Student Protests at USC and Around the Nation

Luke Phillips
Research Associate for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and Senior Correspondent at Glimpse From the Globe

There’s been a flurry of news stories with a common theme- the liberal-minded student body of a university someplace on the East Coast or in the Midwest is inspired to activism by some grave, actual injustice (i.e., explicitly racist harassment by unknown perpetrators at the University of Missouri,) members of the student body organize to counter the injustice and spread awareness, and invariably, they take it to excess and do something that sparks a national controversy (like betraying liberalism by harassing reporters covering their protests.)

These storylines- rather nuanced situations, where tolerant conservatives should usually agree with the activists’ grievances in the early stages- take place against a backdrop of more proactive “reform” on the part of postmodern social justice activists. Student governments at universities across the country issue powerless but symbolic resolutions banning ethnic Halloween costumes, divesting from fossil fuel companies and countries like Israel, instituting politically-correct speech codes restricting “harmful speech” and “microaggressions,” and similar tomfoolery. This fundamentally political movement- confined to the campuses, for now- has its roots in the anti-colonialist and gender theory scholarship of the 1960s and beyond, and tends, paradoxically, to be nihilistic and dogmatic at the same time. 

Its adherents proclaim that all “injustice,” broadly defined, is perpetrated by the perpetuation of constructed institutions that privilege certain groups of people- that is, by the moral, economic, and political norms of Western Civilization. All these norms cannot have any real legitimacy, they say, because they are constructed and oppressive. Meanwhile, these activists tend to seem to believe that, were they in power, they could “begin the world over again” (Thomas Paine’s words, not mine) by revamping our institutions in a more “socially just” fashion than the oppressive ways of the West. (Never mind that their social-democratic political ideas, their quasi-Marxist economic ideas, and their fundamentally devolved-Christian social ideals all evolved under the protection of the very Western Civilization they profess to hate.)

Their dogmatism, in particular, makes these seemingly innocuous yappers all the more dangerous. In his excellent “A Message to the 21st Century” (which seems, now more than ever, to have been written to us denizens of the 21st Century) Isaiah Berlin argues that tyranny arises not from the human failings of corruption and avarice, but from the curse of good intentions given absolute power. Berlin writes that, the nature of reality being complex, multipolar, and incomprehensible to the human mind, any ham-handed human efforts to perfect society are doomed to failure. But the power necessary to effect such changes is attainable- and should it ever fall into the hands of a faction that would wish to use it for that reason, the society would quickly descend into tyranny, as has happened time and time again.

The leaders of the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions were all idealistic college students, once upon a time. Incidentally, so were the leaders of the American Revolution. But is it really too hard to figure out which class the postmodern campus revolutionaries fall into? The revolutionaries- and they are revolutionaries, in their tactics, their idealism, and the logically totalitarian ends of their brand of social justice thinking- are not so concerned with preserving the rights of an aggrieved civilization and the recasting the future of American institutions as they are with “correcting” very real and longstanding injustices and inequities, and creating a new order for the ages. Their motives are probably pure in most cases, but they have yet to know the wisdom of history- and we should hope they start studying it before they set out to make it themselves. Unfortunately, within the campus crusader community, there is little reason to believe there is much intention to do that, or indeed that there is a belief that history has any wisdom to provide.

There’s such a community at the University of Southern California, right here in our own backyard- and it happens to control many of the mechanisms of student government there. A “diversity bill” resolution introduced by these “philosopher-gender neutral term for rulers” recently passed in the USC undergraduate Senate, and it mandates diversity training, establishes new nodes of educational bureaucracy to enforce said training, requires undergraduates to take more diversity classes as part of their general education, and sets aside funds to tenure specifically minority-community professors, among other things. None of this is particularly aggressive, but it lays the foundation for more aggressive enforcement of a politically-correct campus climate and will probably be used as a hammer against unpopular opinions.  It’s only the latest in a spate of examples of activist hegemony on campus recently, following debates over whether a branch of student government was associating itself with the union SEIU and whether pro-life student groups should be allowed to post banners in public spaces on campus. In those stories, the branch of student government won and the pro-life student group lost. The campus culture war is alive at USC.

Fortunately, there are certain voices of reason and moderation standing against this irrationally exuberant activism. USC student Senators like Eric Dubbury, Giuseppe Robalino, and Aaron Rifkind, seeing that the bill would inevitably pass, voiced their disapproval. But they also worked tirelessly behind the scenes with the activists to temper and moderate the proposed resolutions. The bill that passed was more acceptable. This combination of principled public stands and pragmatism behind the scenes is what works in democratic politics- and those concerned that the Millennial generation will not produce great statesmen should be heartened that at USC, the future Senators and Governors do not solely come from the ranks of the activist community.

The culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and even 2000s, are over- in a post-Obergefell world, the liberal establishment has effectively won (and that is not necessarily a bad thing, and in some ways is probably a good thing.) But another culture war is in its skirmish stages right now- and it looks to be more fundamental, more catastrophic, and more divisive than the last one this country fought. We’ll need leaders willing to stand up for the principles that made our civilization great, willing to play as dirty as the revolutionaries will, and willing to do the hard work and study the works of the Western canon and apply their wisdom to the issues of the 21st Century.

California conservatives should feel some measure of relief, knowing that there are indeed some of these future leaders at one of our greatest universities currently studying and fighting the good fight, on the right side.

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