The self as a political project

April 18, 1996|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- Tears and Chinese takeout food were recently on Tufts University's political menu. The episode illuminated the paradoxical condition of political passion on America's campuses, where there is an inverse relationship between the prevalence and the importance of political passions.

Almost everything on campuses has become politicized. But given the peculiar notion of ''the political'' that obtains on campuses, academics have little political resonance outside their cloistered settings.

Tufts' student senate includes three nonvoting ''culture representatives'' elected by voting within organizations of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans. This bit of ''identity politics'' expresses contemporary liberalism's principle of ''categorical representation,'' which underlies racial gerrymandering and other practices. The principle holds that the interests of particular groups can only be understood, empathized with and represented by members of that group. Who taught the Tufts students this principle? Their teachers, no doubt.

When the senate cut $600 from the Chinese Culture Club's budget, Kim Tran, co-president of the Asian Community at Tufts, said that although the cut was not ''face-to-face racism,'' it reflected institutional bias against Asians. Carol Wan, the CCC treasurer, called the cut an attack on ''the legitimacy'' of her culture.

A portion of the cut pertained to Chinese takeout food that the CCC ordered for a Chinese New Year observance, and Ms. Wan said the cut ''questioned the authenticity of takeout food as part of our culture.'' The student newspaper reported: ''Several times during her speech, Wan began crying. 'It's sad that this is happening at Tufts, where it's supposed to be intercultural,' she said.''

Nothing lubricates academic decision-making as effectively as liberal guilt, so the CCC's funds were restored. But a lingering question is: Who teaches young people to be so exquisitely sensitive to perceived slights, so ready to read affronts into routine events in everyday life? Their teachers, no doubt.

Politicized, yet apolitical

America's professoriate is ''politicized, yet apolitical.'' That is the judgment of Russell Jacoby, an adjunct professor of history at UCLA, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He means that although ''the immediate domain of the academic'' has been politicized -- knowledge and language, what the curriculum contains, what is said in the classroom -- there is little interest in real politics.

The politics of the academics is political narcissism, or perhaps it is political solipsism. Profesor Jacoby calls it the ''politicization of self,'' whereby one can be an activist merely by presenting oneself as a political issue, as in: ''As a 49-year-old black, lesbian, feminist, socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an interracial couple. . . . '' As Mr. Jacoby says, ''This person's life is her political project.''

There was a time -- and the professor, a man of the nostalgic left, regrets its passing -- when academics were incandescent about things like the fate of the Spanish Republic or the Vietnam War. But ethnic cleansing in Bosnia barely registered among academics. Instead, they have busied themselves with bizarre utterances such as (Professor Jacoby provides this example) ''post-colonial studies'' having ''positioned itself [sic] as a broad anti-imperialist emancipation project.''

Today the academics' political -- if it can properly be called that -- focus is on ''interpersonal encounters'' and symbolic gestures, as with the instructor at the University of California at Santa Cruz who declared his classroom a deodorant- and perfume-free zone, as an anti-pollution measure. 'Twas a famous victory. . . .

Mr. Jacoby is particularly impatient with the intellectuals' conceit that various academic practices constitute ''subversion'' of the established order. In what he calls ''the micropolitics of protest'' there is earnest talk of, and courses about, ''the insurgency of popular culture'' and ''the creativity of consumption.'' In the jargon of the moment, almost any subject can be ''a site of contestation.''

What does that mean? Nothing, really, but it illustrates the comic solemnity of academics investing what they do with cosmic significance. ''It is,'' Mr. Jacoby writes, ''all too easy for professors, whose lives unfold in front of books and computer screens, to begin seeing the world as completely made up of texts and symbols, and to conclude (or at least implicitly to believe) that changing the name changes the thing itself.''

Perhaps conservatives should stop complaining about the sandbox politics practiced on campuses. The students will outgrow their acquired reflex to read racism into a reluctance to subsidize takeout food. The sublimation of political passions into such microdisputes may be a small price to pay for keeping the professors out of serious politics, where their record -- remember their many infatuations, from Stalin to Mao to Castro -- has been, to put it mildly, mixed.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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