One Wednesday night this past winter, a group of radical students at Columbia University held a meeting with the moderate College Democrats. The topic: a February 15 strike of classes to bring the troops home now. The radicals were psyched.
“We need to take action!” said Karina Garcia. “People want to see that others are in motion, that something is happening around them, that students are striking, that people are willing to take to the streets.”
“People are at so many different levels of consciousness on this campus!” complained Kristin Wall, who was wearing a shirt with Arabic script and under it in English: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.
“Good news!” announced Anusar Farooqui. “I wrote to Chomsky. He’s going to mention [our strike] in his lecture.”
Consciousness, Chomsky, the streets … the College Dems wriggled and winced. They had the air of earnest choirboys next to the motley radicals sitting disdainfully on the backs of their chairs. “Let’s treat the administration as a potential ally,” said a tall, redheaded Dem named Jim Downie. Why not get a letter from the administration saying that Columbia was officially against the war and that the university also wants the troops home now?
At the back of the room, David Judd, a computer-science student and member of the International Socialist Organization, paced with his head down, measuring linoleum squares against his battered sneakers. Every time a Democrat said the administration might help out, he said quietly, “They won’t … They won’t.”
By the time of the Columbia Coalition Against the War’s next meeting a week later, the Dems were gone. The negotiations had broken down over one issue or other: divestment, calling it a “walkout” not a strike, the Palestine issue. The radicals didn’t seem to care. They were drinking new political wine. Olivia Rosane brought in a wooden crate full of cold red apples, and the meeting had the boundless air of young people conceiving transformative commitments. “He’s a completely beautiful human, he’ll make everyone cry, he’s a Gandhian scholar,” Kristin said of a professor who’d agreed to talk at their rally.
Running down six flights at a break to smoke, Jake Matilsky and Anusar decided that the revolution wouldn’t happen without nicotine, and Jake—angular, hairy, with a ring on his thumb—said his parents’ generation was “MIA.” It reminded me of a lethal comment David Judd had made about his liberal mom: “She drinks a lot of lattes.”
The group of Columbia radicals is small (the most I ever saw at a meeting was 25, and not everyone in the room would identify as such), but it is part of a radical rekindling, or smoldering anyway, at colleges across the country. The SDS—Students for a Democratic Society—has lately reformed, with more than 200 chapters. A group called World Can’t Wait (to drive out the Bush régime) seems even more robust than SDS, regularly haranguing the young generation to shrug off its laziness. The war is all that most students have known as they came of age, says Allen Lang, one of WCW’s organizers. Even if they’re not at risk to go to Iraq, he says, the war has left them dispirited and searching for causes.
Mark Rudd, one of the earliest members of SDS at Columbia 40 years ago, tours campuses today as a hero. “I’ve detected a change among the youngest kids, 15 to 19. The events of the last three years have just shocked them to shit, turned their heads around. They’ve learned that they can’t possibly trust people in power, and you have to do something about it.” Rudd’s fellow SDSer Bob Feldman says, “People have been 40 years in the wilderness, that’s how we have to look at this.”
Feldman, Rudd, and company gave Columbia its brand in 1968: Radicalism in the Elite, at 116th and Broadway. Columbia loves and hates the brand. Freshmen read The Strawberry Statement, James Simon Kunen’s chronicle of the ’68 protests, before they arrive, and find the sex-and-demos plot still fresh. Even mainstream students speak of the sixties as a time of glory. Jess Blakemore, a College Democrat, cried after the talks between the radicals and her group broke down. “The legacy inspires me too,” she says. “I don’t know how many times we’ve sat at a College Dems meeting and said, ‘Columbia is supposed to be in the leadership of liberal activism among youth, and how do we step up again and take on that role we used to have? And that’s been a frustration … In that situation [’68], radicalism worked. A popular movement, getting the grassroots involved from the bottom: It ended the war.”
The institution itself seems to fear a radical revival. Columbia was deeply wounded by ’68. Professors were pitted against professors. The school’s status as a destination for the highly success-oriented took a beating, for a decade or two, and Columbia has lately sent the radicals signals that building takeovers will meet with more than arched eyebrows. “We’ve heard you can be expelled if you try to occupy Hamilton again,” Olivia says (and an administration spokesman concurs).
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.
The left should thank Kulawik. He had awakened the ghost of activism. Lillian Udell, the freshman from Long Island, was in the back of the hall that night, wanting to hear the speech, uncertain about the rightness of rushing the stage. In the weeks that followed, she felt energized.
“I was glad the whole thing happened,” Lillian says. “Something about Minuteman felt different. I thought, This is what the sixties felt like. There was an incendiary spark to it. It refocused media attention on the campus. And I thought we can use that advantageously, in terms of national and foreign policy.”
The incident also exposed what left-wing students saw as corporate hypocrisy on the university’s part. Two weeks before Minuteman, Columbia stopped plans for a speech on campus by Iran’s notorious president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, citing security concerns and “logistics.” Ahmadinejad had been invited by the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs; at a time of international tension, the speech would undoubtedly have been important. Whose free speech counted? Bollinger’s critics said he had deferred to big donors out of concern for his legacy: Columbia’s planned campus in West Harlem. And now Columbia was standing up for the rights of a right-wing fringe group, the Minutemen—“a hate group—as identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center,” David Judd said on the front page of the Spectator.
Olivia Rosane, an aspiring writer from Seattle, was radicalized by the episode. “The protesters were instantly vilified, rather than the university saying, ‘What were you trying to do, what happened?’”
Two of those left-wingers became campus figures after Minuteman. David Judd engaged in sharp debates on the undergraduate-student magazine’s blog, bwog.net. Karina Garcia debated Nat Hentoff on campus and did a speaking tour in California. I heard Karina described as a revolutionary. She is a shy person, and I was careful when I asked her about her political education.
“You know, I don’t have any illusions anymore,” she told me. “[Minuteman] opened my eyes. I used to consider myself a Democrat, too. The only change that can be made in this country is through organizing masses of people. Not lobbying the Democrats and praying they will change their minds. The people will make the change. Not the politicians.”
When she got up to go, she had a girlish smile. “Fuck it, I am a radical. I’m just not crazy.”
Israel-Palestine is the great wound in Columbia student life. There are many Jewish students, and the pro-Israel contingent often seems the predominant political bloc. But the pro- Palestinian activists are a vocal minority. When a Jewish student impishly invited Saifedean Ammous, a Palestinian grad student whose grandparents lost their land to Israel, to a party celebrating Israel’s birth on May 15 last year, Saif went, in his kaffiyeh, and angry words were exchanged. For liberal Jewish kids, the criticisms of Israel are agonizing, and the debate over its role in American foreign policy has stymied the antiwar movement.
“Palestine is the undercurrent in every conversation between the two sides of the progressive movement,” says coalition member Jake Matilsky. “It is emotionally charged, and not addressed in a pragmatic fashion … We need to lock ourselves in a room, the two sides of the argument, and talk about justice and its practical applications to Palestine. But we need to do it in a way that does not frighten away the Jews.”
Here again, the right wing has been an important actor in campus politics. Three years ago, a pro-Israel group called the David Project made a film called Columbia Unbecoming, documenting instances in which Arab and Muslim professors apparently badgered Zionist students over their views. It became a cause for pro-Israel groups. “Reporters from the New York Sun were on a witch hunt on campus,” says Zach Wales, a pro-Palestinian grad student. “Joseph Massad [a Palestinian professor] had to outrun a reporter. If he sneezed, they knew how hard.”
There are two narratives about the David Project on campus. Pro-Israel students say that it was inevitable. “MEALAC [Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures] was teaching students garbage,” says Andrew Avorn, formerly head of the Pro-Israel Progressives. “Those professors were saying things that were so untrue—it would be like if a physics professor gave you the wrong number for g [gravitational force].”
But left-wing and Arab students invariably describe it as a “witch hunt.” They saw professors intimidated. “Students were afraid. Professors were shown to be vulnerable,” says Sakib Khan. “[MEALAC] had a stifling effect on pro-Palestinian speech on campus.”
Columbia’s investigation of the case sought to balance the free-speech right of the professors against another right, that of students not to be intimidated. Arthur Eisenberg, a free-speech expert for the NYCLU, says the school deferred too much to an outside group that was trying to change Columbia’s curriculum. “The David Project crossed the line in ways that raised academic freedom concerns,” he says. “The Columbia academic committee that investigated the episode was insufficiently alert to that issue.”
The case was painful for all and turned Middle East discussion into a no-man’s-land on campus. “Up until recently, I was very afraid to express an opinion either way,” says Olivia. “It was a taboo subject. I didn’t want to be anti-Semitic or anti-Arab.”
Three years on and the mood has changed. Liberal Jewish kids seem to be trying to figure out how to think about Israel in ways different from those of their parents. At a recent Hillel event, a visiting Israeli scholar was asked to respond to the question “Is Zionism racism?” She dismissed the question out of hand. Then the room of 35 people went airless as the discussion was taken over by Saif, wearing his black kaffiyeh, who described the Zionist movement that had cost his family its land as a hodgepodge of colonialist and messianic ideas. “You might as well base citizenship on the horoscope. No Scorpios are allowed, and my family are Scorpios.” The Jewish kids, many of them members of Lionpac, the pro-Israel lobby on campus, sat shell-shocked. And yet: These kids thanked Saif for coming, and they had chosen the provocative topic of the session. Moreover, Saif was joined in his assault on Israeli history by a Jewish undergraduate, Noah Schwartz, who compared Zionist emigration to Palestine to a million Chinese showing up in Philadelphia. Later, Noah said that the fading of the mealac battle has allowed students to actually talk about the issues.
Still, the Israel-Palestine issue has thrown a monkey wrench into the old lib-left antiwar coalition. During Vietnam, almost all of the radical white students were Jews. Abbie Hoffman came to visit Columbia and said, “If you’re born Jewish, you can either go for money or go for broke,” Bob Feldman says. “Dylan was the model. We knew that Schwerner and Goodman [killed alongside James Chaney in Mississippi] were Jewish.”
Those Jewish kids felt like outsiders. When Mark Rudd was a boy, his father had changed his name from Rudnitsky because he didn’t think a Jew could rise above captain in the Army. “We never talked about being Jewish. Never once,” Rudd says of his classmates. “We were attempting to become Americans, we were attempting to escape the shtetls we were coming out of in Queens and New Jersey, escaping Jewish identity.” The Columbia leadership was an alien caste. “[T]he place was dripping with goyishness,” Rudd wrote in a paper he delivered in 2005, titled “Why Were There So Many Jews in the SDS?”
In the last 40 years, the sociology had a sea change. Jews occupy many important positions at Columbia, and pro-Israel Jewish kids on campus have a conservative vibe. Today, the vessel of American outsider energy that Rudd brought a generation ago would be Tina Musa. Soft-spoken, pretty, verging on suburban with her nostril stud and blue jeans, Tina is the daughter of Palestinian-immigrant professionals (she calls them refugees) and has a strong sense of commitment to the cause. Tina’s parents worry that she’ll blow up her career when she talks about, say, building a wall on campus to mock Israel’s “security fence,” but they also cheer her on.
Those divisions were plain at the antiwar coalition’s meeting to choose speakers for the teach-in following its February strike. Two of David Judd’s choices were guaranteed to make the pro-Israel community crazy. One was Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies (and one of the 101 most dangerous professors); the other was Saifedean Ammous, the Palestinian graduate student whose editorials in the Spectator routinely generate a whole page of angry responses. It was the tensest meeting of the coalition I observed.
David Catalinotto, a decidedly laid-back Jewish member of the coalition who spent most meetings covering a page of a dog-eared notebook with intense doodles, voiced concern. “There are a very large number of Jewish liberals on this campus who do have sympathy for Israel. I’m out of the closet here.” Those students would be “deterred” from participating if Palestine was on the agenda. The coalition was at its best focusing on Iraq.
The left-wingers stuck to their guns, but nicely. Karina said, “Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, these issues are connected.” Aaron Hess said, “The issue of the occupation of Palestine has been ignored too long by the antiwar movement. We should remind ourselves, who have been the main victims of racism in this war? Arabs.”
Catalinotto wasn’t the only Jewish kid who was concerned about Israel. If the coalition wanted to grow, it had to address that concern. That night, the students came to a creative solution. They weren’t going to lose the Palestinian issue—Israel/Palestine was a key part of the Middle East policy puzzle—but the coalition would keep the headline Iraq.
The solution provided an opening for students coming from a pro-Israel background. Miriam Aranoff, a prepossessing woman with thick, dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses, told me she’d been active in Hillel because of its social nature: bringing Jewish kids together (so they’d make Jewish families) over pizza and ice cream. But Miriam had gravitated to the coalition because of the intellectual atmosphere: “Awesome.” She’d read about these kinds of idea-fermenting places but never experienced one on campus, even in classes. It was like a salon. “People come in with basic political assumptions, and they’re never discussed,” she said. “Here, they’re discussed.” On Palestine, she wasn’t sure of her own ideas; she just knew they were changing. At least here she could listen and be listened to.
The coalition’s navigations didn’t please everyone on the left. Tina Musa had co-founded a new group of mostly Palestinian students called Filasteen. After the coalition downplayed Palestine, Tina decided not to co-sponsor the rally.
When Noam Chomsky visited campus in February, he did as he had promised Anusar and endorsed the strike, though he also scolded the student audience. They had the power to stop the war. “That’s really in your hands.” Students in countries with far less freedom had done much more, he said crankily.
Even with Chomsky’s backing, the rally was something of a bust. The radicals had been flyering the campus like crazy, but when they struck classes at noon, it didn’t have the gong effect they had hoped for. It was a cold day. Most students just kept going to classes. Student journalist Armin Rosen snickered that more kids had walked out of his suburban Maryland high school at the start of the war. The coalition had dreamed of 1,000 students; standing at the microphone, sick to her stomach with adrenaline, Blair Mosner of the coalition announced that 400 people were there. Others said only 200. Some walked away when they heard the word Palestine—Tina Musa had agreed to speak after all.
“Goddamn self-important protesters,” an anonymous commenter said on the gossipy blog boredatbutler. “They think the world gives a shit … guess what—it doesn’t. If they actually want to change things, maybe they should use their brains for a change.” Of course in ’68 the protesters were also self-important, and the masses had ultimately moved. Though it took a year and a half of organizing.
The new radicals tried to reach out. They formed a Committee About People’s Opinions and went up to kids on campus to ask why they hadn’t struck. Students said it’s not like they support the war, but there’s nothing they can do. And they question the idea that troops should come out now. Wouldn’t chaos result?
The radicals took that as their greatest challenge. “People are overwhelmingly stuck on ‘troops out now,’” Blair said at a meeting. “We need to answer the question. I think we can win the debate. But we have to have a debate.”
They invited the College Dems to debate the question this month. They wanted Chris Kulawik to come, too, and to get someone to say that the U.S. should stay the course.
The radicals were casting about for speakers. One of their best weapons was Rahel Aima, a freshman in the group who grew up in Dubai of Indian-immigrant parents. She knows the Arab world, she knows how repressive even liberal Dubai was when it came to her doing “hard politics” there. She also understands the Arabs’ feelings of injustice.
“The view of Americans is, ‘Why do they hate us so much?’” she says. “What a question! There is such a disconnect between how Americans think they’re seen in the world and how they are seen. Americans will never be greeted as liberators in Iraq. No matter how much help you give, America will be seen as an occupying force. Iraqis will always view America as, ‘What are you trying to get out of us?’ Iraqis would welcome a U.N. force or a force from fellow Arabs.”
To watch her was to watch an intelligent, privileged international fall in love with Western freedom. “I feel so excited, I have four years in front of me,” Rahel said. “People tell me, ‘Columbia has been dead for years, and you are so lucky, you’re getting here and it’s starting.’”
In one way, the radicals’ strike had been a success: It got attention. It was on the front page of the Spectator for days on end in a fairly positive light. If Iraq was a horrifying meat grinder, at least the antiwar coalition was morally engaged. The College Dems seemed jealous. They organized their own show of anger on Iraq. They started a campaign to collect a penny for every life lost in Iraq (an idea that Jake, who still had a passport to both radical and mainstream, gave them), and they went with the figure widely cited on the left: 655,000 Iraqi civilians. The Dems were working within the system, giving the money to UNICEF.
On the fourth anniversary of the war in late March, the Dems held an event called “Number the Lives” out on the college walk, and they covered yards and yards of butcher paper with tally marks as a way of numbering the dead. They’d only gotten to 45,000. Those grim hatch marks taped up on the stone walls were one of the few public signs during the time I visited the school that anyone seemed to care about what was going on in Iraq.
Jess Blakemore, wearing big turquoise Ralph Lauren sunglasses, buttonholed students to ask them to call their congressmen. Congress was the place to stop the war. The radicals think placing so much faith in politics is misguided. They don’t get excited about Obama or Clinton or Edwards. David Catalinotto walked by, and walked away, dismayed by the “rivalry” between the coalition he was in and the Dems.
The ’68ers were able to win over 1,000 or more mainstream Democrats, who came out for strikes and takeovers. They did so by showing the mainstream students that the liberal Establishment was implicated in the war. “Vietnam was a liberal war,” Rudd explains. “Well-meaning liberals got the nature of reality wrong. They said the Vietnam War was a well-intentioned error. No, we said, it was a policy of aggression, imperialism.”
Another reason mainstream students joined up was visceral: the draft. When Bob Feldman knocked on doors at night, kids invited him in to smoke dope and talk about the war because they were afraid. After Vietnam, the government acted to make sure that that Ivy League conversation wouldn’t happen again. According to veterans’ advocate Tod Ensign, the Defense Department’s switch to an all-volunteer army was propelled partly by an argument from conservative economist Milton Friedman that elites must be able to attend college and train for professions without the fear of doing military service. “The bulk of the anti-Vietnam protest was driven by the draft, it was true self-interest,” Ensign says. By ending the draft, the government ended elite “divisiveness.”
It also ended the radicals’ sense of cataclysmic drama. “We didn’t think we were going to live past our twenties,” says Feldman. “I assumed there was going to be a revolution in the seventies. I overestimated the ease with which American society could be changed. Because it was so easy to shut down Columbia.” Feldman and his friends paid a price for their commitment. His former roommate Ted Gold died in an explosion at the Weathermen’s Greenwich Village safe house in 1970. His old Columbia friend David Gilbert is still in prison for the famous Brinks robbery, which resulted in the deaths of two policemen.
And yet, I heard young Columbia radicals using the word revolution. I asked David Judd what that meant.
“I don’t think it’s impossible for there to be a revolution in the United States. But I don’t think we’re anywhere near one,” he said. “In the sixties and seventies, they were vastly deluded about that, and now people make a similar mistake. Because it’s demanded of us, ethically it is what needs to happen, therefore it can. It’s a perspective that leads you to make all kinds of mistakes.”
Would you ever put your college career, or life, on the line? I asked. David splayed his fingers and grimaced as he thought it over. “It’s hard to answer that question without sounding tepid or silly. It’s too abstract. Ask me whether I’m willing to lay down my life for a cause when there’s a realistic chance of that and I will give you an answer. I would hope that I would give you a positive answer. I could manage to ruin my career and get myself expelled from Columbia, but I can’t conceive of a realistic situation where that is going to be productive. I am willing to accept a minuscule risk of expulsion for what I’m going to do.” (A week or two after our conversation, the Spectator published the results of the Minuteman investigation: Among eight students disciplined by the university, Karina had been censured, and David had gotten a warning.)
Hanging out with the College Dems at their rally, I heard lots of career talk. Who worked for Hillary, who worked for Spitzer, who’s at the school’s think tank, the Roosevelt Institution. When a poised former president of the College Dems stopped by the table, Jess Blakemore cooed, “Twenty years from now I’m going to quit a lucrative job to work on Seth’s campaign for president.”
Olivia explained to me that career anxiety is the biggest impediment to anyone’s taking over buildings this time around. “I don’t see that [takeover] as a possibility for my generation, and not just because of the draft thing,” she said. “We have just been so brainwashed on the importance of college, and of a prestige college, and we pay so much for college. The idea of skipping out on an entire semester or risking expulsion—I don’t think we’d be capable of it.”
“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.