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The Campus Surveillance State

If rational debate breaks down in the centers of learning, how can we expect it to last everywhere else?
September 17, 2020
The Campus Surveillance State

That many college campuses have adopted a culture of intellectual intolerance has become something of a cliché, as well as a chess piece in the culture wars that are now consuming our politics. One side has turned the campus woke-scolds into an all-purpose bogeyman, a preview of an imminent totalitarianism the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Cultural Revolution’s struggle sessions; the other side tends to dismiss the problem as overblown, the rare excesses of a tiny minority.

A recent incident at Skidmore College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, provides a microcosm of what’s happening. It’s a story of the attempt to create a woke surveillance state in which all instances of possible intellectual disagreement are to be hunted down and purged. The result also shows us the limits of the success of this campaign—so far—but suggests something about the extent of its ambitions.

It began on July 30, when David Peterson, a professor who teaches metalsmithing at Skidmore, was spotted in the crowd around a Blue Lives Matter rally in Saratoga Springs. That’s it: he was spotted standing there as a spectator, mingling with others in the crowd. Peterson was not an organizer of the rally and did not speak at it. In fact, he tells me that he arrived there late, after the main event was over. But his presence was noticed by several students, who immediately started a social media campaign calling for him to be fired along with an unrelated list of ridiculous demands.

This reflects the kind of volunteer surveillance state that is being created by way of social media, in which kids with their cell phones monitor everyone for the slightest signs of thoughtcrime. It’s similar to the call-out websites being compiled by high-schoolers to report on their fellow teenagers in what seems like a mash up of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Lord of the Flies. And the right has its own version: a Professor Watchlist to “expose” academics with “anti-American values.”

But here’s where we get to the limits of political correctness and cancel culture, because Skidmore did not fire Peterson. It seems they did not even consider firing him merely for being in the crowd at a rally. (Peterson notes that he is already known to some of his fellow faculty as someone with conservative political views—but not usually to students, because politics just doesn’t come up in a class on metalsmithing.) The administration did investigate complaints—many of them seemingly generated from form letters—that he had created a hostile environment for minority students in his classes. That complaint is so vague that it is nearly impossible to prove or disprove, but administrators let him know he had been cleared of those charges in the last week.

However, he was warned to be more careful about students’ “perceptions.”

So, Peterson won’t be out of a job. But as his wife asks, “Where do we go to get our reputations back?” Enrollment in his classes, in a program he has spent thirty years building, have tanked and may take years to recover as memories fade and new students come onto campus.

The real signature of campus “cancel culture” is that it is driven not by any central authority but by students acting as a spontaneous mob.

The thing that struck Peterson most was that none of the crusaders calling for him to be fired bothered to contact him to ask why he was at the rally or to explain his views. Nor has he personally received angry or harassing e-mails. (Displaying more good sense than most of us, Professor Peterson is not on social media.) It’s as if he, as a person, is actually irrelevant to the process. As he told me, “I think they just needed a heretic.”

That leads us to what we agreed is actually the big story here. It’s not the attempted persecution of Peterson. It is another demand made by the woke kids: that blue-collar facilities workers not be allowed to display any sign of their political preferences:

In addition to many white professors ridiculing students of color, white staff that work in different departments, such as Facilities, Campus Safety, and the Dining Hall, work and drive around campus with Blue Lives Matter masks, “F***Cuomo!” car stickers, and Trump-supporting attire/bumper stickers. Students of color and Black students especially feel threatened to have staff enter their spaces or to come face-to-face with individuals that empower beliefs that inherently go against their identities. Just several days ago, a Black student had taken and shared a photograph of a Facilities staff member wearing a Blue Lives Matter mask when they entered her space to help with a situation she had called for. Similarly, other students of color have also encountered several staff members entering their homes for maintenance purposes with “Make America Great Again” T-shirts or sporting Trump bumper stickers on the back of their trucks and cars.

In other words, the big injustice these kids attending a $58,000-per-year school want to fight is the help getting uppity and presuming to have political opinions. Progressivism is looking more and more like a white-collar-versus-blue-collar class war.

Peterson describes Skidmore as a politically monolithic campus where the campus Republican club attracted only a handful of members and has since shut down. It’s the kind of place where students are shocked to meet anyone who holds right-of-center views. So if, in these times of protest, they want to go around looking for The Oppressor, the ideological opponent who represents everything that is wrong with the world, he can be a little hard to find. But then, as Peterson puts it, “There he is, screwing in lightbulbs.”

All of this serves as a massive in-kind contribution to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign—proof for “real Americans” that “the elites” look down on them and want to impose their dogmas on them. But the two sides of this particular class struggle are not quite the opposites they might seem.

We are living in a time when the mechanisms of political persuasion are breaking down—everywhere and on both sides. As we’ve watched with dismay while people on the right have been willing to distort their thinking and adopt conspiracy theories that support their partisan political narratives, it’s important to remember that the same kind of mental breakdown is happening in the ivory tower. Our schools have produced a new generation of students who lack the mental fortitude to hear a common Chinese word that vaguely sounds like a racial slur in English. At Skidmore, they are traumatized to discover that the blue-collar workers serving them have the temerity to hold different political beliefs.

If persuasion and the ability to deal with opposing ideas breaks down on college campuses—the centers of learning where we ought to expect debate to be most robust—then how can we expect it to last everywhere else?

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.