The Fragility of Badness

Due to a scheduling conflict, I missed my opportunity last week to see Jonathan Haidt plugging his most recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind (co-authored with Greg Lukianoff). In compensation, a colleague told me a story at lunch about a snowflake student she had to deal with.

The student, a military veteran, objected to the presence of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice on the professor’s syllabus, the objection being that the book glorified abortion, and was in various and sundry respects hostile to men. Apparently, triggered by the book, the student cornered the professor in a small room, yelling at her about it, and demanding its exclusion from the syllabus.

Result? The Department in question is now considering whether or not to keep it there. And the question suddenly arises: is Carol Gilligan really worth keeping on board? I mean, we are a Catholic institution that wouldn’t want to be seen as glorifying abortion. And we are governed by federal regulations that punish us for being perceived as a hostile environment for any demographic, including easily-triggered men. So maybe there’s a case to be made that Carol Gilligan is more trouble than she’s worth. I made a quiet plea for keeping the book, but I get the distinct sense that Carol Gilligan has worn out her welcome at Felician. I guess some voices are more different than they ought to be.

I’ve never quite understood why it is that the controversy concerning “snowflakes” and restrictions on unfettered campus discourse is predominantly about left-wing students triggered by this, that, or the other common sense claim. In my experience in higher education, the vast majority (by far) of complaints about being offended by this or that idea expressed in the classroom have come from right-wing students.

I don’t deny that left-wing students can easily be triggered, and don’t deny that they can be obnoxiously insensitive to free speech issues when they are. I simply register the fact that in my experience, left-wing snowflakes not only aren’t unique in that respect, but aren’t the real problem–or at the very least, aren’t the only problem worth discussing. Right-wing students can be a real handful. Handful of what, I leave to your imagination.

Maybe my experiences are very idiosyncratic, or maybe I’m just very forgiving of left-wing students, or undiscerning of the offenses they commit, or biased in favor of them. Or maybe my experiences are the norm at the lower-tier institutions I’ve inhabited for the bulk of my career–institutions not on the radar screen of people at better institutions (like Jonathan Haidt, of NYU). Whatever the explanation, the stories you hear about academia don’t even come close to matching my experiences in it. Which really offends me. Not that I’m suggesting they should be censored.

31 thoughts on “The Fragility of Badness

  1. I couldn’t have made this one up if I’d tried:

    https://www.nj.com/expo/news/erry-2018/11/f1622d938f477/substitute-teacher-didnt-stop.html

    From the Twitter feed of Rene Rovtar, Superintendent of the Montville Township Public Schools:

    This is the person questioning the judgment of the substitute, and responsible for the latter’s de facto termination. If only there was a way to fire the likes of her. Honestly, what an asshole.

    It’s embarrassing to have to work in the same field as people like Rovtar, but there’s no avoiding the fact that we do. Who knew that you could get fired for questioning the existence of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? I guess we do now.

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    • Worse? How could it get any worse?

      Jewish people were also quick to support the upset parents by commenting on the Facebook post.

      For example, Jessica Davy wrote, “Being Jewish, I remember my parents telling me to never say anything in school about Santa not being real – they taught about respecting others’ cultures and traditions. This is very sad.”

      https://www.tapinto.net/towns/montville/articles/montville-substitute-teacher-tells-first-graders-santa-easter-bunny-tooth-fairy-not-real

      From “Santa is real!” to the anti-Semitic version of Stockholm Syndrome.

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      • I’m grateful that my mother never told me Santa was real. I’ve never understood why parents want to lie to their kids about this. Knowing Santa wasn’t real didn’t deprive me of any fun; I always engaged in vigorous make-believe, which my mother encouraged.

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        • I was brought up in a religious immigrant family. So I was brought up at an early age to believe in God, heaven, hell, angels, the inerrancy of Scripture, and so on. But given the immigrant ethos, my parents made damn sure to tell me that any presents I got came from the hard-earned wages they earned walking to work–uphill, barefoot, in the snow. They tried at first to instill a pro forma belief in the Tooth Fairy, but in a classically self-subverting way:

          Dad: So did the Tooth Fairy visit last night?
          Irfan: Yes.
          Dad: What did he leave you?
          Irfan: A dollar.
          Dad: A whole dollar! How generous! For one tooth?
          Irfan: Yes. He is generous.
          Dad: Right. And what do you say…to the Tooth Fairy?
          Irfan: Thank you, Tooth Fairy.
          Dad; Good. I will tell him.
          Irfan: The Tooth Fairy is a “he”?
          Dad: Yes. Some of them are.

          Liked by 1 person

          • “Irfan: The Tooth Fairy is a ‘he’?
            Dad: Yes. Some of them are.”

            Hmm, more tolerant of homosexuality than I would have expected,

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  2. Seems disrespectful to first-graders (and their parents) to burst their bubbles of magical thinking around Christmas, Easter, etc. Would have been better for the sub to make the lesson one about respecting others in the beliefs that mean a lot to them (and noting that different kids believe different things in this respect) – in the process recognizing that learning is, in important part, about scrutinizing beliefs. Instead, it seems that the Steamroller of Rationality was unleashed. Bad move.

    If I were in Rovtar’s position, I’d talk to the sub and make sure that there would be no repeat performance like this. If I were not adequately reassured, I would not invite him/her back. An earlier version of myself might have done something like what the sub did – and not backed down an inch and not gotten invited back to teach. However, the over-the-top reaction from parents seems a bit much. And Rovtar should not be stoking the parental social media bonfire and posing with Santas! Scrambling to stay on the right side of the mob instead of talking folks down from their righteous ledges is the wrong move.

    (I find it interesting that my attention is first drawn to the bad/wrong action of the sub, not the bad/wrong actions of the parents or the superintendent.)

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    • I think you’re taking the news stories too much at face value. The media is reporting the substitute’s actions as though she had engaged in some “steamroller of reason”-type behavior, but there is no actual evidence of her having done so. For all we know, the issue came up in passing, and has been blown out of proportion by the children, the parents, the school, and the unscrupulous journalists who seem to love them.

      But even if the sub went out of her way to make the point that Santa doesn’t exist, she may simply have under-estimated the intensity of Montville’s commitment to Santa and all the rest. And underestimation of that sort doesn’t strike me as even remotely culpable. Orthodox religious beliefs involve the supernatural, and could be predicted ahead of time to demand kid-gloves handling. It would be dumb to go into a classroom of six year olds and announce the death of God. But I also think it’s fair to put Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter bunny in a different category than God, and belief in them as deserving less deference.

      Even six year olds have to be assumed to have some straightforwardly naturalistic understanding of the world they live in, and if they don’t, have to have it taught to them. You’d correct a kid who thought that a fictional character was real, or that super-heroes really had super-powers, wouldn’t you? Misconceptions of those sorts could lead to real trouble. I see the substitute’s behavior as basically continuous with such corrections. My hunch is that she couldn’t have imagined that a simple correction could have led to such grief, because she couldn’t have imagined the intensity of the parents’ commitment to magical thinking. I sympathize with that, because before I read this story, I couldn’t have imagined it, either.

      I stand by my claim about Rovtar: I think she should be fired. She is the problem here, not the sub. It takes a unique combination of spinelessness and chutzpah to do what she’s done. In my view, the sub is blameless. By contrast,
      the angry parents are culpable. Rovtar’s appeasing their hysteria is culpable. Firing the sub is culpable. Refusing to discuss the matter candidly is culpable. And posing with Santa for public consumption is not just culpable but contemptible–the behavior of an out-and-out asshole. There are too many school superintendents like this, in New Jersey and probably elsewhere. I wish they were mythological creatures, but unfortunately, they exist.

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  4. “I’ve never quite understood why it is that the controversy concerning “snowflakes” and restrictions on unfettered campus discourse is predominantly about left-wing students triggered by this, that, or the other common sense claim. In my experience in higher education, the vast majority (by far) of complaints about being offended by this or that idea expressed in the classroom have come from right-wing students.”

    I have wondered about this as well. Here is my armchair theory.

    First, most people in academia in a position to be bothered by snowflakes have grown so accustomed to ignoring right-wing complaints or to treating them as a sign that we’re doing things right that we hardly notice them, and when we do, we don’t worry, because the right is just fundamentally opposed to the very nature of education, universities, and rational thought. Left-wing complaints, by contrast, seem to come from inside our own camp, from people who actually have some knowledge and who value education, universities, and rational thought. Where the right attacks from the position of unexamined prejudice, the left attacks from the position of enlightened radicalism. That’s not to say that their views are genuinely enlightened; it’s to say that they come from people who appeal to fancy European theorists instead of to the Bible or common sense. Second, and more to the point, the left knows how to organize on college campuses, and there are actually powerful people within academia, indeed even some whole intellectual movements and academic departments, that embrace the left-wing critiques inspiring many snowflakes. So when your veteran complains about feminism and abortion, it’s just an outsider hostile to reason griping about being asked to think; when it’s transgender people of color who cite sophisticated theorists in their execution of what is fundamentally the same strategy, it becomes necessary to offer a real defense. Third, of course part of the reason why left-wing snowflakes get more attention is that the conservative media gives them more attention, whereas anybody who has been to college knows that offended conservatives are just part of the scenery, and so nobody writes about them in the New York Times. Fourth, just possibly there might be fewer right-wing groups setting things on fire to protest Carol Gilligan than left-wing groups setting things on fire to protest Milo Yiannopoulos. As I said, the left knows how to organize.

    More seriously, I confess that I myself am more irritated by left-wing snowflakes than by right-wing snowflakes, and I’m aware that I’m guilty of a double standard; I expect cultural conservatives to be snowflakes, and I’m gratified when they aren’t, whereas I expect people on the left to be more enlightened, and so they frustrate my expectations in addition to behaving in ways that I find obnoxious. Left-wing snowflakes are more obviously hypocritical, they really are often better organized and more effective, and they’re more often taken seriously. Ultimately, I have pretty much the same judgment about the guy who wants to shut down discussion of Gilligan because she glorifies abortion as I do about the folks who want to shut down Western civ programs because they glorify Western civ. But my gut reactions are pretty different. It may matter what kind of institution you teach at; you’re probably more likely to encounter conservative snowflakes, whereas I once taught at an institution where a bunch of left-wing students took over the library one night and screamed “fuck your white tears” at distraught students, and while the event was, ehm, controversial, it was not widely regarded as an external assault on higher education, except of course by campus conservatives, who were more than happy to assault higher education when it served their own ideological purposes.

    Really, though, somebody needs to explain to that guy that Gilligan is weak sauce feminism and almost as likely to be attacked from the left as from the right. Then again, if the idea of reading authors who defend abortion seems outrageous to him, there’s probably not much point in trying to argue with him.

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    • I’ve encountered plenty of both — in varying proportions depending on what institution I’m teaching at. (I’ve taught at five institutions, from the liberal northeast to to the conservative southeast to both liberal and conservative settings in the midwest.) I’m not sure which I find more annoying, but I do find them annoying in different ways; as you say, it’s as though one is enemy action and the other is friendly fire. Though I notice that several decades ago, when I was less left-wing than am now, the left-wing version bothered me more than it does now, so I guess that’s a divergence from your experience.

      I would have asked the snowflake: “Do you think I should teach only material I agree with? If not, why do you think I should teach material only you agree with?” Probably would have no effect, but it’s worth a shot.

      Liked by 1 person

    • (Though this response appears first on the page, it’s actually the second of two comments I wrote. Scroll down for the first one, 11:13 am.)

      I’ll try to make my direct response to David’s comment shorter. I’m hoping that the long comment puts the short one in context.

      I don’t entirely disagree with David’s theory, but don’t think it explains what really needs explanation. How is it that if I am right about the numbers (as discussed in my other comment), we’re so fixated on leftist malfeasances on campus?

      Part of David’s explanation for this is that a double standard operates. I agree, but don’t think he gives enough emphasis or credence to the more culpable factors behind this double standard. I would put the point bluntly: contrary to David’s claims, the Right is extremely organized, whether on campus and off. The pro-Israel Right is just one aspect of this phenomenon, but there are others. I would just say that the double standard regarding leftists operates because the Right is now at the apogee of its power, and emboldened by Republican electoral victories, wants to destroy the Left across the board, whether on campus or off. (The 2018 midterm elections are only a minor exception to the general rule that Republicans have been winning elections lately.) It serves their agenda to demonize the campus Left as it does immigrants, and smash them both in one fell swoop.

      I interpret leftist stupidity in this broader context, which is why I tend to give it more latitude. Marginalized people tend to act stupidly. They do it because they are marginalized and under fire, and get overwhelmed by the situation they face. That isn’t always an excuse, but it is sometimes a partially exculpating explanation.

      When it comes to action, I think left-wing and right-wing snowflake-ism has to be dealt in more or less the same way. Snowflake discourse has to be challenged, and snowflake attempts to shut down discourse have to be disrupted. That goes equally for the Left as well as the Right. I don’t dispute that the pieties of the Left have to be challenged, and that leftists have to be taken to task when they substitute ad hominem fallacies or intimidation for genuine debate. But I still think that there’s an asymmetry involved here which operates for me at an attitudinal level.

      Last year, a week after I was arrested, a black female student misheard a comment I made in a policing forum at Felician, misconstrued it as an attack on BLM, and made a grandstanding speech attacking me for my racial insensitivity. It had a ludicrous effect, since not only was it inaccurate, but I’d just been arrested, and have a history of racialized encounters with law enforcement–far more than almost any student of mine has had, black or white, urban or suburban. And I was the one responsible for having created the university’s “Race and Policing in America” series in the first place, after having been attacked by some of the University’s trustees and a couple local police departments for doing it–for being “anti-cop.”

      One part of me wanted to get angry at this student, but on the whole, I wasn’t. Students of that description feel, with some justification, that they’re under siege by a socio-political regime that is fundamentally hostile to them. And they grasp that this regime is one elected by and supported by their neighbors and peers. The result tends to be a sort of rage-induced paranoia, accompanied by wild, pointless gestures and grandstanding. (Think: Antigone.) I find it much easier to sympathize with that than with the people who now hold political power at every level of government, from the presidency to the Fraternal Order of Police, but every now and then confront an irrationally hostile academic. It’s not that I wouldn’t push back at the irrationally hostile academic if I had the power to do so. But I do shake my head at the disproportion: what we hear so much about are right-wing grievances against the campus Left, not the legitimacy of left-wing grievances about the world, as expressed on college campuses.

      Yesterday, I had an argument online with someone who happens to be the admnistrative assistant to the Board of Selectment of Plymouth, Massachusetts. This person was defending the line that if you see people distributing political flyers in your neighborhood, it is perfectly justified for you to call 911 to have them stopped and frisked in order to determine whether they have gotten police permission to do what they’re doing.

      https://www.plymouth-ma.gov/board-selectmen

      I asked him for the legal justification (not even the moral one) for doing so. We then had an exchange involving maybe 20 back-and-forths. He came up with nothing. But this is a person, however unobtrusive, in a position of real power. When he gets phone calls from complaining citizens, he directs them to call the police, which they do. The police come, stop people, maybe frisk them, and intimidate them. Multiply this micro-phenomenon by the millions–millions of towns, millions of busybodies, millions of calls, millions of stops and frisks, and you can picture the result.

      This is what’s been going on for decades in this country. It’s what people like my student just above have been putting up with for ages. When they come to campus, they bring some of the neurotic rage produced by things like this. That, I take it, is the explanation for some of the act-outs one sees in the campus left. If I could be persuaded that right-wing misbehavior had a similar explanation, I would reach a similar verdict. But I don’t find that plausible. I was myself part of the right-wing campus milieu when I went to Princeton: I was the token liberal on the editorial staff of The Princeton Tory, a well-funded conservative magazine still in operation there. As far as I could see then, and as far as I can tell now, the campus right had some legitimate grievances, and the campus left did some grandstanding, but there was no way to escape the fact that the campus left was, as a whole, a response to real grievances in society that the campus right was not. That’s the one continuous thought I’ve had about campus life since my undergraduate days. The campus left can be stupid, but the campus right consisted (and I think, consists) of assholes.

      That, at any rate, was my experience. But I guess we need to collate the endoxa to produce a viable theory.

      PS. On Carol Gilligan: Gilligan doesn’t defend abortion at all in In a Different Voice. She reports, sympathetically I guess, on the reasons that women give for having abortions. I didn’t manage to read the book until maybe four years ago, when it was assigned in a psych course I was taking for my master’s degree. Though I know that some people have attacked the book from the left as insufficiently feminist or whatever, I personally got a lot out of it, and think it deserves its status as a classic of the modern psychological literature.

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      • In my experiences on college campuses, broadly left-wing student groups have always seemed to have a much stronger presence and to be more effective at getting their message heard and taken seriously. It may be a difference of how they operate, and maybe if I were further to the right I’d have seen it differently. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that the left is better organized on the whole; I meant it in the context of student groups. The double standard may come into play here too, but everywhere I’ve been the left is louder and more often taken seriously.

        I have seen the double standard at work in myself and others for a long time, so I can’t explain it in terms of comservative ascendancy. But perhaps that helps to account for the shape the discourse has taken. My misgiving about the role you give it is just that I, who have no interest in promoting the right or opposing its enemies, share many of the concerns of people like Haidt, and was thinking along those lines already 6 to 8 years ago. But I suspect we’re focusing on different things here; I’m thinking about the broad phenomenon of left-wing social justice rage machines working to silence or intimidate everyone outside a fairly narrow ideological camp, and about the double standard I share with others in my reactions to it.

        Your other points seem right on to me. I react more viscerally to left criticism, I suppose, but I get it well enough. I’m not sure many people who hold the sorts of attitudes we’re discussing would accept your account, but what mattere to me is that I see them as responding to real injustices, unlike the conservative who just doesn’t want to read things he doesn’t already agree with and whose views, in most respects, have little to be said for them.

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        • Some of our disagreement, or apparent disagreement, may be a function of differences in experiences and focus. But it does seem to me that campus conservatives are pretty well-funded and well-organized, even if it doesn’t seem that way, or doesn’t show up that way on a given campus. Even putting aside the pro-Israel groups, consider some of the groups involved:

          https://www.tpusa.com/

          https://www.yaf.org/

          https://www.collegiatenetwork.org/

          https://home.isi.org/

          Not a student organization, but closely allied in purpose:

          https://www.nas.org/

          And then the libertarian organizations, not consistently right wing, but often supportive or allied:

          https://theihs.org/

          https://www.studentsforliberty.org/

          And this gives you an idea of the future:

          https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/07/conservative-high-schoolers-are-ready-to-own-the-libs/566177/

          One last link. I happened to read this item over lunch today:

          https://www.nj.com/hunterdon-county-democrat/index.ssf/2018/11/north_hunterdon_high_school_receives_commemorative.html#incart_river_index

          Note the utterly blase attitude with which these high school students have been co-opted by an organization named after the strategic bombing campaign in Vietnam. This is what I mean when I say that lower-tier colleges are filled to the brim with students marinated in this kind of flag-waving, pro-brutality propaganda. I share your worries about social justice warrior rage, but very little is said about this phenomenon, which is par for the course at high schools throughout the country.

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          • Perhaps my impression owes something to differences of style and tactics, too: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen representatives of ISI, for instance, staging protests, occupying libraries, classrooms, or offices, or issuing manifestos and lists of demands that get taken seriously. That was pretty normal at Dartmouth from broadly left student groups. By contrast, the most visible conservative student voice was the conservative newspaper, who delivered copies to students’ dorm rooms even when the students hadn’t subscribed or requested copies. I’m not sure there were really any fewer students who shared the paper’s sympathies than who sympathized with the groups that occupied the library or the president’s office, say, but I definitely felt in my time there that faculty and administration did not take the conservative paper very seriously and that even the students on the left took it less seriously than the students on the right took them. I of course did not make an effort to keep up with the details of campus politics, and it’s possible that someone setting out to study it seriously would come away with a very different view than I had. But it was possible, at least for me, as a center-left sort of person, to get the unscientific impression that student politics was overwhelmingly left-wing and very far to the left, despite the student body including a large proportion of conservatives and middle-of-the-run sorts.

            But of course that’s not at all to say that conservative political pressures played no role there. On the contrary, they did, but largely from the outside, and largely via the perceived impact that widespread conservative disapproval of the administration might have on alumni donations (one wonders, for instance, how differently the progressive move to reform or abolish Greek life might have gone if the college were not dependent on the donations of alumni — though it is, alas, not only conservatives who persist in their defense of that noxious part of college culture).

            The more I think about it, though, the more I think you’re right that places like Dartmouth receive disproportionate attention and are not recognized for being quite unusual in most respects in the landscape of American higher education. Even among generally ‘elite’ institutions, things can be quite different. I was often struck at Rice, for instance, by how apolitical student life on campus seemed. To some extent that may have been due to so much student life happening in the residential colleges rather than in the inner part of campus; maybe there was just as much political action, and I just wasn’t seeing it. Even so, as an instructor the atmosphere felt massively different. Ohio University felt more like Dartmouth than Rice did in that respect. But I suspect they’d all seem pretty similar compared to many community colleges.

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          • I guess we’re not really disagreeing that much, but I mentioned ISI (et al) primarily to suggest that conservatives are well funded and well organized on campus. Turning Point USA by itself has a budget of $10 million.

            I agree that conservative politics manifests itself in different ways than left-wing politics on campus. Leftist politics is more visible, and more neurotic-looking. Conservative politics takes a different form, and involves different tactics. An enormous amount of right-wing campus politics is just a modern-day version of McCarthyism with a healthy dash of Father Coughlin thrown in for good measure: blacklists (Horowitz, the Canary Mission), the criminalization of lawful speech (the anti-BDS movement), attempts to get people fired by engineering “gotcha” moments designed for the purpose, and bigoted, incendiary speech-making disguised as patriotism, up to and including the invitation of neo-Nazis and white nationalists to campus. This kind of thing is now pretty common.

            This right-wing activism is taken more seriously by administrators than you’d imagine. Yes, administrators will cave in to leftist pressure or sit ins, but they do the same thing behind the scenes when it comes to right wing pressure. University Boards of Trustees are often remarkably conservative, or at least averse to negative publicity, and will throw almost anyone under the bus for anything, including activity that smacks of “anti-American” or “anti-cop” or “anti-military” sentiment.

            Of course, another tactic is just to bide one’s time in the university, get one’s degree, and then use it to get a government or corporate job, wielding power that does far more harm than might be done by occupying a library or a classroom. And if you’re the instructor who declines to support that endeavor? Well. Good luck.

            https://reason.com/blog/2018/10/11/michigan-israel-letter-of-recommendation

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          • “I definitely felt in my time there that faculty and administration did not take the conservative paper very seriously”

            That was certainly true of Dartmouth in 1981. As a high school student in Hanover, I took several courses at Dartmouth my senior year. In one of them, the professor bragged that when she saw a stack of free copies of the then-recently-founded Dartmouth Review, she would simply take the entire pile and throw it in the trash.

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          • I’m not sure any faculty were throwing papers of the Review in the trash in my time there, but I knew several faculty members who openly disparaged students who wrote for the Review simply for writing for the Review. More worrisomely, I knew several faculty members who openly disparaged other faculty members simply because the Review wrote favorable pieces about them — “these professors will be cool with the fact that you are conservative” kinds of pieces — and I discouraged one of my students from interviewing me precisely because I wanted to avoid that result (happily, I don’t think he was really all that interested in interviewing me to begin with). All that is, of course, unsurprising and not very relevant to how active or organized right-wing movements are on campus. But it does point to a different sort of treatment that right-wing students perceive themselves getting, and that perception plays a role in generating conservative narratives about campus politics.

            As an illustration of right-wing campus activism, though, conservative students at Dartmouth, including some associated with the Review, did join in the attack on the appointment of Bruce Duthu as Dean of Faculty over his past support for BDS, leading him his refuse to accept the position (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/06/19/why-n-bruce-duthus-withdrawal-dean-faculty-dartmouth-defeat-all-sides-essay), and also joined in pressuring the administration to publicly disavow Mark Bray, a visiting professor and expert on antifascist movements who had publicly defended elements of the Antifa movement (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/08/28/a-dartmouth-antifa-expert-was-disavowed-by-his-college-president-for-supporting-violent-protest-angering-many-faculty/?utm_term=.3bd860167a2f). What strikes me about these cases, though, is that conservative students at Dartmouth got their concerns taken seriously only with considerable additional support from conservative groups from outside the college, while so far as I know, the left-wing groups that managed to dominate campus politics in the time that I was at Dartmouth or still paying close attention to it — from 2012 to 2015 — were all just groups of students doing their thing without reliance on outside organizations. The “Real Talk Dartmouth” group that disrupted a prospective student event in 2013 had a big impact on campus discourse (and maybe on the number of applications in following years); the “Concerned Asian, Black, Latin@, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled” student group dominated campus discourse and got classes canceled in 2014 with their “Freedom Budget;” and the BLM activists who took over the library in 2015 did not, so far as I’m aware, have any significant organizational or communication support from formal groups with serious financial backing (BLM being a movement rather than an organization). The conservatives get their work done by getting national conservative media and alumni involved to threaten the college’s public image; the left-wing students go take over a space on campus and do their demonstration. In no case that I know of did the left-wing groups get what they were demanding, to the extent that they were demanding anything, whereas the conservatives were in fact able to pressure Duthu to decline the deanship and to get Hanlon to disavow Bray. So maybe I should reverse my assessment about who was more effective. I’m fairly sure, though, that the left-wing groups never really expected any list of demands to be met; their goal was more to influence people’s opinions and change the state of the discourse, and, well, they certainly did that. But they did that; by contrast, the conservative students didn’t achieve much of anything on their own apart from getting other conservative groups with a broader audience to make an uproar.

            That may not warrant the judgment that the right is less effective or organized, but it’s the kind of difference that can help to explain why so many people more readily notice the left-wing student activists and worry more about their modes of political engagement. Having had students who wrote for the Review and students who were active in the Real Talk and Concerned groups, I know which ones were easier to talk to about anything remotely political.

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          • That coheres with my experiences at Princeton, 1987-1991, and generally with left activism at New Jersey colleges and universities in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. I think the aim of the Right was eventually to be able to do what the Left had been doing for some time: to create a kind of synergy between like-minded students, faculty, and administrators to create a movement within the university that relied on college resources rather than external resources to do whatever needed doing. But I agree with your account of the difference.

            By a very strange quirk, I became the Editor of Princeton’s version of the Dartmouth Review. (We were The Princeton Tory; we competed with Ted Cruz’s publication, The Princeton Tiger.) Indeed, we had the same (external) funding source as the Dartmouth Review, and belonged to the same network. It’s called the Collegiate Network today, but it had a different name back then. It was run by this guy, Leslie Lenkowsky:

            https://spea.indiana.edu/faculty-research/directory/profiles/faculty/full-time/lenkowsky-leslie.html

            I actually think he hated me, but I never asked. Anyway, the network (whatever it was called) would periodically invite us to these junkets in Washington, DC to have us meet with conservative luminaries like Fred Barnes, Charles Kesler, Alan Keyes, Irving Kristol, and William Buckley, and give us pep talks on how to give the Left hell. I would dutifully go (since I was on the masthead), then mysteriously absent myself from the whole thing. No one really seemed to miss me or notice. I actually spent one whole conference jogging around the parking lot of the hotel. I couldn’t bring myself to attend.

            Anyway, it was a decidedly top-down affair. They–our mentors, or handlers, or whatever they were–wanted to engineer a conservative counterpart to the campus left, and we were it. I finally escaped the whole thing by turning to…Objectivism. Jesus Christ.

            The left students at Princeton eventually got at least one demand met–the creation of a Certificate-level Asian American Studies program.

            https://ams.princeton.edu/undergraduate/asian-american-studies

            Not a small accomplishment, but tainted, in my view, by the manner in which it was brought about. They took over Nassau Hall and refused to leave until their demands were met. As an Asian American myself, I found the whole thing offensive. You don’t create an academic program by resorting to ad baculum fallacies. There was also a bit of bad faith in their unwillingness to deal more candidly with the fact that Asian Americans are among the wealthiest people in America, privileged by our access to the immigration system (to H1B visas). Our situation is simply not like inner city African Americans, or Native Americans on the reservation, or Central American migrants. But listening to the activists, you’d think otherwise.

            But I mean, there was already a Program in Judaic Studies

            https://judaic.princeton.edu/

            …and a whole Department of African American Studies,

            https://www.princeton.edu/academics/area-of-study/african-american-studies

            …so why not us?

            I attended an event this afternoon on BDS sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace of Northern New Jersey. I had mentioned in the Q&A that I was an academic, so someone came up to me after the event to lament the fact that students seemed so apolitical and uninvolved nowadays. The implication seemed to be: and what are you doing about that, professor? Because back in her day (which I would guess was the late 60s or early 70s), faculty got students to attend political events, and actively “involved” them in those events. I felt guilty for about three seconds. But it cleared up pretty fast.

            Liked by 1 person

          • “By a very strange quirk, I became the Editor of Princeton’s version of the Dartmouth Review.”

            And I was among the founding members of Harvard’s analogue, the Harvard Salient, in 1981. (I was a Republican in those days — pro-free-market [and didn’t yet realise the difference between freed markets and corporate capitalism] and hawkish on foreign policy [IHS would eventually play a role in extricating me from that particular confusion], though I never had any sympathy with the social conservatism crap.) I wrote for the Salient briefly, and went to a propaganda fest they sponsored, where some guy from Accuracy in Media explained the enormous difference between authoritarianism (right-wing dictatorships it was okay for the u.s. to support) and totalitarianism (left-wing dictatorships that must be fought tooth and nail). He also explicitly defended American imperialism, saying “I would have supported the Roman Empire if I’d been around back then.” I began to be uneasy.

            “I finally escaped the whole thing by turning to…Objectivism. Jesus Christ.”

            I didn’t realise Jesus Christ was part of Objectivism. I must be out of touch.

            I likewise abandoned the Salient — for Ergo, the then-MIT-based Objectivist student newspaper, for which I wrote for most of my Harvard years. Though Ergo was no great improvement over the Salient on the foreign policy front.

            But my Republican and Randian foundations were gradually being undermined from various directions (IHS, as I say, being one; although they generally seem to the right of me now, they were to my left at the time — that has more to do with my movement than with theirs). By the late 80s I’d traded Republicanism for Libertarianism, hawkishness for anti-imperialism and anti-militarism, and Rand for liberal Aristoteleanism and a gradual slide toward cultural leftism. And eventually I found my way out of minarchism to anarchism, out of electoral politics to agorism, and out of capitalism to free-market anti-capitalism.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Incidentally, it’s a bit surreal seeing a still-teenage Mary Hopkin singing nostalgically about the days of her long-lost youth ….

            Like

          • If you think that’s surreal, imagine living in a household where one minute you’d be hearing Mary Hopkin, and the next you’d be hearing this:

            Followed by this

            Is it any wonder I’m as messed up as I am?

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          • Man, you guys are so much more interesting and coherent than I am. I suppose both of your stories involve lots of moving around intellectually, but, well…I’m not sure that I could at any point pin down what I should think quite so neatly. Perhaps it makes a difference that I have never been much involved with any organized political groups, so I’ve not been able to determine my identity in that way. I did, like both of you, write for a local paper in my youth, but it was just lousy local music journalism. It did manage to get me anonymously threatened once at a bar, and it managed to get my co-author non-anonymously threatened on the street one day. So I guess if I had written about politics, I’d have gotten myself in real trouble.

            I suppose I can offer a kind of inversion of your stories. I started college pretty far to the left, mainly under the vague influence of vaguely anarcho-syndicalist co-workers at a local Internet service provider (back in the days before cable companies crushed most of those) and a girlfriend whose mother was a Marx-loving sociologist. When I got to college (several years later than normal, due to my unfruitful stints as an internet administrator and a local music journalist), I simultaneously became seriously disenchanted with the standard post-modern fare and discovered Classics and Philosophy, in each of which departments my most influential professors were Christians (of remarkably different sorts both theologically and politically). The most earth-shattering process for me was reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue — incidentally, not recommended or much liked by either of those professors — which set me down the neo-Aristotelian path and offered what I took to be an intellectually satisfying way to appreciate tradition and the past while being open to radical criticism of modernity without embracing the absurdities of post-modernism or simply returning to some pre-modern authoritarian worldview. This was during W’s first term, and so there was no danger of my becoming at all sympathetic with any going brand of political conservatism, but perhaps inevitably MacIntyre and other influences led me to revisit the Catholicism of my youth, or rather to discover for the first time that the Catholic philosophical tradition is vastly different from the Catholicism either of my own youth or of popular culture. That took me far enough from the left that by 2008 I was thinking of myself as neither left nor right, and I was moderately enthusiastic about 2008 candidate Obama because he seemed to promise the possibility of shifting politics away from what I had come to see as a bunch of false dichotomies. I still saw myself as a kind of moderate MacIntyrean-communitarian critic of liberalism, though. Funny enough, it was not much later that I began to become more sympathetic to liberalism, largely through reading…Roderick Long and Irfan Khawaja, among others. But then, I have never been any sort of anarchist (even a MacIntyrean one!) and while I seem to agree a lot with Irfan these days, I’m not sure the more Objectivist Irfan I was reading 8-10 years ago agrees with the Irfan of today. So I think your influences were more subtle. Maybe you guys just made me more unsure of myself. And maybe not much has really changed. 15 years ago I was a political skeptic and pessimist who reliably voted for Democrats despite not being registered with any party. Today I am still a political skeptic and pessimist who reliably votes for Democrats despite not being registered with any party. I haven’t been able to convince myself to drop out of electoral politics, but I don’t have especially high aspirations for it either. For a while I thought maybe I was doing something socially and politically significant in my teaching, but, well…

            As I said, you guys are more interesting and coherent than I am.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Given how eclectic my musical tastes are (Vivaldi, Puccini, Ligeti, Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill, Gilbert & Sullivan, David Bowie, classic rock, bleak soul-searching 90s ballads, Turkish pop music, jazz, swing, blues, klezmer, Irish folk music, Japanese flute music, Indian ragas, etc., etc.), I am unimpressed by your puny musical diversity.

            Like

          • “Is it any wonder you’re as messed up as you are?”

            I think you mean, is it any wonder that I am the exemplar of human excellence that I so clearly am?

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          • What’s surreal is that we’re having a conversation of this caliber while Michael bangs on about “nullified non-consent” in Estlund. The two conversations appear to be taking place in parallel universes, but actually they’re happening right here on my blog.

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          • “The two conversations appear to be taking place in parallel universes, but actually they’re happening right here on my blog.”

            So it’s like a Platonic dialogue!

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess I have a bunch of overarching comments which I’ll make separately from a response to David’s theory.

    First point: it’s often overlooked that a full 40% of the institutions of higher education in the United States are county colleges or junior colleges that offer an Associates degree. If you add to that the lower-tier four-year institutions that serve the same demographic, you approach 40-50% of the institutions of higher education in the US, maybe more. I’ve spent most of my career teaching at institutions like this–ten+ years at Felician, two at John Jay, and a few years at various county colleges in New Jersey.

    I don’t think that any of the generalizations that people make about higher-tier institutions apply to these institutions. It simply is not true of them that leftist discourse prevails there, that the Left is highly organized there, that leftist snowflakes are the problem there, or that anyone knows who Milo Yiannaopolis is, much less would burn down the campus if he showed up. The student ethos at these institutions ranges from apolitical to right-wing. There is no appreciable left-wing presence whatsoever at most of these campuses. Something similar is true of the faculty, staff, and administration. I wouldn’t call them right wing, but no one could call them leftists, either. Such institutions are just fundamentally different from the ones that are typically discussed when the “snowflake” phenomenon is discussed.

    The entire discussion about campus political correctness is driven by what happens on elite campuses, or relatively elite ones, which are then taken to be either representative of the whole, or else representative of the only whole that matters. It’s a strange irony, though, that the same right-wing critics who decry the “elitism” of campus liberals then turn around and ignore the right-wing populism that thrives on maybe half of the campuses in the country–or if not half, then 40% or 30% or 20% or whatever. In this respect, the tone was set by Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, which treats institutions like Cornell and Chicago as the paradigms, and ignores everything else. I would love to have seen Bloom’s reaction to campus life at the average county college in New Jersey. Not one of the claims he makes about “students” would hold good there, at least in the way he made them, not even the ones about relativism. It is not clear to me that people like Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Haidt (et al) have spent any appreciable time on campuses like this, or grasp how different they are from the NYUs and Columbias and so on that they prefer to discuss.

    Second point: also overlooked is the fact that wherever you go–whether it’s Princeton or Mercer County Community College–the bulk of the “snowflake” phenomenon is apolitical or non-ideological. It’s not about ideology but about tangible goods like grades, and it comes not from left- or right-wing students but entitled students of any ideological stripe or none. That was the point I was making here, and time has just given me more material to work with:

    https://irfankhawajaphilosopher.com/2017/12/04/free-speech-for-the-mum/

    Third point: there are no snowflakes like Zionist snowflakes, and Zionist snowflakes are right-wing in orientation. I would defy anyone to find me a part of the campus left that is as well funded, as well organized, as aggressive, ubiquitous, and dangerous to free speech as the pro-Israel presence on campus. Here is some documentation from the organization Palestine Legal and the ACLU:

    https://palestinelegal.org/the-palestine-exception/

    https://palestinelegal.org/2017-report/

    https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-speech/rights-protesters/latest-attack-free-speech-israel-palestine-debate

    Not all of the examples are academic, but the point is, this is a case in which the Right, funded by a foreign government and abetted by legislators in our own, is trying (and succeeding) at the criminalization of free speech, is engaging in outright defamation, has weaponized charges of racism, has done its best to suppress the publication of controversial books, and is destroying academic careers. Meanwhile, people on the Right are complaining about “identity politics” on the Left.

    The only comparable threat from the Left that I can think of is the use of Title IX to violate the procedural rights of people accused of sexual misconduct–which I do deplore. It takes a lot out of me to have to agree with David Bernstein, but sometimes I do:

    https://theweek.com/articles/808638/defense-betsy-devos-title-ix-plan

    But I don’t even think that malfeasance, however bad, is comparable to what the pro-Israel lobby is doing. Some of the people accused of sexual misconduct have really engaged in it. So while it is bad to deprive them of procedural protections, the outcomes aren’t always disastrous. But the bulk of the people being targeted in anti-BDS legislation have done nothing wrong except to boycott a monstrously unjust institution. And yet they’re on the firing line. Meanwhile, the Right is complaining about being persecuted on campus. I find that surreal. It makes things worse that if you widen the lens to Palestine itself, where the Right supports the Israeli military’s coming on to Palestinian campuses (staffed in part by American academics, like me) and shooting at us. But they insist that they’re the ones being persecuted. How many of them have ever been shot at?

    I can’t resist one last comment on this. The supreme irony is that as far as I know, as far as Israel/Palestine is concerned, the only boycott involving an American institution is one by an American institution of a Palestinian one. In 2013, Brandeis effectively boycotted Al Quds University, suspending all contacts with it, and stripping the name of AQU’s President’s from its ethics institute:

    http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2013/November/al-quds-response.html

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/al-quds-president-says-brandeis-counterpart-gone-overboard-in-row-over-rally/

    In other words, it’s uncontroversial for American institutions to boycott Palestinian ones when obnoxious speech takes place at the latter, but ought to be a criminal act for campus organizations to support boycotts of Israeli institutions when those institutions give logistical support to the Israeli occupation.

    Again, I wouldn’t dispute that leftists on campus can be obnoxious and stupid. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to take over a library or any other campus building, and regard most leftist attacks on teaching “canonical” material as worse than stupid (as did people like Edward Said and other multiculturalists often wrongly associated with attacks on “the canon”). But I think the leftist threat to campus life has either been overblown or involves some real cherry picking (or both). It’s not plausible to believe that in a country where Republicans dominate electoral politics at almost every level of government, the modal college student is a raging leftist. Huge numbers of students are extremely right wing, and whether they’re given prominence by the media or not, they make their attitudes known in snowflakey ways. As I said in an earlier post, my students are eager to work for ICE. And ICE is eagerly recruiting on college campuses, That’s cold, but doesn’t involve snowflakes.

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