Remember, when you were in high school, that creepy guy who kept hanging around long after he’d graduated or dropped out? He was always “visiting” old teachers, or turning up at teen gatherings. You know the type: Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused, minus the looks and swagger, seeming for all the world like a ghost that had yet to cross over.
Pretty pathetic, right?
Well, that’s you whenever you decide to involve yourself in a college campus narrative that, were this an ideal world, you wouldn’t even know about. Grow the fuck up.
There are a number of recent examples I could point to; that’s how banal this embarrassing shit has become. The tweet above, from pedantic dingus Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, refers to an editorial from the Daily Northwestern, the undergrad-run newspaper at Northwestern University, that apologized for their coverage of protests around an event with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The staff referred to some reporting tactics as “retraumatizing and invasive” for activists, which led hordes of overpaid, mostly white media professionals like Kessler to wail “THAT’S NOT JOURNALISM!” at their thousands of followers.
As these purportedly liberal-minded wonks publicly shamed a group of students for a choice whose impact was entirely limited to that small community, right-wingers set to flogging their favorite hobbyhorse: the scourge of sensitivity in the halls of higher learning. Thus did a few young editors become the villains in a story that began with a visitation from the deeply racist lawn gnome responsible for Trump’s immigration nightmare, most of them in journalism school, meaning they have professors and a dean to show them the ropes of the trade, without um, “assistance” from the infallible geniuses at [checks notes] the National Review. You know, one of the websites that ran articles written by pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s publicists. Real tight ship.
Before we could process this debacle, however, we’d moved onto another college drama, this one ginned up out of almost nothing by Sarah Dessen, a prolific author of YA novels with an axe to grind. Presumably, it was a Google vanity alert that led her to a piece in the Aberdeen News, of Aberdeen, South Dakota, describing a literary curriculum called Common Read at the city’s Northern State University. The program, which assigns all first-year students the same book to read (but has grown into a “campus-wide” tradition), is run by a volunteer committee that chooses each title, usually inviting the author to speak as well.
Quoted in this writeup was 2017 graduate Brooke Nelson, now working on a master’s degree in Florida, who had joined the committee in her junior year to advocate for Just Mercy, a nonfiction account of activist-lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s efforts to appeal the wrongful murder conviction of a black man named Walter McMillian. Nelson also wanted to block a Dessen novel from selection for Common Read, finding it wasn’t quite the proper welcome for incoming college students. “She’s fine for teen girls,” Nelson told the Aberdeen News. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”
The upshot? No extra bump in sales for Dessen that quarter, and she didn’t get a trip to South Dakota. There’s also nothing to suggest that, absent Nelson’s contribution to the debate, Dessen’s book, Saint Anything, would have been the pick that year; it was reportedly one of 52 contenders, and barely discussed. The whole thing transpired at least three years ago, with Just Mercy proving a popular choice. There was no earthly reason, then, for Dessen to screenshot Nelson’s comment, disingenuously scribble out her name and tweet it for an audience of more than a quarter of a million, writing: “Authors are real people. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.”
No reason, that is, except to bask in the fawning praise from fans and best-selling author friends bound to rally to her defense, and to have these same people figure out Nelson’s identity, call her a “raggedy ass fucking bitch,” running her off social media. Writer Roxane Gay congratulated Dessen on acquiring a nemesis. Blockbuster novelist Jodi Picoult and others portrayed Nelson as an enemy of girls everywhere; another publishing superstar, Jennifer Weiner, left a comment on the Aberdeen News site accusing her of “internalized misogyny,” and went so far as to connect Nelson’s opinion to Larry Nassar’s molesting hundreds of young women he’d seen as a team doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team, dating back to the early 1990s.
Dessen visibly encouraged this firestorm, liking the posts that savaged Nelson and all but crowing victory when Northern State was forced to throw their alumna under the bus. Another cycle later, though, it was the authors apologizing: Gay said she hadn’t realized Nelson wasn’t anonymous and disavowed the harassment. Weiner admitted she had “reacted from an emotional place” before gaining any context. Dessen herself, under the pressure of stories in the Guardian, Jezebel, Washington Post, Vulture and Slate describing how she’d led a virtual mob against a random grad student, issued a retraction of sorts — without acknowledging Nelson by name, of course.
Now, here’s what often gets lost in the depressingly regular incidents where a bunch of grown adults flip the hell out on young collegians they’ve never met, for behavior that couldn’t possibly concern them outside a purely theoretical interest: All this could have been avoided. None of it had to happen!
Sarah Dessen was pissed at one woman with the idea that a college curriculum should aim a little higher than YA fiction, and her reaction to it led to far wider humiliation, including added scrutiny of her more, ahem, problematic tendencies as an author. A lot of folks in publishing had never previously heard of her — since they don’t belong to her specific readership — and now see her as a bully. For what? A brief Twitter high? Jesus Christ.
Still, she’s far from the first to wade into these noxious waters. Headass HBO talk show host Bill Maher is always grossly invested in the slightest hint of political friction on campuses, mocking students’ justified anxieties and siding with far-right hate speech ideologues when the kids dare to protest or no-platform these scumbags. At the New York Times op-ed desk, Bari Weiss, David Brooks and Bret Stephens have made the perpetual recurrence of their “lefty college students are killing free speech” take into self-owning stunt performance art, particularly with Stephens having a total meltdown when a college professor called him a bedbug on Twitter, even reporting this joke to the man’s university provost. Then you have the grifters like Ben Shapiro, Charlie Kirk and Ann Coulter, whose campus tours are supposed to prove that the “cultural Marxists” of ivory towers are censoring them; nevertheless, they air their views.
While I’m aware the real threat to First Amendment privileges in America’s college comes from the right, not the left, I can also be non-partisan about the larger issue — the one that encompasses this debate as well as the kind of dramas we’ve lately seen play out around Northwestern and Northern State.
My conclusion is this: College kids are not your problem to fret about or solve. None of these interlopers, of any political stripe, know what it’s like on a campus these days, because they neither live nor work there. At most, they parachute in to rattle off a few stale talking points. When you get up in arms at something you believe has transpired, or is going on, between the walls of such an institution, you’re probably doing so for selfish reasons (money, clout, agreement, sympathy, propaganda) and not a noble regard for how a new generation is shaping itself day by day.
If that were your priority, you’d quit the tirades and get a job in education. Anything else is attacking young scholars on behalf of an older population that craves justification for pre-existing contempt, and this is approximately as valuable to society as the billionth editorial cartoon decrying Gen Z and their dang phones.
Let these children learn and, yes, make mistakes in peace, same as you did. The campus is a bubble, but they’ll be kicked out soon enough. In the meantime, do not for a moment convince yourself that an internet connection has given you perfect insight into their experience, for you will be reliably wrong, misinformed and damaging. And when you do screw up, the rest of us can say — as you would, no doubt, of a college student — they really should have known better.