Rules for student radicals

Forty-five years ago, James Epperson, one of Dartmouth’s great English professors, said of the college’s radicals that they can’t distinguish between their personal anxiety and their political beliefs (or words to that effect). As a student radical at the time, my thought was “as if this is easy to do.”

Today’s student radicals, though they differ from the rads of my time in that they seem more fragile, have the same difficulty Prof. Epperson pointed to. Perhaps it’s their high anxiety in peaceful times that gives off this impression.

In my day, fear of being drafted and shipped to Vietnam (or going to jail or to Canada) played a huge and obvious role in the student anti-war movement. Campus radicals hoped to play on this shared fear to radicalize the student body.

The idea, promoted by non-students on campus, was to mobilize large numbers of students against the war and, when they attended our rallies and meetings, indoctrinate them about how the war fit into a much broader and damning critique (essentially Marxist) of American society. The elements of our efforts were an anxious student body, a specific grievance (say, ROTC on campus), a broader cause (the war in Vietnam), and a hidden agenda (far left radicalism).

Today’s campus activism displays the same elements. I’m thinking in particular of two leading campus movements: the push for divestment and the battle against alleged “systemic” racial “oppression” on campus.

Let’s start with the divestment movement about which Steve writes below. The emotional fuel for the movement — fear/anxiety — is apparent. At stake, some students believe, is the sustainability of the planet and their own health and well-being.

The grievance is college investment in the fossil fuel industry. The stated cause is environmentalism. More specifically, it is curbing the use of fossil fuel and thereby helping to save the planet.

The hidden agenda, I submit, is radicalization and mobilization. As the just-published National Association of Scholars (NAS) paper on this subject shows, standing behind the campus activists are national organizers.

Their goal is to make divestment a defining issue for a generation of voters and to expand this issue into a broader critique of capitalism. That critique, they hope, will fuel a push for the curtailment of free markets in favor of heavy regulation; for a policy of redistribution over growth; and for the advancement of an array of other “social justice” causes.

The NAS paper shows that the divestment movement’s grievance bears at best an indirect relation to its stated cause. Divestment will not decrease the share prices of fossil fuel companies or appreciably shrink their profits and access to capital, and the leader of the movement has acknowledged as much.

Why, then, push this grievance so hard? Because it taps into student anxiety and provides a perfect path to the broader anti-capitalist activism that the movement’s leaders want to promote.

Now let’s turn to contemporary Black activism on campus. The students don’t try to disguise their anxiety. They insist that their mental health is in danger; they weep in public; they demand that the college help them “heal.”

Behind the stated, absurd-sounding anxiety, there may lie a more realistic one: concern about what will happen to these “affirmative action babies” when they land in the real world where racial preferences, though common, are not nearly as pronounced and where those in charge tend to have a spine.

As for grievances, any old thing will do. A drunken student uses the “N” word. A college uses the name of John Calhoun. No “place of healing” is provided after Michael Brown was shot. An administrator might be insufficiently alarmed by the possibility that Halloween costumes may offend. Whatever.

The stated cause is “systematic racism.” How it is that an institution granting large race-based preferences to African-American students can be systematically racist is unclear. How the use by a few students at a university of 35,000 constitutes systematic racism is equally hard to fathom. But you can’t build a movement around stray racist remarks, so the university must be condemned.

What about the hidden agenda? Again, I think it’s about radicalization. The activist vanguard wants to make sure that, for years to come, African-Americans will feel aggrieved and thus remain manipulable.

Instead of radicalization, perhaps I should say that the hidden agenda is infantilization. In this context, it is difficult to distinguish the two.