In this Washington Post piece on American University shutting down a fraternity event for appropriating the 17th-century French term “bourgeois,” I discover a sentence that has left me sitting in stunned silence, overcome with awe and sincere admiration.
“I want to continue empowering a culture of controversy prevention among [Greek] groups.”
This sentence, by assistant director of fraternity and sorority life Colin Gerker, is in its own way achingly beautiful, if only for its ability to pack in so much information about late capitalism and our culture without really intending to. I could not machine together such a sentence if I labored on it for a year. It is perfect.
I am studiously avoiding the campus politics wars on this blog. But I am willing to talk about the nature of the modern university. So many campus controversies are represented as clashes between different kinds of people – liberals vs. conservatives, activists vs. educators, the black bloc vs. the alt right. But all of those groups, ultimately, are powerless within the system. Neither Milo Yiannopoulos’s little brood nor the black hoodies that came to meet them will decide the future of college. The 21st century university is owned by the chief litigation officers, by the media liaisons, by the marketing department. Whose values will win? What do values have to do with it? Somebody’s crisis response manual somewhere, carefully put together through the actuarial science of risk prevention, says who wins and who loses on campus. I hate to say I told you so.
People ask me questions. How are the kids these days, really? Are they principled activists or coddled children of affluence? Are they really so deeply opposed to free speech and intellectual freedom? When I read some strategic action plan, put together by a consultant who learned about intersectionality from a PowerPoint at a conference about cultivating the alumni donors of tomorrow, I feel compelled to answer back… what’s the difference?