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Swarthmore, Haverford and 'Disneyland liberalism'

"Liberal" colleges applaud liberalism, as long as it doesn't bring social change

Here's a story that I think says a lot about modern liberalism (or "liberalism," if you will.) I stumbled across it three years ago when I was researching the Kindle Single that I wrote for Amazon about the fall 2011 day when 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters were trapped, kettled and arrested in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although it backfired, dramatically, the arrests were kind of a bush-league move by the NYPD, who were desperate for a way to shut down the protests about income inequality and other social ills in Michael Bloomberg's NYC. So I was curious where then-mayor Bloomberg was, as the mini-army that had swelled during his dozen years in office was now trampling on the human rights of protesters.

In the You Can't Make This Stuff Up Department, Bloomberg was in D.C. that night...

...accepting a Human Rights Award. For his advocacy of rights for LGBT people. Because smart, educated billionaires LOVE issues like gay marriage so they can show how progressive and civilized they are. Of course, some of the 1 Percent actually are gay...but none of them are broke, jobless. or saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. To be clear, I agree 100 percent with Bloomberg on gay rights; his actions and advocacy as mayor were the right thing to do. But mention the tough issues like income inequality -- or even the right of free assembly to protest income inequality -- and socially progressive folks like Bloomberg are already reaching for the pepper spray.

Supporting things like gay rights or uttering platitudes about diversity or posting about global warming on Facebook are fantastic, but if you're in a place like Manhattan or on an East Coast college campus these are not particularly risky stances. (Oklahoma might be different, but let's save that discussion for another day.). It's liberalism, but in that context it's also safe liberalism. Risk-free liberalism.

Call it "Disneyland liberalism" -- an afternoon at the progressive theme park of social issues before hopping back on the Hedge Fund Highway.

I was thinking of this over the weekend as I read news coverage about recent events at the two Philadelphia-area colleges that are thought of as the most liberal -- Swarthmore and Haverford Colleges. Of the two, what's been happening at Swarthmore is the episode I find most galling. This is the campus where you can get a degree in peace studies -- but where actually trying to change the world gets you nothing more than a patronizing pat on the head.

The issue is showing that the college is serious about climate change by yanking its money from the fossil-fuel companies that do the most to cause it. The protests are modeled after the divestment movement of the 1970s and -80s that played a role in ending apartheid in South Africa. It seems like taking on "Texas tea" is a lot harder:

But at Swarthmore, one of the country's most selective and prestigious colleges, where the student-led divestment movement had its origins, the college's board members and administrators have listened repeatedly to the student activists — yet have firmly rebuffed their proposals on the grounds that they could hurt endowment income and are unlikely to have any impact on energy companies.

"It's surprising that Swarthmore, which prides itself on social justice, would be so hesitant when you try to involve the institution itself," Ms. Aronoff said. "It's astounding to us to see the ways they continue to resist and won't put their money where their mouth is."

College officials seem sensitive to the point. "The students are terrific," Giles Kemp, the chairman of Swarthmore's board of managers, told me this week. "There's no lack of admiration for their idealism. They want to make a positive difference in the world, which is Swarthmore's mission. The frustrating thing, the ironic aspect is, the board is as much a believer in the threat to us and our children from climate change as the students are. Where we disagree are the tactics. After much deliberation, the board came to a different point of view."

Of course they did! In the article, trustees argue that changing its investment portfolio could cost as much as $15-20 million in investment income, a number that seems absurdly high. (Aren't there a lot of growth stocks that don't create greenhouse gases? would think.) But at the end of the day, what Swarthmore's trustees seem to be telling the activists is this: Yes, our professors taught you that climate change could have devastating consequences for life on this planet, but here's what we forgot to tell you: It's not as important as our money!

The situation up the road at Haverford College is a little murkier. There, some students and professors were riled that the scheduled commencement speaker was Robert J. Birgeneau, a former chancellor of the University of California. In the best Michael Bloomberg imitation, Birgeneau supported all the "right," safe liberal causes, but when the Occupy movement came to his campus in 2011, campus cops cracked down with way too much force. The Haverford activists wanted an explanation, Birgeneau didn't want to play ball, and ultimately he was forced out as speaker. As I said, it's a murky story for me, because while I also find Birgeneau's handling of the Occupy crisis reprehensible, he's also nothing like Condoleezza Rice, a willing participant in the deadly and criminal lies of the George W. Bush administration.

Yesterday, the activists were targeted by one of the speakers who did show up at Haverford. But I think in making their predictable point, folks like William Bowen and the newspaper columnists who've lashed out at commencement protests are missing a bigger picture. When did sitting on your rear end atop a folding chair and listening passively to the bromides (occasionally memorable, but usually not) of some elite person who was handpicked by his or fellow 1 Percenters on the college trustees suddenly become the be-all and end-all of higher learning and public discourse? Seriously? The hilarious part is that for years folks have bemoaned the passivity and lack of political interest by this generation of students....but heaven forbid they might actually take a stand. The student activists of the 2010s are risk takers, fighters for what they believe...and the world needs that 100X more right now than yet another speech by a "grown-up" politician.

Your Disneyland liberalism won't cut it anymore, because, like it or not, we are living in radical times. It's also a time for multi-tasking -- things such as gender equality or voting rights are just as important as ever -- but if America and the world are going to get out of our rut, it means talking about the things that are really hard, like climate change and income equality and freedom of dissent. The things, apparently, that make the nice, safe liberals in power at places like Swarthmore and Haverford so uncomfortable.