Saturday, July 03, 2004

Pilgrim's Egress

New Sense, the student magazine published at (but not by) Duke, was kind enough to publish a serialized version of some chapters from a book I'm working on.

The editor's intro to the series was perhaps not entirely respectful, but that is the nature of student journalism. I am always surprised when faculty or administrators get bent out of shape about distortions, or outright untruths, in student newspapers. It is supposed to be fun, folks. On that note, if you want to see the (ridiculous) picture of me they used on the cover, here is the pdf.

Anyway, for the next three days, I will reproduce the series, "Pilgrim's Egress", here on the blog.

Installment #1:

A Pilgrim's Egress
Confessions of a Conservative Forrest Gump

By Michael Munger

When at the first I took my pen in hand
Thus for to write, I did not understand
That I at all should make a little book
In such a mode; nay, I had undertook
To make another; which, when almost done,
Before I was aware, I this begun...

The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan

I started grad school a Maoist. My office mate and I read Mao’s “Little Red Book,” just to piss people off. We also had a wall-sized Soviet flag, right where everyone could see it. This was 1980, and the Soviet Union was real. I wasn’t, but it was.

Being a radical socialist was darned fun, and we got lots of attention, in a juvenile “stick their pigtails in the inkwell” way. But to live in that fairyland you have to suppress your reason and senses. So, after about four months, my office mate and I separately, and quietly, became conservatives.

I can’t understand why so many people in academics get stuck at “Step 1: Socialist Utopian Nutjob.” Arrested intellectual development should signal failure, but we give them endowed chairs and call such people “theorists.” Literary theorists, social theorists, theoretical theorists, theorists of the practice of theoretical theory.

Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises said this really cool thing in Epistemological Problems of Economics. He said:

Scarcely anyone interests himself in social problems without being led to do so by the desire to see reforms enacted. In almost all cases, before anyone begins to study the science, he has already decided on definite reforms that he wants to put through. Only a few have the strength to accept the knowledge that these reforms are impracticable and to draw all the inferences from it. Most men endure the sacrifice of the intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world...They wish to be free of a universe of whose order they do not approve.

And that’s what socialist “theory” is: an alternative universe, a happy place where laws of economics (resources are scarce, producing things takes work, governments cannot create value), and possibly even physics (all roads should be downhill, because in my mind that would be better), don’t apply.

Between my Maoism in 1980 and my current position (I chair Duke’s Political Science Department), I encountered hell’s own menagerie of academic fauna, with freakish adaptations to local conditions. In the course of 12 years (1985-1997), I taught at Dartmouth, University of Texas-Austin, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and then started at Duke. My libertarian-conservative views are as strange to most academics as if I were a cannibal or a Zoroastrian dastur. Worse, actually, since those guys would at least be considered multicultural and romantically primitive.

Still, Duke is the least “politically correct” place I’ve ever been. Regardless of the private political views of administrators, the main thing they want is to improve the intellectual and academic atmosphere at Duke. (Okay, with the exception of Larry Moneta, but he was hired to suck the allegresse out of his surroundings, so you can’t count him).

Those of you who have been nowhere else have no idea how precious, and how rare, the intellectual freedom of Duke is (Yes, I know, some of you don’t think so. Shut up and listen). It’s the sort of place I’ve always wanted to be. I’m done traveling, I’m out. Duke is my Pilgrim’s Egress: “before I was aware, I this begun.”

The “pilgrim” I’ve often felt like? Forrest Gump. Simply by virtue of being in the picture, usually far in the background, I’ve watched the American academy transformed. Where the left was once outré, it is now tiredly and firmly entrenched inside. Because of this hegemony, many faculty on the left have softened into baccate self-caricatures, unable to tolerate dissent, and unwilling to think hard enough to justify their own positions.

Ironically, the flaccid left now exemplifies many of the qualities it (rightly) despised in the hidebound “conservative” administrations that the then-radicals, now-faculty fought against in their salad days. This tendency toward corruption and loss of purpose may be inevitable (hell, watch the porky House Republicans chomp into a good roads bill!), but it is interesting. In the next few issues of New Sense, I am going to describe three incidents, none of which are all that important historically, but each of which reveal something about this transformation. And, if it matters, I happen to have been there.

I. Dartmouth College, Hanover NH, 1986: Attack of the Conservative Thugs

You have to realize that at the end of 1985 there was this utter certainty about South Africa: everyone was opposed to apartheid. (Yep, me too, I was against it. Still am.) But this was a protest without a disagreement. There were no pro-apartheid protesters, no “PW Botha is our guy!” posters, not even any undercover apartheid sympathizers scrawling furtive grafitti.

Nonetheless, in early fall 1985 some terminally indignant Dartmouth students from excellent families built a “South African shantytown” to illustrate through fellowship the hardship of living in a township. One might think all those ships would pass in the night, or the next afternoon at the latest, but the shantytown remained on the Green, Dartmouth’s central quad, for months. The students evolved from indignation into sanctimony, as their faculty handlers constantly congratulated them on their courageous loitering in the face of no opposition whatsoever.

October, November...the shanties were looking ratty and this was getting boring. Sure, it was fun to sit outside in the afternoon in October, and maybe even indignantly sleep out in early November. But by the middle of November they had had enough. No one was staying in the shanties anymore, and the wind blew through the empty pile of broken boards and sheets of plywood.

The Dean of the College, Edward Shanahan, finally ordered the shanties removed by November 21. Since the Green was Hanover property, not Dartmouth’s, the town’s zoning ordinances should have been enforced. What would have happened if a real homeless person, not well-fed and without a warm dorm room to shelter in, had tried to build a shanty and actually live in it, anywhere in Hanover? That shanty would have been torn down immediately, as the town’s laws clearly required.

But Dartmouth President David McLaughlin had by this time become the Head-Weasel-In-Charge, rather than a President. He bravely countermanded the Dean’s order, facing down the grand total of exactly zero people who favored apartheid, or objected to the shantytown on substantive protest grounds. As The New York Times quoted it, President McLaughlin said, ‘’The expression of the students is not inconsistent with the expressed concerns of the college with regard to apartheid.’’ He went on to say that the shacks could stay as long as they promoted ‘’honest dialogue’’ about South Africa’s racial policies and the school’s investments.

Joy! Celebrations! A great victory over the evil Dean! For several nights, a few students slept in the shanties, in $600 arctic sleeping bags, going out now and then to stand around the (also patently illegal) open fires in barrels. It’s amazing no one got frostbite. Remember, it’s -10 F, it’s windy, and Coach K is not coming by with pizzas to help you keep warm. And Dartmouth doesn’t play UNC, so you aren’t going to get those tickets anyway.

Fast forward six weeks, to early January and the start of winter quarter. It was black dark by 4:30 pm, and night temperatures fell well below freezing. The snow was three feet deep, except in the paths shoveled and blown out by the town workers. Winter Carnival, Dartmouth’s signature party weekend, was approaching, and there was a trash pile in the middle of the Green. No one was occupying the shanties by this time.

And then, Monday, January 20, 1986 was MLK day. This was pretty great, because it was the first MLK day. (I differ with a lot of conservatives, I guess, because I favor MLK day, perhaps from growing up in an apartheid system myself, in rural central Florida in the 1950s and 1960s). On this first celebration of that holiday there was a lot of excitement. Lots of us got little candles, and carried them in a long procession across the Green, in front of Baker Library, and then around Webster Hall (yes, THAT Webster. A lot of the fake cutesy stuff at Dartmouth isn’t fake).

I walked back past the Green about midnight, after having cocktails with friends. It was impossibly cold. The shanties stood out on the snow, and the air felt like solid crystal, as if the brittle starlight would break if you walked out of the shadows. Okay, I had had a LOT of cocktails, scotch mixed with a big glass. Feeling like a rake, I made my stumbling progress home.

And woke up in bedlam. On the morning of Tuesday, January 21, 1986, the sunny Green looked like a kicked hornets’ nest, if hornets could fly at five below zero. I was approached, breathlessly, by a wormy student I knew from class. This guy’s boxers were in a permanent clove hitch about the virtues of free speech, at least for everyone he agreed with. But on this Tuesday, worm-boy couldn’t have been happier if his dad had replaced his new Volvo with a Ferrari. He bleated joyfully that there had been an “attack” by “conservatives.” I tried to find another student friend who worked on the Dartmouth Review, the conservative newspaper that spawned the “Review” movement on college campuses. (Duke Review: RIP, old friend).

I found my guy, but he was scared. It turned out that the “conservatives” had been mostly from the staff of the DR. They had gotten together and decided that if the Dean couldn’t clean up the Green, they would. The group decided to call itself the “Dartmouth Committee to Beautify the Green Before Winter Carnival.” (Yes, the DCBGBWC.) They rented a truck, borrowed sledgehammers, and went to the shantytown to knock it down. Their “plan” was to donate the wood to a firewood cooperative, though it’s hard to say how poor people were supposed to burn nail-studded plywood sheets in wood stoves.

The attackers had run giggling (I have this on good authority) up to the shanties, full of adrenaline and beer, and tentatively whomped on one of the shacks with an eight pound hammer. Remember, the shanties had been unoccupied for a while, and it never occurred to these goofballs to ask if anyone was home. Two people were, in fact, in one of the shanties, apparently filled with renewed fervor by the observance of MLK day. Let me confess here a certain sympathy for the residents. As if freezing your butt off isn’t bad enough, imagine having unidentified people run up without warning, at two in the morning, and whomp the plywood right over your head. That’s kind of loud.

The residents had run shrieking into the night, summoning the police (I would have done that, too). The DR troops stood there with stupid grins on their faces, wondering what would happen next. The answer was, “nothing good.” The university community gathered together for a good old-fashioned ass-kicking, kangaroo court style.

In my mind, the shanties were obviously a protest, and it is important to remember that the University had bent over backwards, overriding town ordinances to allow the protest to continue. But it seems equally obvious that the sledgehammerers were also protesting. Civil disobedience by students was at that time tolerated to the point of being actively sponsored by the University: “Why don’t you put your beer down, and come to the protest? We’ll sing songs, roast marshmallows, and you can all say bad words without getting into trouble!”

So, one might expect that administrators would let the students off easy. No, no, no. It was as if there had been a murder. It is clear why the indignation-spent shantyites, and their faculty shills, were thrilled to have an actual counter-protest. Since all that they had had to fight against for months now was boredom, this was great.

But how could the administration, the putative grown-ups in this situation, not see that the two protests had the same legal status? In both cases, laws were broken in the course of registering a protest by students currently enrolled at Dartmouth. Remember, the President had earlier said that the reason the shanties could stay was that the view expressed was “not inconsistent” with the College’s own view. Really, Bunkie? Is that the standard? All speech, and protests, are protected, provided professors agree? Does that mean that protestors who don’t have faculty support get different treatment?

Yes, that’s exactly what was meant. The show trial that followed would have taught Pol Pot some things about techniques of public humilation. One of the attackers, who happened to be black, was vilified in floridly racist language, and physically threatened. For all the attackers, the “charge” was some vague thing (worshipping false sledgehammers? corrupting shanties?), but the punishments were specific and harsh. On February 10, three attackers were “suspended indefinitely” (if you are keeping score at home, that’s a lot like “expelled”); the other nine were also suspended, for either two or three terms. And of course, all were told “This is going to go down on your permanent record.” I’ve never known what that means, but it can’t be good.

The hearings were so grossly staged and mismanaged that even President McLaughlin grew two tiny little juevos, and on March 5 called for a retrial. Or maybe it was his lawyer, the “special counsel” who advised the administration that the suspendees’ pending lawsuits were slam dunks, because the faculty in charge of the hearings had ignored such time-honored conventions as evidence and actual appearance of witnesses. The sentences were reduced in the second hearing, then later reduced again, so that the worst punishments amounted to about six months suspension, and most students received no suspensions at all. Of course, the effect of the permanent record thing probably scarred them for life.

There are two persistent rumors that I want to lay to rest, because both are absurdly false. At no time did anyone set fire to the shanties, with or without occupants. The “attack” with sledgehammers consisted of three or four half-hearted blows, by which time the yells of the unexpected occupants had flummoxed the attackers. The second rumor is that the attack had been planned to coincide with the MLK day observance. I asked about this one myself, because I was incredulous: it couldn’t be coincidence. But the DR kids told me, and I fully believe them, that they had specifically waited until after midnight, so that it was Tuesday January 21, and therefore technically no longer MLK day, before carrying out their covert mission.

So, the attackers were guilty of being idiots. The symbolism of sledgehammers in the night, right after the first MLK day observance, and with people actually in the shanties, reveals a political ineptness so deep it wouldn’t be seen again until Newt Gingrich thought he could win favor by shutting down the government. Also: DCBGBWC is a lame acronym. They should have bought a vowel, or something.

Here’s the deal: no university can say that some protests are sanctioned, or even endlessly subsidized, while other points of view are punished, just because the administration happens to agree with one view and not the other. Either protests are allowed on the Green, or they aren’t. This was a protest, this was the Green. The DR students should have been reprimanded for vandalism. The person who actually swung the hammer should have been charged with the mildest type of assault, and that should have been the end of it. I’m not even sure about the assault part, because I really believe the “attackers” didn’t know there were occupants, since the shanties had usually been empty for more than a month.

Of course, the opposite happened. The University administration reacted like a pig in a pool of Indirect Cost Recovery. In fact, across the country, the attack by “conservatives” galvanized the shanty movement. Soon, there were shanties on every flat space on college campuses. The good news is that more than a few colleges did divest, and as we all know universities divesting directly caused the collapse of apartheid, F.W. de Klerk’s release of Nelson Mandela, and his allowing the African National Congress to hold meetings in South Africa in 1990.

Not. Divesting was fine, because it meant that U.S. colleges and the firms they invest in were not morally complicit in apartheid. But the actual cause of the collapse of Botha, de Klerk, and the South African “boys in the hoods” was economic sanctions, imposed by the (wait for it!) Reagan Administration. The divestment movement may have been a feel-good thing (though it seemed to me more like a feel-bored thing), but its actual impact was negligible. Apartheid was terrible, but that horror didn’t justify, or really have anything to do with, the desire of a small minority of American university faculty and their student allies to repress anyone who raised questions about the “movement.”

A couple of brief postscripts:

1. On March 13, 1986, a group of 17 Dartmouth students were convicted of having resisted the final removal of the shanties, effected on February 11 with hydraulic hammers (the plywood floor was under ice, inches deep in places). One of those students pled guilty to intentional physical assualt on a police officer. No administrative actions or punishments of any kind were handed down by Dartmouth.

2. On October 16, 2000, the Manchester Union Leader did a “where are they now?” article on the three ring-leaders, DR editors Frank Reichel, Deborah Stone, and Theresa Polenz. (Admit, you thought all three key figures were men, didn’t you! Are you more surprised that women swing sledgehammers, or that women can be conservative?). According to the MUL, Reichel noted, with hindsight: “It could have been done in a more politically palatable manner—it could have been done a little softer—but that’s not the way the Review has operated...It was not meant as a violent act; it was not meant as an aggressive act against any one person; it was not meant as a political act; it was meant to preserve the green....If there’s trash in the public street, you can pick it up.”

Next Installment: “Pilgrim’s Egress, Part II: Everything’s Bigger in Texas


D’Souza, Dinesh, “Shanty Raids at Dartmouth: How a College Prank Became an Ideological War,” Policy Review. Hoover Institution. 1986.

Hart, Jeffrey, “Freedman and the Review: A History,” Department of English, Dartmouth College

“Head of Dartmouth says that Shanties are a Proper Protest,” The New York Times, November 24, 1985, Late City Final Edition, Section I-67.

“On 20th anniversary, Dartmouth Review alumni look back,” The Union Leader (Manchester NH), October 16, 2000.

Wald, Matthew, “At Dartmouth, the Right Borrows the Protest Mantle of the Left,” The New York Times, A-14, Feb. 13, 1986.

( © Michael Munger 2003; all rights reserved. No reproduction or quotation without express written authorization)

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