Hello, my name is Liberal America, here to engage you in dialogue. Let’s stipulate, before we begin: College kids are dumb. Okay? Can we move on to Everything Else In The World, now?
Yesterday, Bret Stephens—who holds one of the premier, high profile opinion-writing jobs in the country, on the New York Times op-ed page—wrote yet another column about the problems with “campus activists.” This time, they are insufficiently concerned about Venezuela; in the recent past, Stephens has also criticized college kids for engaging in a sexual assault “witch hunt”; for their juvenile craving for “safe spaces”; for their “soft censorship” of “certain types of speech”; for waging “culture wars” against right wing guest speakers; for their anti-Israel attitudes; and more. And that is just his work for the Times in less than a year, not including his many years of similar obsession with the behavior of college students when he worked at the Wall Street Journal. And Stephens is but one prominent example of the ludicrous fixation on the behavior of 19-year-olds that has ensnared opinionmongers on the right for years, from Andrew Sullivan to David Brooks to everyone on Fox News. (The topic has attained such prominence in elite media circles that it has even infected the brains of weak-minded social liberals like Frank Bruni, who feel compelled to treat the bad-faith takes of the other side earnestly.) This is what the mainstream media’s bipolar left vs. right structure has devolved into: liberals write ineffectually about climate change and inequality and racism and everything else, and the conservatives mock college lit class trigger warnings that affect .01% of America’s population.
College kids are dumb. As a demographic group, they combine the lack of earned wisdom and grating, cocksure bravado of youth with just enough formal education to boost their snide self-confidence without actually knowing what the fuck they’re talking about. Communist college kids are dumb. Republican college kids are dumb. Apolitical frat boy college kids are dumb. Saying that college kids hold political views that are not completely philosophically coherent is like saying, “I suspect that the Republican party’s co-option of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech may not be completely sincere.” Fucking. Obviously! It is not an observation worth dwelling on.
I have never been a fancy or respectable newspaper columnist, but I did spend many years at Gawker combing the entire output of our nation’s media in desperate search of things to make fun of. When times were slow, there was nowhere easier to find something dumb to make fun of than in our nation’s college newspapers. From overt racism to kids so liberal they opposed free speech, you could find just about any variety of poorly thought out trashola being published on some campus at any given time.
But—crucially—this stuff should be seen as comedy, not as any sort of serious political crisis. Even I, the lowest variety of bottom-feeding blogger, came to realize after a few years that making fun of college kids was really fish-in-a-barrel material that should be avoided unless maybe it was August and the news cycle was really slow. Even I, who have never won a Pulitzer or been invited to work at the New York Times or give an interminable college commencement address, understood that harping on the fact that college kids said something dumb was fundamentally not insightful or interesting or meaningful and would pretty quickly make me sound like a boring old crank. The understanding has nothing to do with the political inclinations of college kids, and everything to do with the fact that in the grand scheme of American problems, arguments taking place on college campuses rank very low, somewhere between “the need to build more energy-efficient home appliances” and “gum that loses its flavor too quickly.”
It is, frankly, bizarre that the ostensible intellectual elite of an entire major political party have chosen, as one of the most prominent issues of the day, dumbass college kids. If I were being uncivil I would say that this is due to the fact that the intellectually and morally bankrupt and warped remnants of the “conservative movement” in America are only willing to operate in arenas of public opinion in which they think they can reasonably win arguments, an area that has now shrunk down to... college campuses. But in an effort to embrace civility, I will pretend that this unlikely preoccupation with campus teens is genuine, and say gently to my right wing friends: This shit is not important. If you think that it is, it is because you are the one living in the elitist bubble. Not everyone else. Do you know what is more sickening than a random young person with unbridled, perhaps foolish idealism? A middle-aged person who has money, power, and influence who has been dragged down into the muck of insincere, self-serving cynicism.
It’s a big country and almost all of it is not located on a college campus. Check it out!