Friday, May 28, 2010

Conventional Radicalism at Hampshire College: Divestment Activists Bite the Hand That Feeds Them

To be sure, the address by Hampshire College Commencement student speaker Daniel Scheer contained the usual words of thanks to family and friends. To be sure, he also expressed his “love” for the unique educational approach, the faculty, and the staff (to loud applause in all cases). “Today we are supposed to celebrate Hampshire,” but, he added, “I have a love-hate relationship” with it, because, “like every other liberal arts school in the United States,” it is “predominately white, wealthy, and apolitical.” Specifically, he said, “I have problems loving the administration [loud whoops from the audience].”
We came here to shape Hampshire in the way we wanted to shape the world, but we were limited in our capacity to change the school. That is why after I have survived this gauntlet—we have survived this gauntlet—I am left with feelings of sadness, resignation, and anger. The administration is two-faced. Students have known for years that Hampshire, like most US institutions, is a hotbed of institutionalized racism.
Gee, thanks. Some romance. Remind me not to invite you to my next Valentine’s Day party.

But my condolences: It must have been a rough life. Passing through that “gauntlet”—which cost somebody (that ever variable mixture of family funds and College’s financial aid budget) about a quarter of a million dollars—got you a degree and the singular honor of a platform from which to address the entire Hampshire community, all the graduates and their proud families, and the press. Not the usual reward after the brutal punishment implied by “gauntlet.” I think your counterparts in Iran have a somewhat tougher time of things.

Many people were taken aback by the snide tone or general lack of manners. It’s not pretty. It’s also no act of heroism: The College does not censor students’ remarks in advance, and what could it do afterward without looking petty and vindictive? So, it’s risk-free “radicalism”: students mouth off while the administrators have to sit, impassively or grinning sheepishly, at the back of the dais.

My problem with the talk was two-fold: civility and substance. I’ll connect the two in a moment.

Okay, I, too, think it was ill-mannered, but the issue is really manners in the sense of civility, implying not just custom and convention, but common sense and decency. This is actually an interesting question, given the context. The College is celebrating its fortieth anniversary, and I recently had occasion to see a copy of the student handbook of the first entering class of 1970. It includes the statement:
The culture of the Hampshire College campus . . . will be neither normless nor joyless. The College—and this has little to do with rules and regulations—will expect a high degree of what John Kennedy termed civility in every part of its life. The College’s use of the term refers to the basic attitude and stance of people in their dealings with each other, not to superficial niceties for their own sake.
When President Ralph Hexter spoke of the relation between civic engagement and civility in his commencement address here, he was echoing the commencement address that Barack Obama recently delivered at the University of Michigan, who was in turn echoing John F. Kennedy: on civic engagement, the Peace Corps speech, delivered 50 years earlier in Michigan; and on civility, the inaugural: “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”

So, civility was lacking here, but so was sincerity.

Mr. Scheer is a supporter of Hampshire Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), part of the larger anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. It’s a strain of “activism” that has little regard for civility, for one of its preferred tactics—as we see here—is to demonize its opponents, and then, when they respond, to play the martyr, and claim that it is being silenced:
[at approx. 5:00 into the video clip] “The administration is also corporate. Twenty years ago, the first to divest from Hampshire College was the first to divest from apartheid South Africa [loud whoops and applause]; the first institution of higher ed, excuse me. Twenty years later, students sought to uphold Hampshire’s promise to avoid investing in war, genocide, and military occupations. Students moved to divest the school from US corporations that benefited from the Israeli occupation of Palestine [loud whoops and applause in some quarters, waving of signs]. Students campaigned for two years to hold Hampshire accountable to our responsible investment policy. They held film screenings, distributed original literature, and put up cool actions [girlish laughter]. Yet in the face of such hard work and political ingenuity, the administration threatened students who organized the divestment campaign with disciplinary action. They micromanaged students afterward and forgot about its supposed obligation to invest in peace and justice.”

This is misrepresentation by omission.

SJP demanded divestment from funds that they said supported Israeli violations of human rights and international law. The College undertook a larger review of its holdings according to its socially responsible investment policy, and made a number of resultant reallocations, none of which had anything to do with Israel or its policies. Even though fully informed of this decision and its rationale, the students immediately trumpeted to the world, in a slew of press releases, the news that “Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, has become the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

The administration never threatened anyone for organizing, protesting, or doing anything else that falls within the bounds of free speech and academic freedom. Indeed, it was very courteous in response to the student divestment activists and took their extensively documented request seriously, even as it ultimately rejected and declined to act on their logic. What the administration took issue with was public misrepresentation by the students—and their supporters—of College policy.

I remember the time well. I was waiting for a meeting to begin when one of the faculty supporters of SJP came in, quite agitated, after having read a just-published piece in the Jerusalem Post. Celebrity lawyer and pro-Israel gadfly Alan Dershowitz demanded, pending clarification on whether the administration or student version was true, a moratorium on contributions to the College. The President and Chair of the Board responded by reiterating that no divestment had taken place and closed by saying:
we . . . urge you to understand us clearly, when we say that students do not speak for the college and may not willfully misrepresent the school. It will be, and must be, the college's task to undertake any disciplinary action, according to its established rules and procedures. Discipline is an internal process that is not shared with the public.
Many of my colleagues became quite concerned and immediately began to speak of denouncing the administration and “supporting the students” for their “courageous” action. I explained that they were getting worked up over nothing and simply had to hone their vaunted skills in textual interpretation. Clearly labeling “discipline” an “internal process” was the College’s diplomatic way of trying to lower the temperature by saying that outside pressure and grandstanding by either side were not helpful, and that we could deal with the matter on our own.

It worked. The administration’s statement effectively put the story to rest as far as academe and the serious public were concerned, though the divestment myth continues to flourish in BDS circles where activists invoke it in vain hopes of inspiring future “successes.”

No students were persecuted, prosecuted, or even punished.

So, let’s recap:
• student engages in activism
• student denounces administration
• student is elected commencement speaker
• student denounces administration at official event before audience of hundreds
Threats of “disciplinary action”? “Corporate”? It’s not exactly the Gulag. Or even Walmart.

Twice Scheer stated, with slight variation, that students feel betrayed because they came here hoping to change the college and failed to do so. The notion that it is the primary task of students to transform a college, rather than vice versa, is a stunningly revealing example of solipsism and twisted logic. To be sure, we give students an unusually large role in shaping their educational programs and participating in college governance, and I firmly believe that this is as it should be, but this is not everything. To cite that first Hampshire handbook again:
Hampshire College does not assume that a student can pursue only his self-defined interest in the College . . . . the College sees its obligation as encouraging the expansion of a student’s definition of relevance, not pandering to it.
Pity the shlemazel Scheer. How could he know that his ill-considered, ill-mannered rant would be preceded by President Hexter’s call for civility and followed by Peter Cole’s subtle and thoughtful keynote address on “Radical Convention,” which could not have been a sharper aesthetic or political rebuke had it been conceived as such. (text; video)

Cole provocatively argued, “there’s nothing about convention that’s inherently inimical to radical ways of being and seeing, and in fact one might argue that an understanding of the nature and dynamics of convention is a prerequisite for truly radical expression”:
Conventional convention pacifies, or stultifies. Radical convention intensifies, and sometimes transforms . . . .

But that’s the easy and obvious contrast: conventional convention and a radical approach. What happens when the experimental impulse goes slack, is left unexamined, or is valued primarily as a mark of identity and ceases to be used as a vehicle for honest inquiry? That is—and this is something that goes to the heart of the experience of learning at a place like Hampshire—how can we distinguish between a radical vision of convention and conventional radicalism?

For all of its passionate intensity, conventional radicalism too easily preaches the organic but in fact is not about growth and nourishment and honest response to experience. Its aesthetic is assumed rather than earned or evolved. It embraces openness in theory rather than practice. More often than not, it is about attitude rather than aptitude. And it is—to borrow, perhaps unfairly, from a famous Amherst poem by one of the greatest of radical conventionalists—“public, like a frog,” broadcasting its allegiances, rather than cultivating a sustaining dynamic between inwardness and action. It sometimes asks hard questions, but rarely works hard to answer those questions in scrupulous fashion, and once it has learned the manner and style, conventional radicalism stops learning. And “stop” in that sentence is both an intransitive and a transitive verb.

The tradition of radical convention, on the other hand, never stops learning. And knowledge is never enough for it. Though knowledge is also critical to it. The radical employment of convention involves re-vision in the most elemental sense: the constant recalibration of sight, and with it of imagination.
Lesson over. Any questions?

The closing faculty toast by Professor of Biology Lynn Miller, founding member of the College and official resident curmudgeon (he used to have a button identifying himself as such) was a welcome conclusion and tension-breaker. Ironically, it, too, was an implicit rebuke to Scheer’s banalities.

Miller’s talk had all the elements of a good commencement address (only shorter)—along with a few pointed allusions to campus politics past and present: sharp enough to those who able to hear them, but subtle enough that they did not wound anyone or spoil the mood of the occasion—altogether a fitting way to end. That’s how it’s done, son. If only our student speakers could learn that.

Of course, as Peter Cole reminds us, college provides the beginning of an education, not the end. Let us hope, anyway.

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