By Harry Stein
Among the many lovely qualities that define today's student radicals - their smugness, their historical ignorance, their blithe contempt for the rights of others - perhaps the most galling of all is their sense of total invincibility. They know full well they can go about the business of mayhem and general anti-intellectual thuggery with the utter certainty that they will never face any serious consequences. It may have been Columbia that got a little unwelcome publicity when its president, "free speech expert" Lee Bollinger, let off students who assaulted a Minuteman spokesman with a tap on the wrist, but more or less the same thing likely would have happened on countless campuses across America. Indeed, it is by no means even an American phenomenon; the Parisian students who recently celebrated the election of their new president are equally assured as their brethren across the sea of getting off scot-free.
How did such indulgence become the norm? How did our most prestigious institutions of higher learning become so astonishingly weak-willed and craven?
Needless to say, the question is rhetorical. Think of this as yet another gift of my generation to posterity.
I can tell you with absolute certainty when I began to sense the shape of things to come: February 12, 1968. I effortlessly recall the date even now. A student radical at the time, for weeks before I'd viewed the day's approach with a mix of excitement and dread. It was the morning the United States Air Force was coming to recruit on our campus and my fellow activists and I were pledged to stop them; which is to say, the day I stood an excellent chance of getting thrown out of school, putting the rest of my life in limbo.
The college in question was Pomona, in Claremont, California, and like many other places, it was in turmoil that season, in the wake of the recent Tet Offensive. Though Pomona was traditionally a rather conservative place, suddenly everyone seemed to be against the war. The only question was the best way to show it. The administration and overwhelmingly liberal faculty preached moderation and civility, pointing out that openness to even those views we find abhorrent was the hallmark of liberal education. We radical students thought they were pathetic wimps. We knew the way to stop this war in its malformed tracks was to put our bodies on the line. (Well, okay, not THAT much on the line - we weren't about to go to Vietnam or anything - but, you know, at least do stuff dramatic enough to call attention to our moral superiority).
The proximate cause of the current crisis was an earlier 'obstructive demonstration' against a pair of recruiters from Dow Chemical, the company that manufactured napalm, and in its wake, the administrators had clarified the school's position for all and sundry: peaceably demonstrating outside the college placement office was fine, even admirable, but moving inside the building to obstruct the recruiters in their work - and trampling on the rights of our fellow students who wanted to meet with them - was contrary to the very values the place was seeking to inculcate. It would simply not be tolerated. The word 'expulsion' had been used more than once.
Having come of age in the Fifties, with World War II-era parents, we baby radicals did not take this threat lightly. It was our experience that, when it came to punishment, words invariably led to action; and based on prior experience, the substitute moms and dads of in loco parentis similarly meant business. In fact, just a few months before, a number of friends and I had been unceremoniously tossed off the student paper for using its pages to whip up trouble.
When the big day finally came, the scene was all we could have hoped for - there were even a couple of TV crews present. While the non-obstructors lamely marched around the buildings with their signs, about fifty of us followed the Air Force guys into the building, pushing our way into the interview room, surrounding them and chanting various inane slogans. This of course rendered any attempt at interviewing students impossible, so after a while, they gave up and left. We followed them out, exultant at our "triumph," yet concerned about what would happen next.
This was indeed crunch time, and there didn't look like a way out of this box. Someone had taken down the names of all us disrupters. Nor could I even plead mistaken identity, since the next day there appeared a photo in the Los Angeles Times clearly showing me and my girlfriend over the shoulder of one of the recruiters.
Then an amazing thing happened. Nothing.
Well, no, that's not quite true. The administration issued a sharp statement condemning our actions for the benefit of alumni, and in short order put us on trial before a body presided over by the dean of students and comprised primarily of faculty. One by one we were called in to testify about why we'd done what we'd done, and one by one we emerged with the same impression: we were home free. Oh, sure, they knew we were guilty, no question about that - but, hey, when it came right down to it, the jurors seemed to approve of our crime.
When the verdict came in, it was - get this - "suspended suspensions."
We were pleased, of course. And yet, I recall even at the time feeling something oddly like disappointment. This isn't the way it was supposed to be, we weren't supposed to get away with stuff like this. Our elders had abdicated their responsibility as grown ups.
It was hard not to notice that pretty soon the same thing was happening all over. That spring it would happen at Columbia, and over in Paris. It would happen at Cornell, where black students paraded menacingly with machetes. It would happen at Harvard. It would happen almost everywhere.
So by the tens of thousands, student radicals like me graduated and off we went into the world, unchastened; worse, emboldened. I was soon amazed at how readily I was able to move into mainstream journalism, radical views intact. Meanwhile others moved into teaching and administrative positions at the universities, and there they remain to this day, many in charge. Are we to wonder they let the current generation left-wing activists get away with murder? Are you kidding? The fact is, they're delighted to have such 'socially concerned' students in their midst; and if they sometimes get a bit out of hand, well, didn't we all once?
Trust me, for many administrators dealing with today's radicals, there is only one regret: that they can't join them on the barricades.
Harry Stein is a Contributing Editor at City Journal and the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction