“Remember all those commentators and journalists who smugly informed us that the Woke craziness and suppression of campus speech was being overhyped and it was just a few overzealous students? They’ll never admit they’re wrong. But they were very, very wrong.”
— Shadi Hamid
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE N ew York Times staffers reacted with fury to the paper’s decision last week to run Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for the president to invoke the Insurrection Act to quell rioting and looting in major cities. Ostensibly the reason for the outrage was that “running this puts Black @nytimes staffers in danger,” a message tweeted out by dozens of Times employees. (The Times didn’t take long to capitulate: An editor’s note has been added to the piece saying that it “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”)
Bari Weiss, a Times writer and editor, called the staffer rebellion a “civil war inside The New York Times between the (mostly young) wokes and the (mostly 40+).”
“I’ve been mocked by many people over the past few years for writing about the campus culture wars,” Weiss wrote on Twitter. “But this was always why it mattered: The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them.”
That transformation has become apparent over the past week. The controversy at the Times points to the rise within American institutions of what Michael Lind has termed “the children of the overclass.” These are a cohort of mostly white young adults whose family incomes vary but whose parents are among the one-third of Americans with a college or graduate degree. After graduating from college themselves, they move on to jobs in corporate management, tech, academic teaching or research, non-profits, the media, and other elite institutions. If they’re less lucky, they work at unpaid internships or in coffee shops.
This description pretty well fits the student body at my alma mater, Oberlin College. The Times controversy has, if you will, “triggered” memories of my experience there.
I came to Oberlin as a viola student in the school’s conservatory. While college freshmen rarely have fully formed political opinions, I leaned conservative and was warned that Oberlin was among the more left-wing schools in the U.S. I figured that, since I was a conservatory student, I would be relatively insulated from any radical shenanigans. As it turned out, being in the conservatory didn’t insulate me from having to do things like introduce myself with my “preferred gender pronouns.”
In any case, I switched my major to classics midway through my sophomore year. At the same time, I found myself several times in meetings of the venerable Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians, most of whose members were libertarians. Although I didn’t continue attending meetings in my later years at the school, I was around when OCRL invited John Bolton to speak on campus.
“The only emotion [Bolton] appealed to in the crowd was fear, although [that] is generally representative of the politics of the far right,” one student told the Oberlin Review of the speech. In the days following Bolton’s appearance, I attended a session of the Oberlin College Dialogue Center — which practices the “social justice model of mediation” — convened by concerned students and a politics professor to voice their disapproval of inviting Bolton at all. The same reluctance to even provide a forum for a public official to share his views was evident this week in the Times employees’ efforts to effectively de-platform a U.S. senator. “It’s important to understand what the people around the president are thinking,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in a Times column last week titled “Tom Cotton’s Fascist Op-Ed.” “But if they’re honest about what they’re thinking, it’s usually too disgusting to engage with.”
Back at Oberlin, there was the time when the student body was convulsed by the reported sighting of a Ku Klux Klan member walking the campus. (It was really just someone wrapped in a blanket.) College administrators and students held a campus-wide town hall on racism, during which several minority students told the majority white audience that they felt discriminated against. A large segment of the student body genuinely believed that something racist was afoot. An activist group of students pushed for “institutional change with an eye toward social justice, diversity and inclusion,” as a Review article put it. Those “institutional changes” included proposals to divest from fracking and boycott Israel, to raise general tuition to cover the cost of scholarships for illegal immigrants, and to establish more “diversity” offices on campus.
One thing these proposals have in common is that they would be useless or harmful if implemented. It is unclear how much effect Oberlin’s divestment from fracking would have, but if put in place on a large scale, fracking bans would generally carry disastrous consequences for American workers. An Oberlin boycott of Israel would be patently ridiculous. Oberlin’s already extensive diversity offices have not made the student body notably diverse: 70 percent of current Oberlin students are white, and only 5 percent are African American. (Are students who complain of racism at Oberlin on to something? Why aren’t there more African Americans studying at the first college in the U.S. to admit black students?) Finally, an increase in tuition would probably drive more students away from the college. No matter how enthusiastically the activists believed in their own proposals, in the end they amounted to virtue-signaling.
What happens when a progressive student mob is able to apply its “virtues” to real-world situations? In November 2016, Allyn Gibson, a white worker at his family’s eponymous store in Oberlin, caught a black student shoplifting and attempted to wrestle the student to the ground after the student ran out of the store with bottles of wine. (Full disclosure: I was personally acquainted with Gibson through a jujitsu class.) My former professor Abe Socher chronicled the fallout in Commentary: Students demonstrated outside Gibson’s for days afterward, calling for a boycott of the store. College administrators encouraged the demonstrations and cancelled Oberlin’s daily order of baked goods from Gibson’s, a major source of the store’s business. In August 2017, the student at the center of the episode pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges including attempted theft.
The incident was of course not solely about “racism”: It was a college-versus-townie struggle pitting an elite institution with a large endowment against a small business owned by a working-class family. Last summer a jury ruled that Oberlin owed millions of dollars in damages to the Gibson family for libeling them as racists. The college then filed an appeal, claiming that compensating the Gibson family for libel and emotional distress would infringe upon “free speech” rights on college campuses. The case is ongoing.
All across the country, graduates of elite colleges with monolithic progressive politics — such as the one I attended — have finally grown up. The progressive children of the overclass have found their professional footing and brought their “Oberlin mentality” into the workplace. Unfortunately, that mentality has spread far beyond the Times. The “trigger” was the death of George Floyd, killed by a police officer during his arrest. Floyd deserves to be remembered as a victim, even a symbol, of police brutality. He also deserves better than to be remembered in bouts of virtue-signaling by countless corporations, nonprofit institutions, and ordinary Americans.
Corporations and other institutions seem to be combining such gestures with some actions that could actually do some good. LEGO, for example, is donating millions of dollars to charities and nonprofits that focus on helping disadvantaged African Americans. At the same time, however, LEGO has announced it will stop advertising for LEGO sets that include any figures related to police or the White House, but without taking those sets off store shelves. This insults the intelligence of the children for whom LEGO sets are made, not to mention that of police officers and anti-police activists simultaneously.
“We commit ourselves to confronting the reality of racism in our country and pledge to expand our previous efforts to confront implicit biases, to practice deep listening, and to hold ourselves accountable,” one arts institution wrote in a mass email, in language that could have been written by an Oberlin sophomore. Forgive my skepticism, but it’s hard to believe that saying this will advance the cause of oppressed African Americans any more than similar initiatives undertaken at my alma mater did. They are empty words, window dressing, and while management may believe in this message, nothing is likely to come of it. The institution has promised to “invest in the creation and presentation of new works by Black and Brown artists.” Maybe that initiative will have real impact, although given that audience members are likely to hold “anti-racist” views themselves, this could turn into a case of preaching to the choir.
Then there are the actions of white demonstrators at George Floyd rallies. I’m sorry to break it to these poor souls, but holding a Great Awakening–style renunciation of “white privilege” will neither wash away their sins nor improve the lot of black people in the U.S. It is more empty virtue-signaling; apparently we’re all Obies now.
And what if one were to actually carry out the central policy change demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement and so many of the Oberlin clones in the media, namely, to defund the police? Leave aside for a moment the classism — yes, classism — that this attitude betrays: Will local and state governments really implement such a policy? Do ordinary Americans believe that getting rid of their police forces will produce beneficial results, let alone “end racism”?
“I’m sorry, but ‘abolish the police’ seems like a poorly-thought-out idea that’s gotten popular with shocking speed,” progressive Vox writer Zack Beauchamp wrote on Twitter. The mob got to him too: The original tweet “was far too dismissive and then I — ironically—complained about condescending replies,” he later said. “We all send bad tweets sometimes. This was one of mine.”
It’s difficult to watch the Oberlinization of the media. Before my graduation, I decided that once I left Oberlin I would have an experience that would be the “opposite” of what I had seen during my time at the college. With that in mind, I embarked on a year and a half of non-combat service in the Israel Defense Forces. Now having returned to the United States, it’s rather dispiriting to see that the woke mobs I left behind halfway around the world have spread into the American mainstream.
If the “young wokes” can pressure the New York Times from within, what of the rest of America’s mainstream media organizations? Even more incredible is the speed with which other institutions have adopted the language and “virtues” of Oberlin students. No doubt most of the organizations supporting, and people joining, the George Floyd protests are well intentioned (though it is hard to believe the protests would be so widespread if people had not felt the need to break out of coronavirus-induced lockdown). One hopes that after this episode the Obies of America will be able to implement policies that genuinely improve the lot of African Americans, instead of just organizing themselves into woke mobs to attack political opponents. But they haven’t given us much reason to think so.