Culture

All the World’s a Campus

Signs at a protest against Trump administration immigration policy in New York City, June 19, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
When absolutely everything is political, it makes sense to harass your opponents while they eat.

One of the most exhilarating aspects of youth is that everything matters so deeply. Sign the petition to end racial injustice on the way to class! Make a stand for women’s rights on your lunch break! End the wars! Stop climate change! Take back the night!

One of the rewards of adulthood is leaving campus urgency behind. Non-epochal matters take up ever-increasing mindshare; you think less about social change and more about an oil change. Your moral temperature can’t stay at 105 degrees forever. It’s exhausting. Leaving behind the fever of outrage brings cool relief.

Granting that the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., has, or at least ought to have, the right to refuse service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders or anyone else, her actions represent another dispiriting step toward the campus-ization of America. Every action, no matter how routine, must be subjected to the undergraduate activist’s calculus: Is this political? Can it be made political? If so, how do I announce to my friends that I’m on the proper side?

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was subjected to the collegiate dopey-chants treatment twice. First, a gang of young socialists interrupted her meal at the Mexican eatery MXDC Cocina Mexicana in Washington on Tuesday, driving her out of the restaurant with cries of “No borders, no walls, sanctuary for all,” then another gang of left-wing protesters descended on her townhouse early Friday morning to chant “No justice, no sleep” as she was inside, possibly still abed.

If you wondered whether the delirious encouragement that greeted these acts on the left would further expand the field of those targeted for harassment, your suspicions were confirmed within two days, when Representative Maxine Waters of California urged her fellow Democrats: “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” So, create a permanent traveling protest circus around even those members of the cabinet who have nothing to do with immigration policy? Watch out, Elaine Chao and Sonny Perdue.

We’ve taken a big step backwards in our emotional maturity when we not only can’t break bread with people from the other side of the ideological divide, but we can’t even stand to see such people breaking bread across the room, and we have to tell them so. Tomi Lahren got a glass of water thrown in her face at brunch in Minneapolis, and the online mobs cheered.

The gesture matters so much more than the proposed path to a solution that the latter is rendered practically invisible in the clamor.

The essence of the campus-activist mindset is putting on a show, luxuriating in the possibility of being seen. The gesture matters so much more than the proposed path to a solution that the latter is rendered practically invisible in the clamor. Did you know there is exploitation of grape pickers in California? Come to our vigil around the quad tonight, our three-hour demonstration will surely alter things! The sriracha socialists at the D.C. restaurant and the sleepocidal avengers at Nielsen’s townhouse Friday morning and the giver of the red card at the Red Hen Friday night surely could not have believed that their actions would cause a change of immigration policy by the Trump administration. Indeed, the policy that was the proximate cause of all the hubbub had already been changed before the latter two displays took place.

If such bursts of activism are meant to rally the republic against the Republicans this fall, they seem to be having the opposite effect. Even (most of) those who disagree with Trump’s rhetoric and policies about illegal immigration would concede that Sanders and Nielsen should be able to have a restaurant meal in peace. When you’ve gotten to the point where you and your pals are ganging up to hector a woman (Florida attorney general Pam Bondi) as she’s leaving a movie about Mr. Rogers, you’ve turned over brain function to your adolescent impulses. Politics is about winning over persuadable voters, not alienating them by being jerks.

But “You’re acting like a jerk” is a rejoinder campus protesters never hear from their betters. It’s a characteristic of the campus-style agitators that they prove unable to perceive how they look to others. As they swarm the intersection they think, “I’m so daring and cool!” The drivers to whose evening commute they add 90 minutes’ delay are thinking, “These yutzes are going to make me miss my daughter’s recital.” “I’m so selfless!” think the protesters, fantasizing about the four hours in lockup that await them after their arrest. “They’re so selfish,” think the people whose daily routines they upend.

Leaving the campus mindset behind typically brings with it more humility about ourselves, more dispassion about how useful it is to the discourse to participate in a public display of contempt. But living in the Trump era is causing Americans to regress, turning the country into a campus populated with solipsistic, rageful kidults. Steering the country away from Trump’s policies will require winning elections, not throwing public tantrums.

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