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Overriding the King: Activists on US Campuses Make a U-Turn

“Racial justice warriors” in academia adopt reactionary views that were an anathema to progressives-liberals since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Such discredited ideas, now resurrected, include racial reductionism, segregation, cultural essentialism and disdain for rational debate. This is bad news – especially for the racial minorities that campus radicals purport to represent.

This article was previously published in Global Independent Analytics

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In November 2015, a concerned Harvard student named Michele Hall looked with dismay at a wall in the Law School’s Carspersen Building, proudly displaying the portraits of past and present tenured faculty. As a keen supporter of racial justice, Hall was enraged to see what she interpreted as a “hate crime”. Someone, whose identity and motives are still unclear, crossed the faces of African-American professors with duct tape, while portraits of the tenured white were left unscathed. This incident took place in the heyday of vigorous student protests across American academia. In a large number of university campuses, undergraduate and graduate students demonstrate and submit long lists of demands to faculty and administrators. These demands usually revolve around issues of race and identity: removing the names of “racist white men” from campus buildings, sacking professors who offend racial sensitivities, and coercing students, faculty and staff to undergo mandatory training programs in racial sensitivity and politically correctness.

The American press, blogosphere and social media are now replete with heated arguments for and against the new movement. Some see it as authentic display of justified grievances, while others emphasize the danger to freedom of speech, research and inquiry. While I sympathize with the latter view, I also believe that some interesting aspects of the new movement are forgotten in the heat of the debate. One of them is what I call “the political U-turn”. Student activists, usually adherents of progressive and even radical leftist schools of thought, increasingly adopt positions once associated with the most conservative, reactionary forces in Western society.

Harvard Law School Black Tape Incident - evoked rage across campus

Harvard Law School Black Tape Incident

“Safe spaces” and racial reductionism: back to segregation?

For starters, let’s give Michele Hall’s article a second glance:

As a first-year law student, the first time that I walked down those hallways I was painfully aware of the white men that take up most of the space on the walls, but also proud to see black professors hanging right beside them. The portraits make me feel a strange tension of pain yet promise. I am constantly reminded of the legacy of white supremacy that founded this school and still breathes through every classroom and lecture hall. I am also shown the small inroads that professors of color have made, breaking apart the notion that whiteness is the epitome of legal scholarship. This is how I felt yesterday walking through those hallways.

In other words, Hall is assessing the law professors in her school exclusively or at least primarily through racial prisms. On the wall, she sees some of the most celebrated jurists of the United States, of multiple backgrounds, colors and ethnicities. Each of them has a fascinating legal career. Each may hold controversial opinions in contemporary legal debates, issues which should fascinate a Harvard law student. And yet, Hall is remarkably uninterested in such trifles. Black faces bring her pleasure, and white faces – pain. Complex legal personalities devolve into racial symbols.

This, in fact, is a reductionist point of view, vehemently opposed to by generations of civil rights activists. It judges an individual’s merits and demerits through inherited characteristics of color such as “whiteness” or “blackness”, not unlike the old ways of Jim Crow southerners. Thus, leaping backwards, contemporary student activists undermine some of the most important achievements of Martin Luther King’s movement for civil rights. King, after all, was fighting practices such as racial segregation in order to integrate African-Americans into mainstream society. Current activists vow to this tradition with one hand, while undermining it with the other. In Princeton, for example, they demand to remove the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from all campus buildings, because he allowed some of his minions to reinstate segregation in federal departments. At the same time, and probably without noticing the irony, the same activists demand to establish exclusive “safe spaces” or “healing spaces” for blacks, namely – to resegregate campus space. In one California college, black students expelled an Asian woman from their “safe space”, after she recalled being sexually harassed by a black male.  In Missouri-U, one of the main sites of protest, black activists expelled white allies in order to create an exclusive “healing space” for themselves.

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Even the departments of Ethnic Studies and African-American studies, originally established in order to enrich the cannon with the culture of minority groups, often contribute to the resegregation of academic space. In many institutions, they became the de-facto ghettos of angry intellectuals, mostly from the ethnic group they purport to study, who speak mainly to each other in clear isolation from the outside world.

Essentialism through the back door? The struggle against “cultural appropriation”

Unfortunately, racial segregation is not the only reactionary ideal adopted by radical campus activists. Traditionally, the academic left was always suspicious towards romantic views of ethnicity, nationhood and culture. Such views, usually associated with the traditional, conservative right, held that a national culture has a core or an essence, confined and eternal, which accompanies the nation from times immemorial. Until relatively recently, intellectuals and activists from the progressive left incessantly mocked such “essentialist” views as unscientific fallacies, designed to reinforce the power and privilege of traditional elites. In their seminal works, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm argued that such cultural traditions, far from being ancient and eternal, were in fact “invented” and “imagined” constructs designed by and for the modern nation state. Critics argued accordingly that cultures and identities are fluid entities, incessantly created, changed and reaffirmed as projections of imagined “others”.

Current campus activists, however, returned a full circle back to cultural essentialism; and with such unsophisticated vehemence, that even romantic nationalists from the nineteenth century might have been surprised. Notice, for example, the emerging fury against “cultural appropriation”. Students from ethnic minorities are insulted by Halloween customs “appropriated” from their cultures, such as turbans. In the University of Ottawa, the student government canceled a Yoga class, because Western Yoga constitutes theft from Indian cultures which experienced “oppression, cultural genocide and diaspora due to colonialism and Western supremacy”. Students with disabilities, for whom the class was originally intended, were deemed less important than the “cultural sensitivities” of a few activists.

Cultural appropriation? An "insensitive" Yoga practitioner

Cultural appropriation? An “insensitive” Yoga practitioner

At the same time, radical students from Oberlin College fumed over the local dining hall’s “inauthentic” offerings of East Asian cuisine. Tomoyo Joshi, a student from Japan, argued that non-fresh fish, undercooked rice and unqualified cooks are a cultural insult and an unfair appropriation of Japanese culture by campus whites. Diep Nguyen, a Vietnamese student, was similarly insulted when sampling her native cuisine in the dining hall:

Diep Nguyen, a College first-year from Vietnam, jumped with excitement at the sight of Vietnamese food on Stevenson Dining Hall’s menu at Orientation this year. Craving Vietnamese comfort food, Nguyen rushed to the food station with high hopes. What she got, however, was a total disappointment. The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. “It was ridiculous,” Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

One wonders whether Ms. Nguyen ever considered that the crispy baguette, an essential ingredient of Banh Mi, is not exactly a “traditional” Vietnamese staple, but a “cultural appropriation” from French colonial cuisine. In fact, no food in the world can be reliably considered “authentic”. Far from recognizing the real nature of culture as an interactive process of dialogue and constant borrowing, campus radicals made a U-turn back into the well-worn path of cultural essentialism. Culture, as far as they are concerned, is private property that belongs to a certain group of people. Any authorized use by outsiders is strictly forbidden.

Is it "authentic"? A Vietnamese Banh-mi

Is it “authentic”? A Vietnamese Banh-mi

The assault on rational debate

In addition to ideas such as racial reductionism, segregation and cultural essentialism, the resemblance between the current protest movement and the old, reactionary right goes much deeper. Take, for example, the cult of subjective feelings and the disdain for rational inquiry. One of the most persistent complaints of campus activists is on “institutional” or “systemic” racial oppression. Yet, in numerous conversations with activists, I was rebuked when asking for specific evidence. Again and again, I heard that it is outrageous to ask for specific examples, because “that’s the way of the privileged to silence down the experience of people of color”. In any case, I was told, such systemic oppression could not be understood by a white privileged male such as myself. It can be grasped only by oppressed people of color, through their own personal experience. This sentiment is echoed in a “frequently asked questions” manifestopublished by a group of campus radicals in Brandeis University. Their worldview, they say, is not an “opinion” subject to rational inquiry, but an absolute truth felt through experience and hence unopen to question. The mere act of questioning is “violent”. I reproduce both question and answer in full:

Question: What are these violences [sic] and injustices people are talking about? Can you give examples?

Answer: First and foremost, this is a violent question because it essentially implies that the need for proof of harm is more important than addressing the harms. When this question is asked, it invokes this sentiment instead, “I don’t experience violence, so I don’t feel it exists. Would you mind in addition to experiencing these violences, do the labor of explaining them and proving that they are real?”

In order to further illustrate the point, the Brandeis students also bring an example from daily life:

Person 1: I have a stomachache. Please stop only providing food that upsets my stomach.

Person 2: Can you prove how and why your stomach hurts? Can you give examples of this pain? I can eat this food and I’m fine! How do I know for sure you’re not lying?

In fact, in order to rectify a medical problem, such as a stomachache, one must inquire how and why it came about (maybe it is not the food but something else? Maybe the food that person 1 asks for will only worsen her condition?) The same goes, of course, for social problems such as racism. How can one rectify them without studying the underlying causes with convincing evidence? But the students are not interested in a rational dialogue or inquiry. Rationality itself is disdained as the malicious tool of the powerful.

Reading the Brandeis FAQ in historical context, historian Niall Ferguson has observed that

This is not political language at all. It is religious language — and it reads in places like the reincarnation of the tracts that 17th-century Puritans used to publish. With their craving for “safe spaces,” their revulsion against rational discussion (not to mention Halloween), their fundamentally illiberal and indeed irrational state of mind, the protesters strike me not as “little Robespierres” but as the natural heirs of the Puritans who founded the British colonies in New England.

Religious language? American Puritans

Religious language? American Puritans

In fact, this disdain for rational debate was not limited to puritan thought, or even to Christian ideology more generally. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was enthusiastically adopted by a large number of conservative thinkers, politicians and educators who envisioned an organic, communitarian society held by bonds of warm feelings instead of cold rationalism. For Joseph de Maistre, one of the luminaries of the French conservative right, rational inquiry was a poisonous fruit of the French Revolution. In Weimar Germany, numerous intellectuals from the radical right romantically sanctified the intuitive, subjective and pure feelings of Germans towards their homeland. In their cruder form, these sentiments were used by nationalist politicians to silence dissent and demand unconditional loyalty to one’s reference group, whether national, ethnic or religious. Even today, the disdain for rational inquiry is easily discerned in populist right-wing movements, up to and including the Donald Trump campaign. The following paragraphs are taken from an account of a journalist who interviewed Trump supporters:

I spoke to a lot of his supporters who are waiting to come into this rally. And I asked them what they think of Donald Trump and whether or not they’re bothered by his inaccurate statements and whether they think they matter. And not a single one of them said that they thought it mattered.  They said they like him because they think he’s going to be a strong leader, and they think he’s going to bring the change to Washington that they want.

In fact, they blame the liberal media, as they say, on perpetrating lies against Donald Trump. They repeatedly asked, why don’t you ask this about Hillary Clinton, why don’t you ask this about President Obama? So there’s definitely a party line feeling among his supporters, that it is us-versus-them. And unfortunately, the media is very much the ‘them’ in this situation.”

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The radical left students of Brandeis will be horrified to be compared with Donald Trump’s adherents, but it does not require excessively close reading to see the similarities between Trump’s populism and their own radical identity politics. Both sides are angry and dissatisfied, and yet scornfully reject any rational attempt to get into the root of the problem. Inquiry itself is disdained, pushed aside in favor of subjective feelings, identity and a strong awareness of “us-versus-them”.

Omens for the Future

Ideas and practices such as racial reductionism, segregation, cultural essentialism and disdain for rational inquiry were once an anathema of the progressive left. Some of them were already abandoned by the mainstream right when campus radicals decided to adopt and resurrect them. This is a pity. Ideological isolationism and reluctance to engage in rational dialogue are dangerous for any movement, but especially for those who strive to empower the marginalized. In order to overcome discrimination and reach positions of power, minorities and their advocates must create alliances, permanent and ad-hoc, with sympathetic segments of the mainstream. Much of Martin Luther King’s power, for example, lay in his ability to find political allies in the administration through rhetoric which stressed mainstream American values. By contrast, self-righteous isolationism, rage over bogus trifles such as “cultural appropriation” and refusal to engage in rational discussion never helped anyone, least of all the underprivileged. The new campus radicalism, progressive in name but reactionary in essence, would harm, most of all, the very people it purports to empower.