The Closing of the American Mind
In the 1980s and ‘90s I witnessed, and in “The Closest of Strangers” I condemned, some of the most counterproductive black American urban protests since the riots of the 1960s. Public paroxysms associated with names such as Bernhard Goetz, Howard Beach, Tawana Brawley, Rodney King, Crown Heights and O.J. Simpson were psychodramas staged to demand “justice” through lies, vilification of innocent parties and intimidation of critics with legitimate differences of opinion.
By comparison, the protests of today’s Black Lives Matter movement and of college students demanding to be kept “safe” and “loved” by liberal educators seem at best plaintive. Even liberal observers, such as Todd Gitlin, a veteran and chronicler of 1960s protests, and Jeannie Suk, a Harvard Law professor, note that today’s demonstrators seem to have missed the freer, wiser parenting and the civic-republican premises, practices and virtues of an earlier time, resources that the civil rights movement summoned to move honorable conservatives in the late 1950s and ‘60s.
But those were also years of unprecedented American civic and civil cohesion and of relatively equitable economic advance. Beyond lamenting today’s precipitous implosion of civic trust, which I described here in Salon on the Fourth of July, 2014, we need to know what’s causing it.
And we need to know what black students, especially, actually encounter and experience in what they rightly discern as a gathering storm. Conservative critics who’ve swooped in on student protesters, picking apart their mistakes sanctimoniously, censoriously and opportunistically, never actually report or convey what these students actually experience.
Let’s call out that strategy’s hypocrisies here. If willful ignorance and malevolence are dangerous to democratic deliberation, let’s worry less about liberals’ supposed “Coddling of the American Mind,” as the political provocateur Greg Lukianoff and business-school social psychologist Jonathan Haidt characterized the aims of liberal pedagogy recently in the Atlantic, and let’s look at their own noise-machining of the American mind.
These silky, seemingly professional, but actually rather fragile and occasionally hysterical pundits have been supplementing a Citizens United-inspired strategy that touts “freedom of speech” to shout down and shame people whose struggles against serious injustices occasionally drive them to rhetorical excess. In hounding wayward protesters – more in sorrow than in anger, they claim — Lukianoff, Haidt and the Atlantic’s Conor Friedendorf are following a path opened 15 years ago by David Horowitz’s Front Page, John Fund’s thankfully forgotten Wall Street Journal columns, and Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch.
They’re snooping and snarking around campuses, pouncing on “politically correct” utterances and protocols in their effort to de-“liberalize” liberal education, which they’re claiming to save from “The New Intolerance of Campus Activism,” as Friedendorf’s headline writer put it sloppily. (He probably meant to write “in,” not “of” — a Freudian slip, perhaps.) But the freedoms of speech that conservative pundits are touting so passionately against “liberal” totalitarianism on campus mean little if moneyed interests have the megaphones and the scapegoats, while most ordinary citizens have laryngitis from straining to be heard.
Here, then, is what some black student protesters are straining to tell us but that no neoliberal or conservative commentator has reported. And here’s why both protesters and their critics should pay closer attention to political and economic shifts that have increased the protesters’ vulnerability and mistakes, as well as their civic courage, and that probably make some conservative pundits desperate to inflate student activists’ flaws and misconstrue their concerns.
A four-walled vise presses in upon every black student at Yale, even as doors in those walls open and close unpredictably and the walls themselves sometimes seem to withdraw – all this invisible to most of us, its pressures unseen and unfelt.
1. The pressure of others’ outsize hopes. Last year a black Yale undergraduate I know was working late one night in the office of a history professor for whom he was a research assistant. A custodian entered the room to empty the waste baskets. Black, too, but graying and near retirement, the older man broke into a broad smile. “This makes me glad,” he said, as much from the heart as from the mouth. “This makes me glad,” he repeated.
“Thank you,” the student replied, cordially but cryptically, his accent signaling his upbringing in formerly British East Africa. A distancing look flickered across the countenance of the custodian, a descendant of Southern sharecroppers and slaves whose grandparents had come to New Haven during World War II to work in gun factories now long since closed. But as quickly as the older man’s doubt surfaced, he displaced it with a reaffirming smile and nod.
Neither man needed to say anything more. Both understood that although the younger had grown up in a majority black society – and in an elite bubble within it, at that – they both now bore burdens of white American incomprehension, coldness, fear and, occasionally, of the kind of over-solicitude that is almost an insult. This African-American janitor expected this East African student to mitigate those burdens a bit by setting a different example, and the hope is credible precisely because the vast differences in these men’s backgrounds and prospects are invisible to most whites and, for that matter, to most non-black people “of color.”
“It only added to the weight of things,” the student told me, recalling the encounter a year later. “If I remain here, I’m obligated to meet not only my parents’ expectations but also those of black people in a white country I didn’t grow up in.” He does plan to stay, not only because, on balance, that broadens his prospects against narrower ones back home, but also because he would take “some pride and satisfaction” in lessening the weight of racism for others. But contemplating the challenge while making occasional campus forays to meet it “saddens me,” he said three times during our conversation – saddens him ways few of the rest of us comprehend.
Sometimes it takes an outsider’s shock to alert us Americans to what we usually ignore. A student from Tehran, where laborers and service workers don’t differ noticeably in physiognomy from the rest of the population, told me how strange he found it, on arriving at Yale, to see an overwhelmingly black workforce serving an overwhelmingly non-black population.
At least 70 percent of Yale’s custodial and cafeteria workers are black. Only about 10 percent of the faculty are. Like the student from East Africa who finds himself carrying the hopes of a janitor with decades of white racism on his back, other black Yalies find that most black elders in their lives in New Haven are service workers. Thirty-five percent of the city’s 130,000 residents are African-American; 31.8 percent are non-Hispanic white. Yale, including its medical affiliates, is black workers’ biggest employer.
2. The pressure of white fear. To the burden of the custodian’s hopes must be added the burden of white fear, which associates blackness with violent crime in New Haven, where, if the truth be told — although no one commenting on the protests has told it – white fear of crime wearies and hurts black students even more than it hurts the white fearful.
Two or three times a week, everyone on Yale email receives a message like these from Yale Police Chief Ronnell A. Higgins:
Nov 6 To the Yale Community: I write to let you know that at 6:05 this evening, an attempted robbery occurred in the vicinity of Mansfield and Woodland Streets. Click here to view the incident’s location. The victim was walking on Mansfield St. when she was approached from behind by a man who produced a butter knife and demanded her money. The man pushed her and she fled into her house. No injuries were reported.
Nov 4: To the Yale Community, I write to let you know that a robbery occurred this evening in the area of Lincoln and Pearl Streets at approximately 9:00 PM. A staff member was walking alone when she was approached from behind by a male who assaulted and robbed her of a messenger bag. No weapons were displayed and minor injuries were reported. The New Haven police are investigating.
OCT 27. To the Yale Community,
I write to let you know that an attempted robbery occurred this afternoon in the area of 89 Tower Parkway at approximately 1:45 PM. A staff member was walking on the grassy area near 89 Tower Parkway when she was approached from behind by a male on a bicycle who attempted to grab her purse. The perpetrator was unsuccessful and fled the area. No injuries were reported and the Yale police are investigating.
Every such message includes requests for whatever information a reader might have about the offense and offers safety tips, such as “Do not walk alone” in the area. Higgins, who is black, mentions offenders’ sex but never the fact that they are almost always black as well as male. Participants in the recent protests and discussions about the pressures on people of color at Yale never mention crime.
In 1991, after dining at Yale’s venerable eating club Mory’s and attending a party on campus, a 20-year-old lacrosse player and fourth-generation Yalie from the posh Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland, encountered two young black men on a street less than a 50 yards from the party, where he was found at 1:15 a.m., dead of a bullet wound to the heart. One of the assailants, arrested months later on a tip from his companion, confessed but then recanted the confessions. In a verdict that shocked town-gown relations almost as much as the murder, a mostly black jury convicted him of conspiracy to rob but, acquitted him of first-degree murder and failed to return a verdict on charges of felony murder and attempted robbery. A second, mostly black jury acquitted him on the latter two charges in 1993. The victim –white, blond, tall – was emblematic of his forebears’ Yale, his name even more so: Christian Prince.
The nature of racial identity in America and the racial composition of New Haven dictate that every black Yale undergraduate has to live with the history of black dispossession that is written between the lines of Ronnell Higgins’ messages. The powerful social and economic forces that carried families of black New Haven residents up North to work in factories that closed and left them bereft of new prospects also carried some of their children into custodial and cafeteria work at Yale, and others toward crime, indiscriminate policing, and mass incarceration. And, if at this point I may interrupt white readers’ worries about whether it’s safe to attend Yale or send one’s child there, let me point you gently back to the purpose of these paragraphs, which is to understand why black readers worry that at Yale they might be victims not only of crime but of the stigma of being suspected of having committed one.
Entering a residential-college gate a few steps behind a white female fellow student, especially after dark, a black male undergraduate must brace himself against the indignity that will be foisted upon him by her quickened pace and sharp, over-the-shoulder glance, until and unless she recognizes him as a neighbor. Erased is everything in the black student’s upbringing, culture or continent of origin that could correct her misperception.
You’d have to have a heart of stone– or one twisted by ideological passion toward other kinds of violence — not to understand 19-year-old black and Hispanic Yale students’ calling out, in a march that drew a thousand Yalies of all colors into the streets this month, for someone or something to help them feel safe and loved in a community that promised them not just refuge but release from the burden.
The chiaroscuro of intensely high and low expectations that people with dark skins must wander through is comprehensible to whites who take the trouble to listen, but the unpredictable, relentless intrusions of those conflicting expectations’ into any black person’s mental space and path must strain the moral imagination of even the rare white person who has placed himself in an overwhelmingly black environment for a year or more, something that no white person writing in the high-end press or on conservative websites about black student protesters’ vulnerability and anger has done or ever will do.
3. White classmates’ myopia. Outsize expectations, high or low, are two sides of the four-walled vise pressing in upon black students at colleges like Yale, even as doors in those very walls open or close unpredictably. A third wall is the blank face of heedlessness and incomprehension that most whites present to black classmates. Without realizing that they’re doing it, whites often regard blacks not as redeemers or vengeful assailants but as survivors and residual carriers of damage about which they may feel uneasy because they may feel complicit in ways they’d like to forget.
Misperceptions and misconstruals of black students’ coordinates may be unwitting yet subliminally willful. Uniquely among nations, the United States not only proclaimed universal truths about human dignity and rights to be self-evident but, instead of establishing colonies abroad, it abducted and plunged into its own midst millions of blacks who in consequence have had the highest possible stakes in the country’s living up to its stated creed.
That has made some blacks the creed’s most eloquent exponents, their struggle to belong fully to the American republic the most powerful epic of unrequited love in the history of the world. It has made other blacks the creed’s most nihilist assailants. Not surprisingly, more than a few whites expect blacks to come to public places bearing rip-offs and rebellions or the searing moral force of W. E. B. Dubois, Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King Jr., and the liberating cultural energies that thrill white teens in their arboreal, funereal suburbs.
A black Yale student who moved from his almost all-black junior high school to an overwhelmingly white boarding school recalls being “befriended” instantly by some classmates, who thought him exotic and cool, and shunned by others, often awkwardly, sometimes in an antipathy the more mystifying because its signals were ambiguous. Amid strange assurances and slights, he found himself trapped behind DuBois’ veil.
Now a junior at Yale, this student learned one night that Malia Obama was visiting the campus. “I was at Toad’s Place [a local music club] with two black female undergraduates when a white student we didn’t know came up and said to one of the women, ‘Are you Malia? Can I just follow you around a little?’”
That same week, the same junior was eating with four black friends at a diner near campus when “a white female student who knew me came up to the table, said ‘Hi!’ to me but then glanced at the five of us and asked, a bit awkwardly, ‘Is this a meeting?’ Suddenly, in her mind, we weren’t just friends having dinner, we were some kind of cabal.”
Not only whites do this. Students of color, American and international, comprise about a third of Yale’s undergraduates, but only about 7 percent of them self-identify as black, and some of the others are no less racist than whites, especially toward blacks. Immigrants from India — Tunku Varadarajan of Politico, Ramesh Ponnuru of Bloomberg View, Dinesh D’Souza, formerly of the black-bashing Dartmouth Review, now of nowhere, come to mind – may be eager, especially as undergraduates, to help white classmates distinguish their dark-skinned identities from those of African-American custodians and even scholars. Ethnic Chinese, especially from Singapore, often display yet disguise a similar eagerness.
So much for “diversity,” which by itself promises only a more colorful, global managerial elite that uncommitted and unanswerable to any Democratic or Republican polity or moral code. The colleges’ challenge is not only to open the campus gates wider but also to deepen public virtues and beliefs that aren’t well-nourished by liberal bureaucracies or private markets.
Absent that kind of nourishment, “You constantly have to push through these instances of people’s stupidity,” the student who’d been plunged into the white boarding school at 14 reflected. “It’s tiring, it’s crushing. In every situation you enter, your race comes with definitions and expectations you didn’t expect. It’s draining. You’re so tired of having to push through it that sometimes you just want to scream.”
One of his black women friends did scream, although only to him, after spending an evening trying to yuk it up with white classmates at a bar. “She was freaking out because the happiness she saw on their faces seemed unreal, because they didn’t have to deal with any of what she did even just in talking with them.” The young woman had arrived at Yale with hope and trust, but as she tried to have fun on a Friday night, some of the white girls’ stray comments made it dawn on her — though not on them — that they had included her partly to reassure themselves of their open-mindedness by assuring her that “you’re not that kind of black person.”
“I was up with her to 3 a.m., trying to calm her down. That she had to show them, or let them show her, that she wasn’t that kind of black person was crushing. They confirmed her intelligence and determination only by denying the blackness she was trying to internalize as something good and something beautiful.”
4. A Wall of Malevolence. And, of course, at times there is open confrontation — the fourth wall pressing in along with the others of outsize hopes, irrepressible fears and degrading misperceptions: “I saw it happen to a Native American woman, the other night, on Halloween,” a black student told me, describing precisely the kind of incident that prompted Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Council (ICA) to send an all-points message asked students to be mindful about wearing “culturally appropriative” costumes.
“This woman’s father and grandfather had had to wage a prolonged fight to wear tribal headdresses in public, non-tribal places. As she was walking on Crown Street on Halloween, she saw several white crew team members saunter out of a student bar wearing something pretty close to the headdresses her father had fought to dignify.
“The significance of the headdress and what her parents had gone through to wear it made her go up to them and say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, but your costumes are really degrading to my family.” They cornered her and started berating her.
“So when [Nicholas and Erica Christakis, husband-and-wife masters of one of Yale’s residential colleges who rejected the ICA letter as an infringement on freedom of expression] say they’re defending freedom of speech by saying that students can look away if something offends them or to engage the offender in conversation, they’re throwing them into potentially dangerous situations that could have been avoided with a little of the good judgment and thoughtfulness the ICA letter was asking for.
“If a person comes with blackface, wearing my national garb and throwing money around, am I right to be offended that this is what this person thinks of where I come from?”
If you can envision these ever-present, always-encroaching pressures of burdensome expectations, high and low, of thoughtlessly insulting misperceptions, and of naked malevolence — all of them unsought and unprovoked by anything but one’s black skin, and all of them delivered daily without any coherent or even discussable explanation — maybe you can understand wanting to retreat at times to a “safe” place where you “are loved” by people who’ve borne similar pressures, a place with a mental-health counselor to help cope with a world of conflicting signals and blindness that is itself deranged. White elites retreat into their own clubs to relieve fears and stabs of conscience that come with mishandling others. Shouldn’t the mishandled have refuges, too?
The bitter irony in their self-segregation is that it wards off the larger society’s pieties and absurdities by re-creating some of real segregation’s firm footholds, from which blacks could at least see clearly what they were up against. Articulating and institutionalizing a separate, defensive blackness in a liberal-democratic society may seem a necessary and attractive response to its abuses and hypocrisies. Yet a too-routinized response will deepen those failings by draining trust, its articulation turning into an elegy for liberal democracy itself. The alternatives to it would be worse.
Comparing the challenges confronting today’s protesters with those that confronted civil rights marchers in the segregated South and in intransigently white Northern neighborhoods and workplaces, Todd Gitlin, a veteran participant in and chronicler of those struggles of the 1960s, admonishes today’s demonstrators in a New York Times column that their predecessors had far fewer resources and far less security yet were far more effective for liberal democracy because they were willing to risk engaging hostile opponents as equals, not victims. Today’s demonstrators “present themselves as weak, in need of protection,” Gitlin writes, and they hold university administrators, “like helicopter parents, wholly responsible. To a veteran of movements of the ‘60s like myself, this is strikingly strange,” he says.
Turning to the larger social context, he laments today’s precipitous decay of trust in reasoned dialogue, the sina qua non of a liberal-democratic society, whose often-messy but vibrant politics are our only alternative to authoritarian intimidation or Hobbesian anarchy. “When movements lose their belief in a larger community that can prevail,” Gitlin warns, “they lose their momentum, dwindle into closed circles, become… more indiscriminate in welcoming enmity.” The civil rights movement at its best welcomed enmity strategically and instructively in order to educate and arouse the larger civil society.
But Gitlin surprises me by dismissing the most compelling explanation for today’s unraveling of public trust. He writes that we’re witnessing “a cultural mood that cannot be reduced to political-economic considerations,” but in the same paragraph he laments students’ “mountainous debt loads” and the destabilization of professional work in a fickle “gig economy.” Surely these are political-economic challenges, as are the public defunding of universities and the latter’s academically dangerous resort to consumer marketing and simulacra of profitable management. Surely a university whose leaders do not challenge such abuses and interrogate the deepening inequities, weaknesses and resentments they generate won’t keep their own people from abandoning a common civic culture for the succor of “safe” but hostile camps organized by color or illiberal doctrine.
The very subtlety and ubiquity of the political-economic abuses and dangers I’ve just mentioned inclines too many students and university leaders to brush them aside almost nervously in their deliberations and to play up every twist and turn in the racial etiquette and epithets that replace the quest for comity and cooperation. Antipathy to Communism’s historic, horrific mishandling of political and economic strategies still chills newer efforts, but you don’t need to be a political Marxist to notice that the casino-like financing and consumer-bamboozling of decent but stressed Americans of all colors have driven millions of them out of their homes, their jobs and their commitments to shared, communal narratives that are indispensable to sustaining families and communities in adversity.
Why don’t liberal commentators ascribe the new protesters’ strange cries of helplessness to the derangement of civic-republican virtues and beliefs by this dispossession and by the relentless, multibillion-dollar groping, goosing and titillating of the dispossessed and the quietly desperate?
Why do so many liberals, as well as conservatives who oppose government censorship, accept this sensor-ship by powerful engines that elevate impulse-driven “consumer sovereignty” over the citizen sovereignty whose decay Gitlin lamented presciently two decades ago in “The Twilight of Common Dreams”? Why not call now for protests and strategies to restrain those powerful engines? Gitlin is right to complain that today’s protesters seek academic protections from enmity by suppressing offensive speech and subsidizing students’ withdrawals into “safe,” separate “cultural houses.” But we need to supplement such admonitions with clearer analysis of the causes of all this dependency.
Also admonishing today’s protesters is Roger Berkowitz, director of Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center, writing in the center’s weekly newsletter of Arendt’s dictum that “becoming a citizen means learning to switch between the two worlds of home and public life; it means acquiring a public self. One important role of higher education is to give students the experience of living away from home, in public, where they can experiment with and learn to assume their public personas.
“That college… constitutes a time for taking chances, also means that it is a moment of failure and danger,” Berkowitz continues, acknowledging “that students today negotiate a more complicated world of class, race, religion, and gender than students of any prior generation” and that many “now find themselves without safe homes and private places to which they can retreat at moments of crisis…. Thrust from their often-sheltered lives, students now must negotiate public interactions with people whose opinions they have never before encountered and that they frequently find threatening.”
Like Gitlin, Berkowitz thinks students are wrong to demand that college administrators shield them from such discomforts. They need to learn how to face them, alone and together, with the public courage of citizens, not with the private demands of children or customers seeking immediate satisfaction. For Berkowitz, the greatest danger to political and social maturation lies less with the students themselves than with “administrators who, in the name of consumerism and motivated by an aversion to risk, are creating policies and procedures that shut down the vibrancy of the student experience.
“Some students may demand trigger warnings, disciplinary procedures, and censorship. That is part of the experience of being young and experimenting with new and powerful if also dangerous ideas,” Berkowitz acknowledges. “We shouldn’t blame students for speaking and trying out new ideas. The fault, if there is one, is with administrators who accede to these demands.”
This, too, is right as far as it goes, and most college administrators would be only too glad to escape the demands of over-protective parents and over-protected children. “I have never felt I had an adequate handle on how to reconcile the need to protect free speech and the desire to have a decent, caring community on the campus,” former Harvard president Derek Bok told me last week. “My worst fear was encountering both a body of hypersensitive students and another group determined to provoke and anger the vulnerable in any way they could. Fortunately, that situation never arose, at least in that extreme form.”
Bok is being modest here, for he was named president of Harvard not once but twice to settle extreme controversies, the first in 1971, after anti-Vietnam War protests of 1969 had left students’ blood on his predecessor’s hands and had shut down the university in 1970; and again in 2006, after a faculty vote of no-confidence in Harvard’s obstreperous president Lawrence Summers prompted the obstreperous Wall Street Journal editorial page — which was then and is now determined to provoke and anger the vulnerable on any liberal campus in any way it can — to claim that Harvard’s faculty has “as much intellectual diversity as the [North Korean] Pyongyang parliament.”
Another college administrator who can’t be faulted for acceding to students’ demands for coddling is the former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis. In 2009 he proposed, only semi-facetiously, that no student be permitted to graduate from Harvard without taking “at least one course that makes you profoundly uncomfortable, troubled, sleepless, and disturbed…. Take 31 courses that leave you smiling, self-confident, and upbeat if you wish. But under my plan, you will not get your diploma unless you can demonstrate that just one course kept you up at night, shaken because your beliefs have been challenged by what you have been made to read. Or sleepless, perhaps, because you have been forced to question your determined lack of faith.”
Still, where in Bok’s or Lewis’ wise institutional and curricular balancing, or in Gitlin’s and Berkowitz’s useful admonitions, or in protesters’ own discussions and demands, can we find serious, candid reckonings with swift, dark currents of capital that are pumping hardship, mayhem and decadent escapism into our social bloodstream – “Undoing the Demos,” as the title of Wendy Brown’s book puts it, by draining public caring and courage while promoting childish impulses?
In a New Yorker essay that’s headlined with some irony “A New Family Feeling on Campus,” Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk, too, avoids political-economic considerations to suggest a more psychological explanation of demonstrators’ demand that college administrators reinstate a virtual in loco parentis, more permissive than the old kind but in some ways more protective, even censorious.
Suk finds the protesters reenacting their childhood dependence on their parents’ too-tight orchestration of their lives. Such parenting has ill-prepared them to engage wisely and vigorously in public controversy. Gitlin reminds us that early civil rights workers practiced such engagement against odds that were not for the fainthearted. Berkowitz reminds us that a resilient democracy requires the public courage that a healthy liberal-arts campus life initiates and rewards.
Why is parenting now so much more protective — and debilitating — than it was when kids had “free range” upbringing in their neighborhoods, learning early on to handle unpredictable situations? A decline in public safety is an obvious answer, and Suk mentions the hyping of domestic crime in gambits such as posting missing children’s pictures on milk cartons.
I’d add that local and cable TV “news” programs’ hideous “If it bleeds, it leads” strategy was proliferating even though violent crime was declining in the protesters’ childhood years. Lust, violence and fear, not safety, glue eyeballs to screens and sell TV and Internet ads for stimulants, palliatives, home-security systems and guns. Gitlin and Suk also mention terror from abroad. I’d add that 9/11 generated a federal department with the faintly familial but Orwellian name “Homeland Security.”
Terrorism aside, both protective parenting and the crime and degrading infotainment that prompt it are symptoms more than they’re causes of the racialized hurts and diffuse insecurities animating today’s student protests.
In a New Yorker interview with Jelani Cobb, Yale College dean Jonathan Holloway (who is African-American) acknowledges being somewhat befuddled by the generational change and suggests that one factor driving students’ demands for protective boundaries is the instantaneity, interactivity and anarchy of social-media chatter and Internet consumption.
But even the technological rewiring of our brains and lower viscera may be more an effect than a cause of our discontents. It prompts questions about material and spiritual roots of the protests that run deeper and are more elusive than anything on offer in markets. A liberal education is supposed to tackle those questions and dig down to their roots, not just trim and water whatever is growing from them.
If we were to dig deep enough, we’d notice that racism remains virulent partly because most people will do anything but confront the swift, dark currents of capital. Decades ago, the critic Warshow wrote that the New Yorker presents ordinary people to collectors of unearned income and Steuben glass, and to the elite college student who hopes to be like them, in a manner that seeks “the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict.” The magazine “has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately. The gracelessness of capitalism becomes an entirely external phenomenon, a spectacle that one can observe without being touched — above all, without feeling really threatened.” That’s still too often true, even of creditable essays such as Suk’s and Cobb’s.
Conservatives, bound to defend global capital’s riptides, tend to blame their victims for failing to ride them boldly enough and therefore for disrupting their magnificent course. Liberals who are riding them successfully, but who feel uneasy about the damage done to others, tend to make moralistic, symbolic gestures on behalf of the victims whom conservatives blame. But if those gestures are merely tokenistic, they risk dividing blacks from blacks, and more blacks from whites, as well as whites from other whites, without reconfiguring arrangements that are exacerbating divisions and atomization everywhere.
Noise-Machining the American Mind
Still, though: Whatever the blaming strategies and end-games of conservative writers such as Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, Conor Friedersdorf, aren’t they still right to warn that “too many college students engage in ‘catastrophizing,’… turning common events into nightmarish trials or claiming that easily bearable events are too awful to bear”?
Aren’t they right to challenge the motives and credibility of campus “crybullies” who “overreact to innocuous speech, make mountains out of molehills, and seek punishment for anyone whose words make anyone else feel uncomfortable,” as Lukianoff and Haidt put in the Atlantic?
Maybe. But it helps to know how Lukianoff demonstrated his own freedoms of speech with what he considered an innocuous joke or a molehill, telling a pre-registration-only audience at Yale’s fatuous undergraduate William F. Buckley Program that, to hear protesters of color denouncing the residential college masters who’d defended offensive Halloween costumes, “you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.”
The quip isn’t as offensive as it is revealing, given his published pieties, of how little dignity is driving them. You can’t help wondering at his turning out to be so tacky and immature.
Equally revealing was a classically right-wing populist feint by Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in videotaping a dark-skinned female student’s immature outburst at the offending residential college master who opposed the caution about Halloween costumes. The conservative propagandist Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller helped to make that video viral under the headline, “Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor” and even went to the trouble to find and post the roughly-$700,000-assessed value of their target’s parents’ suburban home.
Chiming in energetically for the Atlantic from his Pacific redoubt in Venice, California, Conor Friedersdorf wondered why people fortunate enough to live in a Yale residence with “two Steinway grand pianos, an indoor basketball court, a courtyard with hammocks and picnic tables, a computer lab, a dance studio, a gym, a movie theater, a film-editing lab, billiard tables, an art gallery, and four music practice rooms” are so oppressed and offended that they “can’t bear this setting that millions of people would risk their lives to inhabit because one woman wrote an email that hurt their feelings.”
Heads up, folks: Conor Friedendorf wants you to know that those privileged “people of color” should be damned grateful, even humble, but they’re not! Not only that: Two hundred of them marched to Yale president Peter Salovey’s house at midnight and presented a list of demands.
I don’t endorse all of the demands, and Salovey didn’t, either, but when he agreed to some and got back to the protesters expeditiously, Lukianoff’s co-author, the business-school social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, unbuttoned himself and tweeted, “Salovey meets [students’] ultimatum deadline! Commits Yale to victimhood forever!”
It would take a larger moral imagination than these conservative helicopter pundits have demonstrated for them to understand the people they’re writing about. I have a suggestion, a simple thought experiment swapping their present practices and perspectives for those of the black students I quoted in the first section of this essay.
Greg, Jonathan, Conor and Tucker: Try to imagine yourselves matriculating on a campus more than two-thirds non-white, where most of your classmates regard you not with overt hostility but, if at all, almost casually, as remnants, tokens and residual practitioners of brutal and presumptuous colonialist white-supremacy.
No one will accuse you of this, for the college and all of its students want to believe that they judge every individual only by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. Still, as time goes by, you can’t help feeling yourselves being regarded by others — and occasionally addressed, rebuffed or lampooned by them — as bleached, dead souls carrying a latent but despised virus of white supremacy. You’ll sense this about as often as a black undergraduate on a mostly white campus senses himself being viewed and treated as a carrier of a deficient, underclass inclinations.
If you can imagine yourselves being seen and dealt with this way, every day and forever, solely on account of your light skin, and even when you’re talking with some black students who seem to like you, maybe you can also imagine wanting a club, society or “safe” place where you’d feel better-recognized, valued and loved. Maybe you can imagine the word “safety” meaning more than it had before.
The constitutional freedoms of speech that you tout give you every right to make a quip about wiping out a whole Indian village and every right to say that Yale’s president has committed his university to “victimhood forever!” and every right to call someone’s outburst the “shriek” of a “privileged Yale student.” You have every right to send her face and the value of her house to the world.
But do you really want to keep doing it? Or have you begun to appreciate the older conservative wisdom and civic-republican truth that there is no freedom without a voluntary exercise of responsibility, and no free speech without self-restraint, because a total free-for-all would be a free-for-none
Conservatives are supposed to know and to remind the rest of us that any exercise of freedom is inconceivable without an exercise of responsibility– that freedom can’t even exist without limits against which it defines itself and upon which it therefore relies.
The difficulty for conservatives is that it was easier to be pure and disciplined in self-restraint when those dispossessed by it were kept out of the conversation completely. Now that they aren’t, the thing to do is to drown them out. Thus Theodore Olson, solicitor general under George W. Bush and counsel for the plaintiffs in Citizens United, the nonprofit corporation that produced a movie to swift-boat Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, asked, “If dancing nude and burning the flag are protected by the First Amendment, why would it not protect robust speech about the people who are running for office?’’
Conservatives used to know that a liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily public virtues and beliefs that neither the classically liberal state itself nor free markets can uphold — the liberal state because it’s not supposed to judge between one way of life and another, and markets because their genius is to approach individuals as narrowly self-interested consumers and investors for limited, focused ends, not to regard them as citizens who have the largeness of spirit necessary to subordinate immediate self-interest to a larger public interest. You still preach this to protesters of color, but you don’t practice it.
Who or what now treats any of us as citizens, encouraging and nurturing in us the self-restraint and disposition that responsible liberty requires? Certainly liberal-arts college should do that, but the student who shrieked at Master Kristakis was too angry or pained to remember or practice that restraint. But so are you helicopter pundits, swooping in and ballyhooing her excesses to discount her pain and anger and to stoke resentments in others whom your policies and protocols have betrayed.