The Corner

Yale & Missouri: Power Play

The Spectator’s Ed West peers behind the curtain to look at what is driving the current dramas at the University of Missouri and at Yale. He wouldn’t claim that he is trying to explain everything (and I’d add what should not need adding: not all grievances are unwarranted), but he raises an interesting angle or two, not least this, which is often repeated and often (it seems) forgotten.

It’s about power

People wonder how one of the most high-ranking universities in the world can be embarrassed by an argument over adults wearing fancy dress, but that is exactly the point; if the row was over something that mattered, there could be little kudos in winning it. This is about displaying power.

Indeed it is. Lenin, no fool when it came to this sort of thing, claimed that politics was could essentially be reduced to the question “who, whom?”, to politics as a brutal zero-sum game. Someone one has to win, and someone has to lose. And winning in the universities matters. These students are the judges, the legislators, the bureaucrats and (giving the ratchet another twist) the teachers of tomorrow.

And it’s about status

Students have always supported daft political ideas, largely because these ideas are seen as attractive, sexy and high-status.

And it’s about responding to incentives

[If] students, and people in wider society, are rewarded for seeing injustice and slights everywhere, then they will see them everywhere. If people who cause disturbances in institutions over trivial or contrived reasons are rewarded – with the resignation of a senior staff member, for instance – rather than discouraged, then more people will do it…..Part of the problem with the American – and British – left is that the previous generation has built a system of grievance-based politics which strongly incentivises younger members to try to outflank them with ever more extreme demands.

That last is very true, but we should not overlook the curious appeal, visible in so many sects or, for that matter, political movements, of the chase for an ever-elusive, ever more exquisitely defined purity. The struggle against sin—and thus sinners—is never complete and, of course, is a source of power in its own right.  

But read the whole thing. 


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