Columbia crisis: Another massive failure of liberalism

Columbia's president capitulated to the right-wing witch hunt — and only made things worse. Maybe that's a lesson?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 28, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) | President of Columbia University Dr. Nemat (Minouche) Shafik (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) | President of Columbia University Dr. Nemat (Minouche) Shafik (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Americans of all stripes across the political spectrum have been understandably transfixed by the wave of student protests against the Gaza war that has spread from elite Ivy League campuses to numerous other schools, some more surprising than others. Police have been called in to break up student encampments not just at Columbia University’s iconic Manhattan campus, which was both ground zero and a natural media target, but at USC in Los Angeles (once upon a time a famously white-bread conservative school), Emory University in Atlanta, the University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State, Indiana University and Cal Poly Humboldt in rural Northern California, among other places.

I intend to work my way back around to the instructive case of Columbia president Minouche Shafik, who apparently believed she could galaxy-brain her way around the protest crisis — and avoid the fate of ousted Harvard president Claudine Gay, among others — by capitulating in advance to the House Republicans’ witch-trial caucus, taking a hard line against alleged or actual antisemitism, and finally calling the cops on her own students. Spoiler alert: None of that was a good idea, and she probably didn’t save her job anyway.

First of all, it’s more accurate to say that the media-consuming public is riveted by the contentious political drama surrounding those scenes of campus discord than by the protests themselves, which are a striking sign of the times but hardly a brand new phenomenon. My own college graduation, in the mid-1980s, was disrupted by a student walkout over the university’s involvement in nuclear weapons research and its non-divestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa. Strident moral positions and overheated rhetoric are features of student activism, which is sometimes effective and at other times purely symbolic; every generation, it’s fair to say, inherits or creates its own iteration.

It’s also worth noting that America’s extraordinary narcissism — another quality shared across the political spectrum — creates a global distortion effect whereby the deaths of at least 34,000 people in a conflict on the other side of the world are transformed into a domestic political and cultural crisis. Nobody actually dies in this domestic crisis, but everyone feels injured: Public discourse is boiled down to idiotic clichés and identity politics is reduced to its dumbest possible self-caricature. When the apparent issues are about who has said the most hateful things, who feels more “unsafe” and in what context, and which political party can get away with twisting events to suit its preferred narrative, then we’re stuck in the TikTok reboot of Plato’s cave, staring at flickering shadows long since severed from reality. 

None of that is the student protesters’ fault, exactly, although they have played an instrumental role in reprocessing the Gaza war — launched, of course, in response to the horrifying Hamas attack on Israel last October — as a theatrical spectacle or “simulation,” full of signs and symbols whose meanings are subject to endless debate. Most of them are expressing genuine (if histrionic) outrage that the U.S. government, self-appointed avatar of democracy and defender of the “rules-based order,” is funding and supporting Israel’s campaign of mass killing, wanton destruction and systematic deprivation against a virtually imprisoned civilian population. 

Exactly how much this student movement has been contaminated by intemperate, hotheaded or outright antisemitic rhetoric is, shall we say, a question of interpretation — but not one that can be credibly answered by Bibi Netanyahu, Elise Stefanik or Mike Johnson. As for those who seek to what-about the current wave of protests by observing that worse things have happened in recent history without driving the students of Emerson College to risk mass arrest in the Boston streets, they are correct while deliberately missing the point. 

Whatever world-historical culpability the U.S. may have had for the genocidal conflicts in Darfur or Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, for Russia’s massively destructive war in Chechnya or China’s brutal oppression of the Uyghurs or whatever atrocity you’d like to name, those events were not the direct results of U.S. policy and did not carry the White House seal of approval. The Gaza war is, and does. 

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a longtime friend and admirer of Joe Biden, wrote last week, “Gaza has become the albatross around Biden’s neck. It is his war, not just Benjamin Netanyahu’s. It will be part of his legacy, an element of his obituary, a blot on his campaign,” in much the same way as the Vietnam War permanently stained the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, who was undermined by the massive antiwar demonstrations of 1968 — including the student rebellion at Columbia, exactly 56 years ago this week, as it happens. 

America’s extraordinary narcissism creates a global distortion effect whereby the massacre of at least 34,000 people in a conflict on the other side of the world is transformed into a domestic political and cultural crisis.

Biden made a series of catastrophic miscalculations in the wake of the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, Kristof argues, and the net effect has been to make the U.S. look weak, hypocritical and profoundly cynical. Longtime British politician and diplomat Chris Patten, a pillar of center-right establishment thinking, told Kristof that Biden had made “a terrible, terrible error” that fed into “Chinese and Russian narratives that the West employs double standards and doesn’t really care about principles.”

I would describe Biden’s predicament as a symptom of the moral and political failures of liberalism, as well as the peculiar status of the United States, a still-dominant global superpower now in irreversible decline. The president did not or could not grasp how rapidly and decisively world opinion would turn against Israel and the U.S., or how little the world trusts American foreign policy after the last six decades or so of misbegotten wars and disastrous blunders. 

Furthermore, and this one is amazing too: Neither Biden nor anyone in his inner circle seemed aware that core Democratic constituencies — Black voters, younger people, progressives — already sympathized with the Palestinian cause and viewed the current Israeli government as a criminal rogue state (or worse). Or perhaps they didn't care: Mainstream Democrats tend to dismiss the significance of the youth vote, assume that Black voters will stick with them no matter what, and are eager to purge or bulldoze the activist left on any available pretext.

But those failures, all damaging enough on their own terms, were amplified and undergirded by Biden’s inexplicable faith that Bibi Netanyahu would somehow turn out to be a responsible leader and partner in a time of crisis, rather than a power-mad racist zealot with years of experience at manipulating American presidents. This miscalculation may seem mystifying when you consider Biden’s long years of public service and his vaunted expertise in foreign policy; Kristof certainly finds it so.

It makes more sense if we understand liberalism, of the 21st-century Biden variety, as faith in the power of human reason, and specifically in its power to bridge differences between competing interests and establish common ground for civil discourse and political compromise. If we lived in a world of rational, self-interested beings willing to acknowledge the perspectives of others — a world of liberals, in other words — that might work out. But we don’t, and in the real world Biden’s miscalculation regarding Netanyahu was a potentially fatal mistake — fatal for Biden’s presidency, fatal for Israel, fatal for the future of the Middle East.

That brings us back at last to Dr. Renat Shafik, who prefers the nickname Minouche, and whose full title in the British House of Lords is the Right Honorable Baroness Shafik DBE. She arrived at Columbia last July, with no experience in American academic life, touted as a champion of diversity and inclusion. (By birth and parentage, she is both Arab and Muslim.) Less than a year later, she summoned the NYPD to the Morningside Heights campus for the first time since the legendary student takeover of 1968. If Joe Biden represents the tragedy of liberalism in its pathetic form — no reasonable person can doubt his good intentions — Shafik represents something darker, and almost farcical. 

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If you wanted to choose one individual as the face of “neoliberalism” for an encyclopedia entry, you could do a lot worse. Shafik holds an economics PhD from Oxford and a résumé of high-ranking positions at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England, three institutions that have been instrumental in driving developing nations into unsustainable debt in pursuit of a disastrously failed model of progress. She came to Columbia after six years of pushing fiscal austerity as director of the London School of Economics, where just last spring she helped defeat a student/faculty strike, reportedly by slashing salary payments and lowering graduation requirements to hustle student protesters out the door.

If you wanted to choose one individual as the face of “neoliberalism” for an encyclopedia entry, you could do a lot worse than Minouche Shafik.

After the Gaza protests erupted at Columbia, Shafik evidently surrounded herself with high-priced lawyers and consultants drawn from the orbit of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who persuaded her that she could save her job by abasing herself before the Republican witch-hunters in Congress and giving them everything they wanted, up to and including confidential university documents they had no right to see. 

This spectacular abdication of any pretense of academic integrity made her look like a liberal of the most craven and spineless kind, the kind who would rather surrender to a police state than stand up for the frequently uncomfortable principles of free speech. To the surprise of absolutely no one, or at least no one outside Shafik’s neoliberal policy bubble, that did nothing to placate Stefanik and Johnson and the rest of the House Republicans, who did not want to be placated and had no interest in reasonable dialogue. 

They wanted to watch Shafik squirm and grovel and then they wanted her head on a spike, while amplifying a largely invented crisis that delights their base and divides core liberal constituencies against each other. They have already achieved two of those three goals, and after alienating nearly everyone on the Columbia campus through her appalling cowardice, Shafik is surely numbering the days. 

Given her record, no one could have expected her to behave differently than she did. The real question is what we might learn from Shafik’s failure, and from the larger set of cultural and political failures it represents. After this disastrous week, one might be tempted to conclude that the slow, agonizing decline of American higher education has finally reached its nadir, and that American liberals will finally be forced to recognize that reason is useless against the enemies of reason. I’m not holding my breath.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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