In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Xenia Markowitt, director of the Center for Women and Gender at Dartmouth College, answers the question: “Is It My Job to Teach the Revolution?” (Subscription required. The full article, however, is also available at Markowitt’s blog) Her answer, which is very telling, is both ‘”Yes” and “No.”
As the director of a women’s center, it is her job, she argues, to be an advocate for, and encourage other women to advocate for, women’s rights on campus—to “teach the revolution.” Thus, she feels compelled to support efforts to “stick it to the Man” even if she cannot help organize demonstrations, sit-ins, and so forth.
Indeed, she cannot help organize such activities because, as she frankly admits, she also “is the Man,” which, needless to say, she finds rather awkward. “Many of us,” Markowitt writes, “have positions that simultaneously require us to represent the institution as one of its officers, even as we hope to use our positions to agitate for social change.”
While this may be, it seems to me that the real source of Markowitt’s awkwardness is not so much that she must “agitate for social change” and “represent the institution” at the same time but that the revolution for which she continues to advocate has already happened—at least in a paradigm shift sort of sense.
The “revolution,” for Markowitt, has a very limited meaning, referring for the most part to efforts of social liberalization. Setting aside the noble example of lobbying for women’s safety on campus, the two examples Markowitt gives of “the revolution” are a sit-in to protest the lack of “diversity” in the administration and a “rally against hatred.” This is the terminology of the left; and, as Markowitt notes, most of the officers of the college are indeed staunchly on the left.
In response to this awkward situation, Markowitt must figure out how to “reframe” student protests. There is no need for sit-ins any more, Markowitt all but admits, because the administrative officials share the concerns and the worldview of the protesting students. There is no need for a revolution. Yet, as Markowtt admits, students continue to use the language and paradigm of protest—a language and paradigm fostered by the left.
Why? On the one hand, this is because this is still the language of certain parts of the left, carried over from the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, and perhaps more troubling, I would argue that this is because such language is expressive of the identity of a number of those on the left.
While conservatives are certainly capable of creating false enemies to shore up support, little attention is often paid to the fact that this is equally true of liberals because of the fact that protests and revolutions are two of the defining characteristics of the contemporary left. Like the perpetual wars in Orwell’s 1984, the continuing revolution both organizes the masses and shapes the identity of those on the left.
I have had conversations with a number of colleagues over the years (at elite institutions no less) that continue to use this sort of protest terminology. On the one hand, perhaps they continue to use it because they are aware of its effectiveness in sparking action. On the other, it may be that they continue to use it because they are uncomfortable admitting, as Markowitt does here, that they are now indeed “the Man,” that they are “the establishment.” And if they are “the Man,” to put it playfully, then who indeed are they?