from the pages of../

Generation At The Crossroads

By Paul Rogat Loeb

Review by Dave Dellinger


There is a lot of wisdom and information in Paul Rogat Loeb's book, Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus. And the value of both extends beyond those who have been misled by the media-promoted myths of the lack of activism among today's students, and the reasons for it. One claimed reason, of course, is the students' supposed knowledge that most of the former 1960s activists have learned the folly of their ways and become yuppies (or wannabes).

Those of us whose experiences refute these myths will find new material here that enriches our understanding. More important, we will find information and insights to help us face the collapse of the present society, and work toward a society based on universal justice, equality, human solidarity and sharing, closeness to nature, and a decentralized, participatory democracy that includes the economy and workplace. But how we express such things verbally is less important than the spirit in which we work with others who articulate them differently; a spirit that allows us to be open to learn from those we work with, as well as reaching out to people on the sidelines.

Loeb stresses the importance of openness when analyzing some of the conflict situations he has been observing--and learning from. But there is a third type of openness as well: being open to people who actively oppose us because they believe the distortions about us that have been invented by Rightists and spread by the media. Loeb spends less time on these questions, but overall stresses the importance of avoiding self-righteousness, rigidity and name-calling, which is a good beginning.

This book is the product of seven years of personal research that involved visiting (and in many cases revisiting) over 100 colleges in 30 states. Loeb also uses a variety of authors to expose some of the prevalent myths promoted by rightist academicians and the corporate media. In particular, he exposes the exaggerations, fabrications, and outright lies in the works of Dinesh D'Souza, both when he was editor of the Dartmouth Review and in his best-selling Illiberal Education, a book which, besides it prejudices against women, people of color, and homosexuals, bitterly attacks Rigoberta Menchu. That attack prompted New York Times columnist Flora Lewis to complain about colleges in which "The text of an oral history of the daily problems of an illiterate Guatemalan woman is accorded equal deference with historic masters." This was before Rigoberta Menchu won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of her work in "social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on the rights of indigenous peoples."

Loeb points out that, despite the obvious lies, Illiberal Education was praised in the New York Review of Books (by Yale historian C. Vann Woodward who, when challenged, admitted he had accepted as truth "some serious and irresponsible factual errors,"), the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Also on "Good Morning America," "Face the Nation," "The McNeil/-Lehrer Newshour," "Firing Line," "Crossfire," and "This Week with David Brinkley." Perhaps because of the lies, D'Souza has been heavily subsidized and promoted by the John M. Olin Foundation. Loeb points out that "Olin's dollars are the philanthropic legacy of a major weapons producer and general manufacturing corporation that has been found guilty of illegally shipping arms and bullets to South Africa [during apartheid] and that has a history of price fixing, strike breaking, illegal toxic dumping, and questionable payments to foreign government officials."

Generation at the Crossroads is divided into three sections. In the first there are lengthy discussions with those who remain aloof from actions opposed to the status quo. Loeb explores their reasons and puts them into the context of family backgrounds, the recent and current ethos at their college, and the year or years in which the discussions took place. But, in general, he writes: "I found that these students were not simply greedy or indifferent: their attitudes were far more complex...

"To grow up in what...Kevin Phillips called `a second Gilded Age,' marked by `an ostentatious celebration of wealth, the political ascendancy of the richest third of the population and a glorification of capitalism, free markets and finance'; to grow up with the media fawning over `lifestyles of the rich and famous' while savings and loan institutions collapsed, bankruptcies soared and average real wages continued to fall, opening up a greater gap between rich and poor than at any point since the eve of the Great Depression? These students were confronted with a future vastly more precarious than the one their predecessors faced twenty years before. In response, most concluded that the world was inherently unfair, and that they had little possibility of changing it."

Loeb also comments on the way the educational system tends to discourage awareness of the types of failings in society that might lead to public concern and activism. Thus he tells of talking with a philosophy major and asking what sort of philosophy he was reading. "`A lot of Bertrand Russell,' he told me. He had no idea that Russell had spent the bulk of his life raising issues of war, peace, and global injustice. He knew nothing of his incarceration as a pacifist, nothing about his work on Vietnam and the nuclear arms race."

In similar fashion, Loeb writes about a government class at another college in which he describes a number of illegal CIA interventions in foreign countries, including initiating or supporting coups to overthrow governments that had been democratically elected--in Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Greece and Angola. Only one of forty students knew of these events. When he did the same in other places, he got "blank stares, startled innocence and only one or two students out of thirty, fifty, or seventy that had even heard of them."

Loeb also tells of a student in another government class who says "You might be right about the need to get involved. But I just can't approve of people going out and spitting on soldiers." Loeb goes on to say that "students at school after school volunteered stories of protesters spitting on soldiers as their central image of the Vietnam-era peace movement." Instead of drawing on the historic anti-Vietnam War movement as an inspiring example of the kind of nonviolent pro-human activity they might become involved in, it became a stumbling block. So after remarking that "In all the activism I experienced I never heard of such a case," Loeb tells of two separate investigations by sociologists who worked mostly through Vietnam veterans networks. Richard Flacks of the University of California at Santa Barbara could find no examples at all, and Jerry Starr of the University of Pittsburgh located only a single case. On the other hand, anti-war veteran Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July) was spat on by a Republican delegate at the 1972 Convention. It was nonviolent anti-war protesters who were spat on and physically abused by police, vigilantes, and right-wing students.

The second section is on activism and in the introduction, Loeb writes: "In Book One I examined the responses of the adapters through various individual journeys and through mapping common barriers to engagement. But when students begin to take political stands, they act not just as isolated individuals, but as part of a community whose efforts will succeed or fail together. I've therefore chosen to examine politically committed students not just through portraits of representative individuals but through portraits of representative situations."

He does this by being present, sometimes for a month or more (with return visits later) when one or more of a variety of activities are taking place. Notable among these are demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins, educational meetings and workshops, pro-active "service" work with and for the poor, and a variety of activities in response to provocative racial incidents or deprivations. Loeb examines in great detail the interactions of both black and white students at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, beginning in 1990, as they attempted to deal with racial problems. He also discusses and compares racial problems and interactions at a number of other colleges that he visits. The value of this material about a basically unresolved and explosive issue, clearly extends beyond the student world to overall society.

The third section Loeb calls "World in Motion," to signify some of the changes that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, among them is the phenomenal growth in student concern and campus political involvement. First he gives impressive facts about the dynamic and widespread (but by now largely forgotten) activity against the Persian Gulf "War." Here are a few excerpts from the University of Washington in Seattle, plus some follow-up references to actions elsewhere:

"At a `Last Chance' UW rally the Monday following the congressional approval of force, Heidi expected the usual twenty-five people. Over a thousand turned out...lining up one after another to voice outrage and concern...More students arrived, including several hundred from local high schools. The crowd mixed cultural styles: northwest casual in worn flannel shirts, black-clad punks, tie-dyed neo-hippies, neatly sweatered preppies and even some ROTC cadets and frat men. After the students held hands and sang `Amazing Grace,' some got restless and called for a march. While the leadership hesitated, a group of fifty headed off, and then another. Four hundred more students quickly followed--through the adjacent business district then--echoing protests of twenty years before--up the exit ramps and onto the freeway.

"Cars slowed to a halt. Students filled the southbound lanes. Cops drove up, pushed a few people from behind, then tried to head the group off....`Don't fight the cops. Sit down.' said an African-American woman.... The crowd sat cross-legged on the tarmac. Then Heidi and other leaders negotiated a police escort to the next exit, where they marched on city streets to the federal building....

"The evening following the UW freeway rally, 30,000 people marched in Seattle's streets, sponsored by the metropolitan church council and a local peace coalition. The demonstration was the city's largest in seventy years, larger than any national anti-Vietnam rally until 1967. Portland mobilized 10,000 to 15,000--more than any Vietnam-era rally they had ever had. Tens of thousands marched in San Francisco streets."

On and on the accounts go, describing events in 25 or more colleges and cities. Thus he tells us that "Indiana students erected a fifty-tent encampment in a snow-covered field outside the Student Union, and slept out for the duration of the war, despite drunken frat men throwing eggs and tomatoes at them.... Similar tent cities went up and remained at the University of North Carolina and University of Georgia."

As for the way the media has succeeded in creating a false impression of the country's response to the Gulf War, Loeb tells of his own presence at the largest demonstration of all. Here are some key excerpts: "On January 26, ten days after the war began, a broad coalition overcame freezing weather to draw a quarter million people to Washington, DC...The same day between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand marched in San Francisco and thousands more in other cities....[T]hose who came were amazed at the turnout--ten times larger than the first major national anti-Vietnam demonstration in 1965 and larger than any until the height of that decade's unrest....

"But few except those on the scene heard their voices. The major media mostly accepted a police claim that the demonstration drew just 75,000, although it packed streets three times as wide as the 30,000 Seattle march, and took three times as long. The New York Times buried a brief story on page seventeen. CBS gave as much time to a group of 150 prowar demonstrators.... NBC's president vetoed the network's showing video footage of the actual destruction in Iraq and fired the stringer who provided it.... National media similarly ignored the large San Francisco marches, the stream of local and regional protests...."

In the next chapter, Loeb tells how in April/May 1991, he spent perhaps a month exploring student strikes and sit-ins at units of the City University of New York. Sometimes he sat in with the strikers to observe their discussions, decision-making and responses to attacks and threats of attacks. Sometimes he viewed the action from outside, through the eyes, words and actions of its opponents.

Also, given the recent electoral defeat of Governor Mario Cuomo, it is worth mentioning the following: "The strike began after New York governor Mario Cuomo proposed a $500 tuition hike for Hunter and the other the City University of New York.... For a stockbroker's son or a lawyer's daughter, CUNY remained highly affordable. But this wasn't a system of the affluent. Roughly 30 percent of CUNY's students came from families with combined household incomes of less than $14,000 per year, and nearly half with incomes of less than $21,000. Cuomo supported cuts in financial aid as well, between $100 and $400 for each eligible student."


Another contribution of Loeb's final section is its exposure of "political correctness" as an invention of academic Rightists who wanted to caricature progressives in order to intimidate them, while simultaneously frightening away potential recruits to their causes. Actually, as Loeb mentions, the phrase first surfaced in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an in-group joke among activists, a way to chide those who were too zealous for the cause. It was also used when an unhealthy sectarianism tended to characterize some groups toward the end of the anti-Vietnam War period. But certainly it was not used to condemn all those who speak or act for justice and decency, as happens today. And it is particularly inappropriate at a time when there is much less narrow self-righteousness on the Left than there was then.

Which does not mean that students (or any of us) should be blind to our individual or collective flaws. Or defensive when people mention them in good faith. As Loeb points out, "Activist students have their flaws. Because their task is difficult, they sometimes grow judgmental, bluntly shutting down those who disagree with them. They sometimes separate themselves from important historical perspectives, dismissing rich and vital literature as the mere testament of dead, irrelevant white men. Their efforts to address America's profound divisions of race, sex, and class leave them at times off balance or awkward. Inevitably they take some false steps.... Yet such flaws are peripheral to contemporary student movements. They occur largely at their margins... By no stretch of the imagination do they cast the kind of intellectual and emotional chill over the campuses that the PC baiters describe."

So he ends the book on this urgent note: "Though we should be heartened by renewed student involvement, no single generation can bear the sole responsibility for healing the world....We therefore honor their resurgent commitment not by handing them the burden of the future, but by viewing the issues they take on as a challenge to us all. This challenge calls us to take committed public stands not only during the brief passage through college when some of us first learn the habits of engagement. It calls us to take these stands throughout our lives."