Recalling Yale in ’68: Let’s have that civility again

As a supporter of the current war who is dismayed at how some others have supported it, I’d be glad if the worst of the controversy on this campus were confined to a few instances of barging into people’s rooms, spitting on them, or defacing property. Such acts have been so widely and rightfully condemned that I doubt we’ll see more. But we do endure something more chronic and perfectly legal: the belligerence of some students who think themselves entitled to subject their peers and even professors to baiting, ridicule, and ad hominem attack.

Some will shout down a speaker in a classroom. A little flying squad of rhetorical “hit men” has descended like flies on Yale Daily News post sites to assail people whose comments were reported in th e paper. Yale’s Students for Democracy and a project called Campus Watch remind me of Students for a Democratic Society way back in the last century, when I was an undergraduate here during another war.

And when freshmen arrive here primed to attack professors in public, as two did in a recent article in Front Page, an online off-campus publication, I smell something worse than youthful exuberance, a neo-Stalinism wafting up not from SDS of the 1960s but from YCL of the 1930s — the Young Communist League and its right-wing counterparts.

I also remember a better way, and never mind that it’s from people who opposed a war. One wintry morning in 1968, plodding across Beinecke Plaza to a class, I came upon 50 students gathered silently around three seniors and the University Chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr. A senior was speaking barely audibly over his fear. “The government claims we’re criminals,” he said, as I leaned in to listen, “but we say it’s the government that is criminal in waging this war.” He and the others handed Coffin their draft cards, like the ones we all carried, and vowed to refuse conscription into the Vietnam War.

“Believe me,” Coffin said, smiling, “I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning feeling like a sensitive grain of wheat lookin’ at a millstone.” It was Calvinist humor, a jaunty defiance of the powers that be on behalf of a higher power; and something in us grasped at it, because we were scared. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested, and we felt arrested morally by their example.

I felt arrested in another way, too: A few yards away were names we’ve all passed, of Yale men dead in other wars, inscribed next to Periclean citizen-warriors under apothegms such as, “Courage disdains fame and wins it.” The draft resisters were challenging us to join them in disdaining fame, but with no chance of winning even a memorial’s posthumous regard.

Something about that made them very “American,” — and as free of anti-Americanism as Rosa Parks was when she refused to move to the back of a bus. Her dignified bearing embraced a flawed civil society instead of trashing or deconstructing it as inherently. I felt that these grave seniors were doing that, too: American civil society had arisen from a slumber and was breathing and walking again, remoralizing the state and the law. And as we watched, our silent, wild confusion gave way to something like awe.

“The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right,” said Martin Luther King Jr., and the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at the “constitutional patriotism” of Americans who resisted the state to advance not fantasies of racial and ethnic destiny but an experiment testing whether republics that rely on a culture of personal responsibility and civic virtue can endure.

But let’s complicate that vision: Constitutional patriots might be anti-abortion activists who believe that life is a continuous, sacred thread not to be broken by the state — or by individuals exercising their “rights” — and who risk their own liberties in peaceful civil disobedience to stop government from funding what they consider murder. You might loathe them as conservatives did those who opposed the Vietnam War and the false racial comity of the old South. But the test of constitutional patriotism is whether you’re true to a civic comity that’s big enough to be challenged by people who dissent without violence and hatred.

For all SDS’s posturing, there wasn’t violent protest at Yale in the 1960s; certainly my old Davenport neighbor, George W. Bush, doesn’t remember any. But there was enough belligerence of the kind we see now to make pro-war and ROTC students duck and keep quiet. Conservatives should ponder this and Gaddis Smith’s recent warning that the generational wheel may turn yet again.

Yale’s duty is to help the American experiment get a learning curve. Unlike us in 1968, though, none of you has to risk your life, fortune, or sacred honor for your convictions. You haven’t had to oppose this war by risking imprisonment and life as a felon. You haven’t had to support it by serving in it — and I note that none of the Fedayeen Uncle Sams who’ve intimidated people here has enlisted, as did many Yalies whose names and dreams outlasted their 20s only on those icy, marble walls.

The country’s political landscape is littered with the wreckage of movements that turned violent. You need to know that, and that your college has trained statesmen and even warriors who were strong and smart enough to sustain the American experiment itself.



Jim Sleeper ’69 teaches a seminar in Ethics, Politics & Economics and Political Science on “New Conceptions of American National Identity.” He is the author of “Liberal Racism” and a former political columnist of the New York Daily News.

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