Why America Deserves What It Gets
Katherine Byron, a senior at Brown University and a member of its Sexual Assault Task Force, considers it her duty to make Brown a safe place for rape victims, free from anything that might prompt memories of trauma.
So when she heard last fall that a student group had organized a debate about campus sexual assault between Jessica Valenti, the founder of feministing.com, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian, and that Ms. McElroy was likely to criticize the term “rape culture,” Ms. Byron was alarmed. “Bringing in a speaker like that could serve to invalidate people’s experiences,” she told me. It could be “damaging.”
Ms. Byron and some fellow task force members secured a meeting with administrators. Not long after, Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, announced that the university would hold a simultaneous, competing talk to provide “research and facts” about “the role of culture in sexual assault.” Meanwhile, student volunteers put up posters advertising that a “safe space” would be available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting.
The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and “sexual assault peer educator” who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point she went to the lecture hall — it was packed — but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. “I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. Hall said.
Unbelievable. Shulevitz thinks, quite rightly, that this is insane. She continues:
The confusion is telling, though. It shows that while keeping college-level discussions “safe” may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?
It is hard for me to find the words strong enough to demonstrate my contempt for these children and their enablers. Their parents must be late Boomers or early Xers — my generation. What happened to us? A reader sent the item to me, commenting:
You know, GIs who landed on Omaha f–king Beach came home, went to college and talked about the war.
Omaha Beach! Kamikazes! Anzio!
Paul Fussell. George HW Bush. No play doh. No bubbles. No puppies.
Where are the adults? Why are professors and administrators giving in to this garbage? What kind of men and women do they consider themselves to be forming? Decadence, nothing but decadence.
The reader sent me back to Paul Fussell’s WWII memoir Doing Battle, a very fine book that everyone ought to read. Fussell, who fought on the European front, emerged from the Army mad as hell at it, and at the whole business of war. Here is Fussell on the attitude he had on returning home and to college:
One Air Corps flier who’d performed the remarkable feat of surviving fifty bomber missions said when the ordeal was over, “Never did I feel so much alive. Never did the earth and all of the surroundings look so bright and sharp. I had my life.” So did I, and I was so happy I could hardly bear it.
From here on, my life would illustrate a theory of antitheses and compensation. What social institutions are the most dramatically opposite to the army? Colleges and universities. Thus my plunging bak instantly into my final year of study at Pomona, but now in an entirely different spirit than before. This time, no playful boyisms: rather, a serious search for answers to overwhelming questions and deep annoyance with intrusions and diversions that might interrupt that process.
Was there meaning in my inches-wide escape from death on March 15? Was there meaning in Hudson’s death instead of mine? In his memoir of the Vietnam War, In Pharaoh’s Army, Tobias Wolff considers the situation of military survivors of frequent close calls:
In a world where the most consequential things happen by chance, or from unfathomable causes, you don’t look to reason for help. You consort with mysteries. You encourage yourself with charms, omens, rites of propitiation. Without your knowledge or permission the bottom-line caveman belief in blood sacrifice, one life buying another, begins to steal into your bones. How could it not? All around you people are killed … but not you. They have been killed instead of you. This observation is unavoidable. So, in time, in the corollary, implicit in the word instead: in place of. They have been killed in place of you — in your place. You don’t think it out, not at the time, not in those terms, but you can’t help but feel it, and go on feeling it. It’s the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It’s the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice.
Now the question pressed on me, How could I justify my life? The only answer I could supply was to try to make it mean something more than jokes, evanescence, waggish remarks, and Menckenisms, to infuse it somehow with what was serious, formal, persisting.
Fussell was brought up in a well-off Southern California family, but the experience of the war brought out some new convictions that emerged in his postwar college experience. He developed “pity for those who sweat anonymously for the comfort of the privileged, so like the predicament of those forced to win the war by dying for the safe and complacent.” More:
For those of us returning to colleges after strenuous or boring or horrible combat years, English studies leading to careers as professors of English seemed much more attractive than at other times. Former soldiers like John Ciardi, Louis Simpson, James Dickey, Karl Shapiro, and Richard Wilbur, filled the graduate schools, aiming at the teaching of English literature to a generation unbrutalized by war. We all hoped, secretly if not openly, that our efforts would help restore subtlety, civility, and decency after their wartime disappearance. This seemed almost a religious act, demanding from its devotees their complete emotional and spiritual commitment. The world was now to be saved from its folly, brutality, and coarseness of conscience by the techniques of close reading and disciplined explication. And if some wisdom could be gathered on the way, that would be useful too.
The subtitle of Fussell’s book is “The Making of a Skeptic,” and he writes at length about how his entire career, and orientation towards the world, has been marked by anger and an intense desire to fight bullshit. What he saw in the war made him realize that Americans had no real sense of the reality of Evil. He bitterly resented, and resisted, postwar American optimism and conformity. It is a remarkable testimony.
Fussell died a few years ago. One wonders what a man who survived this:
In the morning the attack went forward all around us, and watching from the farmyard, we had our first experience of the most awful thing you can see in combat — your fellow GIs savaged by machine-gun and mortar fire, screaming, bleeding, thrashing about on the ground in agony, calling on Mother.
… would have made of the Special Snowflakes who thrash about on the ground in agony, calling for Play-Doh, because they have heard, or might have heard, an opinion with which they disagree. That World War II veteran could have taught these contemptible brats a thing or two about trigger warnings.
Think of all the working-class men and women, or immigrant children, who would value an education at one of these elite US universities, and who wouldn’t treat it like this. I’m not saying that undergraduates should all have to go to war before college, so they would appreciate it more. I’m saying that it is obscene that these young men and women, and the educators who are responsible for forming their minds, have so little gratitude for what it means to get an education, and are so willing to abuse it. I am reminded of the Misfit’s verdict at the end of O’Connor’s short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Meaning her capacity for goodness and humanity would have had a chance to emerge had there been something in her life to make her humble.
Todd Gitlin, who was one of the leaders of the New Left in the 1960s, rebukes the Snowflakes by telling a story of his own moral education on campus. Excerpt:
In college, I took a sociology-history course that included a segment on Nazi Germany. One day, we were ushered into an auditorium where we sat through Triumph of the Will, probably the greatest Nazi propaganda film ever made. Leni Riefenstahl’s diabolically inspired 1935 paean to Hitler and his Nazi gang of usual subjects is brilliantly shot and edited to hold viewers rapt with wave after wave of spectacles. For almost two hours, the reverent, obedient masses go through the requisite motions at Nuremberg on Party Day, forming vast human battalions, reverberating in a demonic call-and-response with their lionhearted idol. In most of Riefenstahl’s sequences, individual life melts into rituals of submission and the mass worship of power. Equally compelling, and therefore terrifying, were the interspersed images of radiant young blonds frolicking in the sunshine in a summer-camp atmosphere. Weirdly, I remember best, probably for its erotic implications, a sequence in which some young Germans drink, or wash, from the same water spigot. Taken a few at a time or en masse, the Nazis are enraptured by the opportunity to sink into the (to them) transcendent embrace of der Führer. If ever there was a celebration of “Strength through Joy,” this is it. The ideological fusion is complete: eternal life, eternal surrender, eternal mass murder in the making.
Triumph lasts almost two hours. Some in the audience applauded. Then, shockingly, without any break or announcement, the screen came alive again and we segued directly into Alain Resnais’ 1955 Night and Fog, one of the first documentaries ever made about the Holocaust. Night and Fog, named after the Nazi code for some of their deportations, consists of barely more than a half hour of footage, recollections, and evocations from and of Auschwitz and Maidanek. What I recall—all I recall, actually—are long tracking shots of the camp ruins and images of corpses in heaps. Such images were not yet the virtual clichés they were to become. Still photos were around, not moving pictures.
Night and Fog is, as Philip Lopate has written, an “anti-documentary,” an “essay.” It has a voiceover narration in that brooding, insinuating fashion of the French avant-garde, which is, at its worst, arch, but in this case is rightly, breathtakingly, modest. The narrative is a virtual locus classicus of the human need to face up to the limits of representation. “Useless to describe what went on in these cells,” the narrator says. “Words are insufficient.” “No description, no picture can reveal their true dimension.” “Is it in vain that we try to remember?” To say the film broods and gouges and discomfits is to say that the sun warms.Night and Fog is an unbearable apotheosis of desolation that speaks to the necessity of our making a mental effort to grasp what is impossible to grasp—a duty that has been imposed upon us by history.
The juxtaposition of the two films was, of course, no accident. They were programmed in sequence to make unavoidable the sense of a causal vector running from the submissive ecstasies of Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz. You didn’t need a diagram. It was a shattering afternoon. The audience left in dead silence.
I’ve not forgotten the shock and logic of the segue. (Neither has a classmate I checked with, who was there as well.) Those images were engraved into our souls. The cinematic double whammy certainly made me, to use the current euphemism, “uncomfortable.” Oh yes, to put it mildly, it made me very uncomfortable. That was the point. Mission accomplished, Professor Sam Beer of Harvard’s Soc Sci 2. You impressed upon this 19-year-old soul an unbearable, ineradicable warning about mass rallies and mass murder. You didn’t draw me a diagram. You burned into me that more powerful thing: a synapse.
Read the entire Gitlin essay. Education, real education, requires learning how to see, especially those things that we prefer not to see.
Here’s the thing: the Snowflakes are going to grow up to be our elites. Frank Bruni, who has a new book out about college admissions in America, writes:
And hovering over all of this is the economic pessimism that has afflicted this country for at least a decade now, along with the growing sense of income inequality. There’s a sense that the world is more competitive, that the future is more uncertain and that the gap between haves and the have-nots has widened, raising the stakes of which side of the divide you wind up on.
Alan Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton, told me: “The difference between being in the top one or five or ten percent and not is bigger than ever before, so if people think going to a highly selective school will get you there, they’re going to care more.”
Catharine Bond Hill, the president of Vassar College, added: “The reward of getting into the top X percent of the income distribution now is a multiple of what it was thirty or forty years ago, and people perceive the access to that as coming through these elite schools.”
In other words and in sum, the college admissions mania is a mirror of America: anxious and stratified.
These kids surely know they are not in those elite schools to be educated, but rather to make the connections that will get them good jobs and secure their place in the top economic tier. I wonder what kind of education they will receive outside of the classroom at these universities, tyrannized by the Little Emperors and Empresses who can destroy the meaning of a university by throwing tantrums — tantrums that college administrators facilitate? It’s like that Twilight Zone episode, “It’s A Good Life,” in which a horrible brat with paranormal powers that can destroy the lives of all around him has everyone quaking with terror.
What happens when men and women who have been formed by colleges that indulge the Snowflakes move into positions of power? A friend wrote the other day to talk about the culture in his corporation, one of the biggest in the US. He’s rising in management, and says that it’s remarkable to see from within how corporations are “explicitly and strategically shaping culture, just as Huxley knew they would.” I can’t say more because I have to protect his privacy, but he adds that all the changes that are being made have to do with an idea of the Good that goes unquestioned within the corporate culture. Based on his description, and on past conversations, it seems clear that much (but not all) of this is the Good as defined by the Therapeutic Culture — the kind of culture that provides Play-Doh for Snowflakes, and that characterizes any skepticism of its principles and goals as acts of aggression that cannot be tolerated.
It’s a power play that uses language to disguise its emotivist aggression, in particular its aggression to intellection. There ought to arise on campuses an army of young Paul Fussell’s to challenge and attack this ideological fanaticism at every turn. Because once it gets entrenched in corporate America, there is no fighting it, not if you want to keep your job.
UPDATE: A college professor commenting under the name McKay says:
I’ve been teaching college students for the last five years, and it’s incredible how much they’ve become infantilized. Even in this brief half-decade span, it’s gotten worse. It’s not just a fear of views that offend our own beliefs; it’s an unwillingness to engage in opinionated dialogue of any kind. Sometimes I’ll give them a piece of opinion journalism to evaluate — a Franzen essay on technology, for example — and the most common response is the complaint “It was too opinionated. It should be more balanced.” (Of course, can we really blame them? You can be blacklisted for expressing a position that was mainstream just ten years ago.)
And it’s even worse in class. Virtually every statement, written or spoken, is prefaced with “Personally, I…” or “This is just my opinion, but…” It’s like the very idea of expressing an opinion that might be different from someone else’s, or from orthodoxy, is a radical departure from social norms. There is no engagement with ideas. There is only interest in avoidance of herd-upsetting. Obviously this reflexive stance is incompatible with the very workings of a democracy. Civility doesn’t preclude disagreement.
Sometimes we have faculty collaboration sessions with students, and without fail the most popular professors in these sessions — and indeed throughout campus — are those who used to be elementary school teachers. They know how to talk to children, which is exactly what college students are now. And I don’t make this complaint as an Old Guy; I graduated college just ten years ago. The difference that has emerged in just the last ten years is stunning.
Related, here is a Michelle Goldberg piece from The Nation about this phenomenon. She talks about the witch hunt against the liberal Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, who had the audacity to question what she called the infantilization of feminism, resulting in “sexual paranoia” on campus. I should note as well that Gitlin, Shulevitz, and the late Paul Fussell, as well as Goldberg and Kipnis, are all on the Left. This is not exclusively a left-vs-right debate, nor is it a male-vs-female debate; Fussell was adamantly opposed to the same herd mentality in the Eisenhower years. Here’s Goldberg, talking about trigger warnings and the generational divide on campuses:
Northwestern junior Erik Baker, a member of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault and one of the organizers of the anti-Kipnis march, naturally disputes the notion that the students are prigs. “She definitely paints this very overtly condescending picture of this new generation that has their feathers ruffled by her pushing the envelope,” Baker told me. In fact, he argues, millennials love satire and political humor. “We’re the Colbert generation. It’s not that we don’t have senses of humor or senses of wanting to push the envelope,” he says. “We just think that publicly belittling sexual assault survivors is in poor taste.”
All the same, Baker can’t quite contain his incredulity at Kipnis’s flippant approach to matters that he considers extremely grave. “She seems to think that it’s very silly,” he says about her attitude towards trigger warnings. “It’s not even like, Oh man, I really want to protect these students and make sure they’re safe, but I think the pedagogical value is…” he trails off. “She doesn’t even perceive how trigger warnings would work to make the classroom more safe, or to help students navigate the material in a way that would be better for them psychologically.” He’s right. She doesn’t. And therein lies a generational chasm.
It is very, very easy to see where “100% Americanism” and all the mass 1950s conformity that we deride today came from. An old professor of mine once said to me that the students in subsequent generations were in general far less interested in asking questions than my generation was. They were better behaved, and certainly less messy as people; they just wanted to know what was going to be on the test, and what they had to do to get an A.