The historical annals are replete with narratives of student heroism. The global uprising of 1968 which challenged capitalism, American imperialism, and contemporary gender and sexual norms was foremost a revolt of students. In France the memory of May 1968 endures as a moment when university students almost created a revolution while, in the States, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) flourished, mobilizing hundreds of thousands at the height of anti-Vietnam protests. But tales of student activist prowess are not limited to the New Left of 1968. The two most prominent revolts against Soviet authority – the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and Prague Spring – very prominently featured students. Even Stanford has an illustrious history of student protest, having played an important role in the movement to divest from Apartheid South Africa in the late 1970s. At their most valiant, students have articulated nuanced and insightful politics, and have led national, and even global, insurrectionary movements.
Today the energy of the left could not be more different. The student left-wing has allowed itself to become sucked into a pointless and losing battle against the right over racist, sexist and ‘dangerous’ speech. While the Right has certainly descended into making childish provocations, the left has proved remarkably willing to respond in kind. By engaging the Right in this conflict, progressive activists have only amplified reactionary conservative views. Even more dangerously, this Quixotic battle has led the Left into a politics that seeks foremost to respond to the Right rather than to articulate nuanced and progressive visions for America’s future. It’s high time that the Left gave up the fight against free speech.
It’s remarkable that the ongoing campus conflict over ‘problematic’ and hateful speech has gone on for so long given that Stanford’s student body is almost entirely progressive or, at the very least, anti-conservative. If we take a 2016 daily survey as our political barometer, just 4% of campus voted for Trump, while a tiny 14% identify as either libertarian or conservative. And yet conservative discourse receives an amount of attention that far exceeds its size. Hardly a week goes by without shrill reactions to a controversial Stanford Review article, and the recent visits of Robert Spencer and Charles Murray dominated the campus imagination for weeks on end. This leads us to a conundrum; given that almost 80% of campus identifies as some form of progressive, how can right-wing discourse be so prominent?
The simple answer is that the Left has grown complacent and weak. With a monopoly on campus discourse and politics, progressives have forgotten the fundamentals of political action. With no one to win over, campus activists have forgotten the importance of persuasion and strategy in successful mobilization, instead subjugating intelligent action, guiding vision and leadership to runaway intersectional moralism. By contrast, the historical student-activist Left mobilized against all-powerful administrations, or even nation-states, and were thus compelled to act with remarkable political acuity. And it is with a touch of sadness that I note that it has been the Right who in recent years have taken up this former Leftist mantle of serious and effective campus political organizing.
This may at first appear a surprising, or even shocking, claim. After all, this is the same campus right-wing that fuelled the rise of everyone’s most hated ‘cultural libertarian’: Milo Yiannopoulos. In fact, the very rise to prominence of figures such as Yiannopoulos speaks to the political savvy of the current right. We need look no further than the Review’s recent hatchet job of the leftist student presidential slate Ocon/Khaled to illustrate these claims. The piece itself could have come straight out of the National Enquirer, both in terms of rhetoric and content; the article sought to discredit the Ocon/Khaled campaign through citing their links to TPUSA – a highly conservative youth advocacy group – on the basis of a single, unnamed ‘tipster.’ At first glance, such work appears indicative of the intellectual weakness and desperation of a right-wing movement struggling for its very existence on liberal-dominated campuses.
And yet a closer look reveals an entirely different image. Conservatives know two things. First, if they produce highly thoughtful and well-researched op-eds they will get very little attention on liberal-minded campuses. Second, American progressives are liable to produce near-nuclear reactions to anything that even smells conservative, let alone offensive. Based on these two realizations, the Right on campuses across America developed a highly effective formula to shape campus dialogue in spite of their small numbers: write and mobilize solely to provoke susceptible leftists.
The most ingenious of this conservative cabal on the farm are surely the rejuvenated Stanford College Republicans. A marginalized and fringe group just a year ago, under the leadership of John Rice Cameron, they have been able to consistently dominate headlines, and create a presence on campus of vastly disproportionate size to their membership. Their great triumph was, of course, the visit of that most detestable islamophobe, Robert Spencer. This is part of the broader trend across America where the Right, which paints itself as a First Amendment victim, keeps attention on itself by inviting thoughtless, anti-intellectual bullies and provocateurs such as Milo, Richard Spencer and Ann Coulter. These figures are designed not to spark interesting discussion, but to solely ‘trigger’ liberal students. What is often quite a moderate conservative body of students portrays itself as far more extreme to attract activist attention, and the Left is very willing to buy into this obviously exaggerated narrative. After all, off the top of my head I can think of only two right-wing students on campus who actually agreed with Robert Spencer, but the left bought the notion of him as representing the Right hook, line, and sinker.
It is certainly important to recognize that the vitriolic reactions of campus progressives are to some extent understandable. Robert Spencer is, after all, a self-professed Islamophobe (who has been banned from entering my more rational homeland, Britain) who in the weeks leading up to his visit doxxed numerous students online. And yet, in these reactions progressives reveal a profound political naivety. A less alarmist and more thoughtful body of left-wing activists would recognize that the Right has no power over discourse at Stanford, and that the Right’s provocations are the last twitches of a dying animal. With under 30 active conservative students on campus, the Right should not be making a noticeable impact. After all, if this was a democratic nation-state, a party which was able to mobilize 80 per cent of the vote would quickly forget about the concerns of the minority. But conservatives have learnt to rely on the vulnerabilities of the Left to make their mark. And as much as we may indict the Right for many of its tasteless actions, the Left must be held largely culpable for allowing itself to respond to their childish tauntings.
More than legitimizing the presence and rise of a right-wing on campuses, the leftist willingness to enter this pointless conflict has ruined any prospect of creating a visionary political movement. With a hegemony of campus discourse, the Left should surely be able to cause major change and advance a unified and insightful political vision – think of the Berkeley free speech movement, the anti-Apartheid campaign, or to cite a more modern case, challenging the prevailing neo-liberal orientation of economics departments. Instead, by responding to the targeted pokes of the campus Right, the progressive politics on campus have become, at their most fundamental, responsive rather than articulatory. The Left is able to show a unified front only when confronted with a right-wing event, whether it be the visit of Charles Murray, a controversial Review article, or the Western Civilization campaign. Speaking the missionary and self-righteous rhetoric of liberalism, the Left has made proving the immorality of the Right its great cause.
This is not to say that activists and progressives on campus don’t do terrific and meaningful work – take, for instance, the students who have fought for homeless East Palo Alto residents who faced eviction against the backdrop of Silicon Valley’s incredible wealth. This would be an ideal cause around which to unify campus progressives; Stanford’s large body of progressive students would surely flock to a cause that sought to improve the plight of the homeless. And yet, sadly, the average Review article receives more attention than these noble students who have dedicated hours upon hours to community organizing. There is therefore hope; certain students are not only dedicated, but have given themselves to causes that betray a far-seeing political vision. The Left more generally, however, is too distracted with the Right to notice. Most embarrassingly, high school activists across America have in recent weeks put their university counterparts to shame through creating an immensely effective and powerful grassroots movements for gun control. And the reaction from college activists? Self-righteous, intersectional scorn.
It is time for change. The Stanford Left must give up its conflict with the Right on the issue of free speech and let the provocative words of the Right fall into empty space. The Right only has a voice because the Left gives it importance. Stanford progressives are making incredibly poor use of their hegemony of campus discourse. Where are the students of 1968 that I thought I would find upon my arrival in California? What has happened to the purported rebirth of the student movement in the face of Trump’s election? For students are able to transform societies and politics through their conviction and vision, and we currently inhabit a moment in American history particularly ripe for the Left to assume its traditional mantle of creative, intelligent, and meaningful change.
Ravi Veriah Jacques
Photo: Stanford University Campus, 14 February 2004 Credit: Dirk Beyer