Good-Bye to All That

I got a long, close look at the widening gap between popular and elite priorities during a two-year leave from Dartmouth between my sophomore and junior years.

I got a long, close look at the widening gap between popular and elite priorities during a two-year leave from Dartmouth between my sophomore and junior years.

In his debut book Privilege, a chronicle of the peculiar culture of Harvard and other elite schools, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat highlights a remarkable distinction between two types of students that we often overlook today. Douthat, who honed his writing skills as a lone conservative voice at Harvard, makes no bones about granting that today’s elite students are overwhelmingly liberal. But he recalls the cultural inflection point of the early 1960s to point out that there were once two competing strains of campus liberalism under the broad “liberal” umbrella.

Of course, the brightest streak of progressive student culture emerged when students chafed against old institutions and sexual ethics, defining themselves against the identity of the dried-up establishment. Douthat calls this set the “street liberals.” They’re the college kids whose radical vision took them off the beaten path about until they hit their mid-twenties, when most of them swerved right back into business, academia, and the other institutions they had vilified, infusing them with a bit of their soft-rebel sensibility.

The second player in the ‘60s campus schism was the “parlor liberals.” They were students and administrators who, yes, favored civil rights and workplace equality for women, but saw them as a welcome evolution of longstanding ideals instead of a radical departure. These folks took a more conciliatory tone to activism, believed old institutions had some use left in them, and chose the straight-and-narrow path in their personal and professional lives. Douthat suggests that the parlor liberals  “retired or died off (or got with it, posthaste).” And though he grants that self-defined street liberals have readopted a lot of the parlor sensibility, he doesn’t see much of a future for political moderation, sexual restraint, and the old parlor liberal ideal on campuses like Harvard’s.

Today’s wave of PC and protests, sweeping colleges coast-to-coast, seems to confirm that prediction. A brief scan of events covered in this publication and others over the past few years sums up the by-now-familiar story of microaggressions, “affirmative consent” laws, and other concepts dear to today’s street-liberal students. Sensible journalists from every corner have written off our generation as the worst of both worlds; possessing all the indulgence and self-regard of our ‘60s predecessors but without their tolerance for discomfort.

The funny thing is, it’s completely clear to everyone reading this on the grounds of an actual college campus that all the silly stuff is driven by a fairly small faction of progressive students (and their cheerleaders in the faculty). The real story of the current political climate isn’t an increase in the number of students voicing silly ideas. It’s the fact that the moderate majority have remained willing to give the instigators the benefit of the doubt as their ideas have gotten sillier and sillier.

To be fair, sometimes it makes sense to defer to people who are more passionate than we are. If the moderate establishment had blocked out the harshest voices calling for civil rights at the dawn of the first street liberal wave, progress would have been slow rather than sweeping. But somewhere along the way, the moderate students and professors decided it frankly didn’t matter what the activists were calling for, as long as they were loud enough. By the early ’70s, the protests for voting rights and workplace equality had morphed into violent demands for racial studies departments and the abolition of ROTC. Rather than take a minute to sort the worthy causes from the petty ones, most students just went right along paying lip service to all of the radicals’ ideas.

The problem with this habit starts at graduation. Adopting the language of the activists can make it easier to get through our college days, and helps us show off a bit of social consciousness. But on the other side of the ivied gates, warped political priorities and high-strung social science buzzwords will be a seen as a sign of detached elitism. If our goal is to live in a rarefied world surrounded only by fellow bankers, journalists, or professors who speak our language (which has become more and more common these days) then we have nothing to worry about. But if we have any actual interest in becoming “leaders,” not in the shallow sense of “the people at the top,” but cultural laborers with an actual bearing on broad social norms… we’re going to have to make a change.

I got a long, close look at the widening gap between popular and elite priorities during a two-year leave from Dartmouth between my sophomore and junior years. Working as a door-to-door salesman selling cable packages in central New Jersey, most of my coworkers were middle class men and women at their latest in a series of post-recession placeholder jobs. And the customers I served were often destitute, thanking me endlessly for the opportunity to save ten dollars a month on television, which they often confessed was their last source of enjoyment.

Many of the friends I made in and out of the office had quirky politics, sometimes every bit as wide-eyed and progressive as a street liberal Ivy Leaguer. But the sensibility was completely different; even the advocates of open redistribution shrugged at the notion that collective action ever could or should make every corner of life completely comfortable. It’s not hard to imagine how a few hard knocks over the years can ground a man’s perspective, and shorten his patience for kids with their heads in the clouds preoccupied with everyone else’s privilege.

Dartmouth’s most dedicated progressives will have tough time swallowing this; they love to fashion themselves as heroes of the downtrodden working behind enemy lines. But history shows that the American poor and middle class have no respect for the brand they’re selling. Working class voters turned out in droves to support Kennedy in 1960, whose optimism and practical approach to class and racial progress hit home despite his pointed reluctance to “check his privilege.” Those same voters roundly rejected George McGovern twelve years later, whose poorly affected common-man shtick and utopian speeches helped speed the mass working class exodus from the Democratic Party.

The same rules will apply for us. If tomorrow’s Democrats go street liberal, voters will go GOP. If the media goes street liberal, viewers will watch Fox News. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, it doesn’t have to go that way. The PC perspective can seem all-consuming, but the graduating seniors have the choice to stubbornly cling to it or do the hard work of building a proper political vision through a combination of lived experience and a deeper moral orthodoxy. In his autobiography 1929, budding literary critic Robert Graves hailed the end of Britain’s old ubiquitous but shallow moral system; reflexive patriotism, strict sexual ethics, uncritical and feigned religiosity. Today the new progressive morality has become just as shallow, corroded, and distant from the people it’s intended to help. Graves titled his book Good-Bye to All That. The ‘15s looking out at the landscape that awaits them, so very different from the cozy Dartmouth bubble, should keep that title close to heart.