A Waning of Indignation?

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We still see campus protests and speaker shutdowns taking place on college campuses now that Year 2017-18 is six weeks in. But from what I’ve seen and heard, the political content of the actions appears to be growing smaller with each month that passes. 

Instead, the hysteria factor is the prominent one.  When a student protester at Oregon says that “the university inherently belongs to the students,” it sounds like a scene in a Jean-Luc Godard film, not America 2017.  The students who posed for the camera at Evergreen State looked more like a comic strip gang than real people with concrete issues.  They play roles and mouth platitudes, but nonetheless genuinely believe in their own authenticity.  These fabricated identities and postures aren’t political in any meaningful way, but they are sincere.  It’s not rational.

Which makes them harder to handle.  People who deny their own circumstances–such as their attendance at a selective institution that will lead them to post-graduation success if they pick the right major and work hard–can play the victim quite well.  They will resist evidence that disconfirms their disadvantaged status.  They’ve already done so.  If you deliver a speech to undergraduates at a top-ranked liberal arts college, as I did last week, and urge students to be self-reliant and nonconformist, the message slides by unnoticed.  If you tell them that college attendance at a highly-selective institutions puts them an a 95th-percentile group, they don’t want to hear it.

At one point, I noted that in spite of the fact that 70 percent of high school graduates go straight into some kind of post-secondary institution, and that a national slogan for many years has told every teenager in America “Go to college!” only 30 percent of the adult population has a four-year college degree.  That makes students finishing up in the Ivies and the flagship state universities part of the elite.

At the same time, on this particular score, many of Donald Trump’s supporters fall into the disadvantaged category.  The media blasted that fact over and over–their uneducated condition, that is–as if it were something to be ashamed of, but Trump embraced it.  After the Nevada primary, he declaimed, hilariously, “I love the poorly educated.”  When I quoted that line in my talk, I could feel the disdain in the audience, so I added that those low-educated voters have felt that very disdain for many years.  Every time the U.S. News & World Report rankings came out and crossed their eyes, they thought of themselves as losers.  Every newspaper story on the Information Economy and the rise of automation and efforts to retrain low-skilled workers made them believe that they had no place in the future of America.  When a political candidate told these dropouts that he loved them, it may have been the first nice thing any national figure has said about them relative to this issue in many years.

The students seemed unimpressed.  But they weren’t raucous or disrespectful.  In fact, the discussion was substantive and persistent.  Students and professors disagreed with me–they’d read my Trump pieces in advance–but the event unfolded in just the way it should, some disagreements and tensions, yes, but a back-and-forth that stuck to good academic mores.

After we adjourned, a young African-American man (or perhaps Afro-Caribbean American) came forward to converse with me.  He made a request, firm but polite.  I must consider, he insisted, the actual experience of young people of color in this country.  I asked him what he meant.  He replied that they felt like they were always in danger, that they lived constantly under a threat.  I wanted to say to him that if they face an imminent threat, they should prepare to resist it and/or contact the authorities.  But the conversation quickly expanded the threat to a generalized white supremacy.

“What white supremacy?” I blurted.  He didn’t reply at first.  His eyes widened and his jaw dropped.  The look was a cross between incredulity and disorientation.  Here was a figure standing before him, with his peers surrounding him, implying in a relaxed tone (I wasn’t uncomfortable at all) that he didn’t know of any significant white supremacist ideas or actions abroad in the  land.  It didn’t make sense to him.  How could I not admit something so real and tangible and ubiquitous as American racism?

I told him that I understand white supremacy very well, that I’d spent years researching and writing a book about white supremacy and violence in turn-of-the-century Georgia.  Nothing like that exists today.  The fact that, for instance, the black-white test score gap won’t close is not a consequence of white supremacy, I told him.  There are other reasons.

He didn’t waver.  “But you’ve got to understand–people of color feel that their lives are at stake!”  He begged me, once more, to keep in mind what they are suffering.  I nodded and we shook hands.  I liked him. I’d enjoy having him in my class.  I appreciate his effort to reach out, to ask me to exert my imagination, and not rebuke me for failing to do so.

But I believe, too, that he is captive to a delusion.  The trauma he believes in has no real object.  The many millions of Americans living in daily and nightly dread of racial assault don’t exist.  But nothing I could say would penetrate his outlook.  For him, the reality of white supremacy is in the air and water.  It’s a metaphysic, a superstition, and it won’t be expelled by any quick conversation.  The  emotional intensity of the conviction fends off the contrary data.

It looks like the administrators have chosen a different way of handling it.  Instead of challenging it through, for instance, campus visits by oppositional speakers (as the leaders of the campus last week have nobly done), most university leaders have decided upon the way of sympathetic postponement.  They attend to the heated allegations of -isms and -phobias, create little initiatives such as segregated graduations, and wait.  Soon, they believe, the emotional burn of the students will go away.  Weeks will pass, classes will meet, finals will be taken, and students will go home.  People can’t stay upset for very long.  Hysteria takes a lot of energy.  The more students have to think about papers, jobs, and moving, the  less time they will devote to activism.  A very soft version of repressive tolerance is the way to go.

Perhaps they are right.  My impulse is to hit false ideas head on, but deflection probably better suits the college machinery.  We still have illiberal episodes taking place, such as the protest at William & Mary against an ALCU official.  But I suspect that student outrage and anguish and accusation are already on the wane.  Protest is wearing itself out.  I may be wrong–it’s just an intuition.  But the protesters can’t help but get used to the fact of Donald Trump in the White House.  And Black Lives Matter no longer has the novelty and cachet that it did in 2015.  Time goes on, and as it does the youths stuck in hysterical visions of the United States will grow increasingly isolated.  And without the reinforcement of others, they will have a harder time sustaining their outlook.  I suspect that, in the absence of a catastrophic racist event, 2018-19 will be much calmer than last year and the year before.

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