From Miachel Brus', "Nacissist's Holiday," Fall '98 From Miachel Brus', "Nacissist's Holiday," Fall '98My Spanish instructor last term was a socialist, though in a way I don't blame him. He is a gay man who was educated in a Catholic school in Argentina. If you were left-handed the nuns would tie your left hand to your chair and make you write with the right one. This upbringing could give anyone a proclivity toward radicalism. The interesting thing is, I didn't particularly mind that my professor was a tenured radical. He was a superb instructor and a warm, open man. He made my academic sentence -- a semester of intensive Spanish to fulfill the foreign-language requirement -- more enjoyable. But more than that, I regarded his politics as kitsch. At the University of Pennsylvania, the PC wars of the early 1990s are largely over. Radicals don't pose a threat to liberal education anymore -- they add to campus diversity. I am a Gen-Xer, but I haven't always been un-ideological. I came of political age during the Reagan administration. My mom would read The New York Times out loud over breakfast every morning, rolling off sarcastic quips against all her ideological enemies -- fat-cat lawyers, law-breaking Republicans, men in general. (It was a cranky, unthinking liberalism, I admit, but it had its charms.) During my first year of college, at Swarthmore, I did a political about-face: I rebelled against an atmosphere of self-satisfied liberalism by becoming a neoconservative. Now, several years later, I flatter myself that my politics is more mature and less ideological. Unlike me, my father has always been apolitical. Of course, in his generation politics wasn't amusing -- it was deadly serious. Thirty years ago my dad was a doctoral student at Columbia University. "The Marxists hung another banner from Hamilton Hall today," my father would write in a typical letter home. On April 23, 1968, radical students gave up protest for outright rebellion. They sent President Grayson Kirk an obscenity-laced letter and then ransacked his office in Low Library. They photostated his private correspondence for campus circulation and urinated into his wastebasket and out of his windows. They burned one professor's papers -- representing 10 years of research -- and destroyed the papers of many others. They held Low Library for seven long days. Writing that December in Commentary magazine, Columbia doyenne Diana Trilling wondered whether "the fantasy of imminent police brutality provided the emotional motive of revolutionary intransigence." The protesters, she noted, made no concrete demands to the administration. Theirs was an existential protest, not a political one. Unlike the famous Vietnam protest march on the Pentagon six months earlier, "the Columbia revolution was nothing if not improvisational, scornful of systematic political thought." Trilling's analysis of the Columbia takeover is, I think, correct. The Columbia brass may have been out of touch, but they weren't the ones sending teenagers to Vietnam. Being young, however, the 1968 revolutionaries viewed all authority figures with the same smoldering gaze. The Columbia faculty -- many of whom had been shielding their students from the draft -- tried to mediate. But the administration eventually permitted an indignant NYPD to storm the building swinging billyclubs, to the public's horror. Classes were canceled for the semester and Kirk resigned. Two commencements were held -- one in the Church of St. John the Divine and an "alternative" one on the steps of Low Library, led by poet-cum-protester Robert Lowell. A friend of Trilling's brought a bottle of water and a handkerchief to the official commencement in case of tear gas. My father, meanwhile, continued to diligently write his chemistry dissertation. He was locked out of his lab for one day, but that was the extent of his inconvenience. During the takeover he paused at Low Library only long enough to snap a few photographs of the revolutionaries, perched like crows on the president's windowsill. My generation is often called apathetic, and by most measures -- election turnout, politicking on campus -- we are. Still, the difference between the righteous activism of the Columbia cabal and my own righteous activism in high school is that in 1968 there were issues worthy of mass protest, like war and civil rights. In 1998 there are problems, of course, but nothing so egregious as to merit the blunt intervention of a frenzied political movement. What happened at Columbia was healthy for the nation, but like all political solutions it left many innocent victims in its wake. Today's peace and prosperity allows Generation X to do what the baby boom generation could not -- to focus on the freedoms of private life. Many of my peers who 30 years ago would have taken to the barricades have instead taken to exploring life, whether that means starting a family, writing software or earning an advanced degree. In Philip Roth's new novel, I Married A Communist, the young narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is upbraided by an English professor for submitting political cant instead of literary criticism. "What is the motive for writing serious literature, Mr. Zuckerman?" the professor asks contemptuously. "To disarm the enemies of price control? The motive for writing serious literature is to write serious literature. You want to rebel against society? I'll tell you how to do it -- write well." In so many different ways, my apathetic generation is doing just that.Comments powered by Disqus
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