Lilla Again: Campus Politics

*A shorter version of this blog post was published as a Letter to the Editor on The Chronicle of Higher Education site.

(The New York Times photograph of students protesting Mike Pence, May, 2017 Notre Dame graduation; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/us/parents-students-summer.html?mcubz=3)&_r=0)

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long piece by Columbia University Humanities professor Mark Lilla.  This piece, “How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism,” is adapted from Lilla’s recently published book, titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  As The Chronicle has done with other authors (*see this Gender Shrapnel post), here they have had the author write a “Chronicle Review” piece about his own book.  The timing of the publication of the piece, nine days after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, coupled with the subtitle of the article, “An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves,” seems intended to fan the flames of our national debate about white supremacy and to blame the left for its visible resurgence.

Full disclosure: I addressed Mark Lilla’s ideas in the Gender Shrapnel Blog back in November of 2016, soon after the election (another propitious moment to fan flames), when The New York Times ran Lilla’s piece, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  The November blog post I wrote takes issue with Lilla’s refusal to learn the lessons of the interdisciplinary programs he scorns.  His inability to recognize why “identity politics” is an exclusive and offensive term cripples his argument.  The term comes to life only when people who aren’t cis, white males start having a political voice. In the second paragraph of his piece in The Chronicle, Lilla writes, “All of us liberals involved in higher education need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation.”  This would have been a good moment for Lilla to make clear what he means by “all of us liberals.”  Who are “us liberals,” and what do we have in common?  How does the author define “liberalism” itself?

Lilla accuses 1980s liberals who espoused a “politics of identity” of “losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.”  I was in high school and college in the Reagan 80s, and, like many of my peers, I was concerned about and involved in protests of nuclear armament, apartheid—in South Africa and in the United States–, U.S. support of right-wing fascist dictatorships in Latin America, and the nation’s continued failure to support and elect women leaders of all backgrounds.  In other words, I did not feel “bound” to my nation because so many people were disenfranchised from participation in the voice and governance of the nation.

Lilla says, “What was astonishing during the Reagan years, though, was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, school teachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party.  This has been disastrous for liberalism’s prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalized right.”  My sense of this argument is that Lilla is encouraging a seemingly all-embracing left (would that it were more so) to silence its recognition of the existence of different groups (often formed from a shared group identity; often formed in response to visible and invisible systems of oppression) so as not to galvanize the forces of the right, so as not to unleash the dangerous forces of the right.  Is this silence, or this inaction, not just another form of oppression, in this case, as posited by Lilla, an oppression of the left that he recommends being imposed by the left?  Lilla says that the only way to “meaningfully assist them” (with “them” being “minorities”; ah, the haughtiness of this tone, the distance established) is “to win elections.”  Yes, absolutely, winning elections is essential, of course.  But multi-pronged approaches to problems, approaches that draw upon a variety of people’s different strengths, also work.  I believe the function of higher education is to develop this variety of skills, analytical approaches, and ability to collaborate so that our students become citizens who are interested in the world and able to effect change no matter where they land.  Also significant is our need to understand affective approaches to the polis—understanding our changing selves, engaging in dialogue with many others, and working together towards viable solutions.  I envision Venn diagrams of groups that often exist apart but certainly find interlocking areas of affinity, agreement, and action.

Martha S. Jones’ response to Lilla, “What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students,” published in the August 24, 2017, edition of The Chronicle, appropriately takes issue with Lilla’s overgeneralized characterizations of today’s generation of college students.  While Lilla states in general terms that our students are obsessed with their own identities and are unable to engage with the broader world, Jones gives concrete examples of students who have watched the gathering clouds of racism and done something about them.  I would like to add to Jones’ examples.  At the small university where I teach (which Lilla might see as “detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country”), many students understand their own changing mores and priorities and figure out how to contribute in small and large ways to the local community and the larger political realm.  Many don’t assume one, blanket national identity, but rather work to understand the many groups that make up the United States and the positive and negative effects our nation’s leaders have had on the world.  Many of the students recognize their own wealth and privilege (or lack thereof, in some cases) and labor to alleviate, to the extent they can, the challenges of everyday living for people in our community—transportation, food supplies, safety, education, and literacy.

Lilla’s characterization of college towns also reveals his own biases, rather than the more nuanced realities that one can seek to see, understand, and engage with: “A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job it is to keep it real for the residents.”  The tongue-in-cheek tone both contradicts Lilla’s later criticism of “casting an ironic eye” towards democratic politics and caricaturizes real people who experience actual life struggles.  In addition, Lilla says that campus towns “are very pleasant places to live.”  The town where I live is beautiful, but it can also be an unpleasant, and sometimes downright hostile, place for people to live.  (See last week’s post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)  Again, Lilla’s unexamined position is from above, and he neglects to distinguish between and among types of colleges and universities and the surrounding towns.  The refusal to engage with the world beyond the Ivory Tower simply reaffirms Lilla’s sense of the Tower itself.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of other ways to exist, teach, and advise in the higher education setting.  Instead of creating a straw man of so-called “identity politics” and this current generation of students, Lilla could get in the trenches and see what kind of actual work is being done.

I hope a collective sigh takes hold of The Chronicle’s audience when it reads Lilla’s sudden decision to incorporate a “she” in his article.  When he asks readers to “imagine a young student entering such an environment today,” the young student is a “she,” and the old master paternalistically mocks the courses the student chooses to take, the groups she chooses to join, the ways in which she will choose to be labeled a “victim.”  The long screed against this fictional “she” includes this assertion: “If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it.”  Is Trump “an anonymous force of power?”  Are Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell “anonymous forces of power?” Is Dylann Roof an “anonymous force of “power”?  How about Brock Turner?  I believe we know the names and faces of those who use power—whether manifested through elected office or violence, or both—for their own gain, and I don’t think we could say that Heather Heyer, for example, chose to withdraw from democratic politics and cast an ironic eye on it.

If Lilla had used concrete examples (for example, here: “Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities”) and had avoided sweeping generalizations (e.g. “liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation”), I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not completely discarded the profound social, political, and legal impact of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not made a sermon out of “reasoned political debate,” and had actually defined what that is, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he provided statistics (for example, about how colleges are “mainly run by liberals”), I might have understood his argument better.  In other words, had Lilla practiced the research and writing prescriptions offered in most higher education curricula, I might have understood his argument better.

I argue that we are not imposing an identity-based education, but that neither are we ignoring that individual and group identities exist and enjoy different levels of voice, visibility, and power, in our curricula, on our campuses, in our political realm.  To interpret contemporary campus politics with nuance, we have to examine our course offerings (have the white dudes really been taken over across the curriculum?), club offerings (I don’t think fraternities have disappeared, have they?), and our towns (real people live and work in these towns; real people struggle in these towns).  Traditional power dynamics still prevail, and they seem both unstudied and reinforced in Lilla’s work.

Does Lilla’s message continue to be broadly publicized because it comforts those who want to believe in a universal “us” and scorns and silences people and movements on the left who are laboring to achieve a working wage, safety from the violence of white supremacist groups, and a sense of fairness in our world?

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