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Safe spaces – a view from Yale

There are two aspects of the US college protests which we leave out of account at our peril if we are to see them in context, let alone judge them. Interview.

March of Resilience. Yale Daily News/Alex Zhang. All rights reserved. March of Resilience. Yale Daily News/Alex Zhang. All rights reserved.Rosemary Bechler (RB): In a discussion with Todd Gitlin about some of the factors informing the recent wave of campus protests at US colleges over race and discrimination issues, he raised the blunt question of what to do with ‘hate’? Distinguishing between the Black activists of yesteryear and the student protesters we are talking about, he asks: “ How do you patrol the propriety of looks? How do you regulate the approved decorum of the students representing the majority, confronted with students of whom they may be suspicious or even, at times, hostile? This is a dangerous game…”

Having taught a broad range of American undergraduates--in writing composition at Harvard and at New York City’s Queens College, and then for 15 years as a lecturer in political science at Yale University--and having spent as many years tracking and criticizing black protest strategies in New York and nationally - how do you assess this concern? Do you agree that there is a danger of illiberal reaction on the part of students in liberal arts colleges?  

Jim Sleeper(JS): I think that Todd is right to note that today’s student protests aren’t nearly as exemplary or effective as the best American civil-rights demonstrators of 60 years ago, but today’s students are younger than most demonstrators were, and--owing to significant upheavals in American society, some thanks to the civil rights movement, but more owing to economic and technological sea-changes--the students haven’t enough of the communally grounded and quasi-spiritual courage or the tactical brilliance and training that demonstrators of the 1960s were able to summon to engage armed sheriffs’ deputies and segregationist whites generally. The civil-rights demonstrators pointedly credited their oppressors with integrity, Christian faith, and love, precisely in order to expose their lapses and thereby shame them. It worked when demonstrators were well-primed and well-led and when their opponents and many other white Americans considered themselves honest Christians. That made the violence against peaceful, disciplined citizens deeply disturbing, even electrifying. I worry that fewer of today’s students or their opponents can even claim such moral coordinates. I can’t blame these 19-year-old “customers” for feeling anomic and adrift.

It is an irony that when society was more oppressive and polarized along firm lines in the 1950s, people had clearer ideas about what they were for and against. I’m not applauding that, but I’m suggesting that it gave them firm points of departure. Today, individuals are more atomized, lacking narratives and relationships that assure them they’re rooted and loved. A sauve qui peut, “every man for himself” society can’t generate the necessary coordinates, dialogue, and, when necessary, resistance. The casino-like financing and consumer defrauding of unrestrained “free markets” are substantially to blame. 

So, yes, when students without such grounding and coordinates demand administrative solutions to their insecurities and others’ insensitivity, it’s a dangerous game, as Todd says. And I consider it quite as disturbing that students who are supposedly engaged in liberal education would demand such regulations as I do that some institutions actually establish them to “keep the customers happy.” But I can’t blame these 19-year-old “customers” for feeling anomic and adrift.

There has been effective push-back against gratuitous ‘hate-speech’ codes in the 1990s and, more recently, rules for tribunals assessing rape charges that imply prejudgments of the cases. Illiberal demands are more disturbing if they’re made by very many students, not just a few hotheads who may dominate movements for a while until other students and administrators deflect them.

In my experience, the number of students who actually insist on illiberal procedures has been exaggerated by propaganda driven by ideology. They may dominate discourse and institutional policy at some small, self-contained undergraduate colleges, but less often at colleges that are part of even larger research universities.

RB: But if I understand the burden of your piece in Salon, there is a part of the picture missing here which is simply what you call in one section, ‘Black Afflictions’. I was particularly struck by your searing accounts of  ‘the pressure of white fear’… let alone open confrontation. 

Part of your argument is that the critics of these protests are completely hampered by their incomprehension of what the actual experience of students of color is and the serious injustices endured in a political-economic climate very different from that of the 60’s?

 JS: Yes, and there are a couple of ironies in this. First – and it’s almost embarrassing to say this – the only report or commentary I’ve seen that gives any evidence of its author’s having sat down and listened to black students about their experience is the “Black Afflictions” section of my own long essay in Salon and AlterNet

It grew out of long talks with students of all colors. I’d be glad to learn of other such accounts, but, from Niall Ferguson’s pronouncement, in The Boston Globe, that today’s student demonstrators are odiously puritanical because they’re so repressive, to David Cole’s far-more empathetic, discerning assessment in The New York Review of Books -- no other critic of the protests whom I've read has told us what it’s like to be inside a black skin, even in an oasis of supposed privilege – or what it’s like to be a well-meaning white student who’s accused of malevolent racism for questioning or misunderstanding a black student’s perspectives. But in November, The New Journal, a campus magazine, published "Black at Yale", a striking collection of essays on that subject by Yale undergraduates.No other critic of the protests whom I’ve read has told us what it’s like to be inside a black skin, even in an oasis of supposed privilege.

Sure, there are always some students of color who strike passive-aggressive poses that announce, in effect, “I am excluded, therefore, I am” – the worst sort of identity politics from a democratic point of view. But, again, in my experience, most student protesters are dealing with justified indignation about racism that’s carried like a virus by unwitting whites. And they’re dealing with a loss of a sense of belonging that fewer white students ever experience as intensely. To attempt to portray such protesters as ‘cry-babies’ is distasteful, also because we would all do better to try to remember some of the fears and histrionics we expressed when we were that age.

RB: Much was made in the media of a video of a female student shouting at Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, who was confronted about his and his wife’s position on Halloween costumes by a group of students standing around him in a courtyard. I remember wondering as I read about the confrontation, what media element had been so fortunate as to be present at that event and to ensure that it went viral in just the way that happened, and I am grateful to you for supplying the answer to that question … 

JS. I wasn’t present at that confrontation, but Greg Lukianoff, president of the dubiously named Foundation for Independent Rights in Education and co-author of a recent Atlantic magazine article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” that has become a manifesto for the conservative “free speech on campus” campaign, was present, as was one of his staffers who did videotape the student screaming at Christakis.  

In what I consider a classically right-wing populist feint, the conservative website The Daily Caller, managed by the polemical TV personality Tucker Carlson made the video of the shouting student viral under the headline, “Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor.” The Daily Caller even troubled to find and post the $730,000-assessed value of her parents’ suburban home to underscore its point that protesting black Yale students are pampered ingrates. 

An internet video of one student screaming obscenities at a professor will always eclipse a broader, more accurate account of what’s actually happening among others. That’s been true ever since mass media enabled images to outpace words, but it short-circuits honest reporting and dialogue more quickly now.

William F.Buckley with President Ronald Reagan in 1986. William F.Buckley with President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Wikicommons/ White House Photo Office. Some rights reserved.RB: So this takes us to the heart of your critique and indeed your quest for the real drivers behind this breakdown in civilities. The second piece of the jigsaw that is missing is what you see as a veritable proxy war (a bit like the one engulfing civil conflict in Syria) which has descended on this stand-off. In your account the ‘cry-bullies’ – perhaps you can explain this term – are the conservatives who have provoked and incited liberal protesters into what was a reaction and not at all a cause.

Could you tell us something, for example, about the Buckley Programme at Yale, whose ‘chair’ drew the following conclusion from the ‘safe spaces’ fracas: “Our colleges and universities, lavishly funded and granted every perquisite which a dynamic capitalist economy can offer though, have become factories for the manufacture of intellectual and moral conformity.”

Today,.. “multi-culturalism” has mainly become an institutional imperative to divide, conquer and pacify employees and students.

JS: The William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale - named for the late public intellectual and “happy warrior” for American conservatism from the early Cold War through the aftermath of the Iraq War--was started there in 2010 by students, the program itself claims, without noting that those students were very well-mentored and lavishly funded. (Buckley himself had been a very wealthy Yale undergraduate, from 1947-1951.) The program’s professed mission is to promote “intellectual diversity” on campus, not only at Yale but nationally, against the racially color-coded, cookie-cutter, bureaucratic kind of “diversity” that I, too, condemn. 

But, in my condemnation, ethno-racial “diversity” has been distorted into bureaucratic color-coding as the larger society’s deepening inequities drive many people back into the ethno-racial “communities”--white-ethnic or white elite as often as not-- that some of them had begun to transcend in better times when it seemed more possible to embrace a thicker, broader civic culture. Today, In the corporate private sector as well as in universities that are run increasingly like business corporations, “multiculturalism” has mainly become an institutional imperative to divide, conquer and pacify employees and students. (I sometimes think of the Soviet Union’s scripted, vapid celebrations of the ethnic “national” cultures of some of its republics.) In Liberal Racism I argued not that a civic-republican society should deepen and entrench these cultural identities but that, on the contrary, it should weave them into a larger civic culture. That takes more commitment and resources than markets alone will provide.

To oppose racial and sexual identity politics, as American conservatives do, while feigning innocence of its market and racist causes is duplicitous. The more that inequities and flagrant abuses of liberty proliferate in American society, the more prone the duplicitous and the complicit are to withdraw for succor into imagined (and defensive) communities along racial and class lines, or, if they are more insulated and fortunate, to shift the blame for deepening inequalities onto those who do withdraw, reactively, into ethno-racial camps. To oppose racial and sexual identity politics, as American conservatives do, while feigning innocence of its market and racist causes is duplicitous.

The chairman of the Buckley Program’s board of directors, Roger Kimball, a veteran conservative polemicist and strategist, has been a histrionic blame-shifter in his decades-long assaults on “liberal” campuses. (As you know, in American politics, the word “liberal” is used to designate proponents of energetic government provision of safety nets, funding of education, and market regulation. Most of our conservatives are really liberals in the more classical ‘free market’ sense and they profess commitment to liberal education’s freedoms of inquiry and expression, but some of them--including Buckley himself--have been or are “libertarians” who want only a minimalist state as a traffic director. But others still believe in a more communal, Burkean conservatism and national patriotism that libertarian, free-market conservatives are subverting, not energizing, as they claim.)

The Buckley Program stages seemingly decorous exercises of “free speech”, calculated to provoke protesters whose excesses (especially when exaggerated by the conservative media, as in the viral video I mentioned) make them look like the “cry-bullies” that rogue conservative capitalists really are in the larger society, where they demand all kinds of public protection and support for their “enterprise” and fly ugly rants when anyone suggests that they pay for it.

The Buckley Program is just one of many opponents of student protesters to exaggerate their excesses, precisely in order to avoid facing their own complicity in leaving young people bereft of coordinates. Such conservatives can no longer reconcile their often-sincere yearnings for ordered liberty with their obeisance to riptides of capital that are obviously disrupting and dissolving the virtues and even the republican sovereignty that liberty requires. The missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is this movement to discredi the protests is its progenitors' determination--I would say, their desperation--to cast blame for social instability on a few angry, disoriented college students instead of on their own formerly plausible and consensual but now increasingly unworkable philosophy and strategies. Such conservatives can no longer reconcile their often-sincere yearnings for ordered liberty with their obeisance to riptides of capital.

These critics turned the term “cry-baby” into “cry-bully” to characterize student protesters who whine about their oppression and pain in order to shame and silence others who may have legitimate or at least plausible differences of opinion that should be assessed and developed through dialogue. The “cry-bully” considers his or her suffering an entitlement to suspend dialogue and demand protection.from and punishment of doubters and opponents. That’s wrong, but so are the caricatures and “selective prosecution” (as in that video of the shrieking student) of protesters. The Buckley Program thus tends to dampen free speech and dialogue while claiming to defend it.

RB: At Yale University, you locate the origins of a broader ‘rolling conservative campus counter-revolution' in Buckley’s own God and Man which kicked it off in 1951, with a significant escalation of this ‘blame-the-liberals’ campaign occurring after 9/11…  But your intellectual history of manufactured conservative ‘intellectual and moral conformity’ in the American college system goes back to the 1880’s. Perhaps you could introduce us to Tawney’s analysis of the American ‘individualist complex' in the 1920’s, and why this is so relevant to your argument…?

JS: A long line of relatively conservative public intellectuals, from Alexis de Tocqueville, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the early and mid-nineteenth century through the newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann in the mid-twentieth and, of course, the many social critics of the 1960s and beyond, has ascribed the dull conformity in American business and social life to our society’s insistence on keeping up appearances of classlessness and “equality” even as inequalities and abuses deepen. 

Americans’ characteristic hypocrisy is their affectation of class-dissolving camaraderie. The idea is that although, of course, there are inequalities, the sheer dynamism of “free” markets makes those distinctions more fluid and more subject to individual initiative and other virtues. So, while some will rise and others will fall, there will be no caste lines that determine who they will be, and no state socialism to impose equality. The Buckley Program thus tends to dampen free speech and dialogue while claiming to defend it.

It’s a very nice idea, but no one knows how to sustain even its plausibility amid today’s global turbo-capitalism, as some of the old industrial magnates did sustain it with their philanthropic foundations (the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, etc.) after World War II had generated a lot of social solidarity.

One of R.H. Tawney’s passages offers perhaps the best summary of what has become my own argument about this massive denial of class and of the necessity for public provision; it’s also a terrific characterization of the conservative “cry-bully’:

“Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert.” 

He also noted (this was in 1926!) that the American “individualist complex owes part of its self-assurance to the suggestion of Puritan moralists, that practical success is at once the sign and the reward of ethical superiority ...[and] that distress is a proof of demerit, though a singular commentary on the lives of Christian saints and sages, has always been popular with the prosperous. By the lusty plutocracy of the Restoration, roaring after its meat… [this demonstration] was welcomed with a shout of applause.”  

Walter Lippmann, 1914. Walter Lippmann, 1914.Wikicommons/ Yale University Manuscripts. Some right reserved.RB: So – were there any turning points when this ‘counter-revolution’ could have been averted? In your own account of your intellectual history, I was impressed by the very different tone taken by Yale President Kingman Brewster when urging this thought upon his students: “[A]nyone who is himself willing to listen deserves to be listened to. If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, then he forfeits his claim on the audience of others.” You say you were present?...

I was present on another occasion--in September, 1965--when he told us entering Yale students that, “To a remarkable extent, this place has detected and rejected the very few who wear the colors of high purpose falsely. This has not been done by administrative edict . . . [but] by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility and mutual regard which lies deep in our origins and traditions.” Nowadays that may sound like a snob’s boast about an ‘in crowd’, but it was a deeply Puritan admonition of the kind I admire. Racism, sexism, and economic abuse are curbed not by whining to the authorities for protection but by weaving a stronger social compact.

Harvard and Yale were founded (in 1636 and 1701, respectively, by American Puritans who’d come over from East Anglia and some other regions and who, led by John Winthrop of Groton Manor, tried to ground their salvation-hungry Christianity in communities of law and work according to Old Testament typologies and prescriptions. (Hence their use of Hebrew on the seals of Yale, Dartmouth, and Columbia Universities.) 

Brewster was a direct descendant of the Elder William Brewster, one of the more separatist ‘pilgrims’ who came originally from Scrooby via Leyden in Holland and arrived in Massachusetts on The Mayflower in 1620. (By the way, after Kingman Brewster retired from Yale, he became the American ambassador to the Court of St. James.)  I’ve written about these American Puritans extensively in progressive journals because, unbeknownst to most Americans, who regard them only as having been sanctimonious, witch-burning prigs, these Puritans gestated America’s civic-republican premises and practices, often without intending to, but decisively.

I bring this up in my more recent commentaries on the campus protests to suggest that the ‘traditional’ American way out of anomic libertarianism or, later, surveillance and suppression by the corporate state and the national-security state, has been to recover and affirm civic-republican (and, to some extent, Christian) premises and practices, which is precisely what the American civil rights movement did so tellingly, as I mentioned above.

Kingman Brewster and Martin Luther King, Yale 1964. Yale University. All rights reserved. Kingman Brewster and Martin Luther King, Yale 1964. Yale University. All rights reserved.When I first encountered Brewster at Yale in 1965, remnants and echoes of that Puritan thread were still all around the place, not least through his example and that of Yale’s chaplain, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. a theological Calvinist but a radical progressive who believed that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. Coffin led Yale students in supporting the civil-rights movement and resisting conscription into the Viet Nam War, sometimes at great personal risk, and always to the outrage of American conservatives.  

Yet the latter claim to honor the same principles as they emerged in the 1770s, when latter-day Puritans such as John Adams were leaders of the revolution and when a young Yale graduate, Nathan Hale was hung in 1775 for resisting what seemed the overwhelming power of the monarchy and the colonial authorities. A statue of Hale, standing defiantly in bonds before his hanging, is on the Yale campus, and one day in 1967, I looked down at that statue from the second-floor room where I was in a seminar and saw California Governor Ronald Reagan standing next to Hale’s statue while speaking to the assembled news media. 

I invoke Hale, Coffin, and Brewster (whom conservative alumni regarded as a traitor to his class for liberalizing Yale) to remind their critics that a republic needs such dissidents – and to remind today’s often-clueless students that such protesters really existed.

Most of us congratulate ourselves for holding an “Out, damned spot!” attitude toward Puritanism, and with good reason; but the American variant, at least, was more communal and democratic and less Cromwellian. The Constitution of the state of Massachusetts (which is one of only three of the 51 American states to call itself “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts”) still opens with a preamble, written by John Adams, that reads:

“The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” 

In the American experience, this is “Puritan” to the core, echoing The Mayflower Compact that Kingman Brewster’s ancestor signed. This suggests to me that racism, sexism, and economic abuse are curbed not by whining to the authorities for protection but by weaving a stronger social compact. At Yale, at least, I’ve been encouraged to see students of all colors trying to do that. They are learning not to try it in ways that give apologists for oppression readymade excuses to shift the blame onto their prey.

March of Resilience. Yale Daily News/Alex Zhang. All rights reserved. March of Resilience. Yale Daily News/Alex Zhang. All rights reserved.RB: As a critic of the critics - what in this ongoing wave of protest have you thought worthy of celebration?

JS: Most of the protests at Yale last November were the opposite of what the video of the accusatory student conveys…  A march through the campus of a thousand students, wonderfully diverse in the best sense, succeeded in sublimating frustrations at what they considered racist malevolence and neglect into a rolling affirmation of transracial solidarity. The march paused soberly at sites of racial controversy that had prompted the protests, but it was forceful mainly in affirming unity over alienation and misunderstanding. Many students seemed delighted to find so many of one another affirming that--as their slogan said--"A new Yale is possible." Many students seemed delighted to find so many of one another affirming that--as their slogan said--"A new Yale is possible."  

That slogan begs many questions, of course. Two days later, over a thousand students--again, of all colors--packed into the university's main chapel to hear such questions addressed in poetry and by four faculty/student panels, composed mostly of black, Hispanic, and native American speakers, but also of some whites. Some speeches came accompanied by that posing of the "I am excluded, therefore, I am" variety, but, having sat through many, far-more negative, histrionic meetings as a journalist in New York, I was surprised and moved by the constructive nature of most presentations. Tribute was paid to Yale's predominantly black custodial and cafeteria workers, and there was the moment when some "women of color" spoke movingly of the experience of being subtly dismissed or treated as exotics by professors and other students in their classes. At one point, all the men in the room--about half of them white--were asked to stand silently for a moment to affirm their understanding and resolve to do better.  It was a bit too theatrical for my taste, but Yale President Peter Salovey, who is white, and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who is black, were in the audience (neither spoke at the event), and they stood up with all the other men. 

A purely symbolic gesture, to be sure, but Yale is more complicated and subtle than its critics have persuaded outsiders to think. The most recent master of John C. Calhoun College (of which I'm a fellow, by the way), was Dean Holloway. That a college named for a brilliant politician who was also an ardent defender of slavery has been led for ten years by an African American historian whose father was one of the highest black officers in the US Air Force's Strategic Air Command represents a transvaluation of values that refutes the simplistic symbolism to which both protesters and their critics sometimes succumb. So, while a better Yale is indeed possible,I'd add that some of the "old Yale" threads I've mentioned should be recovered and woven into the fabric.

About the authors

Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). More of his articles and commentary are available at jimsleeper.com.

RB, editor

Rosemary Bechler is a mainsite editor of openDemocracy, and a member of the coordinating committee of DiEM25.

More On

See 'The coddling of the conservative mind' published in Salon. See also, ' The 'Blame the Campus Liberals' Campaign Targets Yale, by Jim Sleeper in the Huffington Post.


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