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Sunday, June 09, 2019

Witnessing history

Two weeks ago I attended the 50th reunion of the infamous Harvard Class of '69, of which a was a member.   This was as always an emotional experience, since many of my friends then remain my best friends today, and two of them stayed with me for the week.  But it had historical interest as well.  One classmate had collected a book of reminiscences and thoughts about the  Vietnam War, to which I contributed the original draft of the last few pages of American Tragedy.  A great deal of the discussion at other symposia dealt with the activism of that era, which many classmates seemed as proud of as ever.  The most striking session, however, was one featuring five contemporary campus activists, a mixture of undergraduates and grad students.  The session was recorded, and hope to be able to share it with readers soon.  It showed, more than anything else, just how influential the Boomer style of protest that debuted during our college years had become.

The students focused on several particular issues. One young woman was especially interested in "unraveling [I think that was the word she used] the rape culture on campus," and another, a grad student, complained that Harvard, in negotiations with grad students over their working conditions, did not want to include a commitment to punish those accused of sexual assault because they were afraid of lawsuits from perpetrators.  Several students also focused on university divestment from the fossil fuel industry (which would require complete change in the way the university manages its endowment, a subject about which I and other classmates have been agitating for 15 years now) and from the "prison-industrial complex," and one pleaded with us not to give Harvard any money until it took those steps.  At least one of them also attacked capitalism, which she linked to patriarchy, racism, and xenephobia.  One activist emphasized the need to "imagine" new human arrangements that would be free of these defects.  Several of them used a good deal of ideological jargon, as the SDS was wont to do 50 years ago. I do not mean to dismiss their concerns by any means--I share some of them--but am simply trying to report as neutrally as possible.

I had been designated by the organizers to say a few words, and I hadn't prepared anything, preferring to wait and hear what there was to comment on.  I began by saying that I could see a very direct line from the activism of my own class to what I had heard that day.  First of all, both had a strong moral tone, arguing, about one issue or another, "This is wrong: therefore it must not be."  One of the panelists nodded at that.  Secondly, it seemed to me that today's activists, like my contemporaries, saw themselves standing outside, and in opposition to, a corrupt system.  Lastly, a great deal of the activism, in both cases, was directed against Harvard itself.  In those days that led to a successful attack upon the presence of ROTC on campus because ROTC was implicated in the Vietnam war.  Lastly, I said that I thought that activists might have more success by appealing to their fellow Americans as citizens, rather than as members of particular demographic groups.  I did not use the phrase "identity politics," but one of the panelists did, defending such an approach, when she took an opportunity to reply to me.  

All this got me thinking, not for the first time, about the atmosphere on campus nowadays, and back in the late 1960s as well.  I think some things have gone wrong with higher education since it expanded so rapidly in the wake of the Second World War, and I want to speculate about what it might be, with particular reference to what is happening in elite institutions.  To shed more light on it I want to quote, once again, from one of the Boom generation's founding documents: a speech in the fall of 1964 by Berkeley student activist Mario Savio, who had worked the previous summer as a civil rights activist in Mississippi, in the campaign in which three civil rights workers were killed.

"Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley. The two battlefields may seem quite different to some observers, but this is not the case. The same rights are at stake in both places -- the right to participate as citizens in democratic society and the right to due process of law. Further, it is a struggle against the same enemy. In Mississippi an autocratic and powerful minority rules, through organized violence, to suppress the vast, virtually powerless majority. In California, the privileged minority manipulates the university bureaucracy to suppress the students' political expression. That "respectable" bureaucracy masks the financial plutocrats; that impersonal bureaucracy is the efficient enemy in a "Brave New World."
"In our free-speech fight at the University of California, we have come up against what may emerge as the greatest problem of our nation -- depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy. We have encountered the organized status quo in Mississippi, but it is the same in Berkeley. Here we find it impossible usually to meet with anyone but secretaries. Beyond that, we find functionaries who cannot make policy but can only hide behind the rules. We have discovered total lack of response on the part of the policy makers. To grasp a situation which is truly Kafkaesque, it is necessary to understand the bureaucratic mentality. And we have learned quite a bit about it this fall, more outside the classroom than in. 

"As bureaucrat, an administrator believes that nothing new happens. He occupies an a-historical point of view. In September, to get the attention of this bureaucracy which had issued arbitrary edicts suppressing student political expression and refused to discuss its action, we held a sit-in on the campus. We sat around a police car and kept it immobilized for over thirty-two hours. At last, the administrative bureaucracy agreed to negotiate. But instead, on the following Monday, we discovered that a committee had been appointed, in accordance with usual regulations, to resolve the dispute. Our attempt to convince any of the administrators that an event had occurred, that something new had happened, failed. They saw this simply as something to be handled by normal university procedures. 

"The same is true of all bureaucracies. They begin as tools, means to certain legitimate goals, and they end up feeding their own existence. The conception that bureaucrats have is that history has in fact come to an end. No events can occur now that the Second World War is over which can change American society substantially. We proceed by standard procedures as we are. 

"The most crucial problems facing the United States today are the problem of automation and the problem of racial injustice. Most people who will be put out of jobs by machines will not accept an end to events, this historical plateau, as the point beyond which no change occurs. Negroes will not accept an end to history here. All of us must refuse to accept history's final judgment that in America there is no place in society for people whose skins are dark. On campus students are not about to accept it as fact that the university has ceased evolving and is in its final state of perfection, that students and faculty are respectively raw material and employees, or that the university is to be autocratically run by unresponsive bureaucrats. 

"Here is the real contradiction: the bureaucrats hold history as ended. As a result significant parts of the population both on campus and off are dispossessed and these dispossessed are not about to accept this a-historical point of view. It is out of this that the conflict has occurred with the university bureaucracy and will continue to occur until that bureaucracy becomes responsive or until it is clear the university cannot function."

In a post more than five years ago I tried to explain how the comparison of Berkeley undergraduates, who were receiving an extraordinary education, far better than any available on any campus today, free of charge, could accept their identification with the terrorized, poverty-stricken black population of Mississippi.  I won't repeat that analysis here--anyone one interested can check it out for themselves--but I will say this: Savio was identifying at least one real issue.  Modern society can't exist without powerful bureaucracies that do their best (and never without some failures) to administer impartial rules.  They are, literally, the price of civilization.  Yet at the same time, they inevitably provoke negative reactions from much of the human race, particularly when young.  In college I learned about a parallel youth rebellion against the bureaucracy of the French Third Republic from Stanley Hoffmann, and such a rebellion eventually brought down Communism in the Soviet Union.  The whole Trump movement is also a rebellion against a bureaucracy, the "Deep State," which economic interests have resented for  the better part of a century.  And perhaps campus rebellions periodically play such a role in our lives because young people in our modern age simply become too frustrated at endlessly having to meet the demands of adult bureaucracies.

 I do not know if my own Boom generation was the first to have a majority of its members attend college, but it certainly sent a higher proportion to college than any previous generation had.  The experience of the Second World War and the GI bill had firmly established higher education as the chief path into the middle and upper middle classes, and more and more people were taking advantage of it, instead of going to work full time at 18 and marrying and having children within a few more years.  A great many young people, however--such as myself--go to college at 18 with a great deal of unfinished emotional business.  Once there, a lot of pent up feelings towards their families can find some other outlet. They have a lot of time on their hands.  They have to resolve questions relating to their future place in the world, and their sexuality.  Some, like me, feel right at home in the classroom and the library; others do not.  It becomes very easy for many of them to focus on the shortcomings of the older generation in general and the institution they are attending in particular.  Among my generation, many were moved not only to reject the values of the universities and colleges they found, but to go into academia themselves and change them.  Older grad students and faculty from the Silent generation encouraged this process.

Now my contemporaries' rebellion took off, of course, because of our parents' generation's catastrophic mistake, the Vietnam War.  That certainly proved that our elders were fallible (though hardly more so than those of many other great nations, some of whom made much bigger mistakes), and it also forced all the young men into a confrontation with the government over military service.  But today's students, I think, face a much less certain future and a series of frustrations much worse than what we had to cope with, partly because they have been going on longer.

The competition for places in our top institutions, to begin with, is much worse now than it was then.  The college-age population has swollen much more rapidly than the number of highly regarded schools.  The proportion of women competing for those places is also much higher.  Today's undergrads have gotten where they are by meeting an endless series of tests administered by parents, teachers, coaches, music teachers, and heaven knows who else.  When I saw the first Hunger Games movie, I was struck by its message: that life was a series of dangerous, often fatal tests, imposed upon young people by their elders for the elders' entertainment.  The extraordinary popularity of the books in the series suggests that that message really resonated among the Millennial generation.  They have other problems in college:  many of them are borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for their education.  Many of them emerge unable to find a job that will enable them to live in a major metropolitan area, much less marry and start a family.   And last but not least, my generation, at least, had access to an extraordinary education such as I have described in A Life in History.  We also had to spend a LOT of time doing schoolwork to perform adequately.  Today's students don't get nearly as stimulating an intellectual diet, and their workload is a fraction of what ours was.  

Like Mario Savio and the mostly white, middle-class students who responded to his speech, today 's undergrads identity--one might say compulsively--with what we now call marginalized groups in society.  The representatives of those groups who now attend elite schools in much greater numbers tend to dominate campus controversies, and the opinion pages of student newspapers.  Meanwhile, the problem of defining one's self as a sexual being, and deciding what that definition will still mean for one's life, remains.  A small but growing number of today's students are taking a more radical approach to it by rejecting traditional gender roles and definitions.  The concept of "non-binary" individuals crossed into the mainstream just last weekend, when a long article in the New York Times Magazine discussed it almost entirely uncritically.  

As Liah Greenfeld has pointed out in the book I discussed here some months ago, modern society forces us all to define ourselves in almost every way. This is a terrible burden, felt most intensely in youth.  We have made it much harder.  Neither our political system, nor the humanities departments of our universities and colleges, provide the kind of common anchor to our experience that they tried to give in earlier periods.  It is not surprising that so many bright students become obsessed with the evils of the university itself, while others eagerly work to cash in their ticket to the economic elite.


Energyflow said...

Bureaucracy as ahistorical is interesting. Kafkaesque. Then doing protest as almost theater and insisted something really happened but the bureaucracy forms a committee. It seems Savio is saying something happens when one feels. Logic is GI generation way of control, ahistorical. Boomers feel, so they exist.

I think therefore I am - gi generation
I feel therefore I am - boomer generation

I have thought of generational theory as a sine wave like the yin yang symbol in korean flag. Yin is boomer, yang is gi. Silent is falling yang increasing yin and X is increasing yang, falling yin. We see how the female principle, heart centred/sexual dominates here in boomer actions and how their parents were as rational as possible, male dominated from war economy, 50s male dominated society. We see how boomer dominance, as in all pre generational crises, are irrational, emotional times. A crisis pulls one through all of the emotions and ideological prejudices connected to those, showing oneself how emotions are just objects, like any idea , rock, etc. Special value should not be placed on such feelings. These are easily manipulated in a movie, novel, advertising, by a demagogue. After a crisis the new hero generation, who survived the horrors of their parents' emotional obsessions, lived through themselves as objects, know better perhaps. Or take it for objective reality. The post war German society was denazified, the Americans basked in new found empire. It seems millenials are doubling down on boomer emotionalism, identifying with parental example. When this extremism certainly brings societal collapse they will eschew parental extremism and find rationalism. IOW certain values of identity politics, human rights, American exceptionalism and that basically all coming from a basic concept of inherent privilege without effort, proceeding from the victory in 1945, will be shown to be ephemeral. History will reboot and consumerism from debt, life seeking meaning in one's self, sexuality, hobbies will mean little. We see how cities and states are overburdened with debt from pensions, how homelessness spreads but military expansion of empire increases although real jobs(manufacture) have gone abroad. USD as reserve currency is exorbitant privilege. Whatever comes next can only be painful healing. De-Americanization perhaps. Separation of personal, national identity from manifest destiny and similar fantasies of settling the cosmos and wishing upon a star. Lots of Americans on opioids., homeless are already there. Millins in heavy debt just need an economic downturn to get there. If deep state is not mindless bureaucracy but evil group as in x files, ruling behind scenes for military, corporate tycoons(as in banana republic days and smedly butler) then the world would do well to be rid of Crassius as Dracula on body public. They have bled world dry and impoverished America. Young are brainwashed to believe we have rights but no responsibilities. Pure rationalism has a man observing nature, its flows and taking care of his own self through own effort. Back to Walden Pond or postapocalype films I suppose but postwar Japan, Germany were similar.

Bozon said...

Energyflow, great rant.
Has Energyflow been smoking what Ed Boyle's stuff?
Just a question.
All the best
Skip publishing this, maybe.

Bozon said...

Let me post another remark, briefly.
You have always placed disproportionate stock in Vietnam's singularly disastrous consequences.
The current post is no exception to this seeming iron rule of American history:
"Now my contemporaries' rebellion took off, of course, because of our parents' generation's catastrophic mistake, the Vietnam War..."
My own view is that our contemporaries' rebellion you discuss would very likely have happened anyway to a great extent for many other reasons and causes besides Vietnam, albeit somewhat less violently, even in the absence of Johnson's decision to go into Vietnam.
All the best

Feryl said...

"Meanwhile, the problem of defining one's self as a sexual being, and deciding what that definition will still mean for one's life, remains. A small but growing number of today's students are taking a more radical approach to it by rejecting traditional gender roles and definitions."

Gen Z was born from 1996-the present. These are not Millennials. Jonathan Haidt has done a lot of research regarding the psyches of modern youth, and he says that many of the campus trends of the mid-late 2010's were driven by Gen Z. He says that Millennials (those born from about 1981-1995) have less anxiety, and more strength/confidence. Gen Z was raised to a large degree by Gen X parents. Over-protective parenting intensified in the 2000's, and has prevented Gen Z from hitting a lot of important milestones in their emotional development (they have weak coping skills due to a lack of experience with early difficulties).

Speaking as a 34 year old from a middle class Midwestern background, I feel that many earlier Millennials don't have much invested in the current ideological trends on campuses. For X-ers and most Millennials, their just wasn't that much in the way of "intense" activism when we went to college in the 1980's, 90's, and 2000's (and some of us didn't go college at a young age in the first place). Haidt says that the "burst" of campus activism we saw in the mid-2010's can be traced to when the first cohort of Gen Z attended college.

I also think that Boomers were regarded as an "activist" generation, and this turned X-ers and Millennials away from activism to some degree; Gen Z, however, don't have much familiarity with Boomers, and as such, they don't feel any inclination to reject what some consider to be the "negative" aspects of Boomer culture (like arrogant activism).

Those from an elite background (and those aspiring to elite status) have heavily disassociated themselves from working class people. Peter Turchin has a lot of data indicating that since about 1975, elites have knowingly been widening the economic and cultural gap between the top 20% or so of earners/wealth holders, leaving less and less for the remaining 80% (as such, the middle class has disappeared over the last 20 years). Long gone are the days when even one party (much less both parties) chiefly concerned themselves with the well being of the working and lower middle class American worker. Turching says that the year 2000 was the beginning of a new Gilded Age.

I think that any helpful reform of the system must include measures of economic populism designed to rein in arrogant and overly consumptive elites. Mania regarding "identity" is a futile distraction which hinders the necessary reforms from being implemented (for example, the corporate elite is much more in favor of Left wing ID politics than actual economic Leftism designed to strengthen the position of all mid-lower class people; that ought to tell you something).

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

I think I just saw you in the stands at Fenway as I watched on TV--Red polo shirt, Tuesday 6/11 Texas, tied 3-3 after 3.