Protests in the Ivies: Whatever Happened to Irreverence and Thick Skins?

If I recall correctly, there was an Emily Post parody – the subject was etiquette for leftists — that appeared in The National Lampoon early in the 1970s. The National Lampoon was one of several American equivalents, more or less, of France’s Le Canard Enchaîné, the ancestor of the recently famous (in America) Charlie Hebdo.

Memories fade but I do remember that readers were advised that it was proper and even commendable to fart in public, though not in the presence of Black Panthers.

That little gem captured the attitude of leftwing students at the time; and indeed of many leftists from time immemorial.

There have always been dour, later-day “friends of the people” for whom “political correctness” avant la lettre came naturally. This was, in part, a class phenomenon; puritanical self-righteousness is an affliction of the petite bourgeoisie. Truly downtrodden people are seldom thin skinned enough to care.

Proletarians seldom speak decorously to one another, except, of course, in the presence of persons owed special respect. Seemingly offensive speech – what high- minded academics call “words that hurt” – delivered in a comradely manner to persons in similar situations more often foster feelings of solidarity than difference.

This is one reason why African Americans sometimes use the word that no one else dares utter, the dreaded “n-word,” among themselves.

Left-leaning students in the United States in the late sixties and early seventies were an irreverent lot, regardless of their class position. Sardonic humor was in; conventional manners were out — except, of course, in the presence of Black Panthers and similarly iconic heroes.   Students were no more proletarian then than they are today, but proletarian-like attitudes were the order of the day.

Hence the advice on farting.

Women and homosexuals were disparaged too, as per the spirit of the times. But that was a different, less innocent, phenomenon.

First and second wave feminism arose out of the Left; the gay liberation movement did too. There was surely more support for sexual equality, and more tolerance of homosexuality, on the left than in the general population. But the fact remains that the patriarchal and homophobic attitudes of the larger society were pervasive across the entire political and class spectrum.

No good came of it. In ways both overt and subtle, offensive forms of expression, directed at women and gays, helped buttress patriarchal and homophobic attitudes and institutions.

The remedy, though, was not censorship or self-censorship; it was consciousness raising – for perpetrators and victims alike.   Because consciousness was raised, leading women and gays to fight back, the situation now is much improved, though there is still a long way to go.

The spirit behind these developments spilled over into wider social and political circles, breathing new life into political movements organized around notions of ascribed or chosen identities. The decline of the historical Left facilitated this phenomenon. Something had to fill the void.

Identity politics partly accounts for the triumph of the dour in contemporary leftwing culture. This is one reason why the Emily Post ethos is back; why the dominant view now is that everybody, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on, must be shown respect in the way that The National Lampoon reserved for Black Panthers.

It has been this way for a long time. There are still irreverent spirits around; but, to survive, even they have had to tread lightly.

For the most part, the irreverent still situate themselves to the left of the dead center; this is their natural home. But, in the broader left, such as it is, irreverence is no longer esteemed.   The virtues liberals prize, decorum and civility, have taken its place.

Resurgent religiosity is culpable too. For the readers and writers of the old National Lampoon, God was dead. It turned out, though, that reports of His (or was it Her?) demise were exaggerated. Now God is back with a vengeance, and it can be dangerous to satirize what the godly revere.

It is different in a few parts of Africa and elsewhere, but, in North America, Christian terrorists threaten only abortion providers and other defenders of women’s autonomy and reproductive rights. They are a murderous lot, but they have not made the general public feel unsafe.

There are occasional flare-ups of terrorist violence carried out by skinheads, survivalists, white supremacists, gun fanatics and the like. The perpetrators sometimes identify as Christians; however, their motivations are seldom religious in the conventional sense.

Jewish terrorists focus on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to the exclusion of everything else; all they do outside the Promised Land is raise money.   Therefore the only fear they instill half a world away is the fear of being called an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew.

These taunts are losing their sting – as the fatuity of the thinking behind them becomes apparent to more and more people, and as news of what Israel does, and has done, to Palestinians has become more widely known.

Islamist terrorists are another matter. Reasonably or not, everybody now is a little afraid on their account. For the existence of Islamist terrorism, we have mainly the United States and other Western powers to thank. America’s – and France’s and Britain’s — wars on the historically Muslim world set the plague in motion, and keep it alive; as do their alliances with the principal backers of Islamist terrorism, Saudi Arabia and the other, petroleum rich Salafist monarchies of the Gulf region.

All this has made for a chilling effect that afflicts even the most irreverent, free spirited souls among us. It has also done a number on the broader, formerly irreverent, Left. The watchword in leftish precincts now is: niceness for all.

Students, especially at elite colleges and universities, are the worst offenders. Blame the rise of identity politics for the fact that the young have become so prissy – perhaps not in general, but in politics and in cultural matters that bear on politics. There have been signs, recently, that the pendulum is swinging back, but it still has a long way to go.

For years now, people have understood this, adjusting their actions and expectations accordingly.

Even so, the news from Princeton and Yale and similar venues – where students of color and their allies are demanding more “respect” for themselves and for everyone who is not white and male — is surprising and a little unsettling.

The problem is not just that some of the demonstrators want, or seem to want, to restrict speech and other forms of expression that they find offensive. Proscribing forms of expression that offend others, but that does not materially harm them, is patently illiberal – according to centuries old and eminently defensible accounts of what tolerance requires.

What is more unsettling, to large swathes of non-elite public opinion, is how precious and self-absorbed the demands of the student protesters are.

No doubt, some, maybe all, of their grievances have merit. But these are, after all, complaints of privileged people, inductees into the power structure’s highest echelons.

Is it not unseemly for them to identify their problems – with “culturally appropriative” Halloween costumes, for example – with the life and death problems of victims of racially motivated police violence?

Even if they are not all, or mostly, spoiled rich kids, that is the impression they convey.

Maybe, you’d have to be there to know better or to assess the situation differently. The childishness of the demands they make suggests otherwise, however. So does the fact that there has been so little resistance to those demands, and so much establishment support.

Perhaps some of the protestors are also raising questions about what American elites do, and therefore about what they are being coopted into.   If so, the news has not gotten out.

What has gotten out are demands for changes in the ambient culture of the institutions that provide students of color entry into the country’s – and the world economy’s — ruling circles; changes intended to make them feel more welcome at places like Princeton and Yale.

No wonder that university administrators and the editorial board of The New York Times have been sympathetic.

It is relevant too that the changes that students are demanding are, for the most part, symbolic; more on that later.

It should be noted, though, that the strongest resistance encountered so far has come not from the usual suspects, but from alumni and others who regard those symbols fondly.

Could it be that the stewards of the old regime have gone soft? Or should we conclude instead that, in a period when people care more about identity than the traditional objects of political contestation, that it is it the Left that has gone soft in the head?


This is not the first time that colleges and universities that train social, political and economic elites have been rocked by student demands.  What is happening now bears at least a superficial resemblance to the upheavals of half a century ago. Appearances can be deceiving, however.

By the late sixties, the civil rights movement had partly given way to militant black liberation struggles in which white students could play no direct role.

There was plenty of solidarity work to do, however; and there was the Vietnam War to oppose. The spirit of rebellion was in the air.

Hopes of forging a mass movement, comprised of students and white working class youth, working separately from but in tandem with African American militants and their counterparts in other communities of color (Hispanics were beginning to mobilize then too, along with native Americans), never materialized. However, at the time, the idea that this could happen seemed plausible enough; it is only in retrospect that we know it to have been a delusion.

But something like a mass movement actually did come briefly into being at the nation’s top colleges and universities. Racial injustice and anti-war fervor were the underlying causes. But the demands were directed at university administrators. How could they not be? There were no other authorities within reach, and you can only organize people “where they’re at.”

Therefore, university reform became an issue too.

In fact, it became the most consequential issue of all. Students in other countries have sometimes catalyzed worker and even peasant revolts, but, by themselves, students cannot change the world. American students in the late sixties and early seventies could not even, by themselves, stop a war that some of them, the ones who couldn’t or wouldn’t avoid conscription, were being called upon to fight.

Rank and file soldiers did play an important role in stopping the Vietnam War, but few of them had had any involvement with leftwing student politics. There were exceptions, of course, but, on the whole, students – especially at elite colleges and universities – had many ways to avoid the draft. The U.S. Army then, like now, got its cannon fodder from the working class, not the Ivy League.

Student power could not change much of anything except, within limits, colleges and universities themselves. Even in those quarters, less went on than people think. Administrators back then were not just enemies; they were also accomplices. All students had to do, in many cases, was push against an open door.

The idea was to make universities less subservient to the military, and to open them up to persons of color.   Those goals, the second especially, were partly realized. But these ostensibly far-reaching reforms ultimately changed little. As happens when turmoil threatens, everything changed in order that everything would remain the same.

A few African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans did benefit. Indirectly, women benefited too, as many previously all-male colleges and universities welcomed them in. Those were the institutions at the top of the academic hierarchy.

Some historically black colleges, and some women’s colleges reacted by trying, as best they could, to shed their old identities. Others declined; a few closed. A handful flourished by taking advantage of their “separate but equal” status.

Also dormitories and student centers got more amenities, and support services multiplied. Some of the more onerous aspects of student life therefore changed for the better.

It is hard to believe nowadays but, as the Vietnam War raged, a major concern of college and university administrators was keeping students from having sex in dormitories; strict limitations on who would be let in or out was their weapon of choice.

Administrators were supposed to act in loco parentis, and the assumption was that parents wanted their offspring to be chaste. Small wonder, therefore, that student rebellions, whether political or not, often took on the tenor of family squabbles.

All this changed as the old order crumbled – which it did with astonishing speed. But the in loco parentis doctrine didn’t expire; it changed its valence instead. Where students used to demand independence, they began to demand coddling. This seems to have been a major factor in the recent events at Yale.

The irony doesn’t stop there. The rebellions that led to changes in colleges and universities were political and universalistic, not parochial, in intent. The student left was anti-racist, anti-war and anti-imperialist. Its goal was to change the world in the ways that the historical Left had always envisioned. What they mainly changed, however, were the ways that they were treated in their schools.

Sympathetic leftists from earlier generations sometimes found it odd and disturbing that students would target their colleges and universities. Institutions of higher learning were, after all, the most liberal institutions around, and among the most esteemed.

There were plenty of arguments on the other side, however. It could always be pointed out, for example, that liberalism had become part of the problem — that the Vietnam War was initiated by and, at first, run by New Frontier and Great Society liberals; and that colleges and universities were deeply implicated in the atrocities that were unfolding.

There was the additional point that turmoil in elite universities put the reproduction of social and political elites in jeopardy; a consideration that could lead existing elites to conclude that the benefits of continuing the war in Vietnam weren’t worth the costs. That argument was on point: elite opinion did begin to turn against the war from the late sixties on, as it became clear how disruptive the war at home had become.

But, thanks to the geopolitical calculations of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and others who held fast to the idea that the fate of the world depended on the United States not losing face in Southeast Asia, the war dragged on. Instead of ending the war, Nixon and Kissinger escalated it, extending it beyond the borders of Vietnam itself.

But they couldn’t keep it going forever. In time, domestic political considerations forced Nixon, and then Gerald Ford, to turn the bulk of the fighting over to Vietnamese proxies who, with American aid, kept the war going until 1975.

Black liberation struggles fit into the story as well. Even after the civil rights victories of the mid-sixties, racial tensions remained high – in the wider society and on college and university campuses too. University administrators were eager to do whatever they could to make the problems they confronted on this account go away.

One way to do that was to let more African Americans in. It wasn’t necessary to twist arms to make this happen. Existing elites had, by then, overcome their own attitudinal racism sufficiently to want to coopt the brightest individuals they could from all underrepresented groups.

There was also the more immediate fact that the turmoil in universities was happening at a time when ghetto rebellions were causing panic in white America. With many institutions of higher learning in close proximity to neighborhoods where “riots” could erupt at any time, administrators were highly motivated to accommodate demands for racial justice as best they could.

It had seemed for decades that riots were a thing of the past. Now, though, the fear is back.

However, the causes this time – murderous police violence, above all — are more localized and specific than systemic. The police can eliminate the danger whenever they want, simply by not provoking it.

And, when trouble does erupt, they can deal with it more effectively than in the past. They have more means of repression at their disposal, and the technology of surveillance has improved a thousand-fold.

University administrators therefore no longer live in fear of their neighbors. They have nothing to fear from their students either.

There are, of course, links between Fergusson et. al. and Yale et. al.   Were communities of color still as quiescent as they had been for many years, students of color in the Ivy League would, in all likelihood, have remained quiescent too.

Also, concerns about “respect” carry over from the one to the other – with the difference, of course, that the problems in Fergusson et. al. are life threatening, while the problem at Yale was that a College “Master” and her husband had said things that were perceived to question the importance of not wearing Halloween costumes that some might find offensive.

It is therefore hard to fit what is now going on in New Haven and Princeton and similar locales into the template of the student activism of decades ago.

That earlier wave of student rebellion seems nearly to have played itself out in the mobilizations in the eighties and early nineties that demanded institutional divestment from companies involved with Apartheid South Africa. Those demonstrations took place mainly at elite colleges and universities too. They had to; that is where the money was.

There are still ripples of that kind of activism because there are still solidarity movements in league with civil society groups in places where the level of oppression is such that calls for redress strike large numbers of people, students especially, as morally compelling.

The burgeoning Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement in support of justice for Palestinians is an example.  So far, though, its impact on colleges and universities has been minimal. BDS may ultimately accomplish great things, but, unlike the solidarity and anti-war movements of the sixties and seventies, it is hardly on track for building anything remotely resembling a mass movement.

But the student wing of the BDS movement is of a piece with familiar kinds of student activism. This is also true of student mobilizations in support of institutional divestment from corporations involved with the fossil fuel industry.

Students demanding more maternal treatment from Mother Yale (and the others) are on a different page.


The difference may not be well understood, but its reality is, at some level, widely acknowledged. It plainly has something to do with class, but there is more to it than that.

In the sixties and seventies, there were student organizations that spoke about and tried to establish worker-student alliances of various kinds. It would be unfair to say that nothing came of these efforts. But the majority of workers, and many others too, saw only over-privileged rich kids acting out. They wanted nothing to do with them.

Remember the hardhats, construction workers who would come to demonstrations to jeer? They were as typical of the age as the student radicals themselves.

Similar sentiments account for some of the criticisms, not all of them fatuous, over what students are up to now. The hardhats were onto something.

The larger problem, though, is that much of what is going on these days has everything to do with symbolism, and very little to do with substantive change.

The tone was set early last summer when Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of the attack on the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was seen on social media in a photograph with a Confederate battle flag in the background.

Suddenly, Confederate flags, statues of Confederate leaders, and other symbols of the old South became Topic A.

There was a point to this insofar as some of those symbols, the flags especially, have lately been adopted by white supremacists.

The situation was equivocal, however, because those flags are also historical artifacts that, to many people in the South and elsewhere, have little, or nothing at all, to do with slavery or white supremacy.

In any case, the flags were removed from many of the locations where their presence was most problematic. Public officials were sometimes happy to comply. Why not? There were no real policy changes involved and they didn’t need the aggravation. From their point of view, it made more sense just to move those damn pieces of cloth than to keep a sore point festering.

In New Haven and Princeton and similar locales, there are no confederate flags, but there are plenty of names on buildings of people, alumni mostly, associated with slavery or segregation. Changing those buildings’ names has become a focus of struggle, in much the way that removing Confederate flags had been.

A difference is that it is usually easier to remove flags than to rename buildings; also the considerations involved are generally more equivocal.   Nevertheless, the drama played out in public places in the South last summer is now being repeated, with all the necessary changes, on college and university campuses around the country.

The only thing wrong with this is that, carried to extremes, it becomes silly. It is only in moderation that it can be worth doing and, even then, it all depends on the politics involved.

There is no general rule. Is it a good thing that Constantinople is now Istanbul? As the song says, “that’s nobody’s business but the Turks.” I, for one, rejoiced when Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City; I only wish that the name had taken better hold.

Poor St. Petersburg has had its name changed four times in just a little more than a hundred years: from St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and then to St. Petersburg again. I wish it was still called Leningrad, but, thanks to the vicissitudes of Russian politics, that will never be.

Names are often changed in revolutions and counter-revolutions and also in less dramatic cases of “regime change.” Sometimes this makes sense, but even ardent revolutionaries understand that there are limits. With that thought in mind, it would be interesting to examine which names were changed, and which were not, during the French Revolution, and the other great revolutionary upheavals of last four centuries.

The protestors at Yale and Princeton raise interesting questions too. Yale’s Calhoun College is named for a defender of slavery, and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton is named for a segregationist (but also a Progressive and one of the least reactionary Democratic Presidents in history).

Changing Calhoun’s name is roughly on par with removing Confederate flags from public buildings in the South. Ridding Princeton of the name Wilson is more complicated; he did resegregate parts of the federal government, but more than anyone else, he made Princeton the world-class university that it is today.

Separating his name from Princeton’s would be like separating Thomas Jefferson’s from the University of Virginia’s. Since, in addition to all his other achievements, Jefferson was a slaveholder, the arguments for and against in both cases would be similar.

Nearly all of America’s older colleges and universities have similar problems. Craig Steven Wilder wrote a widely read, very informative, book about this, Ebony and Ivy. I would imagine that that book has played a role in the protests underway.

The problem is not limited to old colleges and universities, however. Places and streets and buildings, even cities and counties, named for people with ties to slavery or segregation, or to the cultural and physical genocide of indigenous peoples, are everywhere. Even the national capital bears the name of a slaveholder, George Washington.

It would be ludicrous even to try to rename all that is named for the Southern planters whose wealth was based on slavery, and the northern merchants whose wealth was based on the slave trade.

Which of our “founding fathers,” after all, is innocent? And what about all that is named for Christopher Columbus – the District of Columbia, for example? His role in the genocide of indigenous peoples of the Americas is second to none.

Where, then, to draw the line? There is no good answer. The Yale and Princeton students have placed themselves on a slippery slope leading not so much to a bad place as to a ridiculous one.

How much better – and wiser – it would be to resume the irreverent, more thick skinned, less prissy attitude that The National Lampoon of the early seventies exemplified!

Since those days, we have gained a little, and lost a lot. However, what we have lost need not be gone forever.

The problem with this latest spate of Ivy League protests is by that making a fuss over “cultural appropriations” in apolitical contexts, and by catering to the sensitivities of persons being inducted into the empire’s commanding heights, they are standing in the way.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).