By Jim Sleeper / AlterNet

On February 7 The New York Times published two jaw-droppingly credulous and/or duplicitous accounts, linked below, of Yale childhood psychologist and student-residence associate master Erika Christakis’ supposed martyrdom on the altar of free speech by censorious liberal students and colleagues. The truth is that a national campaign to blame campus distempers on politically correct liberals had found yet another target in angry students and anxious administrators and an unlikely heroine in Christakis. The Times and too many well-meaning professors have gone along for the ride. If you think that our political commentariat has lost its compass along with our party establishments, wait till you see what writers about colleges are missing, as are the colleges themselves.

Critics of whining and censorious student “cry-bullies” and of “coddling” parents, deans, and other mentors have made insightful observations about what some college students, teachers, and deans have done wrong. But they don’t or won’t say much about why.

The critics have castigated overly-protective parents and bureaucratic mentors, quite rightly, in my view, for sheltering young people from the rigors of working things out among themselves instead of running to authorities for protection. On playgrounds and campuses, kids do need to teach one another the value of honest dialogue, of trial and error, and even of the occasional hurt feeling or skinned knee.

I learned this in 1965, when one of my college roommates happened upon another student wearing a Nazi arm-band and mimicking a “Sieg Heil” salute to the accompaniment of a recording of Der Fuehrer himself. My roommate, who’s Jewish, never thought of running to a dean or counselor. “Why don’t you stop that and turn it off,” he said, quietly, firmly.

The miscreant smirked, but, embarrassed, he stopped. Probably he’d been engaged in an ignorant prank, like donning an offensive Halloween costume. We didn’t need to have him censured or to have a “diversity” counselor orchestrate our feelings and opinions.

Yet today’s coddling and censuring of young Americans is symptom of a broader civic unravelling amid swift undercurrents that are only worsened by a national campaign to blame campus distempers on politically correct liberals. That campaign has been crafted across more than a decade by Daniel Pipes of Campus Watch; David Horowitz of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and author of a so-called “Academic Bill of Rights;” Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals, and, most recently, Greg Lukianoff of the Koch brothers-funded Foundation for Independent Rights In Education.

Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic magazine essay “The Coddling of the American Mind” has become a manifesto of sorts, its narrative peddled by Fox News, The Wall Street Journal editorial board, and conservative publications such as The Weekly Standard and National Review.

Others find it plausible, too, and not only because Lukianoff claims he’s an aggrieved liberal Democrat who wants only to tell the truth about what’s going wrong. Some immature students do disrupt civil discourse. Some professors do peddle propaganda. Some deans do try to “guide” student life with rules as constricting and infantilizing as Yale’s long-forgotten “parietal hours,” which, when I was a freshman, barred us from hosting female guests in our rooms except on weekends before 7 p.m.

But three recent campus controversies, each of which I’ve witnessed at close hand, can represent others that have been mischaracterized by the blame-the-liberals campaign. What actually happened in these cases tells us more than that campaign has been willing to do.

A Persistent Strategy

In 2005, the campaign’s credulous or fellow-traveling talking heads vilified Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences for its vote of no-confidence in university president Lawrence Summers, who soon resigned. Talk-show hosts thundered that “feminazis” had ousted him for questioning women’s ability to sustain scientific research. A Wall Street Journal editorial assailed Harvard’s “largely left-wing faculty that has about as much intellectual diversity as the Pyongyang parliament.”

In 2006, much the same cohort reviled Yale’s administration for enrolling ex-Taliban spokesman Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi as a special student in what critics charged was the college’s fatuous quest for “diversity.” Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund spent days on campus penning columns against such political correctness and urging alumni to withhold donations. Rahmatullah was chased around New Haven by a Fox News TV crew, and he departed after a year instead of applying to become a full-time undergraduate, as he’d hoped to do.

And, last fall, Yale students were broad-bushed nationally as pampered, censorious “cry-bullies” after some of them rebuked and demanded dismissal of a residential-college associate master, the childhood-education specialist Erika Christakis, who’d urged students to ignore a memo from diversity counselors cautioning against racially and culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. In this still-unfolding controversy, Christakis has been cast as a hero and a victim by the blame-the-liberals chorus, with sadly ironic consequences for her and for Yale.

In each of these disputes, the blame-the-liberals chorus depicts liberal college deans, professors, and students as carriers of a totalitarian ideology that suppresses freedoms of inquiry and expression. Helicopter pundits have prowled campus classrooms and courtyards looking for shrieking students or professors to display to audiences well-primed to resent the “luxuries” of liberal education itself.

Ironically, this campaign has adapted tactics that the Civil Rights movement at its best deployed brilliantly in the 1960s to highlight and even provoke segregationist abuses, which journalists depicted for audiences well-primed by the war against Hitler to condemn racism, even when they still practiced it themselves.

But while the civil rights movement brought in “outside agitators,” as segregationists called them, to challenge a system of racialized economic and social injustice that even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas called “totalitarian,” today’s blame-the-liberals strategists send a different sort of agitator to campuses to expose what Harvard’s Summers recently and rather self-servingly called “creeping totalitarianism.” They misrepresent so badly the real causes of today’s campus problems that, sooner or later, their narrative crumbles, as I want to show that it has in each of the controversies just mentioned.A Persistent Duplicity

We now know, for example, that Harvard’s Summers was driven from his presidency not by politically correct professors (he’s still an outspoken professor there himself) but by faculty moderates who considered him duplicitous in his efforts to change degree-granting prerogatives and protective of, if not indeed complicit with, close colleagues who’d corrupted Harvard’s efforts to re-capitalize Russia.

We know now that the portrayal of Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi’s enrollment as an advance for what the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund called “the obsession that the U.S. universities have with promoting diversity” fell apart when Charles Hill, a conservative faculty member, former high official in the Reagan State Department, and writer of his own Wall Street Journal columns criticizing liberal “diversity” policies in the Foreign Service, told the Yale Daily News that Rahmatullah’s presence at Yale reflected its commitment to “identifying and encouraging those with the potential to make the Middle East a better place and responsible region within the international community.”

In their zeal to nail liberals, anti-“diversity” bloodhounds had missed the scent of Yale’s long intimacy with American intelligence and diplomacy in the vetting and admission of Rahmatullah.

Yet the bloodhounds were back again at Yale last fall, after hundreds of students signed their open letter to Christakis condemning her response to the university’s council of university cultural-center advisors’ cautions against wearing offensive Halloween costumes. “We would hope,” those advisors had written, “that people would actively avoid those circumstances that … disrespect, alienate or ridicule … based on race, nationality or population.”

To Christakis, this was bureaucratic overreach. “I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18?” she asked in her email to students.

But nothing in the council’s letter invoked or proposed statutes, rules or punishments. Christakis had misapplied to 18-year-olds her perfectly valid concern that parents and pre-school teachers regiment children unnecessarily instead of encouraging them to learn by doing and conversing more with one another. In their response to Christakis, the students protested that “In your e-mail, you defend the right to wear racist or marginalizing costumes as free speech and accuse the Intercultural Affairs Council of imposing bureaucratic restrictions on the student body. You deem the call for sensitivity ‘censure’ — which you say comes ‘from above,’ not from the students, as if the repeated requests of many students of color do not count.”

If this student letter, too, was a bit over the top, it was still earnest and intelligent enough so that it shouldn’t have provoked Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, to come to campus at the invitation of Roger Kimball’s William F. Buckley Program at Yale and of Christakis and her husband Nicholas, a sociologist, both masters at the university’s residential Silliman College. (The Christakises had also hosted Lukianoff in 2012, when they were masters at Harvard’s Pforzheimer House and when his foundation ranked Harvard one of the worst American colleges for freedom of speech.)

A Sinuous Demagoguery

At Yale, Lukianoff moved aggressively to deflect attention from students’ earnest, often unprecedented, reckonings with classmates of color about racial and sexual denigration. He videotaped a 20-year-old African-American student hurling imprecations at Nicholas Christakis in a small courtyard confrontation. The conservative Daily Caller posted the video under the headline, “Meet the Privileged Yale Student Who Shrieked at Her Professor,” with a photograph of her and of her parents’ suburban home and a caption announcing its $730,000 assessed value.

Internet reactions, including threats, forced that student into hiding and pretty much intimidated others against speaking out. But no student or professor suggested preventing the Christakises from teaching as they wish. When some demonstrators called for the Christakises’ dismissal as residence masters in a midnight list of “demands,” Yale President Peter Salovey affirmed the administration’s “full confidence” in the Christakises, praising their “deep dedication to undergraduates,” and the demand died.

No one knows better than Erika Christakis how badly a video or snapshot can misrepresent social reality. She had said so exactly in a January 8, 2013 TIME magazine column, “Don’t rush to judgment in Steubenville,” which assessed the impact of a damning cell-phone photo showing two of that Ohio town’s football players holding down a 16-year-old girl who later accused them of raping her.

“While the case elicits an understandable mix of revulsion and anger, the resulting media blitzkrieg is problematic,” Christakis wrote. “We don’t know what really happened in Ohio…. In the best of circumstances, righteous anger and social media can be galvanizing forces for change, but they can combine in a toxic brew…. Pictures tell a thousand words, but in the age of social media, they may sometimes tell the wrong story.”

True enough, but she didn’t say that last fall, when the video of the shrieking Yale student went viral and a Fox News headline on a story about the Christakises announced, “Couple Flees Yale Classroom in Free Speech Chill.” At least 88 Yale professors signed a public letter, initiated by Christakis’ Yale Child Study Center colleague Mary Schwab Stone and her husband, the physicist Douglas Stone, defending the Christakises’ right to speak and teach freely against the supposed onslaught against their doing so.

And the two New York Times stories I’ve mentioned ratified this strange narrative: Douglas and Mary Schwab Stone published an essay — “The Sheltering Campus – Why College is Not a Home” — in the Education Life section defending the Christakises and other college mentors against demanding students. On the same day, the Times also published a profile and interview in its National section, by higher-education reporter Anemona Hartocollis, depicting Erika Christakis as upbeat, if wounded. After becoming “an unwitting target of campus protests here against racial insensitivity,” we’re told, “She ended up not teaching the spring semester.”

An “unwitting target”? In 2012, Christakis, then at Harvard, had devoted one of her then-frequent TIME magazine columns to warning that adults are ruining Halloween for children by micro-managing their choices at “the one time of year when, traditionally, children could escape the long reach of parental authority without serious consequences.” Two months later, Erika and Nicholas Christakis sparked a Harvard free-speech controversy with a TIME column criticizing Harvard’s administration — rightly enough, I think — for opening an investigation to find (and, presumably, to reprimand) the students who’d distributed a satirical flyer, purportedly from one of Harvard’s exclusive, sexist Final Clubs, warning that “no Jews” and “only a few coloreds” need apply. The flyer was so obviously satirical — and so obviously meant to discredit the elitist clubs — that it was a perfect occasion for “social norming” among peers, not for administrative intervention to rescue innocent babes in the woods.

Right though Erika and Nicholas Christakis were to defend that satirical flyer, they got some insulting push-back. A comment posted in the Harvard Crimson said, “Some might find it unseemly for Erika Christakis to be publishing self-aggrandizing Op-Eds based on her position of co-master in one of Harvard’s residential houses. One wonders if TIME realizes that the qualifications for her position consist of the answer to one question: Is she married to a tenured faculty member who serves as a house master?”

The Christakises left Harvard for Yale a year later, and it’s a bit hard to understand why Erika is now shocked and hurt about becoming an “unwitting target” or why she has “ended up not teaching” at Yale. The Times story’s wording leaves open the possibility that she’s not teaching because students “demanded her dismissal” or administrators pressured her to stop. But no student or faculty group has demanded that she stop teaching or pressured her to do so. Suggestions that the Christakises have been martyred on the altar of free speech by censorious students and colleagues are about as accurate as suggestions that Summers was driven out by “creeping totalitarianism.”

Yet when Erika Christakis cancelled her popular course on early-childhood education this spring, she said that Yale’s climate is not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.” Even as the Christakises and their allies were telling students to grow up and to engage one another instead of being fragile and demanding, Erika picked up her marbles and went home, letting down dozens of students who, by her own account as well as by reported comments, would have taken her course.

A recent student of mine — a young white man with a classically “Establishment” bearing — wrote me last week that he is “disturbed … by the discrepancies between what was actually happening on campus and the depictions in the national media. What was happening on campus was not exactly a protest. It was a moment of education. For a short time, the entire campus was united, engaging with black feminism, confronting collective emotions and challenges in a way I had never before experienced. It was beautiful. It was challenging. Urgent. And it needed to be emotional– so it was.”

I witnessed several such reckonings at Yale last fall, in groups large and small. They weren’t always edifying, but one evening I watched four panels, composed mostly of Yalies of color, address more than a thousand people of all colors, about half of them white, who packed into the university’s Battell Chapel to hear their accounts and assessments. There was some racial “theater” that I could have done without, but, having covered many black demonstrations in New York City as a journalist, I found the manifestations at Yale quite moving, most of the comments coming from the speakers’ hearts and their deepest humanity, without malevolence or duplicity. Sure, there are excesses. But, as the Yale historian Glenda Gilmore noted in a letter responding to the Times stories, last fall’s outpourings posed no real problems whatever for freedom of speech or the challenges of student dialogue in residential colleges.A Silence About Causes

What the blame-the-liberals campaign doesn’t acknowledge, let alone insist, is that if students are petulant or frightened now and if deans and professors are pandering to them, it’s not because of liberal ideology but mainly because the “retail-store university,” as former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis calls it, regards them increasingly as customers.

In market parlance, of course, the customer is always right. But corporate bureaucracies guide as well as serve customers’ choices. As commercial priorities and funding pressures transform collegiate crucibles of citizen-leadership training into career-networking centers for a global workforce that answers to no republican polity or moral code, dysfunctions on campus reflect the thousands of hours students have spent cruising shopping malls, texting, and playing video games long before they encountered a few liberal professors — let alone the many more professors who teach them economics, computer science, game theory, public policy, grand strategy, and other subjects that tend to reinforce the parameters and pressures they’ve grown up with.

Even when campus diversity counselors overreach, they’re only doing what corporate diversity officers do to employees. “Is Yale U. Starting to Run More Like Yale, Inc.?” asked a story in the student-run Yale Daily News, reporting that university vice-presidents, trained in business corporations, were referring to students routinely as “customers.” Some parents and students welcome the designation as if it entitles them to amenities and accreditations that don’t have to earn because they’ve already paid for them.

Without other, better coordinates to deepen social trust and equal opportunity, society itself becomes more dangerous and frightening, and anxious elders over-orchestrate children’s prospects. If we really want Americans to stop infantilizing children and college students, how about ensuring affordable daycare and health care, public funding of higher education instead of by crushing student debt, and employment security and pensions, all of which would relieve Americans of the stress and fears that market forces are exploiting and that the anti-“political correctness” campaigns are stoking?

“I see myself as very anti-establishment, in a sort of old-school, lefty way,” Christakis told the Times (Recall that her public-relations mentor Lukianoff tells everyone that he’s a liberal Democrat). But as a child psychologist, not a political historian, she may be confusing her admirable support for child liberation, racial equality, gay rights, and other worthy causes with support for “old lefty” measures I’ve just mentioned. I haven’t seen her tout the latter, but many of her celebrants and their funders oppose them. Even the artfully marketed story of her martyrdom comes at the start of a tour to market her new book, The Importance of Being Little, an excerpt of which The Atlantic published just after it had ballyhooed the crisis at Yale.

Erika Christakis has an important message to parents and teachers of young children. But she’s both riding and hiding from omnivorous marketing riptides that are the only “totalitarianism” driving parents and teachers to coddle and guide young people as consumers and future employees to safety. Try to say this too loudly or persistently, though, and watch how today’s “free speech” champions handle your own freedoms of expression.

Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990).

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