Inside the Belly of the Beast

Why would they do it?

Why would a group of college students physically attack a professor in order to show their disapproval of an invited speaker?

Why would students demand the resignation of a professor because his wife told them to relax about the politics of Halloween costumes?

These reactions seem extreme and mind-boggling. If we want to make sense of the new wave of repressive student activism on college campuses, we need to start with two not-so-obvious facts:

  1. Only a few college students actually behave this way—and there’s a pattern to it.
  2. There’s a long history to this sort of thing.

So, first, who are the students who are staging these sorts of shut-down-speaker protests? As usual, Jonathan Zimmerman hit the nail on the head the other day. Students at elite schools like his tend to be more aggressively united in their leftism. What seems normal at Penn and Yale, though, isn’t normal at most schools.

He’s exactly right. Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias of the Brookings Institution crunched some numbers and came to the same conclusion. As they put it,

the schools where students have attempted to disinvite speakers are substantially wealthier and more expensive than average. . . . The average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.

The wonks at The Economist agree. “Colleges with richer, high-achieving students are likelier to see protests calling for controversial speakers to be disinvited,” they concluded recently. They even plotted an attractive three-color chart to prove it:bicker warning

So it seems safe to say that richer students at fancier schools tend to be more likely to stage this sort of shut-up protest than college students in general. Of course, we don’t know for sure in every case, but the tendency is clear.

So what?

It adds a moral dimension to these protests that needs more attention. We’ve been down this road before.

In the 1970s, a group of elite college students broke off from Students for a Democratic Society to form the violent militant group Weather Underground. They didn’t do much, but they wanted to. By the 1970s, the FBI was after them.

weather_wanted

Okay, but did they contribute to the alumni fund?

They weren’t just run-of-the-mill college students. Bill Ayers’ father, for example, was CEO of Commonwealth Edison. Ayers the Elder even has a college named after him at my alma mater. That’s not something most Americans have experienced.

Bernardine Dohrn grew up in the tony Milwaukee suburb Whitefish Bay. (When I taught high school in Milwaukee, the kids jokingly referred to it as “White Folks’ Bay.” Ha.) She graduated from the super-elite University of Chicago. Clark also attended the University of Chicago. Boudin’s father was a high-powered New York lawyer and she went to Bryn Mawr College.

Their elite backgrounds and college experiences mattered. Weather rhetoric was flush with talk about their privileged status and the need for white elites to act violently.

In 1970, for example, Dohrn issued the Weather Underground’s first “communication,” a “DECLARATION OF A STATE OF WAR.” Rich white kids, Dohrn explained, had a “strategic position behind enemy lines.” They had a chance to strike from inside the belly of the beast. And they had a moral duty to act violently in support of world-wide anti-American revolutionary movements. It was time, Dohrn wrote, for rich white kids to prove that they were not part of the problem, they were part of the violent solution. As she put it,

The parents of “privileged” kids have been saying for years that the revolution was a game for us. But the war and the racism of this society show that it is too fucked-up. We will never live peaceably under this system.

Again…so what? What does this prove?

It helps us understand college protests that don’t seem to make common sense. Why would a group of college students assault a professor to protest against racism? Why would they react so ferociously to a seemingly innocuous comment about Halloween costumes?

Because—at least in large part—students from wealthy families at elite colleges are in a peculiar pickle. If they are at all interested in moral questions, they find themselves in a tremendously compromised moral position. They are the beneficiaries of The System. They are the ones who profit from America’s imbalanced racial and economic hierarchy. They enjoy their cushy lifestyles and glittering future prospects only because they were given an enormously unfair head start in life.

If you care at all about social justice, that’s a heavy burden to bear. One way to handle the strain is to go to extreme lengths to signal your rejection of The System. Though protests at fancy colleges may seem strange to the rest of us, they make sense if we see them as demonstrations of rejection, as proof of position. In other words, some students at elite colleges—at least the ones who do the reading—are desperate to demonstrate that they are not happy with racism, sexism, and class privilege. They need to show everyone that they are not lapdogs of the exploiters. Their protests are not only about changing policies, but about proving something about themselves. And those sorts of protests will necessarily swing toward extreme actions.

In the end, we will only scratch our heads if we try to figure out why liberal students insist on illiberal policies in terms of day-to-day political strategy. Instead, we need to see these protests as shouts of separation, desperate and ultimately ill-starred attempts to prove that students from the 1% are standing with the rest of us.

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Colleges Call for Cop Killings

Do radical professors encourage violence? That’s the question some conservative commentators are asking in the wake of the vicious assassinations of two New York City police officers. As I argue in my upcoming book about educational conservatism, this sort of conservative worry has a long history. It goes much farther back than the campus radicalism of the 1960s.

Available soon: the more things change...

Available soon: the more things change…

At National Review Online, for instance, Katherine Timpf shares a story from Brandeis University. At that prestigious school just outside of Boston, student Daniel Mael has published violent tweets from fellow student Khadijah Lynch.

Mael blasted Lynch for advocating violence against the government, and Brandeis for supporting her. According to Mael, Lynch had tweeted that she had “no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today.” Earlier, according to Mael, Lynch had written, “I am in riot mode. F*** this f****** country.”

Instead of being punished for such incendiary language, Mael noted, Brandeis had made Lynch an official campus student officer, responsible for advising younger students. She had been a featured speaker at university events and, according to Mael, remained an undergraduate student representative of her academic department.

Is the university to blame for encouraging racial violence?

Timpf is not the only conservative pundit to ask the question. At Minding the Campus, Peter Wood blasts college culture for nurturing violent extremism. Today’s leftist-riddled faculties and administrations, Wood charges, encourage and condone wild-eyed radicalism among students.

Students and faculty, Wood writes, have been implicated in recent anti-police violence in New York City. But that’s not all. On the bitterly divided campus of the University of Virginia, the administration has turned a blind eye to student violence against innocent fraternity members.

Wood gives several examples of graduate students and faculty who have encouraged racial violence. Does this implicate universities? As he concluded,

the links don’t have to be guessed at. They are there to be seen.  Some of the connections are in the form of forceful declarations. . . . Some of the connections are in the form of heedless enthusiasm from individuals who have no sense of where this goes.

Wood’s indictment goes beyond the murders of New York policemen. At the University of Virginia, Wood writes, violence against innocent fraternity members has been winked at by the administration.

After the debacle of the Rolling Stone article falsely accusing fraternity members of a horrific sexual assault, a group of UVA students attacked the fraternity house. They were not punished, even though their identities were well known, according to Wood. Wood writes,

faced with the real crime of serious vandalism against a fraternity that had been falsely accused, and having the opportunity at hand to charge the culprits, President Sullivan [of UVA] decided to take no action.

Virginia is not alone, Wood argues. At other schools, a certain sort of student violence is condoned or even encouraged by faculty and administration who sympathize with student attitudes. The radical likes of Ward Churchill and Bill Ayers, Wood implies, are only the most famous cases of red professors guiding student malfeasance.

Wood argues that this campus radicalism has been a problem “Since the 1960s.” But in reality both campus radicalism and conservative denunciations have a much longer history. In some cases, conservative denunciations can seem eerily eternal.

For example, Wood calls out a doctoral student by name at Teachers College Columbia. Aaron Samuel Breslow, Wood writes, has been an active supporter of violent resistance. In 1938, it was Teachers College doctoral student William Gellerman who attracted conservative ire. Back then, Gellerman published a denunciation of American Legion activism. The Legion, Gellerman accused, represented nothing more than

an expression of entrenched business and military interests which attempt to hide their true purposes under democratic guise.

Legion leader Daniel Doherty accused Teachers College of coddling this sort of inflammatory leftist claptrap. Doherty asked an audience at Columbia University,

Why not rid this institution of such baleful influences? The name of Columbia is besmirched from time to time when preachments containing un-American doctrines emanate from those who identify themselves with this institution. . . . Do you like having it called ‘the big red university?’

As I argue in my upcoming book, this sort of anti-higher-ed accusation was a standard part of conservative activism long before the 1960s. Indeed, its roots can be clearly seen in the 1920s.

In the 1930s, the question was clear: Should universities purge their leftist faculty? The same question echoes throughout conservative punditry today, with an inflammatory twist:

Are universities morally culpable in the assassination of police officers?