Monday, February 15, 2010

Burn the manuscript

From the Chronicle, about the sit-ins at Columbia, and associated depredations (h/t to Cliopatria):

Like other faculty members, Ranum scrambled to stop the sit-ins. Unlike any of them, he did so in full academic regalia, climbing through the window of President Grayson Kirk's office, in Low Memorial Library, wearing, as usual, a flowing black gown.

"I did that as dramatically as I could," Ranum said. "I was in fine shape, and I was interested in the demonstrators as a political historian. To me the world is a laboratory to understand the past." Once inside Low, he concluded that Rudd, although a strong leader and a superb tactician, had only a limited grasp of issues, including the issue of whether it was legitimate to use violence to advance the radical cause.

"I explained that they should get out of there, that the possibility for their punishment would go up the longer they stayed, and, if they did get out now, this might be treated more as a prank than as a political act," Ranum told the university's oral-history project about a month later. "I held over their heads, as dramatically and forcefully as I could, the possibility of a counterrevolution at Columbia, and I said that the United States is a fundamentally liberal society but with politically conservative, authoritarian elements, and that, rather than accept a radicalized university, the society would snuff out the university—and that I for one would prefer the existing state to the totalitarian state which a counterrevolution would bring about."

Neither argument had any effect on the protesters, who believed that the people of Harlem were going to rise up and join the demonstration, turning a campus rebellion into a biracial revolt. To Ranum, that was fanciful thinking. The radicals, most of them upper-middle-class white kids, spoke a language most Harlem residents would find incomprehensible: the language of Marxism. They regarded the university as the "soft underbelly" of capitalism and believed shutting it down would provoke change. "They did not want to come out, I believe, except by the police," Ranum told the oral-history project. "They needed the issue of the police. They needed the issue of police brutality, further to radicalize the campus."

David B. Truman, the popular, energetic dean whom Kirk put in charge of handling the crisis, had come to the same conclusion. "Calling the police would have given the SDS the confrontation that for months and longer they had been seeking. It would also have activated the strong faculty aversion to having the police on campus," he wrote in his unpublished memoirs. When the police were finally called in, a week after the building occupations began, things went as disastrously as Truman had expected. More than 700 people were arrested, and nearly 150 were injured in the violence that accompanied the raid.

The raid produced an angry backlash against the university and generated enormous sympathy for the protesters. Rudd and the SDS chapter were propelled to national prominence, making them de facto leaders of the New Left. But the student members still faced suspension or expulsion for their role in the rebellion, and they had it in for Ranum, who, after meeting with them in Low Library, had put out a mimeographed statement saying that the only alternative to police action would be for the students occupying the buildings to seize control of the demonstration from SDS.

I'm interested here in the shifting emphasis and valuation of personal, in the most concrete, almost physiological sense--flowing robes, prestige--and quite abstracted political motives. Accusations of hypocrisy on one side, ambition and stupidity on the other; claims to political 'seriousness' on both. A professor getting out of place by giving political advice to students and students getting quite literally out of place (setting scholarship on fire). The soft underbelly of capitalism is at least as confused and 'ideological' an idea as the belief that reasoned discourse prevails in university administration. What a comfortingly ambiguous and meaningless footnote on the late 1960s.

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