When I went away to college, a newspaper article told students living off campus in Atlanta which neighborhoods to avoid in their new city.
(Of course, I stuffed my clothes into a matchbox, hopped off the Continental Trailways bus and unknowingly moved right into the middle of the main one they warned us about – off Ashby Street. I loved it.)
After reading a 2006 article in Duke University’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, by a then-young Stephen Miller, I’d have bet my “pompatus of love” bumper sticker that his piece was just a satire meant to warn Duke students of which behaviors and attitudes to avoid in their new city.
After informing readers that he “has nothing against the city,” he wrote that Durham is “one of the last spots in America anyone would visit were it not for the presence of Duke University... Duke is, in fact, the only thing that keeps this city alive.”
Say, was smoking crack legal in 2006?
As satire, Miller’s “Welcome to the Durham Petting Zoo” column was brilliant, worthy of Jonathan Swift.
As a serious opinion piece – truly a terrifying thought – then it was the most condescending compilation of wacky word salad you’ll ever read, an unintentional parody of the pompous, privileged college student. Despite the stereotype that tripe such as Miller’s perpetuates, Duke reports that 43 percent of its students receive financial aid.
Thus, not all Dookies – as appears to be the case with Miller and his easily outraged sensibilities – were raised as Chatsworth Osborne IV, tutored behind gilded gates or attended high schools with “Day” in the name so that they never had to encounter commoners.
Miller’s hysterical screed would be mercifully forgotten – to be trotted out only in desperation as he tried to impress a date with “Wanna come up and see some of my writings?” – were it not for the fact that the 31-year-old blunderkind now has the ear of the President as an adviser.
No one should be held strictly accountable for everything said, done or written at 19, an age when the brain has obviously not yet fully developed. I shudder to think of some of the radical ideas I espoused as the flame-throwing editor of my college newspaper, although I’m proud of some of them: demanding that the blood bank pay $10 instead of $8 for a pint of plasma; that the school identify the mystery meat served in the cafeteria on Wednesdays, and that we have open visitation in the girls’ dorms until 11 p.m.
Of course, even then I was tormented by critics; one letter-writer noted that it wouldn’t affect me since I didn’t even have a girlfriend to visit.
True, but that’s beside the point.
While Miller shouldn’t be judged solely by what he wrote as an attention-seeking teen, he can be held accountable if those reprehensibly lampoonish ideas inform the advice he gives to the current president.
“Naw, they don’t need no help, Mr. President: It’s just a petting zoo down there.”
Judging by recent comments attributed to him, he has neither renounced his former views nor moderated them. Can anyone, then, be surprised that a dude who expressed such contempt for an entire city could rise so quickly to a position of prominence in the present Presidential administration?
When I asked Durham Mayor Bill Bell on Saturday if he knew of Miller, he said he’d just read about him in that day’s newspaper. He had not, he said, read the Chronicle article in which Miller wrote so disparagingly of Durham.
What did Mayor Bell think of the man who badmouthed the city he’s served for decades and who now has the ear of the President?
“First of all, I consider the source” of the critique, he said. “Durham is a very caring community. We probably have the largest number of non-profits of any city in the country” for its size. “I don’t care what anyone says: The thing that makes Durham special is its diversity... We have our differences, but they’re not behind closed doors.”
Want to know how caring people in Durham are?
When I asked former neighbors how to kill mice in my house, they were aghast. They didn’t kill them, they said; they captured them and set them free out back.
I am not that caring. I set out those spring-loaded traps and got rid of the traps only because the mice kept getting the cheese and escaping. The only thing the traps snapped shut on were my fingers.
Far from being the cultural wasteland that Miller called Durham, the city offers something for just about any cultural appetite.
What, then, is the relationship like between Durham and Duke? I asked Bell.
“I think we have a great relationship,” he said. “I’ve been an elected official for 40-plus years, and during that time, I’ve had an opportunity to work with four of the Duke presidents. From my viewpoint, the partnership has only grown in terms of their involvement in the community.
“It’s not just a one-way street, either,” he said. “The university gets something back from the city. Durham provides a nurturing and integrative community for the students and faculty... Look at the cultural outlets, the DPAC, the restaurants, the people. The one phrase I hear over and over when I meet with Duke grads who’ve been away is how much they appreciated their time here and how much the city has changed for the better.”
Any city that lost a world-class institution such as Duke would be staggered, knocked off its moorings at least temporarily, but Durham is bigger than Duke or any single institution.
Years ago, while being interviewed on some TV show, I was asked to describe the relationship between Durham and Duke. With uncharacteristic intemperance, I stated that there were some in the Duke community who – if they could – would pick up and move the school out of the city.
Duke and city officials came down pretty hard on me for that, and, after considering my words, I conceded their criticism was valid. They obviously hadn’t met Stephen Miller.
Wait a minute: Did he say petting zoo?
Say, homes: Pet this.