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They Are Insecure For A Reason

A group of Columbia University students, advocating for Palestinians, access the iconic Hamilton Hall building as they gather to stage a demonstration at the campus in New York, United States on April 30, 2024. Protests are sweeping college campuses across the US following a police attempt to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University, resulting in the arrest of over 100 students. Columbia University asked students on Monday to 'voluntarily disperse' amid stalled talks, threatening the students with suspension.
Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images

You have probably forgotten about the guy who worked at National Public Radio and got so upset because of how woke it was that he wrote a furious post about it for Bari Weiss's newsletter, which I believe is called That's Such A Good Point, Sir. This is entirely for the best. That story wasn't really built to last, and not only because a man in his 50s realizing that he feels increasingly out of step with younger coworkers is not something that would ordinarily be considered "a story" on the merits. Sometimes these things hit, and sometimes they don't, and the industrial process through which the grim grousings of mediocre conservatives are laundered into dispatches from the bloody front of a culture war depends more than anything on inputs. The raw material from which that stuff is refined—various defective human instincts; a high baseline level of politicized bad faith and elite panic; the unremarkable and unreflective people most susceptible to all that—is abundant and of low value. This is a volume business.

Here is how it worked in this case: The man did his post for Weiss's newsletter about how too many people at NPR had progressive politics for his taste—and he voted against Trump twice by the way but there are some issues that it feels like you just can't debate or even discuss—and then went on various conservative media platforms to talk about it. The reactionary activist Christopher Rufo posted some deleted tweets that NPR's CEO made about Donald Trump, and Elon Musk posted about that, and then the New York Times covered it in a story headlined "NPR C.E.O. Faces Criticism Over Tweets Supporting Progressive Causes." The Times sought comment from Rufo, last seen exultantly tweeting "SCAPLED" after a campaign he helped orchestrate, and which also ran through the Times, led to the resignation of Harvard's president; Rufo, more in sorrow than in anger, told the Times that "if NPR wants to truly be National Public Radio, it can’t pander to the furthest-left elements in the United States," and demanded the CEO's resignation. And then nothing happened.

Well, not quite nothing. There were some searching essays from other, less urgently and expediently aggrieved NPR people about whether the workplace's progressivism was more a series of cultural habits than an expression of any active values. The man who wrote the post for the newsletter was suspended for having done so—it's against NPR's policy, as it is at many workplaces, to write outside freelance work without approval—and then quit and went on an I Was Murdered media tour. He will at some point collect a six-figure advance for a book that will be called like Far Left Of The Dial and which 171 people will read.

Anyway, none of that matters; none of the people pushing it really cared about it at all except as a way to get something bigger that they want more, and that effectively ended when the targeted NPR CEO made clear that she would not be resigning because she once tweeted that Donald Trump was a racist and a bunch of hair-trigger dorks later pretended to be offended by it. "Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning," she said in a statement. In the prissy, seething monoculture of perpetually scandalized older rich people and increasingly deranged reactionary centrists where Weiss's newsletter is important, the story may continue to reverberate; nothing ever really goes away, there. It is the right of these scab-picking weirdos, as Americans, to stay as mad as they want for as long as they want. But simply through refusing to treat the story or the individuals and institutions pushing it as serious or in earnest, which they manifestly are not, the story was more or less put to rest as anything that any normal person would have any reason to know or care about.

Even coverage in the New York Times—multiple stories done in a tone that suggested it was a meaningful story and not just another fragrant cube extruded onto this greasy pipeline—could not overcome the world-changing, wonder-working power of treating bad-faith actors as bad-faith actors and simply refusing them any more than the half-a-bar of dismissal that they deserve. There's a lesson in this.

One of the less-amusing ironies of the violent institutional response to the nonviolent protest movement on campuses across the country is that the goals of the people protesting are much easier to understand than those of the variously curdled elites dispatching uniformed violence workers against them. The irony is in the fact that the students, with their specific demands and comparatively disciplined approach, have been cast as somewhere between essentially unserious and actively terroristic. In contrast, the institutions pivoting and pandering and giddily giving themselves over to the incoherent and spiraling political panic surrounding the protests represent principled leadership and forebearance; the gray elites insisting that these protests are actually about their dull abstractions of choice are the voice of seriousness; the police forces, rioting and ravening as ever, are somehow in fact order.

A lot of this disjunction can be explained by the undeniable disparities in power between those two sides, the first organizing toward a legible goal and the second existing essentially to oversee the unending work of saying no. Only one side can effectively call the cops on the other; here, as elsewhere, the impunity that comes with that exclusive access to violent recourse has made those with it not only cynical and lazy and cruel, but also paradoxically insecure and perpetually terrified at the prospect of any erosion in authority. It is, on its face, difficult to make the argument that it is fundamentally unserious to object to dropping a 2,000-pound bomb on a hospital, and much more morally and politically serious to object to that objection on some point of administrative order, or simply because it is too loud.

But also the license that power brings is something like the American Dream. It's what unites the administrators idly calling in the goon squads seemingly because everyone else is doing it and the reactionary influencers chasing clout at counter-protests; it's what lets the tabloids haphazardly jam their favorite tropes into the story and lets well-funded Zionist organizations dox and intimidate student activists; it's what justifies senators in spinning fantasies of justified vehicular homicide and fully-automatic Kent State reboots and fussy centrists in maundering about the Death Of Debate On Our Campuses not because of the police violence but because of the (actually rather polite) protest it is being wielded against. It's how NYPD's chief of patrol can blithely pivot from his initial statement that the protests his department cleared "were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner" to something completely different, and more in line with this boomlet of histrionic opportunism. That aggrieved and heedless impunity is the very essence of police culture and the wellspring of its every lurid excess.

It is axiomatic that these people do not care about Palestinian lives in Gaza, or those of American Jews in the United States. They are opportunists, and all always trying to see what they can get away with—how little effort might be enough in some cases, and how much overage might be excusable in others. They all clearly believe that they have that permission.

There is something terribly clarifying in how eager the people in power at these universities have been to betray the trust of everyone invested in those institutions. Institutions that otherwise exist from one exploratory committee to the next will change university policies on the fly so that their local uniformed violence workers will get their chance to thump some young skulls; administrators whose notional jobs are upholding communities of learning and care gladly consent to being upbraided by clownish golf hogs and half-fascist nullities in Congress and then do exactly what they were told to do, whatever the damage to those communities. If the students and professors in these protests, which are now nationwide, have a sort of advantage simply by being the only parties involved that actually care about anything, they are also up against an opposition that is all the more implacable because of how proudly cynical it is.

This is maybe most true on that opposition's most ostentatiously thinky edge, where the sort of elites who have long been fixated on Campus Issues have gone on more or less as they had before. "Ideas born in the ’60s, subsequently refined and complicated by critical theory, postcolonial studies, and identity politics, are now so pervasive and unquestioned that they’ve become the instincts of students who are occupying their campuses today," George Packer wrote in (of course) The Atlantic. "Group identity assigns your place in a hierarchy of oppression. Between oppressor and oppressed, no room exists for complexity or ambiguity. Universal values such as free speech and individual equality only privilege the powerful. Words are violence. There’s nothing to debate." This is both overthinking it—again, there isn't really anything abstract about the student activists' demands—and wildly, weirdly under-thinking it. There is very little room for complexity or ambiguity between a truncheon blow and its recipient; violence, which was this administration's substitute for engagement or "debate" and has been the default response of virtually every authority figure to this issue, actually is violence.

It is surely wishful thinking that this might have been averted not just with a principled or brave response but a moderately strategic one by Columbia's president to the bad-faith questions put to her in Congress. It is naïve, I guess, to imagine that the leader of such an institution might value it enough to defend it from such transparently self-interested inquisitors, and to treat them as the enemies of learning, and community, and also actual freedom and actual debate, that they so transparently are. It's hard to know what it would amount to; at the highest levels, where things actually get decided, the carnage that spurred these protests was always and only an abstraction. It seems self-evidently true that the media has "funnel[ed] our despair and insecurity about those events and our responsibility for them through relentless attention to campus culture," as Jay Caspian Kang wrote in The New Yorker last week. That might be what I am doing here, too.

But there are also two different futures visible, here. There is the cynical talk about safety from administrators and politicians and the police, but there is also the violence that they repeatedly make against their own communities in pursuit of it; there are the intellectuals bemoaning the "training" and "brainwashing" of college students, but there is also their plain dismay that the students are not being trained or brainwashed correctly, and into awed agreement with them. The perception of a threat to their sense of safety justifies a much more literal and material threat to the safety of other people's bodies and livelihoods; it roars through the proper channels and arrives in force, here as elsewhere, and everywhere.

The order they are after is all around us—a Homeowners Association with a S.W.A.T. team at its disposal, a business that grows at a steady rate without making anything anyone could use, a world in which things simply happen and continue to happen, a pristine desolation that is safe precisely because of how empty it is. But what they are afraid of grows even as they starve it, which is why these people, with all their power, are always so insecure. It is why, despite the relentless imposition of their annihilating concept of safety, they can't ever quite feel safe. They know how bad it would be for them to be seen clearly; they are fucking terrified of being treated as they treat others. They know that people can recognize their demands as what they are, and that there are still spaces in which to reject them. And they sense, maybe, that this false and failing security can't last. "The more they try to silence us," a Columbia grad student told the Times last week, "the louder we get."

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