Protect the Student Protesters. Don’t Idealize Them.

Published by Chronicle of Higher Education

have a tradition of turning the last week of classes into an open discussion. When I did so recently, a student inevitably wanted to know what I thought about the protests and arrests at Columbia. It was as if she was asking: Would you ever call the cops on us if we held a protest?

“Hell, no,” is what I basically said.

The response of Columbia’s president, Nemat (Minouche) Shafik, was disastrous from a simple governance point of view. Even the New York Police Department affirmed that the students had been nonviolent. Plus, there was only a week or two left of the semester — was there no way to wait it out?

But Shafik’s response has not been an outlier. At my own alma mater, New York University, a seemingly peaceful gathering was stormed by the police, who arrested both students and faculty. Almost 50 students were arrested at Yale University. Similar stories are playing out at the University of Texas at Austin, at Emory University, and elsewhere.

Such scenes are propaganda fodder for anti-democratic regimes, like the Islamic Republic of Iran or Putin’s Russia. Their state media are gleefully publishing videos showing American students being shuffled off to jail by American police. They will use these images to question the legitimacy of liberal democracies and to justify their own repression.

College administrators have failed our students. As educators, we have to support them. But supporting them doesn’t mean uncritically adulating them, praising them as moral vanguards of the moment. Such rhetoric is predictably at an all-time high; sympathetic commentators tell us that the student protesters are decidedly on the right side of history. Inevitably, they are compared to the fabled anti-Vietnam War protesters of 1968 at Columbia and other colleges.

Students are right to be disgusted by the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza. They are right to demand a ceasefire in Israel’s brutal war and to question the United States’ substantial military support for the war. In the same way, the 1968 protesters were right to protest their country’s indubitable war crimes in Southeast Asia.

But one should avoid romanticizing either the past or the present. The legacy of the ’60s is as much a cautionary tale as it is a record of noble idealism. Students today have inherited some of its worst tendencies.

It is hard to not look with nostalgia at the global ’60s. The students of the era — from the American South to Latin America, from Prague to Ohio — engaged in some truly heroic activism. Civil rights, LGBT rights, and much else are owed in part to their efforts.

But it would be shortsighted to focus on the heroism and miss the failures, which hamstrung the Western left for generations and saddled it with habits it has never quite shaken.

Perhaps the most well-known cautionary tale concerns the organization that planned the storied 1968 protests at Columbia: Students for a Democratic Society. Formed in 1960, SDS was rooted in the old-left socialist movement and trade unions. Its 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, centered around strategically reasonable demands such as reform of the Democratic Party and partnership between liberals and socialists. Yet, like many of the protagonists of the 1960s, SDS would not remain strategic for long. In an era infected with a desire to change everything everywhere all at once, activists lost the patience for the hard work that the old left had done for generations.

With the limited perspectives characteristic of its age group, student activists supported every shortsighted adventure so long as it was against the status quo. In France, thousands of students would go on to support the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, a brutal campaign of repression and destruction that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. When a Maoist regime seized power in Cambodia and went on to massacre almost 25 percent of the country’s 8 million people, it had the support of a good number of Western students, who compared it favorably not just to the capitalist West but to the sclerotic Soviet Union and the massive communist parties that supported it. When the old leftists warned that such shortcut adventures would bring nothing but disaster, they were predictably scoffed at by the new generation.

In less than a decade since its founding, SDS grew to over 300 campus chapters and 30,000 students. But extremism produced factionalism. Following its last national convention in 1969 in Chicago, the organization splintered into disparate groups, mostly affiliated with various Maoist and Stalinist sects. The most famous of these was the Weather Underground, which went on to conduct a bombing campaign in the 1970s, targeting government buildings and banks. As with most such groups, it didn’t last beyond a few years. Three of its members died in a bomb-making operation gone awry.

At the outset of the ’60s, the American left helped organize such inspiring events as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his eternal “I Have aDream” speech. By its end, students’ impatient adventurism and incredulity toward established organization and strategy meant that not only their goals were out of reach, but no durable progressive project could be consolidated around them. As the Beatles’s John Lennon, the most iconic cultural figure of the era, put it in 1971, “Nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit.”

Why this failure?

Karl Marx once advised his followers to be “bold in content but mild in manners.” Students of the 1960s seemed to follow the advice in reverse. They were often in competition with each other in being ever more shocking. They had open contempt for the masses of workers who, according to contemporaneous theorists such as Herbert Marcuse, were hypnotized by consumer culture and thus a lost cause.

The students’ relationship to the global South also had something to do with it. If workers at home comfortably voted for Richard Nixon and Georges Pompidou, perhaps one could put one’s hopes in adventures far from home. The Western students thus fetishized their global counterparts in troubling ways. In his influential monograph on the 1960s in West Germany, Quinn Slobodian observes a difference between the solidarity shown by German students to their Iranian and African counterparts in the earlier part of the era, and their later focus on the Vietnam War. Whereas the former had been done in partnership with Iranian and African activists who had migrated to West Germany, and thus had a real material basis, the Vietnam activism was conducted without such concrete alliances. Troublingly, this work was often based on a raw appeal to the senses, for instance by giving central place to shocking imagery coming out of the war. If the old leftists solidified their politics by pamphlets and books, the new left seemed too closely in step with the age of emerging mass virtual media.

As students today seek to change the world, they seem to be making some of the same mistakes. One only needs to read the statements of Columbia University’s Apartheid Divest, the group organizing many of the protests, to see an unfortunate amalgam of the worst of the 1960s with the fashionable identity politics of today. We are told, for instance, that “all systems of oppression are interlinked: The fates of the peoples of Palestine, Kurdistan, Sudan, Congo, Armenia, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Korea, Guam, Haiti, Hawaii, Kashmir, Cuba, Turtle Island, and other colonized bodies are interconnected.”

But how does listing a number of place names show any real understanding of the world in 2024? Why exactly are the fate of people in, say, Congo and Guam “interconnected”? Who is oppressing whom in these places? Whose count as “colonized bodies,” and how does this translate to an actual political program?

As Zaid Jilani has pointed out, the leading pro-Palestinian group on U.S. campuses, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), speaks in a similarly obtuse language and seems uninterested in swaying actual political opinion. More troublingly, the movement harbors an anti-Israel maximalism that’s both unworkable and abhorrent. Various branches of SJP, as well as its national leadership, explicitly supported the Hamas attacks of on Israeli civilians on October 7. Some of the material they distributed argued that there was no such thing as an Israeli civilian. In many a student protest, including at Columbia, one hears chants such as “we don’t want two states, we want all of 48,” as well as the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab.”

As this last makes clear, the idea that Israeli Jews don’t belong in their country and must “go back” to where their ancestors came from is chillingly present. The Palestinian Liberation Organization dropped this demand in the 1990s. Sadly, the radical student movement has held on to it. Not only do such slogans amount to an open call for ethnic cleansing — and are thus obviously antisemitic — their extremism guarantees that students will remain politically marginal.

If students want to change the world, they should learn their lessons from the past generation. Instead of the narcissistic declarations that they are righteous actors on the right side of history, they should learn to appeal to large numbers of regular people, build durable organizations, and drop the childish extremism in favor of reason and strategy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *