“We are all on campus now.”
Here we have two editorials purporting to say different things, but in the end reaching nearly identical conclusions.
The first, published at Persuasion (click on screenshot), is by a young writer, Sahil Handa, described by Harvard’s Kennedy school: “a rising Junior from London studying Social Studies and Philosophy with a secondary in English. At Harvard, Sahil writes an editorial column for the Crimson and is a tutor at the Harvard Writing Center. He is the co-founder of a Podcast Platform startup, called Project Valentine, and is on the board of the Centrist Society and the Gap Year Society.”
The title of Handa’s piece (below) is certainly provocative—I see it as a personal challenge!—and his conclusion seems to be this: most students at elite colleges (including Harvard) are not really “woke” in the sense of constantly enforcing “political correctness” and trying to expunge those who disagree with them. He admits that yes, this happens sometimes at Harvard, but he attributes wokeness to a vocal minority. The rest of the students simply don’t care, and don’t participate. In the end, he sees modern students as being similar to college students of all eras, especially the Sixties, when conformity meant going to “hippie protests.” His conclusion: modern “woke” students, and those who don’t participate in the wokeness but also don’t speak up, are evincing the same “old borgeois values” (presumably conformity). And we shouldn’t worry about them.
It’s undeniable, and Handa doesn’t deny it, that Wokeism is pervasive at Harvard. He just doesn’t see it as universal:
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve heard of the woke mob that has taken over college campuses, and is making its way through other cultural institutions. I also suspect you aren’t particularly sympathetic to that mob. While I’m not writing as a representative of the woke, I do wish to convince you that they are not as you fear. What you’re seeing is less a dedicated mob than a self-interested blob.
I recently finished three years as a Harvard student—a “student of color,” to be precise—and I passed much of that time with the type you might have heard about in the culture wars. These were students who protested against platforming Charles Murray, the sociologist often accused of racist pseudoscience; these were students who stormed the admissions office to demand the reversal of a tenure decision; these were students who got Ronald Sullivan—civil rights lawyer who chose to represent Harvey Weinstein in court—fired as Harvard dean.
. . . . Nor are most students even involved in campus protest.
There are almost 7,000 undergraduates at Harvard, yet the tenure protest was attended by fewer than 50 students, and a few hundred signed the letters urging the administration to fire Sullivan. Fretful liberals do not pause to think of all the students who didn’t join: those who talked critically of the activists in the privacy of their dorm rooms; those who wrestled with reservations but decided not to voice them; or those who simply decided that none of it was worth their time.
But Sullivan was fired as a dean. The Harvard administration itself engages in a lot of woke decisions, like punishing students from belonging to off-campus single-sex “finals= clubs” (probably an illegal punishment), and giving them “social justice placemats” in the dining halls to prepare them to go home for the holidays. The woke students may not be predominant, but they are vocal and loud and activist. If that’s all the administration sees and hears, then that’s what they’ll cater to.
But why aren’t the non-woke students protesting the woke ones? Well, Handa says they just don’t care: they’re too busy with their studies. But it’s more than that. As he says above, the students who have “reservations” “decide not to voice them.” Why the reticence, though?
It’s because voicing them turns them into apostates, for their college and post-college success depends on going along with the loud students—that is, acquiescing to woke culture. The Silent Majority has, by their self censorship, become part of woke culture, which creates self-censorship. (My emphases in Handa’s excerpt below):
The true problem is this: Four years in college, battling for grades, for résumé enhancements and for the personal recommendations needed to enter the upper-middle-class—all of this produces incentives that favor self-censorship.
College campuses are different than in the Sixties, and students attend for different reasons. Young people today have less sex, less voting power and, for the first time, reduced expectations for the future. Back in the Sixties, campus activists were for free speech, and conservatives were skeptical; today, hardly anybody seems to consistently defend free speech. In 1960, 97% of students at Harvard were white, and almost all of them had places waiting in the upper class, regardless of whether they had even attended university. Today, fewer than 50% of Harvard students are white, tuition rates are 500% higher, and four years at an Ivy League college is one of the only ways to guarantee a place at the top of the meritocratic dog pile.
It would be strange if priorities at university had not changed. It would be even stranger if students had not changed as a result.
Elite education is increasingly a consumer product, which means that consumer demands—i.e. student demands—hold sway over administration actions. Yet most of those student demands are less a product of deeply understood theory than they are a product of imitation. Most students want to be well-liked, right-thinking, and spend their four years running on the treadmill that is a liberal education. Indeed, this drive for career success and social acquiescence are exactly the traits that the admissions process selects for. Even if only, say, 5% of students are deplatforming speakers and competing to be woker-than-thou, few among the remaining 95% would want to risk gaining a reputation as a bigot that could ruin their precious few years at college—and dog them on social media during job hunts and long after.
It seems to me that he does see a difference between the students of then and now. Yes, both are interested in conforming, but they conform to different values, and act in different ways. After all, they want to be “right thinking”, which means not ignoring the woke, but adopting the ideas of the woke. And that conformity extends into life beyond college, for Harvard students become pundits and New York Times writers. This means that intellectual culture will eventually conform to the woke mold, as it’s already been doing for some time.
In the end, Handa’s argument that we should pretty much ignore Woke culture as an aberration doesn’t hold water, for he himself makes the case that many Harvard students exercise their conformity by not fighting Woke culture, and even becoming “right-thinking”. After tacitly admitting that Wokeism is the wave of the future, which can’t be denied, he then reiterates that college Wokeism doesn’t matter. Nothing to see here folks except a war among elites, a passing fad:
The battle over wokeism is a civil war among elites, granting an easy way to signal virtue without having to do much. Meantime, the long-term issues confronting society—wage stagnation, social isolation, existential risk, demographic change, the decline of faith—are often overlooked in favor of this theater.
Wokeism does represent a few students’ true ideals. To a far greater number, it is an awkward, formulaic test. Sometimes, what might look to you like wild rebellion on campus might emanate from nothing more militant than old bourgeois values.
Perhaps Stalinism didn’t represent the ideas of every Russian, either, but by authoritarian means and suppression of dissent, all of Russia became Stalinist. The woke aren’t yet like Stalinists (though they are in statu nascendi), but even if they aren’t a majority of the young, the values of the Woke can, and will, become the dominant strain in American liberal culture. For it is the “elites” who control that culture. Even poor Joe Biden is being forced over to the woke Left because he’s being pushed by the woke people he appointed.
Michael Lind has what I think is a more thoughtful piece at Tablet, which lately has had some really good writing. (They’ve been doing good reporting for a while; remember when they exposed the anti-Semitism infecting the leaders of the Women’s March?). Lind is identified by Wikipedia as “an American writer and academic. He has explained and defended the tradition of American democratic nationalism in a number of books, beginning with The Next American Nation (1995). He is currently a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.”
Lind’s thesis, and I’ll be brief, is that the nature of American elitism has changed, and has become more woke. It used to be parochial, with each section of the country having its own criteria for belonging to the elite (i.e. attending the best regional rather than national colleges). Now, he says, we have a “single, increasingly homogeneous national oligarchy, with the same accent manners, values, and educational backgrounds from Boston to Austin and San Francisco to New York and Atlanta. He sees this as a significant social change: a “truly epochal development.”
Click on the screenshot to read his longer piece:
In some ways, avers Lind, society is more egalitarian than ever, and what he means by that is that there is less obvious bigotry or impediments to success for minorities. And he’s right:
Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias. As recently as the 1970s, an acquaintance of mine who worked for a major Northeastern bank had to disguise the fact of his Irish ancestry from the bank’s WASP partners. No longer. Elite banks and businesses are desperate to prove their commitment to diversity. At the moment Wall Street and Silicon Valley are disproportionately white and Asian American, but this reflects the relatively low socioeconomic status of many Black and Hispanic Americans, a status shared by the Scots Irish white poor in greater Appalachia (who are left out of “diversity and inclusion” efforts because of their “white privilege”). Immigrants from Africa and South America (as opposed to Mexico and Central America) tend to be from professional class backgrounds and to be better educated and more affluent than white Americans on average—which explains why Harvard uses rich African immigrants to meet its informal Black quota, although the purpose of affirmative action was supposed to be to help the American descendants of slaves (ADOS). According to Pew, the richest groups in the United States by religion are Episcopalian, Jewish, and Hindu (wealthy “seculars” may be disproportionately East Asian American, though the data on this point is not clear).
Membership in the multiracial, post-ethnic national overclass depends chiefly on graduation with a diploma—preferably a graduate or professional degree—from an Ivy League school or a selective state university, which makes the Ivy League the new social register. But a diploma from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university by itself is not sufficient for admission to the new national overclass. Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.
And that’s where Wokeness comes in. One has to have the right religion (not evangelical), dialect (not southern) and values (Woke ones!):
More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter. America’s working-class majority of all races pays far less attention than the elite to the media, and is highly unlikely to have a kid at Harvard or Yale to clue them in. And non-college-educated Americans spend very little time on Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which they are unlikely to be able to identify—which, among other things, proves the idiocy of the “Russiagate” theory that Vladimir Putin brainwashed white working-class Americans into voting for Trump by memes in social media which they are the least likely American voters to see.
Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent—a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters.
I think Lind is onto something here, though I’m not sure I agree 100%. This morning I had an “animated discussion” with a white friend who insisted that there was nothing wrong with using the word “Negro”. After all, he said, there’s the “United Negro College Fund.” And I said, “Yeah, and there’s also the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but you better not say ‘colored people’ instead of ‘people of color’!” In fact, the term “Negro” would be widely seen as racist now, though in the Sixties it wasn’t, and was used frequently by Dr. King, who almost never used the n-word in public. “Negro” was simply the going term for African-Americans then, but now it’s “people of color”, or, better yet, “BIPOCs. And that will change too”. “Gay” has now become a veritable alphabet of initials that always ends in a “+”. “Latinx” isn’t used by Hispanics, but by white people and the media. It’s an elitist thing, as Lind maintains.
But whether this terminology—and its need to constantly evolve, 1984-like—is a way of leveraging and solidifying cultural power, well, I’m not sure I agree. Weigh in below.