On October 11, 2017, Charles Murray came to the University of Michigan to discuss the 2016 election. Some Michigan students, angered by what they’d heard about Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, hijacked the event. When he began, they interrupted. There was coordinated cacophony from phone alarms. Someone shut off the lights and projected accusations of racism onto the wall behind Murray. Next, some students demanded he stop speaking. When other students and faculty prevailed to continue the event, the disrupters staged a mass walkout. It was a chaotic scene. But there have been worse incidents at colleges today, as Murray himself can attest. So the University of Michigan scene didn’t seem quite so bad.
How did the modern campus sink to a place where an event that wasn’t an epic disaster could come across as some kind of modest success simply because it came to a natural end?
trump protesThis is one question Robby Soave tries to answer in his new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump. As an associate editor at Reason, Soave has covered many campus controversies. His book is an examination of the political character of Millennial and Gen Z (combined in the book as “Zillennial”) activists, mostly—though not exclusively—on the left, during the Trump presidency.
As taxonomy and field study, Panic Attack excels. Soave’s work reveals him as a Forrest Gump of recent cultural stand-offs. He was present at Murray’s event at Michigan, a visit by Milo Yiannopoulos to Berkeley, the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit activist-training conference that he gonzoed his way into unnoticed, and more. Soave elicits surprising candor from young activists. For example, he quotes one Michigan student who says, just before Murray’s event, that those opposed to Murray “have a right to go in there and make a big f**king noise until nobody can hear him and he leaves.” And he helpfully navigates readers through their often-bewildering world. We get concise explanations of, among other things: “intersectionality” (“various kinds of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, economic inequality, and others—[that] are simultaneously distinct from each other and inherently linked”); “microaggressions” (“small, often unintentional acts of hostility toward people for reasons of race, sex, orientation, et cetera” that, to those who experience them, “aren’t just problematic but represent a form of aggression—a tiny dose of violence”); and being “woke” (“someone who has awakened to the reality of their own privilege and adopted a progressive worldview”). Sometimes his hand-holding is excessive, as when he offers explanations of fidget spinners and the Inquisition. But his efforts to clarify are well-taken nonetheless.
Panic Attack is on shakier ground in diagnosis and prescription. Soave finds many culprits for the modern left’s radicalization, chiefly in the academic theories that now consume it. He also faults a social push for safety that began in the ’90s, when many of the activists interviewed in the book (and this reviewer) were born. “Some of the Zillennials who grew up in this environment,” he writes, “have internalized society’s push for safety at all costs,” explaining the rise of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the like.
There is surely some truth to this. But it fails to account for young radicals with decidedly unsafe upbringings. Nor does it contend with the fact that a universal safety movement with “police officers in every elementary school,” in Soave’s words, somehow counts among its offspring the Black Lives Matter movement, which has serious misgivings about the police.
Of greater concern is Soave’s historical conception of those he has studied. He claims that “the Zillennial left suffers from several serious defects that make it fundamentally unlike the fondly remembered activist movements of decades past”—defects that “frequently lead Zillennial activists to embrace tactics that are at best counterproductive and often completely at odds with the successful strategies employed by their radical forebears.” He approvingly cites, by contrast, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which is arguable, to say the least. But in fact, the leftist radicalism that beset campuses nationwide in the late ’60s (and also spilled out elsewhere) has some connection to our modern madness. Panic Attack’s otherwise thorough examination of modern leftism leaves much of this history out.
Soave admits that, as a libertarian, he is “sympathetic to many of the goals of intersectional progressives (except for democratic socialists)….Where we disagree are tactics.” Throughout the book, he emphasizes that rejecting American norms and abandoning the center are counterproductive for liberals, as radicalism begets reaction. This is true. Soave provides evidence of it in a chapter on the rise of the alt-right, the modern activist left’s bizarro twin. And reality provided evidence of it in November 2016.
But Soave fails to consider the possibility that parts of the left, both then and now, simply don’t care. To understand why that might be, return to Michigan. On June 15, 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society released the Port Huron Statement. This founding document of what would come to be called the “New Left” diagnosed profound unease among that generation’s youth. The statement asserted that the goal of man and society should be—deep breath—“a concern not with image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic; a quality of mind not compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness, nor one which unthinkingly adopts status values, nor one which represses all threats to its habits, but one which has full, spontaneous access to present and past experiences.”
The Port Huron authors announced their intention to “start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed” and that “the ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.” No wonder a movement that began with such open-ended aspirations and committed itself to such inflammatory tactics would outpace Great Society liberalism, much less American norms. And is it any surprise that today’s activist left, having mostly accomplished its earlier goals and having grown greedy and impatient in seeking more, might see the norms to which Soave tries to call it back as mere impediments? These are its norms.