James Kirchik writes,
Of the 100 or so students who confronted [Nicholas] Christakis that day, a young woman who called him “disgusting” and shouted “who the fuck hired you?” before storming off in tears became the most infamous, thanks to an 81-second YouTube clip that went viral. (The video also — thanks to its promotion by various right-wing websites — brought this student a torrent of anonymous harassment). The videos that Tablet exclusively posted last year, which showed a further 25 minutes of what was ultimately an hours-long confrontation, depicted a procession of students berating Christakis. In one clip, a male student strides up to Christakis and, standing mere inches from his face, orders the professor to “look at me.” Assuming this position of physical intimidation, the student then proceeds to declare that Christakis is incapable of understanding what he and his classmates are feeling because Christakis is white, and, ipso facto, cannot be a victim of racism. In another clip, a female student accuses Christakis of “strip[ping] people of their humanity” and “creat[ing] a space for violence to happen,” a line later mocked in an episode of The Simpsons. In the videos, Howard, the dean who wrote the costume provisions, can be seen lurking along the periphery of the mob.
Of Yale’s graduating class, it was these two students whom the Nakanishi Prize selection committee deemed most deserving of a prize for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” on campus. Hectoring bullies quick to throw baseless accusations of racism or worse; cosseted brats unscrupulous in their determination to smear the reputations of good people, these individuals in actuality represent the antithesis of everything this award is intended to honor. Yet, in the citation that was read to all the graduating seniors and their families on Class Day, Yale praised the latter student as “a fierce truthteller.”
Let's look at these episodes at Yale in relation to something that happened at Cornell nearly fifty years ago. Paul A. Rahe was an undergraduate at Cornell then, and tells the story:
At dawn on April 18, 1969 — the Saturday of Parents’ Weekend and the day after the student conduct tribunal issued a reprimand (as minor a penalty as was available) to those who had engaged in the “toy-gun spree” — a group of black students, brandishing crowbars, seized control of the student union (Willard Straight Hall), rudely awakened parents sleeping in the guest rooms upstairs, used the crowbars to force open the doors, and ejected them from the union.
Later that day, they brought at least one rifle with a telescopic sight into the building. On Sunday afternoon, the administration agreed to press neither civil nor criminal charges and not to take any other measures to punish those who had occupied Willard Straight Hall, to provide legal assistance to anyone who faced civil charges arising from the occupation, and to recommend that the faculty vote to nullify the reprimands issued to those who had engaged in the “toy-gun spree.” Upon hearing that this agreement had been reached, 110 black students marched out of Willard Straight Hall in military formation to celebrate their victory, carrying more than seventeen rifles and bands of ammunition.
The next day, when the faculty balked and stopped short of accepting the administration’s recommendation, one AAS leader went on the campus radio and threatened to “deal with” three political science professors and three administrators, whom he singled out by name, “as we will deal with all racists.” Finally, on Wednesday, April 23, the faculty met at a special meeting and capitulated to the demands of the AAS, rescinding the reprimand issued by the student conduct tribunal and calling for a restructuring of the university.
At the very least, the Cornell story should give us some context for thinking about what happened at Yale last year. More generally, we should remember that the ceaseless hyperventilation of social media tends to make us think that American culture today is going through a unique process of dissolution. Rick Perlstein is one of my least favorite historians, but he does well to set us straight on that:
“The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason — many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.
Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years — even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.
In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.
Let's pause for a moment to think about that: More than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in two years.
So, is the country disintegrating? In comparison with the Nixon years: No. Not even with Donald Ivanka Kushner Trump in charge. Which is not to say that it couldn't happen, only that it hasn't yet happened, and if we want to avoid further damage we would do well to study the history of fifty years ago with close attention. For the national wounds that were opened in the Sixties may have scabbed over from time to time in the decades since, but they have never healed.
And in relation specifically to the university, we might ask some questions:
- How significant is it that most of the people running our universities today were undergraduates when things like the Cornell crisis happened?
- If it is significant, what is the significance?
- To what extent are the social conflicts that plague some universities today continuations of the conflicts that plagued them fifty years ago?
- If universities today seem, to many critics, to have lost their commitment to free speech and reasoned disagreement, have they abandoned those principles any more completely they did at the height of those earlier student protests?
- What happened in the intervening decades? Did universities recover their core commitments wholly, or partially, or not at all?
- How widespread are protests (and the "coddling" of protestors) today in comparison to that earlier era?
- What needs to be fixed in our universities?
- Are universities that have gone down this particular path — praising and celebrating students who confront, berate, and in some cases threaten faculty — fixable? (A question only for those who think such behavior is a bug rather than a feature.)
Vital questions all, I think; but not ones that can be answered in ignorance of the relevant history.