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Those crazy spoiled college kids: an infinite series

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Friend of the blog Michael Hiltzik points to among other things the similarities between what’s going on now on college campuses and what was happening 60 years ago in California, when the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley inadvertently jump-started the political career of a largely forgotten B-movie actor:

Some university leaders may be trying to demonstrate a strong hand in managing their campuses, but the message they communicate is the opposite. “They look weak, they look mostly like they are appeasing hostile outsiders who have no intention of being appeased,” Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College, has written.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, bragged in 2019 of signing “a law protecting free speech on college campuses.” But he responded to an encampment at the University of Texas by saying the demonstrators “belong in jail” and “should be expelled,” an indication that his devotion to free speech is selective. State and local police raided the encampment, arresting 57.

If the history of appeasement doesn’t sufficiently teach that appeasement never works, the actions of today’s cynical goons such as Abbott, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) demonstrate that they aren’t in this game to be appeased.

They don’t care a hoot about the “safety” of students, or about the rise of antisemitism nationally, or about hurtful rhetoric emanating from the tent colonies on campus, which they claim to be their concerns. Instead, they’re trying to exploit what appears to be a violent situation to pursue their larger campaign to demonize higher education — in fact, education generally — by softening it up for the imposition of right-wing, reactionary ideologies.

One would hope that this message hit Columbia President Minouche Shafik squarely after she staged a show of forcefulness April 18 by calling on the New York Police Department to clear an encampment on that campus’ central lawn; officers in riot gear arrested 100 individuals. That came the day after Shafik faced a lengthy grilling by Stefanik and other Republicans on a House committee about reported antisemitic incidents on and around the Manhattan campus. (Disclosure: I hold a Columbia graduate degree.)

Shafik’s appeasement was unavailing. Three days after the police incursion, Stefanik called on Shafik to “immediately resign” for having “lost control” of the campus. Speaker Johnson followed up three days later by visiting Columbia and also calling on Shafik to resign “if she cannot immediately bring order to this chaos.”

Shafik is still trying to show a strong hand. Columbia’s efforts to clear the encampment occupying a corner of its campus lawn has been excessively punitive: Students who have been suspended in connection with the encampment have been barred from campus facilities, including its libraries, classrooms and the common spaces of their dorm rooms.

Monday, participants in the protest were given until 2 p.m. to clear out and identify themselves to campus police, on pain of suspension that would prevent them from taking final exams or graduating, if they were scheduled to do so this year.

The politicians issued their calls for action after fostering the impression that the campus protests are violent. In the case of Columbia and USC, this is largely a fiction. The Columbia encampment was “fairly calm” and reports that Jewish students feared for their safety were “ridiculous,” Milène Klein, a Columbia senior and member of the opinion page board of the Daily Spectator, the campus newspaper, told Slate.com on April 22.

The police presence was what created the tension, Klein said. “We have prison buses around campus, and an egregious amount of police officers off and on campus,” she said. “The presence has been very overwhelming.”

As my colleague Lorraine Ali points out, media coverage of the campus demonstrations and the official responses has tended to erase the goal of the protesters, which is to focus attention on the carnage in Gaza.

But that’s only one casualty of the misdirected coverage. Another is the conflation of anti-Israel sentiment with antisemitism. These are not the same thing. To many people appalled by the situation in Gaza — including many American Jews and even Israelis — the issue isn’t Israel as such or Jewishness but the behavior of the Israeli government, or more specifically the Netanyahu regime.

The participants in the tent protests on campus include many Jewish students who see the issues a lot more clearly than the politicians or the media. That won’t change as long as university administrators forget why their institutions exist — to defend academic freedom and free speech. The effort may not always be easy, but it’s most important when it’s hard.

This whole topic is too depressing for me to write about in any detail this morning, but maybe you want to talk about it.

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