Wednesday, September 16, 2015

On Activism at Columbia 1999-2003

I went to Columbia. There were a lot of self-righteous, we-know-exactly-how-every-single-political-structure-works activists on my college campus. Yet, despite the stereotype, they were a minority, maybe representing 20% of our class.  A friend and I went to an anti Death Penalty rally our first week at school. We didn’t feel the need to keep going. Everyone was shouting slogans. Everyone was afraid of thinking for themselves. The head of the Young Socialists was a ubiquitous presence on campus. He reminded me of a Mormon missionary in that he was always nice, good-looking, extremely friendly, all with the hope of converting you. An April Fool’s edition of the Spectator poked merciless fun of the poor guy. The line I remember from the Onion-like article was something on the lines of “Jeez, can the guy chill out. His dad works at Goldman Sachs.” Manning Marable was there, and we liked him, but we didn’t necessarily like his followers, because they were followers…people that followed. Everyone knew about the hunger strike to bring ethnic studies programs to campus, but most of us thought that the people who joined them were insane.

I knew a few Young Republican types and they could be a little self-righteous, but they were liked too. This was 1999-2003, so they were of the breed that was cool with letting the gays do what they wanted to do, but they rolled their eyes at what they perceived as the groupthink of campus liberalism. They did have a point when looking at the activist culture – which I repeat represented a minority – but a little less of a point when looking at the rest of us. (There was one guy who gave out free copies of The Bell Curve. He wasn’t liked and he wasn’t a member of the Young Republicans.)

People didn’t blow up at each other for being insensitive in classes. Professors had a good sense of humor about the touchier issues. When a white student in a seminar objected to the racism in a book, a black student responded with, “I DON’T LOOK FOR FRIENDS IN BOOKS!”

In the lead up to the Iraq War, our Me Generation parents assumed the lack of interest among the college crowd to join the protests was due to the absence of the draft. No, sorry. We Early Millenials had no time for the self-righteous minority among us, the sloganeers, the teenage demagogues. Despite what you think, we did come to campus to learn. And most of us got that protesting, at least protesting in that particular activist culture, was not a way to go about it.

Oh and did I mention the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests. No one in their right mind joined those. Yes, they always brought in a sizable crowd, but a lot of the people there came from the surrounding community.

Ok, I’ll give you the exceptions. There was Take Back the Night, which was always huge, and, looking back, I think it served a good purpose. (There were two main controversies about TBN that I remember. The first was the group’s refusal to include male victims of sexual assault. The second concerned the year they allowed a sexual assault perpetrator to express his guilt.) On the first week of the Iraq War, Eric Foner organized a teach-in with a lot of rather sharp speeches, but this was top-down and organized by the most distinguished humanities professors on campus. It was a protest on the part of the professors, some of whom were reliving the 60s for themselves. It was an actual learning experience. (Unfortunately, the speech everyone remembers was given by Nicholas De Genova, an untenured professor. It became national news due to his wish that the US military would suffer “a million Mogadishus” in Iraq. This earned him the hatred of 95% of the college campus.)   

I’m not saying we were right. I’m just saying: This was the culture of Columbia’s silent majority in the late ’90s and early ’00s.   

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