By Peter Wood
"F*** Your Constructive Dialogue" reads the headline of an article by Kate Aronoff that's posted on a website that "seeks to facilitate the discussion of political, cultural, and social issues that are often left out of mainstream discourse." (The asterisks, as Stanley Kurtz nicely put it, are not in the original.)
Ms. Aronoff is a student at Swarthmore College and a leader in the movement on her campus to persuade the college trustees to divest the college's holdings in companies that produce or sell fossil fuels. Kurtz has taken the lead among outside observers in tracking the extraordinary departures from civil exchange and academic principle that have unfolded on the suburban Philadelphia campus as the movement has asserted itself.
Members of Ms. Aronoff's group, Mountain Justice, swarmed a meeting of the Swarthmore trustees on May 4. The trustees had agreed to a meeting in which students on both sides of the debate over fossil fuel divestment could present their cases. The opponents honored the protocol. Mountain Justice, however, took over the meeting by flooding the room with supporters, snatching the microphone, and preventing anyone else from speaking. When Danielle Charette, one of the students opposed to divestment, began to speak from the floor to protest the Mountain Justice take-over of the meeting, the Mountain Justice crowd began to clap in unison to drown her out. You can watch Charette try to speak and the Mountain Justice crowd clap her down in a two-minute YouTube video that Kurtz linked on National Review Online. You can also see Charette turning in futile appeals first to the "Quaker moderator" who was supposed to be chairing the meeting and then to Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp, both of whom refused to intervene. Last week, Charette published her eye-witness account of these events ("My Top-Notch Illiberal Arts Education") in the Wall Street Journal.
Summary: Intimidation won the day with a helping hand from administrative cowardice.
Kurtz's reporting on this incident is first-rate and I don't need to take up more space rehearsing what he has said in Swarthmore Spinning Out of Control and Swarthmore's President Chopp Replies to My Queries. Chopp's answers to those inquiries, however, are a marvel. Allowing a mob of students to take over a meeting and silence opposing voices is, she says, a way of honoring the Quaker tradition of "tolerance," by allowing "students to have their say." So much for the students whose "say" was not allowed. This all falls, she says, into "the spirit of intellectual exchange and conversation [that is] a core element in our educational philosophy."
Apparently that "core element" has not quite persuaded Mountain Justice or Kate Aronoff, whose views on "constructive dialogue" were summarized in the headline I quoted above. As Charette noted in her WSJ article, the Mountain Justice protesters take pride in their tactics. They are the ones who posted the YouTube video and they have explained their invasion of the meeting as a rejection of the "liberal script" in the name of "radical, emancipatory change" and "institutional transformation."
But let's turn to some larger questions. What has happened to liberal education that views such as Aronoff's are not only "tolerated" but are allowed to dominate the public square? What has happened that college presidents such as Chopp obsequiously submit to these abuses and then attempt to excuse them?
We seem to be entering a new era on campus--and maybe off-campus as well--in which radical alienation, rules-be-damned activism, and vociferous anger are making a rather successful bid to change the nature of public disagreement. Kurtz links the Swarthmore antics to the Occupy movement, which I think is accurate as far as it goes. Occupy Wall Street and its Occupier progeny in towns and cities across the land two years ago was a trial run of a new kind of preening anarchism. It was a movement that licensed lots of irresponsible behavior by mixing up self-indulgence with the rhetoric of social justice and the spice of millenarianism. Just abolish debt, or money, or wealth, or something and the world will be nice and justice will reign. The Occupy movement wrapped so many seemingly contradictory impulses together that no one could really figure out what lay beneath the Guy Fawks' mask. Marxists and anarchists aren't typically on the same side, but they can at least be allies in their detestation of bourgeois social order.
The Mountain Justice vigilantes and the Occupiers before them are heirs of what I have called "new anger"--the embrace of anger as a positive, clarifying, self-empowering, and liberating emotion, good for political organizing but also for entertainment. It is exhibitionist anger; and the opposite of the slow burn. It isn't all on the cultural left, for sure, but the left loves it more than the right and delights in its riffs. The Swarthmore students who boasted of "hegemonic power structures" and "flipping the power dynamic" were strutting their anger.
If you were to go in search of a simple example of this new performative anger, you would not need to search far. That two-minute clip of the Mountain Justice take-over of the board meeting includes a speech by a student named Watufani M. Poe. It begins with Mr. Poe's declaration of group identity ("I would like to tell you what intimidation is. I am a student of color at Swarthmore College") and proceeds into an account of what happened to his "safe space" during "re-visit weekend," when "a student came and pissed on my space." What to listen for in this screed is not so much the words but the performance--the tone, directed at Charette, who had complained about the intimidation tactics of Mountain Justice, that 'my indignation is better than your yours.' Mr. Poe, having made his declaration, runs out of the room.
But what ought to be most striking about Mr. Poe's testimony is its utter irrelevance to the purpose of either the board meeting or the Mountain Justice protest. How exactly did it fit in other than as an example of narcissistic display?
Mountain Justice is, of course, an offshoot of the sustainability movement. Kurtz correctly points out how "sustainability" has amoeba-like engulfed practically all the other elements of the campus left. To the extent that there is anything to this incorporation of disparate complaints into a movement that takes environmentalist matters as its raison d'etre, there is the old leftist idea of the solidarity of the oppressed. But there is also a rationale particular to sustainability, namely that to achieve a "sustainable society," the world must be rid of each and every form of exploitation. Reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide, ending mountain-top removal coal mining, and keeping the rivers running fresh are good steps but, say the sustainatopians, that's only a beginning. Not until Mr. Poe is safe from students pissing on his safe space will we be free from tyranny and enjoying the rewards of Sustainability.
I get the sense that many people are surprised by the recent events at Swarthmore, as if this latest turn in the sustainability movement and its convergence with Occupy Wall Street tactics are wholly unexpected. Since last summer when veteran alarmist Bill McKibben published his article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" in Rolling Stone, the divestment movement has become the hot ticket for campus activists. Sustainability was already in the "buy" category for the campus left, but the movement had a certain institutional stodginess. The American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment has been signed by 669 college presidents--including Rebecca Chopp. The president of Bowdoin College signed it in 2007, and he too now finds himself outflanked to the left by radicalized students who aren't content with long-term commitments to reduce carbon footprints, to build new buildings according to LEED standards (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and to assess progress according to STARS (the Sustainability Tracking and Assessment Rating System). Even adding sustainability degree programs doesn't really meet the students' need for a cathartic anti-establishment moment. Demanding a pointless and painful divestment in fossil fuel stocks, however, offers the right frisson of burning down the house to make a point, especially since it puts those grand-standing sustainaphile college presidents in their place. 'If you really believe all that global warming stuff, you'd join us.'
Just five years ago I wrote my first piece on the sustainability movement, warning that American higher education has "no natural defenses against" predatory movements of this sort. I was cautioned by a fair number of National Association of Scholars members and supporters that I had gotten the sustainability movement all wrong. That it was benign and intellectually responsible outgrowth of environmentalism, not the ideological menace to free inquiry that I had conjured. Nonetheless I kept up an interest in the topic, and I and my NAS colleagues have now written some 150 articles on it. The rewards have been--what shall I say?--character building. (The friends of sustainability have accused me on one memorable occasion of complicity in the--entirely imaginary--murders of colleagues.) There has been no gain for NAS in this stand in the sense that anyone supports us because of it. But I take a certain pride that NAS is the one organization concerned with reforming higher education that called it right.
And it appears we are now at the point where that judgment is vindicated. Every day we hear about more and more instances in which the sustainability movement, having inhaled the elixir of New Anger and having drunk in the spirit of Occupy, proceeds from one campus excess to another. Kate Aronoff's sneering rejection of "constructive dialogue" flows easily from the view of those college presidents who saw fit to sign a "Climate Commitment" that declares that scientific consensus has been achieved and that the task at hand for higher education is to move for activism to carry out the "social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society." Some students, it turns out, are ready to take their college presidents at their word. The next academic year will be replete with Swarthmore-style excess. Count on it.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.
(Photo: Swarthmore students take over the College's Board of Managers meeting. Credit: Swarthmore Daily Gazette.)