If you’re like me, you may have experienced a feeling of discomfort with the recent events at Missouri—you may have felt there was an element of hysteria and a mob-like mentality behind the ouster of president Tim Wolfe—and then you may have chastised yourself for those feelings, since you can’t possibly understand the experience of the people behind “ConcernedStudent1950,” and you don’t want to land, however inadvertently, on the side of racists.
The events leading up to his dismissal hinged on three racist incidents in and around campus that may or may not have been perpetrated by Missouri students. At one point in October, the protesters surrounded Wolfe’s car in a parade, and the fact that he never got out to engage them was held as a major strike against him. But here’s how it looked when Wolfe did attempt to engage a few days later:
The phrase “you believe” was very poorly chosen, but I don’t think his meaning was necessarily as sinister and victim-blaming as it sounded. I could very well be wrong, but we never got to hear Wolfe’s explanation. The screaming that ensued not only made a real discussion impossible, but also seemed to back up his original point, which is that there was no right answer for the situation, and that the goal of the encounter, on the protesters’ side, was hostility and humiliation. You can watch the video of the parade protest, and decide for yourselves whether engagement there would have yielded better results. Or whether anyone was really paying attention to Wolfe’s efforts to meet demands and come up with a “systemwide diversity and inclusion strategy”...or whether they simply smelled blood.
Let’s take a quick detour here to a second incident that happened at Yale, and is so extreme that it makes me embarrassed for college students everywhere. A lecturer named Erika Christakis wrote a letter to students arguing that the flow of emails from the administration advising them on which Halloween costumes to avoid may have signaled a kind of “censure and prohibition” from above. The letter, which you can read along with a detailed analysis here, is an exercise in careful p.c. prose. Christakis takes pains to identify with those who feel victimized by offensive Halloween costumes, and to couch her argument in the PC verbiage meant to convey that she’s an ally. Instead of allowing her to express her point safely, this preamble served as a sort of bat signal to students, who immediately demanded the resignation of Christakis and her husband Nicholas. Later, Nicholas found himself among a group of the protesters, and this is what happened:
Looks familiar, right? Screaming, a total lack of interest in hearing his point of view, and a hostile environment that feels like it’s approaching a dangerous and potentially violent place.
Here is where my instinct tells me that I, too, should take a moment to confirm my advocacy for causes of racial justice, and throw out some progressive bona fides. But it wouldn’t matter, and my suspicion is that the “issues” aren’t at the core of these movements, except as an instigating force. On a deeper level, this is about power. Maybe it’s about a group of people who feel broadly powerless trying to exert power in one of the few arenas where that’s possible, in the knee-jerk climate of academia. Nevertheless, it can’t be about building a coalition, because the people involved are too eager to alienate potential allies. To me, it looks like a hugely unproductive way to make a point, and if I feel that way, I can be reasonably certain that the reactions of those to my political right are even less charitable.
Back to Missouri—I have no idea who Tim Wolfe is, and it’s possible that he wasn’t very good at his job. I know that GOP lawmakers in Missouri quickly rowed in behind the protesters, seeing an opportunity to take a shot at a president they must not have liked, and also to encourage a liberals-eating-their-own chain reaction. (It would have been a funny moment in a movie—Republicans in congress and the state house laughing their asses off in some back room as they release a statement encouraging a group of people they have otherwise spent years trying to demonize and disenfranchise, all with the aim increasing the pressure on a university president and destabilizing a state institution they’re all too eager to defund.) When the football team joined the protest, along with the coach, the momentum snowballed, and it wasn’t long before Wolfe was gone.
As I said, I can’t vouch for Tim Wolfe. But I can raise the question of why he was held responsible for a series of racist incidents that speak to a deeper problem in society. It seems absurd to me that Wolfe was attempting to argue that he could take steps to eliminate racism, just as it’s absurd that he should be the fall-guy for oppression in general. Logically, it doesn’t follow—it creates a simplistic cause-and-effect relationship that doesn’t come close to accurately reflecting the complexity of the problem.
Which is why it feels like the real aim of the Missouri protests was to mount an impressive head on the wall. A student activist even went on a hunger strike to increase the pressure on Wolfe, and it worked—he resigned. Just as Nicholas Christakis was forced to issue an apology at Yale, and a newspaper at Wesleyan was punished for publishing an editorial questioning the tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The indications are clear—as Jonathan Chait writes in New York, “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” Chait goes on to draw an even scarier conclusion:
That these activists have been able to prevail, even in the face of frequently harsh national publicity highlighting the blunt illiberalism of their methods, confirms that these incidents reflect something deeper than a series of one-off episodes. They are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first-order goal.
Recent events in the University of California system—including a movement to ban criticism of Israel ‘in the name of combating anti-Semitism’—confirm this intent. At heart, this is a movement about censorship, and power, and control.
A video came out yesterday showing a student journalist being forcibly removed from a public area on campus as he tried to take photographs of the protesters. It was a surprising moment, because most protest movements rely on media to spread their message, but the situation nearly turned violent.
The great irony, as you might already know, is that the woman at the 6:15 mark shouting for “muscle” to remove the journalist is an assistant professor of communication at Missouri who had actively courted the media earlier that week (you can see her in the parade video as well). This aggressive censorship, and the implicit rejection of the First Amendment on public property, is the clearest example I’ve seen of the vaguely fascistic heart of these movements, and it has provoked the most outrage.
Taking it a step further, the culture of victimhood that Conor Friedersdorf elucidated in The Atlantic has led to the rise of ‘cry-bullies.’ Adopting an affronted, offended demeanor, the P.C. warriors have consolidated their control on campuses. There’s a perfectly analogous scenario in American politics, but to find it, we have to look to the far right. In Thomas Frank’s seminal political book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, he documents exactly how the conservative movement, casting themselves as the national downtrodden, became a robust political force and not only came to dominate local, state, and national government, but also pulled the Democratic party to the right and changed the face of America. I have to wonder if today’s social justice warriors have taken a page from that strategy book and gone for the jugular in the venue where they are strongest.
On the surface, the two sides are enemies—Fox News viewers will relish hate-watching everything that happens in Missouri, and any conservative reaction will be fuel for the p.c. machine—but in fact they strengthen each other’s resolve, and contribute to the polarization of the American political climate. It’s easy to shake our heads in puzzlement when Donald Trump’s hatred and ignorance, and Ben Carson’s lies, don’t seem to diminish their support among conservatives. But those of us who consider ourselves political progressives shouldn’t forget our own demons—the screeching fascists of academia who care as little for constructive dialogue and truth as the bogeymen of the right.