“Brainwashing?” I said.
“When I was in high school, a guidance counselor came into my group of honors American-studies students and said, ‘You are all competing against each other for places in the Ivy League and the UC [University of California] schools.’ ” The comment angered Olivia. Yet she wonders if her generation can’t escape it. “We’re always being told about how few jobs there are, how few important schools, etc. In an anthropology course last year, our professor [Elizabeth Povinelli] said there is ‘a discourse of scarcity.’ I feel that. I don’t know if we can transcend that.”
And Columbia, she said acidly, is fine with that. “I get the feeling the university would rather have us go out there and make a bunch of money and give it to them than have us go out and make the world a better place.”
Through the spring the radicals limped along. I watched three of them go to a CIA recruiting session; they were quiet and polite. The coalition’s meetings were low-energy. The radicals seemed to be waiting for the next spark.
One night, I was wondering what the point was when I noticed two radicals avoiding each other and then coincidentally leaving Hamilton Hall at the same time, in that time-honored way that said they might be a couple but they weren’t telling anyone. The two were from sharply different cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds, and their friendship, or whatever it was, felt as special to this time and place as, say, James Simon Kunen going back to make it with his girlfriend after seeing cops club demonstrators during a “Jewish race riot” on upper Broadway in the spring of ’68.
The coalition was filled with different identities. I looked around the room. Anusar and Rahel were global citizens with Anglo-Indian accents. Karina was the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Samantha—Puerto Rican? Blair had grown up among Zionists, she said, as if they were Martians. As for Deena Guzder, I had no idea. When I’d brought identity issues up with her, she told me to back off. “I don’t describe as anything. I think labels constrict people’s understanding of concepts or ideas.”
Bryan Mercer, a black student who had lately visited the coalition from the anti-Harlem-expansion group on campus, also shrugged off labels, saying that one pleasure of Columbia in this era is that of playing with identities. Sort of like Miriam’s fleeing pizza and ice cream and all the good Jewish boys at Hillel.
For nearly twenty years, identity politics has ruled the left, keeping everyone in his little box. Indeed, the Iraq war had paralyzed the left by playing on sectarianism at every turn. Clash of civilizations. Islam versus the West. Jewish neocons and Evangelical Christians plotting against Persians plotting against Zionists. Shiites murdering Sunnis murdering Shiites.
How suffocating. The kids felt suffocated. That was the radicals’ one real achievement, the space they’d made for one another. They were reinventing the mixer. Maybe that’s how they will lead us.