I’m a creature of academia. I attended college starting in 1975, and essentially never left — I went on to do graduate school, post-docs, and taught at a couple. I’ve been at both the small liberal arts college (DePauw, UMM) and the great big state school (Universities of Washington, Oregon, and Utah, and Temple University). I talk to students and faculty and staff every day for decades now, and at worst you could say maybe I’m a little too close to this environment, but you certainly can’t argue that I know nothing about what goes on on college campuses.
But then I read these stories from outsiders about what it’s like to be on an American campus, mostly by people who haven’t been here in ages and probably had just a transient experience before leaving, and they’re all about as accurate as if I were trying to describe life on Mars. They are distinguished by their total lack of awareness of reality and the vehemence with which they condemn students.
Case in point: Andrew Sullivan. It’s pure madness.
Over the last year, the most common rebuttal to my intermittent coverage of campus culture has been: Why does it matter? These are students, after all. They’ll grow up once they leave their cloistered, neo-Marxist safe spaces. The real world isn’t like that. You’re exaggerating anyway. And so on. I certainly see the point. In the world beyond campus, few people use the term microaggressions without irony or an eye roll; claims of “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” or “white privilege” can seem like mere rhetorical flourishes; racial and gender segregation hasn’t been perpetuated in the workplace yet; the campus Title IX sex tribunals where, under the Obama administration, the “preponderance of evidence” rather than the absence of a “reasonable doubt” could ruin a young man’s life and future are just a product of a hothouse environment. And I can sometimes get carried away.
I’ll give him a different rebuttal: you’re clueless, Mr Sullivan. Your “intermittent coverage of campus culture” is so detached from reality, so thickly slathered with conservative bullshit, that it is an unrecognizable caricature.
What “neo-Marxist safe spaces”? “Neo-Marxism”, by the way, is an empty buzzword generally used by terrified “neo-conservatives” who are upset that students explore new ideas outside the conventional, capitalism-worshipping straitjackets conservatives would rather we brainwashed students into worshipping. We actually encourage students to think, rather than accept the received wisdom of hidebound old farts. We ask them to look at systems of thought with new eyes and a wider perspective, and we tell them it’s OK to question that system. That’s it. That does not imply that we’re sitting around inculcating them with the sacred words of Lenin and Mao.
Most of our students are solidly middle-class, not interested in rocking the boat too much. It’s kind of ironic that our universities are accused of promoting communism when the most common rationale students and administrators use to get students to attend is that it’s the path to a good, well-paying job. You’d think that if we were busy indoctrinating them into neo-Marxism that they’d wake up somewhere around their junior year, look around, and realize that they’re imbedded deeply into an institution with a vested interest in moving them into the bourgeoisie, and they’d riot. Or leave. We’re not seeing much of a revolution right now because the rising costs of a university education have already filtered out most of the citizens with an interest in overthrowing the system.
At best we can stir up a modicum of social consciousness. Yeah, you’re here at a university, we’re going to try and make sure you acquire at least middle-class status (here’s your alumni newsletter, please donate!), but hey, if we can make you aware of your privilege and advantages, and the fact that not everyone in our country shares them, we can dream that you’ll help promote some incremental change for the better.
That’s the extent of campus radicalism. Relax, hidebound old farts. David Brooks still has his sinecure at the NY Times, and Andrew Sullivan will still get TV appearances where he can pretend to be an enlightened conservative. I wish it were otherwise.
As for “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” or “white privilege” — those are real things. I know that when you get snugged down tightly in your socio-economic slot, it gets harder to see them, because you are no longer exposed to as many contrasts, and you’re now rewarded for conformity rather than enquiry. It’s not that campuses are narrow and constraining and forcing people into radicalism, it’s that your life as a cossetted, privileged, boring white man means it’s easy for you to move right into a secure bubble and never think again. You’re the one being warped by your milieu, not the students. They tend to be liberated to think in new ways, a freedom they may never have to the same degree again. There’s no hothouse here. That’s reserved for defenders of the status quo in the non-campus universe, who will forever strain to suppress novelties that might emerge from a free-thinking environment.
But Sullivan wants to claim that he’s not totally against new ideas. He just hates the boogeyman du jour of conservative thought, “identity politics”. It’s ironic that people like Sullivan who are so committed to preserving the privileges of a narrow group, white men, are also committed to demeaning efforts to extend those privileges to all citizens in the name of denial of opportunity to all others.
The reason I don’t agree with this is because I believe ideas matter. When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well. If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.
Oh, look at the projection! Identity politics is what people other than white males do to create oppressive power structures around race or sex; when white men erect power structures around their positions to block those others from achieving equality, well, that’s just fair and generous, not identity politics at all! The thoughtful people on college campuses aren’t at all interested in building silos of power for themselves and no others — they look at the identity politics of white men for white men and want to tear down those walls. That’s the ideal, anyway. I fear that most of them will graduate and find themselves forced to conform in order to keep themselves housed and fed within that hierarchy that Sullivan loves so much.
And, sure enough, the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect. The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for “white male” power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites. Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of “hate,” rather than a function of nature or choice or freedom or individual agency. And anyone who questions these assertions is obviously a white supremacist himself.
Oh, christ. So much nonsense.
Groups form in response to pressure from dominant, oppressive forces. They aren’t about suppressing individuality — to the contrary, they’re all about finding power in unity to resist the opposition of an overwhelming pressure to succumb to your myth that American culture is about “merit”. It ain’t.
For example, I often hear people mock the idea of different pronouns, or that the LGBT acronym keeps expanding to include more letters. How ridiculous, they say — I can’t be bothered to learn how to reference someone with all those weird new pronouns, and I will resist the neo-Marxist Left’s effort to pollute my language; or they laugh at the alphabet soup of LGBTTQQIAAP2S or QUILTBAG or whatever unique set of terms a particular group chooses to use. But there’s a reason for that: it’s not about conformity to a group, but the opposite of that, where people are trying to build structures under which everyone is free to express their personal, unique identity, where differences are encompassed with respect and no one is trying to dictate that individuals must fit into two and only two narrow types, the masculine and the feminine. How can Sullivan honestly defend the concept of individual agency while complaining about people who demand their own?
Speaking of conformity, though, I’ve noticed that status quo warriors like Sullivan are all speaking the same set of codes. Hierarchies are good. Everyone fits into the hierarchy on the basis of pure merit. Privilege doesn’t exist, except that dominance is good and natural, so somehow some people are privileged (but they must have earned it!). Cultural factors are negligible before the power of biology, and if it’s biological, it is necessarily good and true. History and environment don’t matter when Nature is the sole determinant of your status. Anyone who is not a conservative capitalist is a neo-Marxist.
It all makes me wish college campuses were seething hotbeds of chaos and rage, rising up to shatter these lies.
But I’m here. I know. They’re actually all fairly complacent places where students learn and maybe think a bit more than they do in Andrew Sullivan’s world, and just that is enough to make conservatives quake in their jackboots. That world is an upside-down place where demanding tolerance of diversity is bigotry, and where calling out men on harassment is a witch hunt. Let’s all hope his world continues its decay and dies off eventually.