A Progressive Phiasco

Progressivism is becoming a prop for the loudest and most sensitive among us.

Society beyond the ivy gates shakes its head and wonders about what has become of its youth.

The Australian political theorist, Kenneth Minogue, once observed about an adversary that his tendency to correct fictitious missteps made him “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men.” It would seem that some on the Dartmouth campus would do well to bear that analogy in mind while making their appeals for social justice.

Last Friday’s edition of The Daily Dartmouth carried a verbum ultimum that was remarkable not for its content, but for the nature of its provocation. In a coauthored letter to editor, the presidents of Phi Delta Alpha* and Alpha Phi informed the Dartmouth community that they were canceling their third annual benefit for cardiac research because “some students had expressed concerns… about the event’s theme.” The problem? Phi Delt and APhi had the utter cheek to call it a “Phi-esta.” And nary 11 days before Cinco de Mayo at that.

Naturally, many on campus had a field day with the offending pun (though it should be noted that the theme didn’t seem to bother them in either of the last two years the event was held). Cries of “cultural appropriation!” and “insensitivity!” filled the air, as did comparisons to this summer’s “Bloods and Crips”-themed party.

One plaintiff in particular, Daniela Hernandez, mourned that “As a Mexican-born, United States-raised, first generation woman of color, it was sadly unsurprising that a culturally-themed party was seen as a casual venture for such a privileged institution such as Dartmouth.” She added that there were “various problematic structures and ideologies regarding a Cinco de Mayo-inspired event” and that Dartmouth should be aware of “the exploitation of groups of people and cultures for the sake of business opportunities.”

It is that last line that really gets us. Business opportunities? It never once occurred to the burgeoning capitalists at The Review that the impulse to donate to cardiac research was a profit-seeking venture. For shame.

Setting all semantics and sarcasm aside, Ms. Hernandez’s lament is worth examining in greater detail if only for the nature of its logical progression. It is not entirely clear to us where the crime in getting a bunch of college kids together to eat “globally inspired” burritos lies. But it doesn’t seem to be in the concept of cultural appropriation writ large. Applying the reasoning of Ms. Hernandez’s complaint to other aspects of campus life, one finds innumerable instances that could be described as appropriative. Foco’s imitation Chinese food that has been watered down for Western palettes is appropriative. The piñata at my friend’s recent birthday party was appropriative. Even elements of KDE’s derby party and SAE’s champagne events are appropriative.

The same is true when you expand the locus of examples to include international instances. When I was living in Taipei a few summers back, I went down to a local bar for its much-anticipated Fourth of July celebration. After paying my 600 TWD cover fee, I discovered they had made a complete and unapologetic hash of it. Chinese dragons and fortune cats stood-in for red, white, and blue streamers. Jiaozi and mantou abounded where their advertisements had promised hamburgers and hotdogs. And waitresses dressed like Cowboys’ cheerleaders served Heineken and Qingdao instead of the expected Sam Adams and Budweiser. Clearly, the desire to emulate American culture was only skin deep and was an obvious ploy to lure foreigners through the door. After my initial dismay, however, I tucked into a plate of dumplings, had more than my fair share of Chinese beer, and wound up having a pretty memorable evening, cultural profiteering notwithstanding.

What this anecdote and the others before it reveal is that while appropriation is a decisively multicultural phenomenon, complaints about it are almost exclusively uni-cultural. The force of Ms. Hernandez argument does not lie within a consistent desire to end all exploitation; if it did, she would be sounding off about all of the aforementioned insensitivities. Instead, her concerns stem from a neurotic need to prevent “privileged” people from doing what is only natural when surrounded by diversity: borrowing from others.

Such a complaint is not just arbitrary and partisan in its application. When taken in the context of Phi-esta’s charitable purpose, it also becomes indicative of the ersatz nature of campus progressivism more broadly.

Life at Dartmouth is a Potemkin existence defined by what Jonah Goldberg calls a positive liberty: “someone gives you a whole pile of stuff so that you can be ‘free’ to do whatever you desire.” To adapt his analysis, DDS prepares food for us so that we can eat at our leisure. Dick’s House provides birth control and condoms aplenty so that we can have lots of sex. And when we inevitably make a mess, legions of custodians and administrators are there to clean it all up. In the meantime, students are told to “pursue their interests” no matter how arcane they may be and are instructed in the ethics of sensitivity, awareness, and discussion ad infinitum.

The result of this externally funded bliss is to distort the priorities and sentiments of a cohort already characterized by its selfishness. Egged on by the promise of an “educational Shangri-La,” the “Me Generation” grows stronger in its conviction that its problems are the real ones and that the world below the ivory tower is illusory. Suddenly, problems like heart disease cease to be something that young invincibles put much stock in; instead, bad puns and even worse burritos become the issue du jour of a campus consumed by its own self-importance.

When this happens, progressivism ceases to be progressive; it becomes a prop for the loudest and most sensitive among us. The rules of cause and effect are distorted and the sense of solipsism grows stronger. Local issues replace societal ones as the topics of focus. And the Dartmouth community grows increasingly isolated from the concerns of the world that their education is supposed to help them lead.

In the meantime, many among us keep setting fire to their favorite straw men, blinded by their zest for issues of personal significance. As these targets grow more numerous, the fires grow hotter and burn without discretion. All the while, society beyond the ivy gates shakes its head and wonders about what has become of its youth.

Update: Phi Delta Alpha and Alpha Phi have started an online fundraising drive for the charity that was slated to benefit from the event. To donate or find out more, go here.

*Full disclosure: Mr. Cathcart, the President of Phi Delta Alpha, is a long-time contributor to this publication and is its current President.