Suppose a 7 year old said to you, “I want to be a professional musician.” Your most likely response would be to offer simple and direct encouragement. Suppose a 27 year old said the same thing to you, someone you really care about. Your most likely response would be to say, “OK, what’s your plan?” You’d ask hard questions. Are you really gonna quit your day job? How will you get health insurance? Do you know how to get an agent or manager? If you’re on tour all the time, can you have kids? How are you going to pay the rent early on? You would offer more than encouragement. You might, depending on what you heard back, not offer encouragement at all.
The former is an example of the kind of emotional sympathy you offer to children, appropriately. The latter is the kind of critical and tough respect that you offer to adults, also appropriately. Real adult respect derives, always, from taking the object of that respect seriously. That respect, I think, is missing from too many venues in contemporary politics. The broad left-of-center today too often treats progressive political movements and the people who populate them like the 7 year old, calling for uncritical encouragement and reflection-free support, when real solidarity requires treating activists like the adults they are. Anybody can clap along, keep their head down, and assure themselves of being unobjectionable. Real support comes from real engagement and at times that means real criticism.
I thought about that in regards to this piece by Stanford professor Keith Humphreys. Humphreys, in the course of mounting an ostensible defense of today’s college students, says “some students now and then have goofy ideas or act in rude ways.” This is a really common rhetorical move, and it hides a deeply ugly attitude. It is nominally a defense of college activists, but it presumes their irrelevance. It’s a kind of head-patting that insults while it acquits. It’s been a constant aspect of my long engagement on the topic of college activism. When I point out examples of times when college students really are doing things that seem senseless or unhelpful, the response from their defenders is, “hey, they’re just college students.” And so the people who think they take college activists most seriously take them least seriously.
I do not, in fact, think that college students “these days” are coddled or deluded or fragile, and though people constantly push those opinions on me, I’ve never expressed them. I have, instead, identified certain common problems with campus activism that are disturbing to me, and have argued for why activists should rethink them. And one key reason I offer that criticism is because I perceive a gap between activist goals and activist tactics – because I don’t think they are likely to achieve their goals with their chosen tactics. That strikes me as a basic aspect of real, critical solidarity, and yet when I voiced such concerns last year during the campus uprisings, people excoriated me for failing to stand with the students. Well: how goes that movement now? Have you heard a lot about them? I said, when it was happening, that if students weren’t careful they’d get bought off with some symbolic changes, with colleges cutting checks, and lose momentum over Christmas and summer break. That appears to be exactly what happened. So: what was the requirement of a real ally? To point out those hazards in advance? Or to yell at the people who did?
Part of anger at criticisms like mine stems from the resolute dedication to intentional misreading that Twitter is known for. (I say stuff like “Student newspapers shouldn’t be defunded for running conservative editorials,” Twitter claims that I’ve said “It’s cool for professors to shout racial slurs at students.”) But a bigger part is simply that for many of the loudest defenders of campus activists, campus activists are entirely theoretical. They are not flesh and blood human beings but stand-ins for various strategic positions in the culture war. If you respect a real human you take their real tangible demands seriously.
This refusal to engage in critical solidarity at least makes some sense with college students, who are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. But it is in fact endemic to contemporary progressive politics writ large, and to our detriment. The idea of solidarity must include critical solidarity. Because progress is hard, and because conservatism wins simply by nothing happening, the left-of-center must contain robust internal criticism, a free-flowing spirit of dissent that allows for people to engage in real, vocal, even harsh criticism without being cast out of the movement. That is not the condition we now find ourselves in. I have no sense of entitlement that I should be invited to perform this function. But someone has to.
When Suey Park said that the purpose of hashtag activism was to dismantle the state, what was the proper response for others who would like to dismantle the state? Was it to point out that hashtags are not an effective tool for dismantling the state? Or was it to hold your tongue and say nothing, under the theory that a real ally would “just listen”? I was involved in those conversations at the time, and I assure you, the conventional wisdom said that my duty was to do the latter.
Whatever you want to call the current dominant paradigm in progressive politics – and I don’t know what to call it, as any descriptive term is immediately taken to be a slur by those who would defend these practices uncritically – they do not appear conducive to a healthy spirit of internal criticism. Socialists, liberals insist, are just as bad as fascists. Now is not the time to criticize the Democrats. Liberalism is working. Women and people of color who criticize identity politics are rendered white men or called self-hating. Glenn Greenwald is a Russian agent. Leftists are accused of believing that only class matters, they insist they don’t believe that, then are told they secretly do believe it. I am a useful idiot for the alt right, or I just am the alt right. No one who critiques contemporary progressive practice can have done so from a genuine, good-faith commitment to figuring out what actually works to advance progressive interests.
I mentioned Suey Park for a reason. At the time that article came out, she was one of the most visible activists online. Where is Suey Park now? I don’t know, exactly. She’s left the public eye. She was cast out, or she went into obscurity willingly, or both. That is not a coincidental condition. It happens all the time. Passionate voices drop out or are exiled or fade away. This is precisely the condition on campus: the students who demand that we tear down the system tend to go on, in a few years, to be unapologetic parts of that system. I don’t take that as some terrible stain on their character; there is no ethical living under capitalism. But systemically it is an essential dynamic to understand about campus activism and why it so often fails. If you care about the goals of those activists, if you believe in the tangible things they are asking for, you cannot help but think hard about that dynamic. When I tried to talk about it when everything was going down at Yale and Missouri, I was told I was not being a good ally, and worse.
Progressive politics, you might have noticed, are not doing so well right now. When you lose, you have to rethink. When you rethink, you have to risk thinking unpopular things. Who, today, is allowed in the broad world of left-of-center thought to say unpopular things, without finding themselves pushed out of the coalition? I don’t have the slightest idea.