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College Students Have Forgotten How to Fight the System

Wesleyan activists' response to a newspaper column on Black Lives Matter reflects a broader, worrying shift on campuses

a katz /

I can’t say that I was surprised when I heard that the latest chapter of our perpetual conversation about campus politics was playing out at Wesleyan University. Having spent my childhood there, I knew enough to know that such a controversy was always a possibility. But I must admit disappointment when I heard the particular contours of this latest story. Activists at Wesleyan have pushed the university to defund the Argus, the school’s main newspaper, in response to a commentary that questioned the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement. The piece in question suggested that the BLM movement was responsible for cop killings, and questioned whether its tactics were actually effective in creating change. Campus activists, in turn, started a petition to defund the paper, which was signed by some 170 students—not a large number, even on a campus of 2,900 undergraduates, but still concerning. I am not disappointed that students have reacted, forcefully, in this way. I am disappointed in how they have reacted, and how much campus life have changed there since my childhood—a change the reflects a broader evolution of college politics that troubles so many.

The 1990s were a heady time to grow up at Wes, as I did as the son of a professor of theater. The campus was, then as now, known as a haven for proud weirdos, artists, and free thinkers of every stripe. Indeed, from my vantage, the campus was likely even crazier then than it is today. (A perpetual Wesleyan student complaint is that the administration is trying to de-weird the university, a claim that has perhaps been more accurate recently than it traditionally has been.) The campus in those days, like today, was bustling with activists ready to protest at a moment’s notice And yet there were some key differences then as compared to now, and they are not entirely healthy. Even those who agree entirely with the presumed politics of campus activists should be concerned.

To understand what the campus was like in those days, I would point you to the 1994 film PCU—Politically Correct University—written by Zach Penn, a Wesleyan graduate. The film is simultaneously a parody and a celebration of early-‘90s campus political culture, depicting a thinly veiled Wesleyan stand-in as a hive of overlapping political cultures, each trying to outdo each other in radicalism, often to the point of cluelessness. (A representative figure in the film shouts “Free Nelson Mandela!,” only to be informed that the legendary political prisoner had already been freed.) Many people take the film for a ruthless critique, but if you knew Wes in those days, you’d know that there’s something loving about the portrayal as well. When I show the film to friends I always tell them: this movie might be a parody, but it’s barely an exaggeration. Students chasing down others for putting a nail in a tree amounts to documentary, in this context.

I have thought about Wesleyan students often, in recent years, as the endless debate about political freedom on campus has gone from a simmer to a boil. Now, with the Argus controversy, that debate has come home. Many would assume, given that I have expressed concerns with campus political activism in the past, that I would have only derision for the student activists I grew up around. And yet I look back on them with fondness; their passion and their intelligence were obvious. As a child I found them, in general, impossibly cool: heady, stylish, political. They talked to my father the way that grownups talk to each other, and I found that fascinating and intimidating. As I got older, I began to see their abundant failings alongside that magic, and particularly in regards to their politics—their hypocrisy, their fickleness, their alienating righteousness. (I myself could never have gotten into Wes, given my high school grades, and attended a public university elsewhere in Connecticut.)

Stories about the limits of their egalitarianism, among us locals, ran rampant. Faculty brats like me got something like a pass, but there was no question that residents of the town in which Wesleyan was so centrally located were worthy of only offhand disinterest. The same students who would decry the inequalities of racism and sexism would drop the word “townie” like a comma, not seeming to understand that in its class implications, the term represented everything they were fighting against. They would march against apartheid but would generally not go much farther north than Washington Street, a loose border for one of the black parts of town. They would speak out against exploitation of low-wage workers, but would treat my teenage waiter friends horribly. My friend Alex tells the story of how, at a Wesleyan party, he chatted with a woman for 20 minutes before she asked him what he was studying. When he told her he in fact was a local, not a student, she wordlessly turned around and walked away, literally turning his back to him without so much as a goodbye or an explanation. Things were like that. These were not quite isolated incidents, but of course there were plenty of Wes students who were far more thoughtful and consistent in their politics. Some of them became great political teachers for me. It’s just that the campus social culture seemed to make this kind of callousness easier, rather than harder.

Even still, I did and do hold them in my heart. For all of the ways in which their politics failed them in their day-to-day lives, those politics themselves were not nearly as faddish or uninformed as the typical stereotype of college students would lead you to believe. Indeed, in my experience they were often deeply educated on their various causes. If this education was that of book study and not of street-level activism, that merely reflected their physical and social contexts at the time. As tone deaf as many of them could be, they often expressed their perspectives with remarkable clarity, albeit with not a little self-aggrandizement. Though I had no shortage of political education in my own home, coming from a socialist household, I learned a tremendous amount from Wesleyan students. The same beautiful Wesleyan student from Britain, braids down past her back and gorgeously accented, turned me on to both Primus and the anti-sweatshop campaign. I learned that there were still slaves in the world from Wesleyan students; I learned about Palestine. For political conservatives, all of this probably just confirms their priors about feckless radicals choking our campuses. But even if you reject the actual content of their politics, I think you should understand that the conventional assumption of shallow, fad-driven campus politics simply was not an accurate description of what I found at Wesleyan, or indeed of what I have found at the half-dozen other campuses where I have spent my life.

The fact that Wesleyan students so often advocate egalitarian politics while embodying privilege in their behavior does not indicate existential hypocrisy on their part. It simply illustrates the fact that many college students are still too young to meaningfully connect their politics to their own personal conduct. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that campus once presented students with a partially secluded space, a community in which they could work through their burgeoning political views. The occasional ugly interactions with locals were the rare places where they rubbed up against the wider world. Many have lamented the cloistered nature of college campuses, and not without reason. But now, you can see the upsides of this distance: With the internet now a permanent document of every incident of remote interest to anyone, the stakes of political engagement during college become much higher. Write a dopey commentary for your campus press in 1995, and the consequences might be a few angry face-to-face interactions. Write one now, and it can follow you forever. The same goes for the types of protest that have emerged over the Argus controversy: Now, more fodder for complaints about deluded campus liberals has been thrown onto the pile, thanks to the actions of a few hundred students. This perception in turn makes the world less likely to listen to their protests and their advocacy.

What disturbs me even more than the fact that these students are national news, perhaps without intending to be, is just how they’ve gone about seeking redress for their grievances. In a recent piece for the New York Times Magazine, I argued that changes to college political culture actually reflect institutional and administrative changes more than some sort of character failings unique to current college students. Student activists are now far too willing to pursue administrative means to address their complaints, failing to understand that administrative responses will always serve the needs of institutions, not of protesters. Indeed, by pursuing such complaints through the official channels, they are almost always going to be neutering their efforts, sacrificing them to red tape, bureaucratic procedure, and the self-protective instincts of large institutions.

The Argus controversy is a perfect example. Once upon a time, Wesleyan students would have responded through grassroots organizing, not through supplicating at the feet of administrators and committees, asking them to do their protesting for them. The radical students I remember from Wesleyan’s past had a do-it-yourself ethos, understanding that they could not expect to change structures by working within them. Today’s Wesleyan students could have reacted to the piece in question by writing a response in the Argus. They could have started their own radical newspaper. They could have leafleted, or invited speakers, or used any other means to respond with better, more enlightened speech. By going straight to authority, they have instead embraced establishment power and asked it to be part of a liberatory struggle. That is folly. Institutions like Wesleyan may be made up of radicals, but they are by their nature conservative entities; that’s the nature of self-protective institutions. I’m sure many Wesleyan activists are familiar with Audre Lorde’s wise advice that we will never tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools.

In 1990, when I was eight years old, radical student activists at Wesleyan firebombed the president’s office. This was not, I hasten to say, a constructive way to go about getting what they wanted. And yet I’m struck by how fundamentally different the thinking of campus activists was then, not just at Wesleyan, but writ large. Back then, students wouldn’t have been caught dead making appeals through official channels. They were more likely to occupy administrative offices than to go to them, hat in hand, seeking to get what they want. Somewhere along the line, sit-ins and underground newspapers were replaced with committees and formal complaints. The question for the passionate, committed young activists at Wesleyan and elsewhere is whether they can ever shake up the system by asking it nicely to change.