Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler


Butler’s second Flexner lecture, Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street, discussed the power of alliances, especially “queer alliances” to disrupt and challenge the chokehold of neo-liberal policies and politics. When people come together in public spaces in unexpected ways, they publicly insist on their personhood and their rights, which they are being denied in the public sphere. While Butler, and my fellow bloggers, discuss the ways in which these alliances are currently being played out in a series of historical moments in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and cities across the United States, I have found myself wondering more about the alliances of a different sort, particularly alliances that promote violence, and reinforce and reward adherence to existing and harmful power structures.

Yes, I am talking about the PSU child rape scandal and cover-up.

A group of men, all in positions of relative institutional and economic power, chose their existing alliances–to the institution of Penn State, to the multi-million dollar semi-professional football team, to the “brand” of the institution, and to the myth and mystique of Joe Paterno’s leadership–over alliances to the powerless and economically disadvantaged children that Sandusky, the defensive coordinator for the football team (allegedly) raped. Furthermore, the men involved in the scandal and its atrocious mishandling (at best) and cover-up (sinister worst) allied with each other to protect the sexual prerogatives and preferences of another man, even when that man was credibly believed to be a sexual predator. One of the two eyewitnesses to Sandusky’s criminal activities, Mike McQueary, was rewarded for his complicity in Sandusky’s rape of a young boy. By going to Paterno instead of the police, he allied himself with the powerful men in charge of PSU’s football program, and was eventually promoted to a senior coaching staff position.

The details of the criminal activity and cover-up will continue to emerge in the coming weeks and months. Even the cost of this toxic alliance isn’t yet fully apparent. What is apparent, however, is the entrenched nature of alliances among those in power, and the ways in which they have acted, in this case, to render children as not fully human. What we can do is ally ourselves with the community at PSU who gathered for a silent, public, candlelight vigil for the victims and their families, insisting on the humanity of children and of the economically disadvantaged, and of the necessity to fracture toxic misalliances whenever we encounter them.

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