Today’s student activists, we’re told, compare poorly to their predecessors from generations past. The activists of the the civil rights movement and student movement of the sixties, we’re told, would be embarrassed at the childishness, the petulance, the censoriousness of today’s campus organizers.

The following book excerpt, from William D. Workman’s The Case for the South (1960), suggests otherwise.

Its author, a white conservative from South Carolina, would become one of the earliest high-profile members of the Republican Party in that state, running as the GOP’s candidate for the United States Senate in 1962 on a platform that declared the party “the best hope, and perhaps the last hope, of stemming the liberal tide which has been sweeping the United States toward the murky depths of socialism.”

Here’s Workman writing in 1960 about a civil rights protest from six years earlier:

A mural depicting an early-day Charleston port scene, with Negro slaves at work about the South Carolina port, was ordered removed from an army cafeteria in Washington in March of 1954. Maj. Gen. L. K. Hastings, the quartermaster general, ordered the mural cut out because he was convinced that the painting was a potential powder keg which could increase racial tension. A number of Negroes at the installation thought the mural inoffensive, but others complained that it had prompted white workers to make derogatory remarks about Negroes.

Then, as would be expected, the District of Columbia unit of the NAACP urged removal of the mural because the slave picture reflects on race and color of Negroes, thus encouraging anti-Negro sentiment. At first blush, this business of commercial, literary, and musical censorship seems only the foolish petulance of a hyper-sensitive and inferiority-complexioned racial group which is chagrined over its own characteristic color. On second look, the practice begins to take on a more ominous outlook, something in the nature of the distortions so terrifyingly portrayed in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Petty complaints about racial insensitivity. Petulant whiners who don’t speak for their peers attempting to bend the larger society to their whims. Unserious people who must nonetheless be taken seriously, because their embrace of censorship represents an abandonment of shared values of tolerance that constitutes the first step on the road to a terrifying Orwellian future.

Any of that sound familiar?

Update | I said a little more about this on Twitter just now. Here’s a lightly edited version of that rant:

I’ve been meaning to for a while to do a search for vintage criticisms of 1960s movements that echoed today’s criticisms of campus activists, and this passage popped up practically as soon as I sat down on the keyboard. It was the third hit on a Google Books search for “negro” and “petulant” time limited to 1960 through 1962 — the second search I tried.

And while the language in the passage is pretty mind-blowing, the resonances with today don’t end there.

Look at what Workman is complaining about. The cafeteria mural is public speech that activists object to as racist on what he considers flimsy grounds. The activists appealed to a higher authority to remove the speech they find offensive instead of engaging with their adversaries in the marketplace of ideas. The authority complied for fear of lighting a match to a tense racial environment. Suppressing the speech wasn’t literally censorship, but the folks removing it were clearly motivated by censoring impulses. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, he admits, but it’s the precedent that should scare us—in acceding to these demands we’re sacrificing liberal values to the mob.

We’ve all read this argument a dozen times since spring.

And here’s where I bend over backwards to grant the reasonable premises of folks I disagree with.

Yes, some activists in this movement, as in any movement, are wrongheaded. Yes, we’ve recently seen actual impulses to actually censor people. That’s not a good thing. But the claims of such impulses and acts have far outstripped the reality.

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from criticism. It isn’t freedom from anger. It isn’t freedom from pushback. It isn’t even freedom from someone telling you to shut up or trying to get you fired.

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from having someone decide to take a mural down because it’s racist, and if you go around calling people who go through channels to take down racist murals “Orwellian,” you’re not actually a supporter of free speech. And if your fear of slippery slopes leads you to abandon antiracist organizing projects the minute things get heated? Well, that’s on you, not them. That’s not them abandoning liberal values, that’s you abandoning an antiracist movement.

If you want to nudge some campus activists to think about speech rights in a different way, that’s awesome. I do too. Many activists do too. But apocalyptic slippery-slope rhetoric—rhetoric that attacks people engaging in legitimate speech acts that you happen to find uncomfortable as opponents of free expression? That kind of rhetoric serves neither the cause of antiracism nor the cause of free speech.

It puts you on the wrong side of both questions.

Last month, as you’re no doubt aware, a group of activists at Wesleyan University launched a series of protests against the college’s student newspaper, the Wesleyan Argus.

The Argus recently ran an op-ed that clumsily, and in some respects obnoxiously, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. This wasn’t the only source of friction between the paper and activist students of color on campus, but it was the most recent, and the most intense. It sparked a variety of actions and statements, but the one that got everyone’s attention was, of all things, a petition.

The petition demanded a number of reforms to Argus policies, and called for retaliation should those demands not be met. That proposed retaliation was to take two forms: The defunding of the Argus by the student government and a boycott of the paper defined (in somewhat oblique language) as dumping bundles of the offending edition in recycling bins.

This call for action quickly drowned out discussion of the activists’ substantive criticisms of the paper. The petition became the newest poster child for the climate of censorship and intolerance that supposedly exists on American college campuses, and the story swept the national press and opinion pages. (All this despite the fact that the petition was signed by something like five percent of the Wesleyan student body, the fact that the student government had taken no action to defund the paper, the fact that there was little evidence of large-scale recycling of the paper, and the fact that the Argus staff apparently agreed with at least some of the petitioners’ criticisms.)

The story was everywhere for a few days, and then it pretty much disappeared until last night. That’s when a journalist who had covered the story in its first iteration tweeted this:

This struck me as bad news, and I said so — student newspapers require editorial independence to function, and their budgets should not depend on whether the student government agrees with the stories they print. But then, about half an hour later, the WSA, Wesleyan’s student government, tweeted this:

So what’s the deal? Has the Argus been subjected to retaliatiatory defunding, or not?

A full answer to that question is going to take a little while to unpack, but the short version is this:


Here’s the long version…

One of the issues that critics of the Argus have raised is that of the lack of diversity on the paper’s writing staff. The original petition called for new efforts at recruitment and retention of writers of color to address that problem, and also called on the Argus to create new paid positions for writers and editors, who currently work on a volunteer basis. It’s hard to attract and keep good writers if you don’t pay them, particularly if the people you’re targeting are struggling financially, as many students of color do.

In aid of this goal, some students at Wesleyan put together what they called a “people over paper” restructuring proposal for the Argus and other campus publications. The plan, an ambitious and serious-minded one — it has its own earnest and comprehensive website — boils down to this:

  • Twenty new stipended writing and editing positions would be established by the WSA to support campus publications. (The proposal envisions that as many as fourteen of these positions could go to the Argus.)
  • An additional $2000 in WSA funding would be set aside for Facebook ads designed to boost online readership. (As much as $1600 of this money could go to the Argus.)
  • Only publications that appear at least once a week would be eligible to receive the stipends and the ad money. The money would be allocated on the basis of student support for the publications, calculated via online readership figures and a student vote.
  • The cost of the new stipends and advertising, pegged at $17,000 a year, would be paid by reducing the Argus print run. If the Argus emerged as the most popular publication on campus via the two funding metrics, some $12,100 of that $17,000 would return to the paper — with the money going overwhelmingly to paying writers and editors instead of printing paper copies of the newspaper.
  • New opportunities for establishing independent study possibilities granting academic credit to publication staff would be pursued.
  • Monitors streaming publication content will be placed around campus.

That’s the proposal that’s been floating around. Apparently it’s been the subject of a lot of discussion and revision — the version on the website as I write this is described as its fourth draft, published just this last weekend.

So is that what the WSA voted on last night? Not quite.

What the WSA approved yesterday was a resolution in support of the proposal, not the proposal itself. That resolution endorses the non-budgetary elements of the proposal — the stipends, the Facebook ads, the independent study plan, and the monitors — while launching a period of “study and debate” regarding the plan to fund the reforms through cutting the Argus print run, with that process to be completed by Fall 2016.

The resolution — which, again, does not cut funding to the Argus, and could lead to an increase in WSA funding for the paper if an alternate funding model is adopted — passed by a vote of twenty-seven to zero, with four abstentions.

This is not, in short, the apocalypse suggested by the earliest reports. Neither does it appear, on its surface, to be the opening salvo in a WSA war against the paper. But the Argus is not happy.

Three days ago the Argus ran a lengthy editorial, signed by the paper’s two editors in chief, denouncing an earlier version of the WSA plan. In it, the editors called the proposal “half-conceived” and “ineffective.” Their complaints took several forms.

First, they note that printing costs for a paper like the Argus do not rise and fall smoothly with the size of its print run. Instead, printing each issue carries a high fixed cost — reducing their circulation from 1000 copies an issue to 600 would, for instance, cut printing costs by far less than ten percent.

Second, they point out that while the Argus does not currently pay writers and editors, they do offer paid positions to nine students on their production staff. If their printing schedule and advertising revenue declined under the current plan, those positions could lose their revenue source — and, in some cases, their reason for existing.

Third, they argue that the stipends proposed for writers under the proposal would fund staff writers at a far lower number of hours per week than the paper’s editors currently work, creating an impediment, rather than a pathway, to such writers taking on leadership roles at the paper.

Finally, they suggest that the planned publication support metrics, particularly the student vote, ignore the fundamental differences between the financial needs of different kinds of publications.

That’s where the story stands as of this morning. My take is this:

The WSA proposal has weaknesses. It is unclear how the print revenue aspect would work — a fact they appear to acknowledge in deferring that aspect of the plan until Fall 2016. The student vote on publication support seems likely to lead to a mismatch between publications’ needs and their resources, and has the potential to facilitate reprisals against any publication that incurs student anger. The question the Argus raises about the disconnect between writers and editors in the stipends is a serious one.

At the same time, however, the plan is an attempt to grapple with a real problem — the distortions in staffing that arise from an all-volunteer editorial staff — that the Argus’s current setup has no way of dealing with. It does not appear to be a subterranean attempt to defund the paper, much less a targeted attack on the Argus’s editorial freedom. Rather, it seems like a solid, genuine attempt to grapple with the vital issues raised by last month’s protests while addressing the civil libertarian arguments made against the original petition.

Last night’s WSA vote is, in short, a start. It’s the beginning of a discussion, the beginning of planning for reform. It’s a serious, thoughtful effort to move forward, and if it continues in the spirit in which it was launched, it has the potential to bring real positive change to the campus.

Which is, of course, why it will get only a tiny fraction of the national attention that last month’s events received.

Tuesday Update | Last night the Argus published a response to the WSA vote. Though that response at times characterizes the resolution in ways that don’t seem justified by the text, it does point out something I missed in my original piece — that an essay written in support of the WSA proposal specifically envisions cutting back not just the size of the Argus print run, but its frequency, suggesting that the paper could shift from twice a week to weekly, print “only special edition issues,” or eliminate the printed paper altogether.

The Argus identifies itself as the country’s oldest surviving twice-weekly student newspaper, and cutting its print publication schedule by half or more would be a profound change, one whose implications for the paper’s readership and campus influence would not be easy to predict. It is not a change to be made lightly, and the WSA’s decision to defer action on the proposal until it can be more fully discussed and debated was wise.

Another aspect of the current situation highlighted in the Argus story is the fact that publication funding is not a zero-sum game. As the paper points out, the Wesleyan undergraduate activity fee — the source of the funds in question — is currently $270 a year. With a total undergraduate enrollment of about three thousand students, that’s a budget of something like eight hundred thousand dollars. The WSA’s publication initiative would cost something like two percent of that, money that could surely be found elsewhere than the Argus’s printing budget.

This week’s WSA resolution explicitly distinguished the issue of new publication stipends from the that of Argus funding. And while that fact has escaped the attention of many of WSA’s off-campus critics, it could well be crucial to how the next phase of this debate unfolds.

Notoriously liberal presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held a campaign event at notoriously conservative Liberty University yesterday, and the temptation to hot-take proved too much for Jonathan Chait to resist:

This is, of course, absurd.

All students and faculty at Liberty are required to comply with the college’s doctrinal statement, which affirms the inerrancy of the Bible and the imminence of Jesus’s return to earth. Media that contains “lewd lyrics, anti-Christian message, [or] sexual content” is prohibited. Protests and demonstrations are banned from campus, and students are barred from engaging in political activity off-campus that “would contradict or otherwise compromise” the school’s “principles and policies.”

Open to dissenting views? A few years ago Liberty University denied recognition to a campus chapter of the College Democrats, declaring that because Liberty is “pro-life and believes that marriage between one man and one woman provides the best environment for children,” it would “not lend its name or financial support to any student group that advances causes contrary to its mission.” (And that was the cleaned-up PR version of the statement — the original email to the club declared that the Dems were persona non grata because “socialism.”)

Now, Liberty is a private university. It can restrict students’ speech rights pretty much however it wants. But there is not a single liberal campus anywhere in the country that prohibits students from possessing conservative books or movies in the dorms, that requires faculty to affirm their secular beliefs, or that denies recognition to the College Republicans on the basis of the GOP platform.

Liberty University is closed to “dissenting views” in ways that have no parallel whatsoever on the nation’s liberal campuses. There’s just no comparison.

Chait eventually realized that his original claim was unsupportable, so he — in his words — walked it back. But his new position was, if anything, even more ludicrous. As he tweeted:

We don’t have to guess what the scene Chait describes would be like, of course. Contrary to popular stereotype, conservatives speak on liberal campuses all the time. (Google “Santorum campus speech” if you don’t believe me.) And yes, often they’re picketed or booed or challenged in other ways. So why didn’t that happen yesterday?

Because students aren’t allowed to protest at Liberty University.

As the college’s code of conduct says, “student participation in on-campus demonstrations, petitions or picketing is prohibited unless approved by Liberty University administration.” Period. And Liberty’s students couldn’t even protest Sanders’ speech by staying away — attendance at the event was mandatory.

None of this is a secret, of course. The mandate that students attend Sanders’ speech was reported widely in the press, and Chait himself tweeted a screencap of Liberty’s ban on student demonstrations before he sent his final tweet. And anyway, since when is outrage a bad thing? Since when is noisy contestation of political views something to be regretted?

Jonathan Chait’s vision of a campus “open to dissenting views” is one in which high-profile celebrities with ideologies at odds with the student body are invited to speak, and one in which they are not subjected to challenge or disruption when they arrive. It has nothing to do with students’ rights to hold views that dissent from those of the administration, or from those of the larger society. When Chait thinks of free speech, he’s not thinking of the right to rabble-rouse, to confront, to Stick It To The Man. That’s not what free speech means to him.

And so Chait is ultimately no friend of free speech at all. He’s not a defender of the rights of left-liberal students to speak intemperately or aggressively on campus, and as we saw last night he’s no ally of conservative students who might want to do the same. He sees a college administration bringing in a contrarian speaker, forcing students to attend, and banning the expression of dissenting views, and thinks, that’s how a campus should run.

So can we stop pretending that people like Chait are supporters of free expression? Please?

Yesterday Vox printed I Love the Victorian Era. So I Decided to Live in It, an essay by Sarah Chrisman, a woman who has turned her life (and her husband’s) into an elaborate Victorian-era cosplay/roleplay. Because it includes lines like “Gabriel said watching me grow accustomed to Victorian clothes was like seeing me blossom into my true self,” the internet predictably went bonkers.

A lot of questions spring to mind about Chrisman’s decision to live as a Victorian, particularly since she’s far more specific about the modern conveniences she’s giving up than which ones she’s holding onto. Has she forsaken smoke detectors? Antibiotics? ATMs? What’s her stance on fluoride toothpaste? Does she take public transportation? How do they handle birth control? As I suggested on Twitter yesterday afternoon, you can’t actually live like a Victorian in 2015, because our society isn’t a Victorian society, and Chrisman’s project of mashing up the technologies of today with those of the Gilded Age — she prints out old newspapers from the internet to read in the tub! — marks her definitively as an enthusiastic citizen of our own miraculous age.

Chrisman and her husband are white, and the simulacrum of Victorian life they’ve chosen to enter is a decidedly upper-class one (though without the extensive staff her forbears would have enjoyed — kerosene has gotten cheaper since 1890, but servants have become a lot more expensive, what with minimum wage laws and child labor regulations and so on). This gave rise to another, more pointed, set of questions yesterday: Does Chrisman’s nostalgia extend to lynching? To eugenics? Phrenology? And what about Chrisman’s own role in society — what about the advances the last 125 years have brought to women? Does she want to throw those away too?

It turns out she kind of does.

Chrisman wrote a book a couple of years ago about her experiences as a Victoriankin, and though it’s mostly about corsets and how everybody’s a bunch of jerks for not understanding how awesome they are, she does find time in its pages to share her views on the social environment of the fin de siècle, and on that era’s women’s rights movement specifically.

Chrisman isn’t a big fan of the suffragettes, whom she considers violent and uncouth, and she’s unimpressed with the franchise itself. (She voted Gore in 2000, and regards that experience as an indication that Votes For Women have been oversold as a liberatory development.) As for more contemporary feminism, she writes that

“the really important work was done a long time ago, and a lot of what people have been trying to do more recently has been sort of counterproductive. I think that in a lot of the efforts that women have made to try to prove they’re the same as men, a lot of the power that women used to have has gotten lost along the way … in the past there was a lot better understanding that women can be different than men and still be very powerful.”

So there’s that.

The words “child labor” are missing from Chrisman’s book, as are “tuberculosis,” “pellagra,” and “cholera.” She mentions racism twice — once in the course of bemoaning the fact that modern audiences who are sophisticated enough to reject the racial caricatures of Gone With the Wind are hoodwinked by its calumnies against corsetry. (In another passage she compares myths about corsets’ ill effects to “the idea … that Jews eat babies.”)

But it’s the second reference to racism in her book that reveals her worldview. “Those who denounce contemporary cultures are denounced as xenophobes or racists,” she writes, “yet we have no word for those who treat the cultures of the past in this same manner.” She continues: “It is difficult for many people to grasp that lifestyles may have been different in the past, and yet still completely satisfactory to those living them.”

This is cultural relativism of the most simpleminded sort — an assertion of cultural equality via an erasure of cultural difference. (At one point in the book she denies that “any given generation or culture is truly either more or less prudish than any other.) And it cuts against the grain of her larger argument, too — if it’s bigotry to denounce aspects of past cultures, surely it’s also bigotry to denounce the values and habits of the present day that she herself repudiates.

Chrisman’s essay yesterday was mocked as a manifestation of privilege — the privilege of a woman who could look back at an era marked by tremendous suffering and injustice and see only her imagined self, happily occupying a position of wealth and comfort. As her book demonstrates, that solipsism wasn’t just a feature of the essay — it pervades her understanding of the era she longs for.

Chrisman argues that we should view the Victorian era a “completely satisfactory” time for those who lived through it, but of course that era wasn’t completely satisfactory, and of course no era is. The defects of the present day are acutely visible — and endlessly irritating — to her, while the defects of the past are effortlessly erased.

Because today, as much as she enjoys pretending otherwise, is where she lives.

Cooper Union is back from the dead.

This afternoon at two o’clock the New York State Attorney General will announce the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Committee to Save Cooper Union, a group of activist students, faculty, and alumni against the Cooper Union trustees. The settlement will impose various reforms to Cooper Union governance, establish an independent financial monitor for the college, and begin the slow, difficult process of re-establishing Cooper Union as a free, healthy institution.

Today’s settlement is a huge victory for those who have fought to preserve the mission that Cooper Union has advanced since its founding a century and a half ago and a final repudiation of the failed administration whose financial mismanagement, fomenting of division, and punitive governance laid Cooper low.

The signs of rebirth at Cooper have been visible for months. Five of the most recalcitrant trustees resigned (in an extraordinary fit of pique) in June, and widely-despised president Jamshed Bharucha quit the following day. Other resignations and retirements followed, as it became clear that the Attorney General’s investigation of Cooper Union had real teeth.

There’s a tremendous amount to unpack here, and I’ll be writing much more in the coming days. In particular, the release of the full text of the settlement this afternoon will answer a lot of questions (and likely raise many others). In the meantime, though, a few highlights:

  • Today’s announcement doesn’t mandate a return to free tuition at Cooper, but it creates a variety of mechanisms designed to foster that goal, including a “Free Education Committee” of the trustees with a mandate of developing a plan for the re-establishment of a tuition-free Cooper. The committee will present its plan in January 2018, when Cooper’s annual revenue from its ownership of the land beneath the Chrysler Building will more than triple to $32.5 million.
  • Though the lawsuit asked that the state find Cooper Union had an obligation under its charter to remain tuition-free, the planned agreement makes no such determination. Under such a finding, tuition would have been reversed immediately and current students would likely have been entitled to sue for refunds, and it is not clear how Cooper would have absorbed the resulting deficits.
  • The Committee to Save Cooper Union said in a statement last night that the terms of the settlement agreement “provide far more power to the community and genuine oversight than CSCU could have possibly gained with its lawsuit alone.” Although the consent decree was agreed to by all the parties, the settlement also includes a cy pres, imposed unilaterally by the Attorney General, that amends the terms of Cooper Union’s governance documents in order to bring the college back into compliance with the spirit of its charter.
  • The agreement places two students on the Cooper Union board of trustees as voting members, along with several new alumni trustees. I will be particularly interested in seeing what provision the consent decree makes for the free and fair election of the student representatives, given that the Cooper Union trustees in 2013 refused to seat the student elected to the board as a result of a process agreed to at the conclusion of that spring’s student occupation of the president’s office.

More soon, but for now I’ll reiterate: This is a huge victory, one that many observers would have dismissed as inconceivable not very long ago. The administration that imposed tuition at Cooper and declared war on the college’s student, faculty, and alumni activists has been removed and repudiated, and the college’s governance has been remade according to a vision of community, inclusivity, and free education.

This is a historic moment, not just for Cooper Union but in the fight for free, democratic education in the United States.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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