….Anyway, Paul Auster–who “was not a violent person” at the time–was, instead, “a quiet, bookish young man, struggling to teach myself how to become a writer, immersed in my courses in literature and philosophy at Columbia.” But when Columbia announced plans to build its new gym with a separate entrance for the general public–”the . . . plan was deemed to be both unjust and racist”–the quiet, bookish, nonviolent Paul Auster was suddenly transformed into somebody “crazy, crazy with the poison of Vietnam in my lungs.”
So crazy, in fact, that he joined his fellow undergraduates in sudden, violent protest, not so much against the gym but “to vent their craziness, to lash out at something, anything, and since we were all students at Columbia, why not throw bricks at Columbia, since it was engaged in lucrative research projects for military contractors and thus was contributing to the war effort in Vietnam?”
Readers with long memories will recall the spectacle of Columbia undergraduates–children of privilege enrolled at a distinguished Ivy League institution founded when New York was still a British colony–invading classrooms and administrative offices, manhandling deans, professors, and fellow students, stealing and destroying books and documents, vandalizing chambers devoted to learning, roaming corridors in search of fodder to burn. The Columbia strike of 1968 made a temporary celebrity of a student named Mark Rudd, and publicized the episode’s emblematic slogan: “Up against the wall, motherf–r!”
It also unleashed something instructive in Paul Auster:
Speech followed tempestuous speech, the enraged crowd roared with approval, and then someone suggested that we all go to the construction site and tear down the chain-link fence. . . . The crowd thought that was an excellent idea, and so off it went, a throng of crazy, shouting students charging off the Columbia campus toward Morningside Park. Much to my astonishment, I was with them. What had happened to the gentle boy who planned to spend the rest of his life sitting alone in a room writing books? He was helping to tear down the fence. He tugged and pulled and pushed along with several dozen -others and, truth be told, found much satisfaction in this crazy, destructive act.
One of the great parlor games of modern scholarship is pondering how the German people–citizens of the land of Bach, Kant, and Goethe–could find themselves marching in step behind Adolf Hitler. Well, Paul Auster and his Boomer companions at Columbia offer a clue. Here is as plain and startling a description of the mob mentality–together with the attendant hysteria and romanticized violence–as you are likely to find in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, nicely camouflaged in the language of nostalgia and social protest.
If, in this presidential election year, anyone wonders how the political left grew estranged from the American mainstream, yielding the politics of the past four decades, they need only read Paul Auster’s tribute to the Columbia strike, written “alone in this room with a pen in my hand” as “I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.”