The campus culture conundrum

9 mins read

I hated the college left before I even started high school. At the tender age of twelve, I began my political education in earnest, at the foot of what was then a novel portal into the wider world: the Internet. This proved to be much like learning chemistry from a pyromaniac. I picked up the jargon and ideology of every partisan with a message board. I was, in turn, an anarcho-communist, -capitalist; a 9/11 Truther, a Byzantiphile monarchist (there were dozens of us! dozens!); a Ron Paul rev-love-utionary; and a Zizekian socialist. While I occasionally embraced moderation (pretentiously terming myself a “radical centrist”), my teenage political imagination was mostly under the dominion of the esoteric. That esotericism taught me contempt for the campus activist.

To understand why this was, one has to understand that most Internet radicalism is fundamentally conservative. It is filled with keyboard warriors who can think of no battlefields more sublime than a Reddit comment thread. With a few notable exceptions (I recall some Internet libertarians moving to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project), the would-be iconoclasts I associated with were unwilling to attempt to effectuate their political programs. Their politics were too obscure, the American mainstream too foolish and timid to accept them, or so they told themselves. As they had no path forward, they resigned themselves, consciously or otherwise, to a do-nothing contrarianism. While they could not substantially challenge the status quo, they could criticize it endlessly, all while making known their displeasure at the spinelessness and anomie of their mainstream contemporaries.

No one was more spineless than the campus liberal, who was caricatured as a devout reader of Chomsky, Macbook owner, latte sipper, and possessor of an unkempt beard and an endless reserve of white guilt. They were engaged in mock militancy, a sort of extended adolescent rebellion designed to upset their insufficiently disciplinarian fathers. They lacked any deep ideological coherence, supporting whatever cause happened to be fashionable at the time. Even the Internet Marxists tended to hate them: they had abandoned the class struggle in favor of the infantile disorders of identity politics and human rights activism. The college liberal was bratty, foolish, given to self-righteousness, and ultimately concerned only with the frivolous.

This stereotype of the obnoxious leftist extends beyond the imaginations of Internet radicals. It’s the standard vulgar-conservative appraisal of the inhabitants of America’s ivory towers. Political correctness, Obamacare, false rape claims — these are all creations of the useless idiots who wander the halls of our overpriced universities. One need look no further than a philly.com comments section or a George Will column to see that a rather large portion of the country has a special contempt for the contemporary college student.

I internalized this contempt, and I have been the poorer for it. While I have found myself increasingly intellectually aligned with the left, I have kept my distance from the front lines of activism. Or, less woodenly: my ass has remained firmly in its seat. I remember the first day of Occupy Philadelphia’s encampment outside of City Hall, back in 2011. On my way home from high school, I stopped across the street from them and stared at the growing tent city. I had never seen a large-scale protest before, not in Philadelphia. Sure, there had been the occasional Free Mumia rally, the summertime vigil of anti-abortion groups in front of Planned Parenthood, even once a silent, masked march down Walnut Street, protesting drone strikes in Pakistan. But these events were always small, more like hobbies than movements. Occupy was something else: it was the left – not the anaesthetized, party-line Democratic left, but rather a rag-tag, heterodox, youthful, and very pissed-off left — making its displeasure physically manifest. This displeasure was general: it was a challenge not just to a particular politician or policy, but rather to an entire economic and political system. It was against the malaise that gripped the country; it was in favor of something radical, though it never settled quite on what that something might be.

I wanted to cross the street and join them in their chanting and sloganeering. But I couldn’t: I was too embarrassed by their drum circles, their human microphones, their lack of policy recommendations, their iPhones, and their Gap jeans. I feared the mockery that would ensue if I crossed the line. Worse: I feared that I would deserve that mockery. I left.

That embarrassment has repeated itself throughout my time at Swarthmore. During the 2013 Spring of Our Discontent (for the non-seniors: a rather spectacular and important series of events that I cannot adequately explain in the space I have allotted to me), I recall watching the demonstrations outside Sharples at a considerable distance, feeling the same stomach-churning mixture of support and internalized embarrassment that I had felt a year and a half earlier, across the street from City Hall. My distance from this movement was not as complete as it had been in the case of Occupy: I participated minimally, mostly due to a personal friendship with one of the leading activists. But I could never quite shed my defensiveness. I was more interested in apology than solidarity.

During the divestment sit-in last year, a movement with which I did not have much of a personal connection, I made a point to tell people who asked that I was not in favor of divestment. I could offer reasons, certainly. I can hear myself now: “Divestment won’t actually solve the real issues of climate change, it’s a feel-good gesture…they should be doing this! Or that!” All this bluster was cover for the fact that I found the divestment movement’s tactics obnoxious and that I desired not to be associated with a group and an action that I found disreputable.

Certainly, there are good-faith reasons to criticize campus activists. They are often wrong, sometimes hilariously and offensively so. They are sometimes so wrong that their youthful wrongness will become the cause of scandal when they run for U.S. Senate in thirty years. They are sometimes so wrong that they come to resemble their conservative caricature, all self-righteousness and magical thinking. But I suspect that many Swatties behave like I did (and, if I’m being honest, still do), refusing to extend the proper charity and consideration to the activists’ arguments.  We, who are intellectually aligned with the left, are more than happy to share a trending Jezebel article or discuss cultural appropriation over an Essie’s dinner, but are far too lazy, or busy, or embarrassed to do anything about our views.  We cannot expect the world we desire to simply appear some day, as if it were a gift from the gods. If we take our views seriously, if they are to be something more than a temporary youthful affectation, if they are to count in the world, we must be willing to back them up with real action.


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