powerful Harvard College graduates who’ve gone on to become influencers in their respective field. And yes, articles they wrote as mere teenagers or people in their early twenties are still available for all to see.

“In a love affair, love will naturally grow, unmanaged and unfettered,” a former Crimson columnist wrote in the late 1990s. “If it stops growing, the affair falls apart, violently and wrenchingly. But we live to love again, our world having been enriched by all of our past affairs. It is spontaneous, and it is unmatched in human life.”

It’s tempting to assume the writer, who sounds like an aspiring Neruda, has taken up poetry full-time. Perhaps, after hours, he has. But as a day job, he works on legislation on the Hill. Our love-struck writer is none other than Republican Senator Thomas B. Cotton '98 of Arkansas.

Senator Cotton, who is now a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump’s xenophobic policies and co-sponsor of a nativist overhaul of U.S. immigration law, once dabbled in less pressing matters. Before he went about figuring out new ways of ripping immigrant families apart, he wrote about love life at Harvard.

Another Crimson columnist received a speeding ticket while driving his friend’s new Mercedes-Benz in 2002. “The larger reason I was speeding—well, that’s somewhat more embarrassing. You see, while I held the hammer down,” he confessed. “I was grooving to the exciting, pulse-pounding, adrenaline-boosting music of none other than. . . Garth Brooks.”

From there, he used Garth Brooks to reflect on diversity at Harvard, the tastes we value, and perceptions of mythologized middle America. The man who asked the difficult questions—including “But honestly, who sings along to Radiohead? Heck, who even knows what a Radiohead song is about?”—now holds one of the most powerful positions in journalism.

Ross Douthat has been a columnist for the New York Times since 2009. He’s become the poster child of conservative intellectualism and one of the most noted conservative voices in media. Yet while at Harvard, he dabbled in less intense conversations, writing about how “country music is tacky and sappy and simplistic and sung in a Southern accent.”

People continue developing their worldviews after they graduate. Often, they become more conservative as they get older. College is but a step in that transformation. But for those of us who write about the things that matter—or partake in activism or other forms of social change—pieces of this transformation are frozen in time.

Cruel, opportunistic readers could take a single phrase or position from old pieces to make a point about who the person is in the present. But given how drastically people’s politics can change in the span of a few years, holding people to specific policy positions they took in the past feels disingenuous. At the very best, it is an act of bad faith.

Simultaneously, individuals’ bodies of work as a whole do offer an insight into their worldview, which is much more static. Individual policy stances may change, but the fundamental way people view the world is harder to overhaul. Precisely because of that, the collection of an individual’s thoughts—written years before—are worth scrutiny as a whole.

Senator Cotton’s tirades against diversity and affirmative action at Harvard, his revelry in being deemed contrarian, and his criticisms of student activists formed the basis for the man now deemed by some as “the future of Trumpism.” Douthat’s writing while at Harvard primed him for an uncommonly quick ascent into journalism, with one writer noting that, “Instead [Douthat] became a Crimson columnist and worked for The Atlantic. That was smart.”

The particular details of an old opinion piece, or the particular way a sentence is phrased, are not all that important. The way these pieces inform a larger ideology, though, is critical, especially when the writers go on to inhabit spaces of extreme influence. It’s interesting—but not essential—to know that presidential advisor Stephen Miller once attacked Maya Angelou’s work “as tired, multicultural clichés.” It is essential to parse out how that particular opinion and his subsequent work informed him as a leading architect of the Muslim ban.

A standalone combination of words, written decades ago, are not worth over analyzing. The way they inform a larger ideology, though, should be fair game. My columns may be dug up in the future for their silliness, unfortunate phrasing, or a particular opinion that has aged badly. But the columns that haunt me should be those that explain any harm I might be inflicting on others in that point in my life—as a policy maker, writer, or person deemed worth listening to.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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