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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Spirit of '68

Fox News was at Columbia a couple of weeks ago to do a story about the ROTC presence on campus and allegations that students harassed a member of the ROTC during the Activities Fair last fall. This news article about the confrontation explains part of the story. Chris Kulawik, a columnist at the Spectator, wrote a column about the anti-military protesters, although this letter to the editor refutes some of Kulawik's claims about the protestors shouting "baby-killers" at the soldiers. Kulawik's column was followed by submissions by Monique Dols and Zach Zill about the confrontation.

Not surprisingly, there's no clear narrative about what happened at the Activities Fair, since both parties insist that they have corroborating statements from others about who said what or didn't say what.

What interests me is how Kulawik, Dols, and Zill each invoke the "spirit of '68" in their responses. Here's Kulawik:
"I am ashamed that I attend a university where such anti-American, anti-military sentiment is so entrenched, and the spirit of ’68 is alive and well. One can only hope that the Ruggles incident would persuade the University to thoroughly conduct the investigation which, by their own procedural time frame, is months overdue. Furthermore, for current and future generations of Columbia veterans, the University must edit and revise its policies to include those students and prevent such ridiculousness. On this, I think all respectful members of the Columbia Community will agree."

Zill's response:
"Kulawik laments the 'spirit of ’68' that still remains at Columbia. Would that this were true. If only a strong anti-racist and antiwar movement existed on this campus, then perhaps nobody would feel emboldened enough to perpetrate crimes like the Ruggles incident. Kulawik and others would like to see this spirit stamped out once and for all. But we will not be intimidated."

and Dols:
"Today, as in the Vietnam era, the reality of war cannot be hidden from those whose lives are destroyed by it. The 1968 generation revolted against politics and stood up to the militarization of education. It is our generation’s responsibility to work diligently to protect the gains of that era, keep ROTC off campus, and expose the ugly underbelly of US aggression in the world."

The Ruggles incident Zill and Kulawik are referring to involved two intoxicated students writing anti-Semitic, homophobic, and racist grafitti in the Ruggles lounge last November.

What does the "spirit of '68" mean? Kulawik sees it as destructive, whereas Zill and Dols describe it as something missing that would unify the campus left. I worry that turning the events of 1968 (at Columbia, but also worldwide) into a "spirit" totalizes the historical complexities of the various movements that worked together and separately during the period. Can one acknowledge the race, gender, and ideological/practical differences in the various student movements without discounting the work they did? How do you look to the past for inspiration without totalizing it? I keep thinking about Roland Barthes' discussion of how mythologizing an event turns history into nature (from "Myth Today," originally published in Mythologies):
"Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. If I state the fact of French imperiality without explaining it, I am very near to finding that it is natural and goes without saying: I am reassured. In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves."

The editors of Columbia's new progressive magazine, AdHoc, also invoked "the spirit of '68" in their introductory note to the first issue, published in November 2005:
"We can no longer rely on the legacy of '68 to speak for students in the present. Although the days of building takeovers seem like a distant memory, we are still a student body unafraid of questioning the Columbia Administration and its policies, our country and its politics. This makes it all the more necessary that there exist a campus publication that thoughtfully critiques the status quo. In the midst of four controversies last year--MEALAC, ROTC, the Graduate Student Protests, and Manhattanville expansion--it became obvious that there was no campus magazine that could effectively analyze the intricacies of these issues. This was the catalyst for AdHoc."

AdHoc is funded in part by the Center for American Progress/ Campus Progress. The Nation ran a story about CAP last month and raised some interesting questions about how progressives organize support on college campuses. Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden each weigh in on the merits of a national progressive campaign and what sacrifices a movement makes when it tries to go national:
"I asked the former president of Students for a Democratic Society, Todd Gitlin, now a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, for his thoughts about the trends on the new student left. 'I think there's a desire for results, a hard-bitten realism,' says Gitlin. 'The primary goal is not some sort of symbolic display, or some sort of posture or attitude, but results. If that's what it means, then I applaud the turn to practicality. Today the far right is in charge, and I don't think you can create the possibility of broad-based radicalism until you defeat the far right. Put the center in power and then you have the possibility--or the luxury--of radicalism.'

"But SDS co-founder and lifelong activist Tom Hayden is wary of organizations that emphasize efficacy over ideals. 'Students are being channeled into the Democratic Party or other mainstream institutions that will never bring about social change without a challenge and pressure from idealistic and free-thinking campus activists,' says Hayden. None of the issues Hayden believes are 'the great moral challenges before this generation'--the Iraq War, fighting the oil companies, resisting the pressure of military recruiters, debating alternatives to corporate-led globalization--are being pushed by the groups organizing campus progressives. 'The immediate need,' says Hayden, 'is to say no to those who would channel students into safe alternatives to these challenges.'"

I'd be interested to see what Ben and our ten readers think about it.


Blogger Alice on Wed Feb 08, 01:47:00 PM:
The Columbia Student Solidarity Network is back up and running. I didn't know it had ever become defunct. I remember it being a big deal when we were in college.