The Origins of Our Discontent

What is happening in universities in the United States is no less than a symbol of the degradation of our democracies and the process of destroying the university as we know it.

Versione Italiana

In a dramatic gesture, reminiscent of former US Secretary of State General Colin Powell when he showed a vial of a white substance to the United Nations Assembly, last May 1st the commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD), Edward A. Caban, brandished a chain and padlock in front of the press as proof, I presume, of the presence of bicycles on the Columbia University campus.

Caban’s press conference, flanked by the city’s mayor, Eric Adams, served as a forum for the New York authorities to take stock of their two weeks of glory and insist on the fact that both of these objects were irrefutable proof of student violence, as they had been used to block one of the entrances to Hamilton Hall. This is one of the buildings which the police entered, guns drawn, facing down the undoubtedly threatening presence of the books stacked in many of the professors’ offices whose doors they broke into with a hammer. According to police, the chain and lock proved their theory of the presence of “external agitators,” despite the fact that the university store itself sold them to students, at a discount.

It was the final act of months in which political and academic authorities and police forces across the country fought and violently repressed peaceful demonstrations and protest encampments. This repression has also extended to university professors, painted as undoubtedly being the main instigators of the crimes committed by their students. These students and professors are labeled as privileged (they study in universities whose entrance selection rate is usually less than 10%, in the case of Ivy League universities like Columbia), although the protest has spread to public universities across the country. They are also portrayed as unaware, if not actually ignorant, of the reality of the world – and just to be clear, to be accepted into a university like Columbia or Dartmouth, the vast majority of these students are not just exemplary, but brilliant.

And, of course, they are labelled as anti-Semites and Hamas supporters. Including Jewish students who participated in the protests.

This succession of unpleasant vignettes, which could brush up against tragedy, has already turned into a farce in which academic texts on terrorism are used as evidence of students’ supposed radicalism. In reality, what has happened so far is only the tip of an iceberg of colossal dimensions which concerns not only what may remain of the once omnipotent and proud (in general) American university institution but, as in other latitudes, the health and the nature of the very democratic systems we enjoy and, ultimately, begin to suffer from.

The protests, encampments and evictions are gaining headlines and media coverage (Dana Bash, on CNN, this week went so far as to say that American universities today are like Germany in the 1930s) that would make FOX News itself, back in the lowest hours of the Trump presidency, during the protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police in 2020, blush with discomfort. We have reached this point after months of more or less noisy mobilizations and counter-mobilizations, which sought to contextualize the situation and the contours of a conflict which did not begin with the terrible and deplorable attack perpetrated by Hamas on October 7. In all cases, with very few exceptions, the response has been an early version of what we are seeing these days: branding as anti-Semitism any hint of criticism of the disproportionate Israeli response and repressing and prosecuting, judicially or academically, anyone who dares to raise a voice discordant with the official discourse of unconditional adherence to the indiscriminate military actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Since April 18, there have been more than 2,000 arrests of students and professors across the country. Annelise Orleck, 65, a professor at Dartmouth College (another Ivy League school) and director of the Jewish studies program – yes, Jewish studies – was arrested May 1 while protecting students from police who had taken over the campus. Dartmouth President Sian Beilock, like her Columbia counterpart, also asked police to raid her campus. Orleck, a Jew and esteemed professor of American history, was suspended for six months by the university which boasts of her professorship in its prestigious faculty. She is just one of dozens of teachers.

In the weeks following October 7, the situation began to look dangerously similar to what had happened in the country in the months following September 11, 2001. I know this because some of my students of Palestinian origin, some of whom had family in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, would come to me to tell me about their worry, the stares they endured at work, or how they had started trying to hide their ethnicity: “To avoid problems.” The initial shock and fear were soon overcome by horrors from the Strip, in the form of images of bombings of hospitals, ambulances, schools and universities – ironically, not a single university was left standing in Gaza. And so the protests began, which took the form of camps and occupations. Columbia itself suspended the activities of two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), months ago, precisely because of their involvement in peaceful protests. In the case of the latter, I imagine, for the double crime of being Jewish and, according to the dominant thesis, anti-Semitic. The case is being examined by the courts.

Now you don’t even need to raise your voice, because wearing the keffiyeh (the traditional Palestinian and Arab world headgear in general) at your graduation ceremony is enough of an offense to be expelled from the event by the police.

This is Joe Biden’s America, who on May 2, with a public statement that would make Martin Luther King himself and his fellow Democrat John Lewis, who died in 2020, turn in his grave, stated: “Dissent must never lead to disorder”. In other words: protesting is fine, but without disturbing or breaking the law. And all this in a country where it is impossible to begin any basic course in American History without mentioning a section entitled “Those Who Broke the Law” [The reference is to events in US history ranging from the rebellion against the tea tax, imposed by the British Empire on the colonies in 1774, to civil rights struggles, such as Rosa Parks’ disobedience of 1955 — Ed.]. And it too is taught with pride.

From his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) – probably his most important text together with the speech on the US intervention in the Vietnam War, delivered four years later (forget the famous “I have a dream”) – Martin Luther King, Jr. challenges us once again in these days by pointing to “the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”.

The images that come from some campuses like that of Ole Mississippi are sensational in this sense: history that rhymes, as Margaret McMillan would say.

The many layers of the onion

In the midst of the noise, impotence and anger, it becomes necessary to place what is happening in a narrative framework that goes from the sacrosanct 1st Amendment (freedom of speech and demonstration) to the so-called independence of the university and academic freedom, passing through a very thorny discussion on the concept of “security” and its relationship with public discourse.

From the beginning, the main argument behind calls for repression outside or inside universities has been based on “security”. Thus we ask, the safety of whom, and above all of what? Certainly not of those who are protesting, at least the minimum amount necessary to exercise their right to freedom of expression. The fierce defense of free speech on campus is what we in academia call “extramural speech,” and it doesn’t seem to matter much to university officials or much of the U.S. political spectrum these days. It is true that all universities have regulations; it is also true that these regulations were changed on the fly to become coercive legislation to be used in a haphazard and selective manner.

Considering that for years both very liberal moderates and the conservative camp have been crying foul, accusing university campuses of “limiting freedom of expression” in the name of building “safe spaces”, the security argument proposed here is to say the least surprising. Of course, it is impossible not to mention that boogeyman they call “cancel culture”, the spearhead of the most conservative sectors in their culture war against everything that smacks of the left.

Who’s canceling who these days? Who is safe? I can’t wait to read the thousands of columns that come our way. Or not, of course.

Security was also invoked to talk about the campus itself, i.e. the property; the “broken windows,” Biden said, forgetting that the only windows broken in the now infamous “Battle of Hamilton Hall” were broken by the police, who, it also turns out, fired at least once into the building. Given the brutality with which the American police behave, it is a near miracle that we have not yet had to mourn any tragedy.

There is, obviously, the safety of those who move around the campuses, of those who want to attend classes, but this does not seem to apply to the demonstrators, who also protest and do so without any problem. Last but not least, there is the safety of the Jewish students themselves. However, the term “Jewish students” should not be used absolutely – given that there are Jews on both sides of the protest, we must infer that this “Jewish student safety” applies to only some of them.

Students who say they feel threatened – something I insist is a rhetorical argument which, with very few exceptions, has not been supported by facts – usually claim that certain types of demonstrations and attitudes are the cause of their insecurity. Whether we like it or not, freedom of expression protects (or should protect) those expressions that make us feel uncomfortable, as long as they do not imply threats to someone’s physical integrity.

It is not the same thing to say “you deserve to die because you are a Jew and I hope they kill you”, a threat, therefore not protected by freedom, than to shout “Free Palestine”, or ask for an end to the occupation and the cessation of illegal settlements, something that the United Nations itself has been asking for since 1967, and which the Israeli ambassador, in a statement typical of the madness in which the West has settled, labeled “the nerve center of international anti-Semitism”.

As much as they make us uncomfortable, in my case due to the intellectual stupidity they denote, expressions such as “go back to Poland” are not (should not be) a reason to feel physically insecure, and therefore we should not limit the freedom of those who express them.

I am very afraid that we have entered a spiral of unreason in which all bridges have collapsed. The very fact that we are more uncomfortable about the protests than we are about the ongoing genocide means that there is not a single consensus left over from the Second World War that hasn’t been blown apart. We can only look into the abyss. And in this, the students who resist the police are our vanguard.

Students demonstrating in New York. Photo; Álvaro Guzmán Bastida

The response when it comes to prioritizing the safety of who and what has been diverse and significant. From the open hostility of Columbia, the University of Florida, the University of Wisconsin, Emory or UCLA, where students and professors have been evicted and arrested with the complicity and help of shadowy groups and other students, the famous frat boys (members of fraternities, almost always white students from the upper classes – look at all the university films of the seventies and eighties starting from Animal House (1978), you can’t help but notice them), to the attempts to open channels of dialogue and understanding, as is the case at the University of Minnesota or Cornell. This is also the case at elite universities such as Columbia, Brown and the University of Chicago, which initially opted to allow supervised encampments. It is not lost on anyone, however, that this is a temporary measure and that these institutions will eliminate them before they can ruin their respective pompous graduation ceremonies.

It’s the money, honey

At Columbia there is a particular element that does not necessarily extend to the reality of other campuses, even if there are institutions, more or less elite, in similar situations. The so-called “American university system” has little or nothing to do, for example, with the Spanish one and, by extension, with the European one. In addition to the different divisions in terms of academic, research and budget levels, there is the component that makes institutions like those mentioned, or similar ones like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or the University of Chicago itself more than educational centers, multi-million dollar companies with a brand (always associated with academic excellence) to protect. In short: they are money-making machines at industrial scale, whose business is no longer so much their students as the profits managed in the investment funds in which they maintain their multimillion-dollar endowments (permanent capital funds that consolidate the continuity of the institution in certain ways). In the case of Columbia or the University of Chicago itself, the investment is land.

Columbia is the largest private landowner in New York City and as such must protect its interests and those of its investors (whom it calls donors), beyond what four more or less committed students (almost always racialized) and two or three of its prestigious professors, who at the same time are accused of being responsible for all this, are doing, a final aspect of this situation which I will deal with a little later.

On the boards of directors of these universities sit representatives of companies such as Boeing, Microsoft, Google or Lockheed Martin, among other giants (note that two of these are companies with interests in the weapons sector), to whom the sentiments of the students or of the university itself from an academic point of view mean almost nothing. Presidents, converted into CEOs, are almost only responsible for keeping the books balanced. They are focused solely on operations in which Columbia is involved as a brand, not only in New York – with a real estate expansion in Harlem and other parts of Manhattan – but also in Israel, where it is building a campus in Tel Aviv, a campus which obviously Palestinian students will not be able to attend due to the country’s apartheid system. This corporate nature that has corroded American educational institutions has to do in part with the progressive public disinvestment in education the country has undertaken since the late 1970s, not least of all as punishment for the fact that universities had been the ground of culture of civil rights protests and the anti-Vietnam War movement in previous years. Paradoxically, it was these same institutions that proudly encouraged and nurtured the student activism that they now condemn and repress. A brilliant editorial in the Columbia newspaper asked on April 18:

“Why does a university that prides itself on its ‘legendary history’ of successful student activism seek to contain and repress student mobilization? Why is the same university that capitalizes on the legacy of Edward Said and enshrines The Wretched of the Earth [Frantz Fanon] in its curriculum so afraid to talk about decolonization in practice? It’s not just the congressional committee that controls the administration’s every move, it’s the students, faculty, staff and alumni who contribute to the rich legacy that the University continually lauds. It is precisely these student demonstrations and protests that will one day be held up as exemplary of Columbia’s history of activism.”

The same night that the New York police entered Columbia, at the invitation of the president, and for the second time in less than two weeks it was the 56th anniversary of another episode of police brutality. That time the target was the anti-Vietnam movement. Around 700 students were arrested in an event that, according to the university’s own website, “took decades to recover from”.

What students across the country are asking today (there are already almost two hundred encampments and localized protests) from the universities at which they study, to which they pay very high tuition fees and sometimes even rent, is that they stop investing their money and that of the donors, directly or indirectly, in the weapons and political and opinion cover that has made the liquidation of almost 40,000 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip possible.

Demanding that Israel stop the genocide is not a question of political activism, or even of ideology, but of pure humanity. But this too has been thrown into the well of our Western hypocrisy.

Many parallels are drawn between the current protests and those of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements. Those were not peaceful; What protest that has achieved its basic goal is peaceful? Those protests were also led by young university students, accused of being “privileged” and “unaware”. The difference with Vietnam is that the United States was involved in the war and many of those students could end up dying in a jungle in Southeast Asia. Of course, those protests were also repressed with unprecedented violence which claimed more than a few victims. The memory of Kent State University on May 4, 1970, where the Ohio National Guard killed four students (three of them Jews), is the ghost no one wants to evoke. Yet it is inevitable in a country, the United States, which has made state murder one of its best arts.

The Ohio State National Guard at Kent State University, May 4, 1970. Photo: Kent State University Libraries

Towards a New McCarthyism

Beyond the disproportionality of the repression, mention must be made of the ferocity with which the media and the political and academic authorities have treated the demonstrators. The images of police beating students and professors, some of them elderly, are difficult to justify. I spent much of the week on the campus of the University of Chicago, where I am teaching as a visiting professor this spring quarter. The tension began the evening of Thursday, May 2, with the arrival of a group of students carrying Israeli flags, accompanied by other boys from the fraternity who began to provoke the campers. On Friday morning, the president of the University of Chicago sent an embarrassing email to the university community warning that the encampment would be dismantled that same day. As I write, I see the camp from my office window and messages arrive that speak of tension. University police have been deployed in the Quad (the central courtyard of the campus). Everything suggests that the last hour will arrive, as elsewhere, in the evening.

A peculiarity of the current conflict is the zeal with which the police and the media are busy showing the faces of some of the detained students to the world, as if they were hunting prey. When the hooded protesters are the numerous far-right groups roaming the country, they are neither arrested nor forced to show their faces. In the United States, for years there have been ultra-conservative organizations (and even state leaders) who are dedicated to “unmasking” and persecuting what they call “radical professors” and students with a certain level of political commitment who they accuse, as always, of being guilty of all the evils that afflict the country and which in their rhetoric are: cultural Marxism (?), communism (in the USA?), critical race theory, gender theories, anti-racism and, of course, decolonial theory, directly linked to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The teaching system on which the traditional university career is based is in crisis. Many voices are calling for its elimination for economic, but also political reasons, intimately linked to academic freedom. If academic programs are to be controlled, ending the tenure system is the first step. No one will object if you move from university professor to employee and the contract is therefore at the discretion of the employer. A few days ago, in an appearance on CNN with Jack Tapper, one of the network’s leading hosts, Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots (NFL team), a Columbia alumnus and one of its most important donors, insisted on the idea of “reviewing the tenure issue”, since, in his opinion, everything is the fault of professors who dedicate themselves to indoctrination (?).

Teachers in the United States have historically been subject to suspicion, and even more so in recent years. According to the extremist magical thinking, we teachers teach people to “hate America,” an accusation of appalling intellectual squalor, which does not change the fact that on many occasions, like this one, it is America itself that makes things rather difficult for us. In any case, this stupid argument that has spread throughout the Western world (in Spain they teach students to “hate Spain” and for this reason they insist on the so-called “black legend”) is particularly funny if you think about it for a moment: if it is true that American universities, especially the most prestigious, are full of radical Marxist professors, then how to explain why to date we have failed to produce a single generation of political, financial and intellectual leaders who would have already transformed the country into a sort of socialist utopia?

But here we are: Someone is “radicalizing” students, the New York Police Department says, resorting to conspiratorial hyperbole.

It is worrying, however, that on May 1 the same United States Congress passed an emergency law sponsored by the Republican Party which, under the name of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, orders the Department of Education to adopt the controversial definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). According to the proposed definition, any criticism of the Zionist movement would be considered anti-Semitic. Some progressive Jewish associations have highlighted that this would make almost any criticism of the State of Israel and its policies towards the Palestinian people, including the occupation and the expansion of illegal settlements, prosecutable.

And in November?

The biggest speculation in recent weeks concerns the impact that the university protests will have on next November’s presidential elections. The first thing to note is that the Biden administration has not given an inch in its support for the Netanyahu administration and its Gaza campaign. This has created the context for the vast majority of the Democratic Party to defend, if not directly encourag, the repression of the protests. Biden’s speech and his closing ranks with the administrators who have wielded the truncheon as a negotiating policy is a radically different approach from the one when the occupant of the White House was Trump and the streets were burning against the former president, who is now on trial.

The probable Republican candidate, busy with his work, has said nothing. And he doesn’t even need to, because his party is conducting the orchestra on the issue and, except for the left wing of the PD, with Bernie Sanders and “The Squad” in the lead, he has the support of the Democrats. Between the perception of chaos (absolutely false) and the promise of law and order, the American public will always choose the latter. America is a country that, despite its mythology, has a real allergy to social protest. A recent poll showed that 47% of Americans oppose pro-Palestinian protests, versus 28% who would support them to some extent.

My feeling is that little or nothing, to date, will affect the re-election chances of a Joe Biden and a Democratic Party that continue to rely on the me-or-the-monster-returns narrative. November is a long way off and there’s a summer in between to calm things down on college campuses. In any case, the Democratic National Convention will be held in Chicago between August 19 and 22 and everyone’s memory has returned to what happened at the historic 1968 convention, which transformed the windy city into a theater of battle between the police (which has nothing to envy that of New York in terms of harshness) and the anti-Vietnam demonstrators.

A young hippie in front of the National Guard near the Hilton hotel in Chicago, where the 1968 Democratic National Convention was held. Photo: Warren K. Leffler

What is undeniable is that, as of today, the Democratic Party is hemorrhaging on the left. There are many liberal centrists who accuse students of campaigning for Trump. Once again, this would be a direct transposition of what happened in 1968. They point out that the social fracture caused by a decade of protests would eventually open the door for Richard Nixon and usher in two decades of overwhelming Republican rule, except for the hiatus of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). In my opinion, this is a completely reductive argument, since there were multiple factors underlying the final advent of Reagan’s neoliberalism: economic crises, reactions to civil rights, new forms of racism, rampant crime in the cities, as well as a very strong generational clash.

I don’t know if we’re there, but it’s possible. Right now, when I see colleagues and students, even some of my own, being beaten by the police, I can’t think of anything other than what the media would say, here and in Europe, if the occupant of the White House were not a Democrat.

On May 15, 1970, eleven days after the Kent State massacre, two more students were murdered by police on the campus of Jackson State College in Mississippi. In the following months, more than 800 college campuses remained on a war footing. Kent State would reopen only in June of the same year. Today, some universities have decided to finish their semesters online. In the fall of 1970, Nixon formed a special commission (Scranton Commission) to investigate what had happened at Kent State and other universities around the country. His conclusions were startling: “The indiscriminate shooting into crowds of students and the resulting deaths were unnecessary, unjustified and inexcusable.”

Then, the Vietnam War would drag on for another five years, until the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975. Today, no one sees the end of the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip.

In September 1971, according to transcripts of Nixon’s own recordings, in a meeting after the end of the famous Attica prison riot, the president even told H.R. Haldeman, his then chief of staff:

You know what I think? This could have some beneficial effect. You know what I mean, everyone talks about ‘radicals’. Do you know how to actually stop them? By killing some. Remember Kent State?

Quién sabe.

This article was originally published with the title El origen de nuestro descontento on CTXT, who we thank for allowing us to reproduce it.

Translation to Italian by Ettore Siniscalchi. Translation to English by Paul Rosenberg

Cover image: University students protest against the Gaza War in New York / Álvaro Guzmán Bastida]

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The Origins of Our Discontent ultima modifica: 2024-05-16T20:00:48+02:00 da DIEGO E. BARROS
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