One of the things I have learned in my long, mostly uneventful life is that people are not stupid. They may be uneducated, they may be ignorant, they may be parochial, and of course they very well may be prejudiced in one or many ways, but they are not stupid. People can size one another up pretty accurately, even at a considerable distance, about the things that matter to them.
I first was made aware of this elementary fact relatively late in life when, in the seventies, I had a shot at a variety of academic administrative positions. Despite what I thought of as a pretty impressive resumé, I never got past first base. The reason finally dawned on me. The folks evaluating my credentials said publicly that they were looking for a candidate with experience, educational imagination, flair, and a strong vita, but whether they were honest to themselves about it or not, what they wanted to know at base was the answer to one question: If the students occupy the Administration building, will you be with them or with us? The question was never asked, of course, but every selection committee could smell at fifty paces that I could not be could not be counted on to say “I’ll be with you,” and that would end the interview.
I thought about this after reading that long take down of Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Current Affairs by Nathan Robinson. Here is one passage in Buttigieg’s autobiography, quoted by Robinson, that caught my eye:
“In April 2001, a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over the offices of the university’s president, demanding a living wage for Harvard janitors and food workers. That spring, a daily diversion on the way to class was to see which national figure—Cornel West or Ted Kennedy one day, John Kerry or Robert Reich another—had turned up in the Yard to encourage the protesters.
Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests […] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]”
“… [T]o this day,” Robinson observes, “it hasn’t even entered his mind that he could have joined the PSLM in the fight for a living wage. Activists are an alien species, one he “strides past” to go to “Pizza & Politics” sessions with governors and New York Times journalists. He didn’t consider, and still hasn’t considered, the moral quandary that should come with being a student at an elite school that doesn’t pay its janitors a living wage.”
As it happens, I was in Harvard Yard on April 21, 2001, the day the protest began. I had been asked by a young Philosophy Assistant Professor Susanna Siegel [now Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy] to meet with her class, which had just read In Defense of Anarchism. When I showed up at the class, Susanna told me that a group of undergraduates were planning to occupy Massachusetts Hall as part of the Living Wage Movement. I went along to their meeting in the basement of Matthews Hall [where, fifty years earlier, I had lived as a Freshman], and when they grabbed their cellphones, laptops, and water bottles and ran off through the Yard to Massachusetts Hall, I trotted along after them with my briefcase and umbrella [there was a threat of rain.] We all sat on the floor and sang songs while some Harvard bureaucrats bustled about fussily. The students stayed for days, as Buttigieg indicates, but I remained only for a few hours, before going back to Susie and UMass. When I left, I congratulated them, warned them that my experience suggested Harvard would never give in [it did not], and told them they were fighting the good fight.
That Mayor Pete was not with us that day is entirely forgivable. That it would never have entered his mind to join us is not.