Where were we? I’ve given a talk here at the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College. A talk about politics on campus. I think campus is often the wrong place for politics. There will be time enough for politics later. Politics should not be allowed to pervade, and poison, campus life. Too many of our campuses are warped by politics.
In the Q&A, students disagree with me. (There are not a lot of questions in the Q&A, by the way.) They say that politics is part and parcel of campus life, and of themselves. “Who I am is political,” says one young man.
Many of these kids are political from the hair on their head to the nails on their toes. Music, food, sports — everything is political to them. Politics belongs everywhere.
This message, I understand, even if I don’t agree with it. I also understand that some students feel they are forced to be political, because they’re gay, for example, and must fight for gay marriage, etc.
At least, I think I’ve heard that. It’s hard to be sure. The student who is manning the microphone nods vigorously when her fellow students speak. She clearly understands them, and, even more clearly, agrees.
I listen very carefully. And I understand each English word separately. But I don’t understand them when they are strung together, by those commenting. Frankly, even some of the individual words I don’t understand: like “positionality.”
One student tells me I think the way I do because of my “positionality.” I think she means that my sex, race, and so on determine how I think.
That’s interesting: I’m a white man from Michigan. So is Michael Moore, the leftist documentarian. He and I think very differently.
Seldom am I at a loss for words. In fact, I am all too glib. But I find myself painfully speechless. I can’t answer some of the kids because I really don’t understand them — much as I wish I did. I’m a flopperoo.
One thing occurs to me, as I listen: I think people have taught some of these students that they are oppressed. Therefore, they feel oppressed. I wish they could meet people who suffer real oppression. Millions around the world would trade places with them in a heartbeat.
It also occurs to me that students spend way too much time thinking about themselves. Of course, people in general do, including me: I have chastised myself for it from time to time. I’m afraid that students are encouraged to gaze at their own navels. They would be far better off if they could cast their gaze outward.
There are simply people who want to be political, 24/7, all the year round. I’ve met plenty of them. There’s nothing you can do to stop them. Politics, for them, is like oxygen. I’ve also met plenty of people under dictatorship who are forced to be political. They would dearly like to lead a normal life — to tend their garden, so to speak. But oppressors have forced them into dissidence.
Also, I’ve discovered this: Many people are attached to what they regard as their identity — an identity of a political, even a tribal, nature. I touched on this phenomenon in a recent essay (here). I realize this is not a news flash: People are tribal. Duh. It’s just that America is less exempt than I once thought it was.
Why is America swimming in identity politics? Because so many people want it. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have it.
The older I get, the more I realize that the liberal spirit is relatively rare. A universalist spirit is relatively rare. I find this on left and right. People cling to their tribes, their skin colors, their ethnicities, what have you. Go team go. E pluribus unum may be our motto, but a great many people in America reject it, I can tell you.
I never believed it before. I have come to believe it.
You could write a book — or at least a long and interesting scholarly essay — called “Balkanization by Choice.” That’s a lousy choice, in my book. But who’s asked me?
I must say, I leave the Athenaeum in a spirit of defeat. Seldom have I found an experience with students so demoralizing.
‐As before — many times before — I burn at the people who have taught our young. Or mistaught them. (You can say that our “culture” at large, as well as individual teachers, does the teaching.) Oscar Hammerstein has an ever-useful lyric: “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s in his song about racism, from South Pacific. People don’t emerge from the womb thinking this baloney. They are fed it, they are taught it.
Someone brews the Kool-Aid, which others then drink.
This identity-politics gibberish that so many students speak: They weren’t born speaking it, any more than they were born speaking English, Spanish, or Chinese. Someone taught it to them, and thereby did them a huge disservice.
‐Speaking of strange tongues: At Claremont, you may be asked for your pronouns. For example, you may not be “he” and “him.” You may prefer “zer” and “erp.”
Also, they have an “Identity Series” here at Claremont — “designed to empower students with marginalized identities.”
Listen: If this sort of thing has reached Claremont, where has it not reached? Bennington, Reed, or Oberlin, you might understand. But Claremont? Home of the Claremont Institute? These stomping grounds of Harry Jaffa and other greats?
I consider Claremont la crème de la crème. And if Claremont is doing pronouns and all that — it’s lights out. La commedia è finita, or so I am tempted to think. Last call in the saloon of Western civilization has been called.
But I’m probably just having a gloomy moment …
‐Help me think about something, please: I’m sure that, in every era, older people think that young people live on a different planet. Fogeys have always been befuddled. Young people have always rolled their eyes at older people.
But let me ask you: Is there something different about now? Or do older people in every era say, “Yes, there is something different about now!”?
‐I also have this thought: What if I were a student on campus today? I’m afraid I wouldn’t last a week. I’m too mouthy, too free. Practically every word out of my mouth would be subject to disciplinary action. I’d forget a pronoun here or there — and I’d be toast.
‐The morning after my talk at the Athenaeum, I wake up to a long letter from a student, sent in the wee hours. This is a heartrending and infuriating letter. He tells what it’s like to be a conservative on campus: constantly afraid, or constantly put down. It’s especially hard to be a “person of color” when you’re not toeing the line.
Can you imagine the pressure?
The student says that even to be associated with the likes of me — even to be seen talking with the likes of me — may have a negative effect. He talks of being an “untouchable” on campus.
I am aghast. I barely have the words (again).
‐Claremont neighborhoods are lined with trees, and, on one tree, someone has tacked a sign: “Head Up, Shoulders Back.” That’s a nice reminder, and admonition.
‐The garbage truck has a mechanical arm, picking up bins designed to go with the arm. A human being is driving the truck. But he seems to be the only one necessary.
Is this a good thing, a great technological and human advance? Or is it a bad thing, leading to greater unemployment, narrowing people’s options? I suppose people have debated this kind of thing since the Industrial Revolution, if not before.
Pretty soon, we won’t have any truck drivers, will we? What will they do instead? Will the invisible hand provide? Will the invisible hand be allowed to provide, or hindered by government?
To be continued …
‐Yesterday, I met a student who spent a year in Marrakech. I said, “They have the best orange juice in the world, don’t they?” She agreed. And they do. Why, I don’t know. But they do.
Well, I must say, here in Claremont, the orange juice — fresh-squeezed — isn’t too bad either.
Okay, we’ll move on to Fullerton. Thanks for joining me, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll see you tomorrow, when we wrap up.
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.