Today, two of the same conditions that produced ’68 are with us again: a horrifying war, and plans by Columbia to expand, this time to build a new campus in West Harlem between 125th and 134th Streets. And after years of absence, student radicals have rebuilt a platform at the school. Maybe it’s just a tree house, but they’re back. In the coalition’s meetings, idealistic kids debate how to retrofit the sixties for today’s crisis. “People don’t know that a 19-year-old girl desegregated the city of Nashville,” says freshman Lillian Udell, from Long Island. “It was college students doing that! Martin Luther King was running to catch up with the students. The adults should be trying to catch up to us. Because we have the power to change things now, and we’re going to use it!”
Whatever use it makes of those powers, the next left is determined to have an “intercultural” flavor, to use the Columbia buzzword. For the last two decades, the left was wrapped up in identity politics, which was more an etiquette than a politics. No one could get offended, you had to choose your words, and the right wing made legitimate fun of this (non-)thinking as political correctness. When I ask Kristin about her background, she rolls her eyes and says, “Father, left-wing gay. Mother, Christian apathetic,” as if those narratives we used to find so thrilling are a lot of noise. “Identity politics is tragic,” she explains. “It limits you to embracing only one kind of struggle.”
The prototypical next-left experience at Columbia is a media-savvy mash-up of Third and First worlds, of color and religion, democracy and insurgency. As Anusar, who is from India, puts it, “The social institutions that came out of the sixties, the huge intellectual liberation of student activism—it was global. And now we emulate that.”
The first thing you notice about Columbia is that the professors are more left-wing than the students, owing to the fact that much of the faculty came of age in the seventies. Last year, right-wing Columbia grad David Horowitz published a book called The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America—teachers who (the book flap claims) want “to kill white people” and “defend pedophilia.” Out of 101 wicked professors, nine are at Columbia. Horowitz’s book underscores a paradox about Columbia: Its image has been more useful to the right than to the left. “Fox News uses Columbia as a whipping horse for a left-wing institution, which I wish it was, but it is not,” says Andrew Lyubarsky, who heads the Working Families Party on campus.
Over the last year, the most effective student activist at the school has been a boyish conservative who walks around campus quoting Plato and addressing any man slightly older than himself as “Sir.” Chris Kulawik writes a column for the school paper, the Spectator, and tries to bait the inert liberal masses by bringing right-wing speakers like John Ashcroft to campus and staging theatrical events. When Columbia screened Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Kulawik held a global-warming beach party. (“There were more beach balls than Republicans,” snipes former Columbia Dems president Mike Nadler.)
“A lot of people called me a masochist because I came here,” Kulawik says. “But I have had to defend, articulate, and advocate my beliefs against really, really smart, talented people.”
Something else they call Kulawik is a high term of praise among Columbia students: careerist. “Chris can walk out of Columbia tomorrow and get a job at a right-wing think tank,” college journalist Armin Rosen marveled to me.
Kulawik’s biggest moment may have signaled the left’s rise. Last October 4, Kulawik staged a speech on campus by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, a group of anti-immigration vigilantes. The invitation aroused left-wing students who regard the Minutemen as a hate group, and they planned a number of protests. The only one anyone remembers took place when Gilchrist came to the podium inside Lerner Hall, and a group including David Judd and Karina Garcia ran up on the stage and unfurled banners, one saying NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL. In the mêlée that ensued, a Gilchrist loyalist kicked a protester in the head and Gilchrist left the stage without finishing his speech.
Thanks to Columbia’s reputation, the Minuteman incident quickly became a national story. Talk-show hosts ranging from Lou Dobbs to Jon Stewart assailed the protest, and the New York Post compared those who rushed the stage to brownshirts. Attention turned to Columbia president Lee Bollinger, a legal scholar and free-speech expert. Mayor Bloomberg criticized Bollinger for not taking a firm stand against the disruption, while Bill O’Reilly of Fox News said Bollinger was “frightened” by a “Kool-Aid campus … [where] power is in the hands of the radical left.” Bollinger issued a statement two days after the incident saying it was “one of the most serious breaches of academic faith that can occur in a university” and promising action against the stage-rushers. What a black eye for Columbia! In online bulletin boards, students lashed out at Kulawik for bringing the show to campus in the first place.