…a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted…
Or, Every Good Road Ends in a Detour to the Zombie Apocalypse
The timeless lesson that social change activists invariably fail to learn is that every movement has a birth, an adolescence, a maturity and an appropriate time to die.
During the No-Nukes Movement of the late 1970s, I became involved just as the movement was reaching its peak and its maturity. Engaging the movement from the back-door of the Appropriate Technology Movement, I quickly became a Clamshell Alliance regional organizer, then a representative to the Coordinating Committee, then the media staff person in the central office, and finally – all within the short span of two years – one of the three organizers of the First National No Nukes Strategy Conference in Louisville Kentucky, which coalesced the myriad regional alliances into a national movement.
The Clamshell Alliance had begun among New Hampshire fishermen and other locals who objected to the impacts that the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant was having on their lives and livelihood, on the ecology of the seacoast, and what it portended for the larger social and natural ecology of the planet.
Youthful supporters soon appeared to put their bodies on the line to stop what was increasingly viewed as a corporate and technological abomination – a misguided attempt to turn the most destructive technology ever created into a public good. Civil disobedience grew from one to 14 to 1400; and in the summer of 1978 when I got involved, 6,000 occupiers trained in non-violent direct action were converging from all over the continent to make yet one more attempt to stop construction by drawing massive media and public attention to what would have been America’s largest act of coordinated civil disobedience.
Because of threats of retaliatory violence from the state of New Hampshire (with its rabidly right-wing governor, Meldrin Thompson), the seacoast base of support was fracturing over concern that peaceful resistance might not be possible, and landowners were withdrawing permission to use their property to support the occupation. Because elements of the New Hampshire government (the attorney general) and even the Public Service Company of New Hampshire (which was constructing the nuke) were similarly concerned, the Clamshell Alliance leadership (of which I was then a part) made an emergency decision (which was allowed by our bylaws) to convert the occupation into a massive legal No Nukes – Alternative Energy rally. This seemed not only the best course of action given the changing circumstances, but an unprecedented opportunity to engage and educate the public and attract the positive media attention that was needed to change the course of American energy policy. 20,000 people showed up for the informative and entertaining solar-powered event, which featured celebrities including Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Barry Commoner, Dick Gregory and physicist Amory Lovins.
While the Clamshell Alliance did not succeed in stopping construction of the Seabrook nuclear reactor (though the planned second reactor was abandoned), not a single new order for a nuclear power plant was attempted for the next forty years, making the movement one of the most successful in American history in the span of just a few years.
But, in spite of an internal fracturing due to the emergency decision, which arguably violated the principle of grass-roots consensus that the movement was built upon, member affinity groups wanted to continue small-scale civil disobedience actions, even though there was no longer clear agreement about the limits of that action – such as whether property destruction might be justified.
It became obvious to me that the Clamshell Alliance had completed its useful life, but member groups kept it on life-support past the time of its natural demise. Fortunately, that extended life was short-lived at Seabrook, though it did move on to other power plants and other issues.
Other social change movements in the US have similarly outlived their usefulness, and yet continue to live in a zombie-like form which feeds on the very principles upon which they were built.
The two most prominent are the Women’s Liberation Movement (now called Feminist, a label that a 2015 poll found was adopted by only 23% of American women) and the Black Civil Rights Movement (now pejoratively, but accurately, labeled the Black Grievance Movement) – the difference being that, while women have achieved virtual equality on every level (surpassing men on several), racism and its outcomes continues to fester.
After achieving the vote with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919, the feminist movement turned from the struggle for political participation to social and economic equality, and then to women’s empowerment, often to the disadvantage of men and masculinity which were villainized and demonized, beginning with Second-Wave Feminism of the 1970s.
Similarly, after achieving the Voting Rights Act of 1965, school and public accommodation integration and de jure equality, the Civil Rights Movement shifted from equality to Black Power, and has mostly degenerated into an angry Black Grievance community (albeit some of those grievances – such as police killings of unarmed men and the disproportionate rate of black incarceration – are all too real and grievous).
Today, the vestiges of both those equality movements are living like poltergeists, haunting our college campuses, and attacking the very principles upon which they were created – including non-violence, tolerance, mutual respect, authentic equality and universal social justice.
Second-Wave, and now Third-Wave Feminism, having achieved phenomenal success politically, socially and economically, is forced to find problems where none exist (such as a fictional “rape culture“), to invent discrimination where none occurs (such as in Title IX adjudications), and to push laws and regulations which disadvantage men so that women can feel empowered (such as the plethora of expansive sexual assault regulations on campus that define regretted drunken hookups as “rape” and an unwanted kiss as a sexual assault).
Similarly, with a black man in the most powerful political office in the world, and legal discrimination virtually abolished (though cultural bias and prejudice has a much longer shelf life), the Civil Rights Movement, now morphed into the Black Lives Matter movement, is forced to over-react to minor insults when no systemic discrimination can be found.
The most stunning recent example of this was the uproar at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) in Columbia during the autumn of 2015 (more below).
The “Right” to Not Be Offended, Safe Space, and The Selective First Amendment
The new campus climate, in which self-declared victim groups – such as women, gays, genderqueers, transsexuals and racial minorities – demand an academic and social environment in which they never have to experience personal discomfort or challenging ideas, is a direct assault on the freedom of expression and academic freedom which was once not only the hallmark of higher education but fought for by a previous generation of student activists.
One of the most striking examples of the war between freedom of expression and the hypersensitivities of self-described victim communities was the infamous 1993 Water Buffalo Affair, in which a white male freshman at the University of Pennsylvania was cited for racial harassment for shouting out his window, as he was trying to write an English paper, at a very loud group of mostly black college sorority women, finally saying “Shut up, you water buffalo” when they did not heed his initial polite request to “please keep quiet”. The freshman, Eden Jacobowitz, was an orthodox Jew, and behema is Hebrew slang for a thoughtless or rowdy person, which is translated as “water buffalo” and has no racial connotations.
The University of Pennsylvania not only proceeded with a hearing after police had exonerated Jacobowitz, but also issued a gag order to prevent leaks to the media, adding insult to injury in an act of utter contempt for both free speech and freedom of the press, in deference to the sensibilities of some rather obnoxious college women.
On May 13, 1993, news anchor John Chancellor, responding to this incident, reported that:
“The language police are at work on the campuses of our better schools. The word cops are marching under the banner of political correctness. The culture of victimization is hunting for quarry.”
The “political correctness” movement, which some have defined as a dangerously serious cultural Marxism (“The social requirements of heterosexuality…institutionalizes male sexual dominance and female sexual submission… For women it is difficult to distinguish [sex and rape] under conditions of male dominance.” – Catherine MacKinnon, Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: Toward Feminist Jurisprudence, 1983) was lampooned by future Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol when he debuted his comic strip “Thatch” in Brown’s student newspaper in 1988, which featured a faux superhero called Politically Correct Man Person.
In the late 1980s, after a series of racially charged incidents aimed largely at black students, the University of Michigan instituted a policy prohibiting discriminatory actions or speech that could stigmatize certain groups. But in 1989, a federal judge blocked the university’s speech policy on First Amendment grounds. “However laudable or appropriate an effort this may have been, the court found that the policy swept within its scope a significant amount of ‘verbal conduct’ or ‘verbal behavior’ which is unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment,” the judge wrote.
The political correctness movement soon became a concern of a broad segment of America, with Newsweek’s front cover in December 24, 1990 shouting Thought Police: Is this the New Enlightenment or the New McCarthyism? A month later, John Taylor’s cover story “Are You Politically Correct?” appeared in New York magazine, and the Wall Street Journal ran a series of pieces attacking political correctness.
The Thought Police have become institutionalized on college campuses – precisely the venue in which academic freedom and challenging ideas should be the currency – so much so that student activists believe they have the right (and the power) to demand the resignation of faculty and administrators who dare cross the line of acceptable ideas or language.
University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe was savaged for failing to understand “systematic (sic) racism” as something more than a perception of discrimination: “you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success”.
Wesleyan University’s student government voted to consider slashing funds for the student paper after it published an opinion piece criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.
That led Wesleyan President Michael Roth and two other administrators to write a letter titled “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech”. They wrote: “Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable.”
Yale lecturer Erika Christakis came under fire by students for her thoughtful memo questioning the university’s annual warning about inappropriate Halloween costumes. Her daring position:
“Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.””
Students demanded her resignation, “a demand that is simultaneously inappropriate, provocative and offensive”, according to Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
In response, Yale President Peter Salovey sent an email to alumni, saying the university “stands firm in its commitment to protect the free and open exchange of ideas, and to do so on a campus that values civility and respect.”
[Followup: In December 2015 Erika Chistakis resigned her teaching position at Yale, in spite of being one of the most sought after teachers in Early Childhood Development with “truly exceptional teaching evaluations”, and in spite of a standing offer from Yale to reinstate her whenever she might choose to return. Chistakis wrote in an email that “I have great respect and affection for my students, but I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”]
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that tracks and rates speech policies at 430 public and private schools in the US, said codes attempting to regulate speech at colleges and universities have declined in recent years. But it said tolerance of free speech at schools is declining.
“We used to have the most concerns about administrators” said the group’s executive director, Robert Shibley. Now, “what’s really disturbing is that it’s coming from the students,” he said.
At the University of Missouri, the Board of Regents succumbed to student demands for political correctness. At Mizzou, black student protesters along with their white supporters and the school’s football team, succeeded in ousting university president Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin over accusations that they did not respond quickly enough to allegations of racism (most of which were either unsubstantiated, occurred off-campus, or were perpetrated by a black student).
In addition to the “success” of political correctness in the face of minor offenses, the Concerned Student 1950 protest (named after the year the first black student was enrolled at MU) drew national attention for preventing student journalists from photographing a public event in the most public place on campus: Carnahan Quad.
An almost infinitely polite and thoughtful student photojournalist on assignment for ESPN, Tim Tai, was manhandled and forced away from the student protest encampment on the Quad, with instigation from Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communications in the Media Studies department, her husband Richard “Chip” Callahan, chairman of the religious studies department, and Assistant Director of Greek Life Janna Basler.
Tai correctly informed the angry and aggressive mob that the 1st Amendment protects both their right to assembly and his right to document history.
Sarah McLaughlin of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote: “To be perfectly clear, student journalists do have the right to take photos and protesters do not have a right to push away journalists. Students engaged in public protest, the very purpose of which is visibility, cannot credibly argue that they have any reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Another student journalist, videographer Mark Schierbecker, senior photographer for The Maneater student newspaper, filmed Melissa Click calling for “muscle” to eject him from the protest area – in a video that went viral on the internet and forced Click and Callahan to apologize, Click to resign her courtesy appointment to the School of Journalism in advance of a likely removal from that post, and Basler to lose her staff position.
[Update, 1/25/2016: Missouri city prosecutor Steve Richey formally filed an assault charge against Melissa Click for strong-arming student journalist Mark Schierbecker, who tweeted, “I don’t even mind that things took this long. The city prosecutor obviously had a lot to weigh.” The 3rd degree misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to 15 days in jail. More than 100 Republican state lawmakers have called for her dismissal, while more than 100 Missou faculty members wrote a letter in support of Click.]
Though the administrators who were, at worst, dilatory and confused in their response to the summer’s black student protests, were the nominal victims of unyielding student demands for political correctness, the real casualty was the 1st Amendment and any remaining semblance of intellectual objectivity or authentic social justice.
Emblematic of this tragic process and outcome was the subsequent notice from the Mizzou Police Department that “to continue to ensure that the University of Missouri campus remains safe, the MUPD is asking individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions to report them to the police immediately”. Though the memo recognized that “cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes”, it stated that MU student culprits can be subject to disciplinary action by the university.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stated “This is a blatant misstatement of the First Amendment. As a public university, Mizzou cannot punish speech simply because it’s hurtful to others.”
Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey opines:
A successful college education replaces ignorance with insight, and insularity with confidence and engagement. With the escalating price and debt loads from tuition becoming a crippling fiscal burden to young adults, delivering on those values becomes more important than ever to their economic survival.
Unfortunately, most of our universities and colleges end up promoting ignorance, insularity, fear, and infantilism. Rather than seek out heterodox opinions, the faculties and student bodies of these schools attempt to insulate themselves from opponents through speech codes, demands for “trigger warnings”, demagoguery and shouting down of alternate views. Instead of education producing open minds, these institutions end up indoctrinating young adults on how best to keep their minds closed, limited to the boundaries of groupthink rather than freed to pursue truth.
The unfortunate, but not surprising, fallout of this assault on fundamental principles at Mizzou was demonstrated in a poll of Missouri residents, conducted soon after the protest ended by the Remington Research Group on November 13–14, 2015.
The poll showed that, by a fairly wide margin, the state’s public did not view the University of Missouri’s protests and associated events very favorably. While two-thirds of respondents believed they knew “a lot” about the recent events, and 95% were aware of the resignation of the university president, 52% disagreed with student protesters’ message about racial inequality at the University (to only 25% who agreed), and by a margin of 62% to 20% disagreed with the protesters’ actions. Almost half held a negative view of the school’s football team, and by a 45% to 35% margin respondents said they would not encourage their children to attend Mizzou. Perhaps most damning is that 40% of the black respondents said that they did not agree with the protester’s message about racial inequality at the school.
Update, 2/14/2016: A second video of Melissa Click’s violent confrontational behavior surfaced early February 2016, this one showing her confronting Columbia police during a protest at a homecoming parade in October of 2015.
It shows an agitated Click twice confronting police who were moving a group of predominantly black protesters off the streets. Protesters had blocked then-university system President Tim Wolfe’s red convertible. While the audio is unclear, the body cam video shows her screaming, “Get your fucking hands off me!” at the officer.
Interim Chancellor Hank Foley called Click’s conduct in the second homecoming video “appalling”, and said he was not only disappointed but also “angry, that a member of our faculty acted this way … We must have high expectations of members of our community, and I will address these new revelations with the Board of Curators as they work to complete their own review of the matter.”
The curators called for an investigation of Click’s actions in the first video after the Columbia prosecutor charged her with assault in clashes with a student journalist at the height of student protests over racial issues at MU in November.
Click agreed to a deal late in January to avoid prosecution by doing community service and staying out of trouble for a year. Curators suspended Click pending their investigation.
In January 2016, a group of more than 100 Republican members of the General Assembly in a letter to the Board of Curators demanded that Click be fired. Then, in February, the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee voted to freeze MU’s budget, specifically citing Click’s continued employment as a reason.
The University of Missouri curators voted 4-2 to terminate the suspended communications professor Melissa Click, saying that the homecoming parade footage showed a “pattern of misconduct”.
The board respects Dr. Click’s right to express her views and does not base this decision on her support for students engaged in protest or their views. However, Dr. Click was not entitled to interfere with the rights of others, to confront members of law enforcement or to encourage potential physical intimidation against a student.
Click had appealed the University of Missouri Board of Curator’s decision to fire her, but the board announced that it had voted unanimously to uphold the termination. “We consider this matter now closed and are moving forward as a university and as a community.”
When Progressivism Becomes Regressive
The Women’s Suffrage/Equal Rights Movement and the Black Civil Rights Movement were two of the most significant, important and progressive political/social tides of modern American history. Each drew broad support from other sectors of society due to their commitment to intellectual honesty, non-violent tactics, and universal standards of justice.
But both have degenerated into cult-like phantoms of their former manifestations – the walking dead – devouring the very ethical standards and principles which gave them vitality, and resorting to markedly regressive tactics aimed more at the raw expression of power than at anything just or noble.
There is “a time to be born and a time to die”, but today’s zombie movements continue to live beyond their natural lifetime and social purpose, consuming anyone who dares get in their way.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page.