A couple people have asked if I’ll weigh in on the latest piece on campus politics in The Atlantic. I’m not going to, because what would be the point? It’s hard to imagine a conversation that is more bound up in a useless and calcified binary. If I wrote about that piece here, it would be read and agreed to by those who already are inclined to agree with me, and ignored or derided by those who aren’t. It’s unclear if either side would bother to really read at all. I guarantee you I’m going to get people tweeting this link without reading it, “Oh god here’s deBoer on campus politics again!” So I’m not sure what good it would do if I commented on that article.
That binary thinking threatens to swallow the entire conversation. I don’t know why it’s so hard to say, “Many of the complaints about campus political culture are unfair and overblown, but there are some genuine problems with the way that some campus activists engage politically.” What is so hard about that? Why is there this fear on the left that if you acknowledge that there’s any problems at all with campus political culture, you’re suddenly Allan Bloom? Think back to when you were in college. I imagine that the people you knew ran the gamut of the human experience. There were smart people and dumb and every slice in between, committed and flaky and every slice in between, perceptive and obtuse and every slice in between, gentle and violent and every slice in between…. Human beings are not binary creatures, and people who fall somewhere in the “correct” parts of the ideological spectrum are often misguided and counterproductive in their engagement. To circle the wagons and forbid criticism of people who you broadly agree with is political, substantive, and analytical disaster.
Particularly frustrating for me now is that so many of the people who reflexively defend campus activism against any complaint, no matter how mild or sympathetic, were the exact same people who made fun of campus activists when they were actually in college. You remember that, #content industry people? Twitter all-stars, NYC media people? Remember when you were the ones snarking about the campus activists and their anti-sweatshop campaigns? I do. And when I was working dozens of hours a week as a campus activist, you were the kids hardy-har-harring at us when we were tabling, making fun of our earnestness, mocking our demonstrations. I was there. The fact that you now find it socially convenient to yell at Jon Chait on Twitter when you look up from Slack every once in awhile doesn’t change the fact that you were Jon Chait when you were actually on campus. Most of you don’t have a leg to stand on. I am a campus lefty weirdo, from a long line of campus lefty weirdos, I grew up surrounded by campus activists and campus activism, and I never left campus. These are my people, and I will keep my own counsel on what is and isn’t a healthy development for them.
I want to quote Adolph Reed from Class Notes on black politics in the left’s political imagination, and I want to argue that, though there’s a lot that’s particular and idiosyncratic about his critique, his fundamental attack on the left’s devolution into Manichean goodies vs. baddies thinking applies perfectly to our conversation on campus politics. Reed decries
the suspension, when making judgments about black people and politics, of critical scrutiny, along with the tough-minded, Enlightenment skepticism that is the foundation of the left critique’s unique power. The key problem is that whites on the left don’t want to confront complexity, tension, and ambivalence in black politics. In general, they simply do not see political differences among black people. They do not see that blacks are linked to social, political, and economic institutions in a variety of different ways, and that those different links, and the networks that flow from them, shape interests and ideological perception no less, and no less subtly, than among whites. …attention to black politics on the left tends to revolve around thin and simplistic definitions of good guys and bad, “true” leaders and false.
That’s all true of how we talk about campus politics, where by now if you say “hey, Title IX is a powerful tool that, like all powerful tools, can do good but can also be used destructively,” you are immediately categorized as “anti-PC complainer.” It doesn’t make you a conservative to acknowledge that, thanks to the demographic realities of college, a lot of campus activists are bright and committed and well-intentioned, but also young and affluent and sheltered, and that doesn’t always result in the most productive political engagement. If the left has really become so resolutely Manichean that this balanced position is forbidden, we’re in really bad shape.
I got a thing, coming out on these issues, if I can get it through the editing process. It’s good, and it’s in a prominent enough place that a lot of people will see it. And it tries, at least, to chart a third path. It is very far from the typical campus politics complaint, particularly in that it talks about structural, economic factors that contribute to a changing campus culture. It doesn’t identify students as the problem. Quite the opposite in fact. But it does acknowledge that there are problems within contemporary campus activism. And so the question becomes whether progressive types can see beyond the mere presence of such criticism to look at the piece as a whole. If you do, I think you’re going to find a very effective rebuttal of genuinely dismissive and antagonistic takes on campus politics. But you have to read it first.