Friday, February 26, 2010

* For God, for Country and for Yale by Jeff Gordon '12


For God, for Country, and for Yale

by Jeff Gordon 

Jeff Gordon is a sophomore at Yale. This essay was written for his English class and is reprinted here.
(printed with permission of the author : all rights reserved)

by Jeff Gordon

Like Guy Fawkes, Paul Keane is a revolutionary. The two men share groovy beards and a desire to blow up the establishment, but there are a few technical differences. Paul’s target, instead of Parliament, is Yale. His grievances, not far from anti-Catholic discrimination, are elitism, racism and sexism. Paul plants not explosives but words, one blog post at a time. The most important distinction, however, and the reason to take Paul much more seriously, is that he knows his enemy. Paul Keane, M.Div ’80, is the Anti-Yale.


Undergrads might recognize Paul’s name and self-appointed title from the Yale Daily News’s website. Every morning at five, before heading off to the mysterious job that he refuses to discuss, Paul scans the Yale Daily News (YDN) online edition in search of fodder. He finds an article reeking of Yale-centric privilege or condescension to New Haven and opens the comment box. His blast is swift—short enough for a generation weaned on text messages—and typically obscure in its allusion to characters from Old Yale’s past. He used to sign off: “Paul Keane, M.Div ’80.” Now he just writes PK. “I like nothing more than controversy,” says Paul, and that’s exactly what he gets. By the time Paul returns home, his comment has elicited numerous responses from Yalies exasperated with this Internet phantom and convinced that what goes on at Yale is none of his business. “Dude, are you like retired or something? Shouldn't you be focusing on your day job? Glory Days are so...over.” Some posters respond to the substance of his message, but to many he’s an outsider, and they wish he would just go away.

“First of all I’m not an outsider. Yale’s the outsider as far as I’m concerned. I’m a born and raised native of New Haven. You’re the outsider.” Paul Keane is quick to cite his credentials. He grew up twelve miles from Yale. His grandmother lived two blocks from Yale “in a ghetto apartment, a third floor walkup” with no hot water. His first encounter with inequality is painfully resonant to anyone who has ever seen a city: two blocks from bitter poverty sat “medieval palaces facing INWARD away from the community.” He wrote that in response to a YDN article about a recent string of murders in the city, and often shares his belief that Yale’s opulence is an “upraised middle finger” to the city, inducing envy, greed, and crime. But if Yale is the inward-looking solipsist, and its stained-glass windows are just one-way mirrors, can it really still be the outsider? Finding the proper prepositional relationship between Paul Keane and Yale—in, out, under, on—is complicated enough before you consider the fact he went there.

Paul Keane got a Master of Education degree from Kent State in 1972, which was kind of like investing in the stock market in 1929. After the uproar over the 1970 shootings had tainted the school’s national image, his diploma was a “black spot;” he couldn’t find a job. So, restless in New Haven, he took the obvious step and applied to the Divinity School: “They accepted me, to their eternal regret.” Paul takes a lot of pride in his performance as a “hell-raiser” at Y.D.S., and I have a feeling the pun was intended. He tells a story about winning an award at graduation and rushing to the Dean in surprise because he thought the faculty hated him. “They do,” said the Dean, and the deadpan rings clear across the decades, “but they respect a challenge". Paul jokes about his decision to attend the Divinity School as a last resort, but the issue deserves a closer look. As a child, Yale’s towers were a cruel reminder of what he couldn’t have. As an adult, he earned the keys to the castle. When Paul Keane criticizes Yale, he signs his name with the very authority it granted him.

Paul has one particularly striking story from his time at Yale. While volunteering at the Medical School, he stumbled across a secret patient. She was a prostitute, she had just given birth, and she had the first known case of heterosexual AIDS in America. Paul urged the University administration to publicize the news and warn the community, but they refused. Like all good revolutionaries, Paul would not take ‘no’ for an answer. He called 60 Minutes; they broke the story, and guess who was the star witness. Paul uses this drama to speak to Yale’s disregard for its surrounding community. “It's only prostitutes and drug addicts. They won't affect our precious Ivy League clientele,” he satirizes.

Speaking of those Ivy League types, “I always thought downtown Yale College was where rich people met to further their careers…and I still [do].” George W. Bush is his case in point, and don’t get him started on Henry Luce. As the editor-in-chief of Time, Luce may have brought “the Communist scare into every living room in America,” but his donations are also part of the reason that 55% of Yale undergrads now receive financial aid. “People of mediocre merit,” may still exist at Yale, but they come from all over the world and the gender spectrum—not just the sons of blue-blooded elites.

And if Yale is a lost cause, why does Paul Keane keep writing? Paul says that in his youth, “Yale was a thorn in my side,” but now he describes himself as a gadfly, nipping at the elephant.

Who’s the focus of this story? Who’s the insider and who’s intruding? If Yale were a thorn, Paul would run away, but it’s the opposite—he’s singularly hooked. He has degrees from four schools, but he’s not the Anti-Middlebury, not the Anti-Ithaca, and certainly not the Anti-Kent State. He is the Anti-Yale because “Yale is the best and the worst in our world:” his contempt is equaled by his respect.

The one thing Paul truly admires about Yale is how it provides space for dissent and refuses to squash the gadfly. He may be confusing institutional goodwill with the YDN’s liberal comment policy, but I do suppose Yale’s tolerance is to be praised. That, or it’s a good thing Paul Keane didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union. In any case, as long as he’s still blogging, he’ll continue urging undergraduates to free their minds from the Yale bubble. And while Paul told me, “I don’t think old people should give young people advice,” it seems clear that his effort on the YDN message boards is just that. If nothing else, his advice is that young people should question their assumptions, reject authority, and engage in debate. In one post, he describes this work as “generational philanthropy.” If that’s not enough evidence that Paul cares how young people interact with his ideas, there’s one more thing. He wouldn’t tell me what he does for a living, so I followed my generation’s credo: when in doubt, Google. Paul Keane is a high school English teacher.

But as much as Paul is writing for the students, he’s also writing for himself. The whole endeavor is, “an ego stroke. I see it as my tombstone. I’m writing my own eulogy.” There’s a story behind this morose, grandiloquent language. Just over a year ago, Paul was diagnosed with kidney cancer. But for the early detection, the disease would have spread to his bone marrow and—as he made a point of emphasizing, again and again—he would now be dead. This brush with mortality shuffled his priorities, self-expression came out on top, and the blog was born*. “They took out half a cancerous kidney, so I figure I’m going to say what I have to say before I kick the bucket.”

What he has to say is profoundly ambivalent. Guy Fawkes had never been a Protestant or an MP, so his task was rather simple. Paul Keane has lived the very life he picks apart. Sometimes, he finds himself in the awkward position of defending the Divinity School from aggressively secular undergrads, siding with the faculty he used to drive nuts. In recognition of these moments when no one agrees with him, Paul’s voice slides from its focused intensity to a sedated melancholy: “I’m like J.D. Salinger. I’ve lived in Vermont for 25 years…and I really don’t care about the rest of society.” Besides the physical fact of his isolation, that statement rings untrue. This is a guy who wakes up at five every morning, grabs a coffee, and sits down with the Yale Daily News. For better or worse, his meditations always lead back to Yale. When I informed him that everyone knows PK, I could hear the cheer in his surprise—relishing an outsider’s return to the castles, albeit through fiber wire. He’ll keep writing, “Till I drop dead!”

Or maybe he won’t. Every once in a while, a different side of Paul Keane pops out. “Young people don’t like old people,” he says, “it’s in their blood,” and you get the sense he’s speaking from experience. An old “hell-raiser,” it’s worth asking what the young Paul Keane would think of PK. Maybe this generation of Yalies doesn’t need his advice anymore. “After a while, you have to wonder,” Paul muses, “am I just being a nag?”

* The Anti-Yale address is

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