they can sweep up broken glass

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.

17 Comments

  1. if you want to talk seriously…these progressive movements are victims of their own success.

    Here’s the thing: any issue will draw two groups of people: idealistic people who think the issue is worth solving, and people who are in it for themselves in one way or another. Now, look at the issues of college activists; they contend that American colleges – the most progressive places in all of America, where the faculty is overwhelmingly progressive, the administrators are terrified to offend, and the students are far more progressive than almost any other group of people in the world period – are hotbeds of racism, sexism, homophobia, and thus we need even more resources pumped in to ameliorate this, somehow, even though those things cannot really be ameliorated anyhow. For example, safe spaces don’t do much if the entire rest of the college is unsafe, but these days the entire college is in itself a safe space. (Conservative colleges would be a counterpoint, but they don’t have any protesters, probably because self-selection).

    Aside from that, you’ve got some of the issues you talk about, i.e. cost. That might be more fertile ground, but it excites no passions, especially since most college students do not pay their own way – either they take out loans or their parents foot the bill. My personal thoughts on cost is that we as a society have decided that it’s a good idea to use college as a signalling tool despite most of the things you learn being useless, and we have reaped our reward. I’m currently in community college for this very reason and plan to go to a cheap state college; I doubt it will affect my job prospects overmuch.

    1. Oh, forgot to make the conclusion clear – these issues aren’t real, so you’re going to get people like Suey Park, who thinks that “hashtag activism can take down the state”. No, but hashtag activism does make her feel good, and she doesn’t actually want to take down the state. Probably because…the state isn’t actually worth taking down? Well, I doubt I’ll convince you of that one, but this is a useful mental framework to have and I hope you will be able to make use of it gainfully.

      1. What is ironic about Suey Park’s activism is eventually, her efforts were nullified, and her Twitter account eventually got taken over by a 4chan troll who saw value in using her name to undermine her beliefs.

  2. What exactly are the goals of these activists? If they freak out, like at Emory U, about Trump being written on sidewalks (a legitimate political activity), should we agree that discussing politics should be punished? If they demand racial quotas for hiring professors, can we disagree? Treating them like adults, as you suggest, means being allowed to push back against the stupid ideas, but that just causes more outrage because feelings. In what way exactly is this type of response “adult”?
    I would also point out that college students have often been the first tools of violent dictators: eg, Hitler and Mao’s cultural revolution. It was the students who were out in the street beating people. The age group has lots of energy and emotion but little self-control–not a good combination.

    1. “If they freak out, like at Emory U, about Trump being written on sidewalks (a legitimate political activity), should we agree that discussing politics should be punished?”

      Not to mention, normalizing the censorship of political speech threatens the left MUCH more than the right in this country. Those activists are not really thinking this through.

      Not that banning Trump sidewalk chalk at one university will lead to that, but in broader American society.

      The problem is a lot of the left seem to think that they are Bolsheviks who have already seized the power of the state. The left is not nearly as powerful in the right in this country. Eroding free speech as an ideal (ie, beyond just the first amendment) will in the long run harm the left much much more.

    2. In the case of Nazi Germany, at least, I think this is quite wrong. The guys who went out in the street beating people were not (most of them) students. They were often veterans of World War I or men who wished they had fought in that war; look up “Freikorps” to learn more about that history.

  3. Brilliant. Thanks for writing this. I don’t feel fully welcome in either progressive or conservative circles, and you’ve hit the problem exactly.

  4. I’m probably not your typical reader: I’m a 33yo, college educated stay-at-home mother. I also write, but I’m not published. So basically, I’m just a person. And I am entirely on board with what you’re saying.

    Maybe not being in academia or even in a metropolitan area (I live in Winston-Salem), while also being a liberal, gives me an outsider perspective that I don’t see a lot of online. I’m impressed by your ability to step outside the semantic wars of liberalism and address specific progressive aims and ask questions about how to actually achieve them. It’s refreshing to read a liberal who can cut through the bullshit and stay grounded in reality.

    For someone like me, surrounded by and friends with conservatives of various levels of stridency, I don’t have the luxury of making a highly specific and unyielding list of ways in which an ally is really an ally. It’s just stupid, and a waste of precious time and intellectual ability. Or maybe it’s a self-inflated, ineffectual, and super annoying flaunting of intellectual ability. Like so: http://jezebel.com/damn-youre-not-reading-any-books-by-white-men-this-yea-1751094468

    Anyway, I’m a fan of what you’re doing.

  5. “I am going to wear this furry hat until the state is overthrown and replaced with an equitable society!”
    “How will wearing a furry hat lead to the overthrow of the state and its replacement with an equitable society?”
    “Don’t judge me!”

    The person above doesn’t want to overthrow the state. They want to wear a furry hat.

  6. 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.

    Hm. When I read a sentence like that, my immediate thought is, well, maybe that means that their true goals are not the stated ones.

    1. This certainly seems like the most parsimonious explanation. We all know the Jerry Rubin stereotype of ineffectual youthful hippie activism aging gently into complacent adult yuppie liberalism — the Californian Ideology, cultural capitalism, whatever you want to call it — and you don’t really have to stretch at all to imagine this ultra-woke bánh-mì-on-ciabatta stuff resolving itself as a wholly unthreatening career trajectory in marketing or HR.

  7. I agree with the general thrust of this, Freddie, but I cannot agree that “there is no ethical living under capitalism.” And I still consider myself a socialist. This is a difficult issue, of course, and I am not ready to give anyone ’10 easy ways to live ethically under capitalism’ — but if I give up trying to do it I think I might as well be lumped in with the oppressor class.

  8. “Whatever you want to call the current dominant paradigm in progressive politics…”

    Why not just call is postmodern identity politics? I don’t even think the majority of progressives are PoMo’s but it seems they run so much of the show now because they’re more than willing to slander everyone who disagrees with them as a “racist”, “sexist”, etc. and they occupy a handful of influential positions in colleges so they get a disproportionate level of power by cowing everyone else. It’s worth noting that this is literally a power-worshipping ideology which believes power is an end in-and-of-itself which determines reality, that the world is essentially a zero-sum game between competing “narratives” (identity groups) and the concepts of rationality and morality are forms of oppression and, thus, all disagreements are forms of oppressive narratives (“violence”). I find that when you trace the genealogy of these really nasty “progressive” antics you, more often than not, find it derives from these theories.

    What you’re seeing is a pseudo-progressive ideology that draws from the will-to-power political ethos of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, etc., albeit filtered through Derrida and Foucault (who believed liberal democracy was a subtle form of tyranny worse than actual dictatorships), being taken to its logical conclusion after it gains a disproportionate level of power in a movement. Discredit postmodernism and its apologists completely and you will have your movement back, because otherwise they will hijack it for their own bizarre ends. If you don’t strike at the heart you’re just trying to delay the onset of the symptoms of the disease.

    1. Foucault once said: “There exists an international citizenry that has its rights, and has its duties, and that is committed to rise up against every abuse of power, no matter who the author, no matter who the victims. After all, we are all ruled, and as such, we are in solidarity.” He critiqued liberal democracy (as a gay man, it was not very liberal towards people like him) — but to say he thought it was worse than actual dictatorships is ridiculous. The man was born in 1926 and lived under 5 years of fascism in France.

      1. He did in fact imply exactly that, although by “dictatorship” I don’t really mean “fascism” (which is a type of dictatorship with an ideology) but of the older forms of authoritarianism that didn’t have much of an ideology. He viewed modern liberal democracies form of tyranny as more subtle, encompassing, and insidious than the monarchies of old. That’s not to say he SUPPORTED monarchistic dictatorships though, just that he thought both liberal democracy and generic authoritarianism alike were roughly as bad as one another and deserved to be overthrown. However because he prescribed no clear alternative his modern ideological descendents seemed to have “filled in the blanks” (so to speak) by marrying his postmodernism to hardline identity politics and in the process just making it into another quasi-totalitarian ideology (which I don’t think even Foucault would have cared for if he were still around).

        Anyways, are you seeing my general point?

  9. I’ve been looking for a conversation like this for a long time. As a 70-year old with a fair amount of progressive (and on-the-ground, not theoretical) street cred, I have had to steel myself to tell young activists that they are being patronized when middle-aged progressives eagerly accept all of their demands and ideas. I mean, can you really listen to privileged (Black) superbly educated 22-year olds who say that their goal is to do away with all law enforcement, criminal justice procedures, and incarceration? ALL? REALLY? Or young feminists who police each others’ speech like the strictest sectarian theologians? Oh well, end of rant. I’m more interested in how we will reach that 5% or 10% of Trump voters or stay-at-homers who could be convinced to join the progressive side if we could keep the most rigid identity-politics-drenched groups from driving them away.

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