The Personal is Political
My earliest experiences on the Amherst Cross Country team were almost universally terrible. From almost the first minute of the first practice, I got the impression that many of the older runners were unwelcoming, ill-spirited douchebags. But to be perfectly honest, I chose this school because it was at the intersection of the alphabetical list and the rankings list. I didn’t talk to my parents or my siblings about college, and I didn’t accept help choosing a school despite having access to it. I was so fucked that I didn’t even start any applications to other schools in case I didn’t get into Amherst early. I brought with me to campus nearly crippling anxiety, developing depression, and a tendency to, on occasion, drink myself into oblivion and get into trouble (to all the Neds that might be reading, only on weekends), so I mostly blamed myself.
I hated those guys (and for many of them, asshole status later held up to peer review). But despite how little I wanted to be around them, it never really occurred to me to quit. I had never had an accurate enough assessment of my own self-interest, nor the courage to quit anything outright. At best I would just try to slip away unnoticed. In fact, I did take my freshman year winter season off. I rationalized this decision to myself by saying my legs couldn’t handle three seasons in a row of running (to this day I still believe we’d all be faster if there were only two seasons instead of three). But in reality I think part of me just wanted to withdraw, and not have to confront myself or anyone else. But I also loved running. It was part of me. As I stood in Ned’s office that spring with a giant lump in my throat, I understood when he said it’s one of those things, when people leave they usually don’t come back. But I did come back. And despite being a flight risk, Ned let me compete, and gave me only the bare minimum of shit when I vomited on the track halfway through our first easy spring workout.
I’m glad he did, too, because after some people graduated, and I learned to let some things roll off my back, I liked the team a whole lot more. I didn’t always get along with everybody on the team. I still think my running suffered because of untreated depression and anxiety, but I have gained so much for having been a part of Amherst Cross Country and because of Ned. For one I proved to myself that I had it in me to work hard and be disciplined, even during the summer when I was mostly only accountable to myself. I learned that I perform my best when I treat myself like a human being instead of a robot (although Ned might not understand that one because he’s a freak of nature). I got marginally, but crucially, better at time management. I also made lifelong friends. Some people don’t need to be on a team to learn or have these things. Some people might need exactly the opposite. But given how quickly things seemed to spiral out of control as soon as I stepped off the track, I know I benefitted from the structure, and I think my head benefitted from the exercise. One thing I think we can all agree on is that none of us would be where we are today without grace and second chances.
Like many young liberals, I struggle with how to contextualize my own experiences within the broader narrative of campus – not to mention American – life. Why did I feel like I didn’t fit in on the team initially? Was I justified in my distaste and distrust of some of the older members? This individualized narrative of my personal weirdness and childhood trauma is casually intertwined with what I believe to a major reason I didn’t fit in anywhere at Amherst. I simply grew up on another planet – asteroid perhaps – than most people there. Recent data in the New York Times show that more than 20% of students in my year came from families that made over $630,000 a year. That’s about ten times what my family made when I was in college, and those were good, stable years for us. A kid in my dorm once said something like “I don’t understand why anyone would take out a loan to buy a car”. Now, this is an extreme example – you don’t need to be nearly this clueless to be perceptibly different in the way you interact with people and spaces. I remember it occurring to me a few times throughout prep school and college that I was stingier than many of my friends, and I worried about how I would be perceived if I failed to reciprocate their hospitality and generosity. I also regretted that my parents weren’t as familiar with my friends as I was with my friends’ parents. I figured if they had extra money lying around it would occur to them to take us all out for a meal.
There are a lot of reasons I was slow and somewhat apprehensive to articulate these cultural differences in the in-vogue language of identity politics and personal trauma. For one, that’s generally language you pick up in college. And two or three, or whatever number we’re on, my class identity is rather muddled for reasons I won’t get into. At both Andover and Amherst, it was difficult for me to tell how much money people had. I spent so much time trying not to make assumptions about people that I perhaps neglected to make evidential judgements. I was absolutely shocked, and validated somewhat, to see the data in the New York Times. Money can’t solve all our problems, but I’m sure my feelings of alienation were to at least some degree the result of cultural differences arising from class. More importantly in my experience, the anxiety and depression that made these differences even harder to understand and deal with was almost certainly exacerbated by experiences related to class. Lastly, despite the fact that being poor forms the bedrock of my personality and identity, and often in ways I really appreciate, I’m kinda banking on the idea that it’s not a permanent attribute.
I’m addicted to you. Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
Before the scandal of the Cross-Country team’s racist, misogynist email chain surfaced, the recent trend of campus exposés had struck me quite neutrally. If bad things are happening, better people know about them, I guessed. But suddenly this became a subject for which I had visceral reactions, ones that didn’t quite match up to my politics as I understood them. This was my team, and I was quite annoyed at finding myself indicted by virtue of having contributed to a “toxic culture”, despite the fact that the emails during my time were pretty tame. Don’t get me wrong, I made mistakes in college. I hurt people in ways I would do anything to take back. But none of these were in my capacity as an athlete, or even related to being on a team. It’s extremely irritating to be told by non-athletes what it’s like to part of a team at Amherst, especially the same people who torpedo any critical discussion with lines like “because you’re Y, you couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be X”. Or think they understand privilege because they have some friends who aren’t white. The truth is, if you are one to make an argument like this, I could give a fuck what you think. Also, none of this is about is about me, or my team specifically, or even about the individuals that got in trouble. This is about the various ways in which students and professors feel (justly, I might add) that athletes and athletics – through destructive team culture, self-segregation, and unequal utilization of campus spaces – detract from the quality of life and education at Amherst.
Of course I’m angry that my coach is no longer at Amherst, and all for a cheap publicity stunt by the administration to make it look like they were doing something to solve the problem. Professor Sinos was understandably polite in her language but I need not be. Whether you like Ned personally or as a coach or not – if you think he was in any way responsible for this incident, that his removal will do anything to fix the problem, or that it represents some sort of abstract justice, you are seriously fucking dim. You’re equally dim if you can’t see that the whole exposé, and its outrageous responses and follow-ups, have been little more than attention grabs and virtue signaling. It would be one thing if these kids were exposing some sort of a brush-off or cover-up, but that’s a sad explanation given the way this has all turned out. The article has attracted widespread attention; yet, as they have before, the administration has reacted as a bunch of PR- and donor-obsessed cowards, offering little more than a promise to “think about” the place of athletics on campus.
What troubles me further is that many well-intentioned, and basically correct, young progressives seem to be so blinded by identitarian rage that they don’t even notice this. If all these strong reactions are based upon the understanding that the internal dynamics of athletics teams represent deeply entrenched power structures that lead to violence and misogyny, it would not be the pasty white and affluent kids complaining that the article didn’t include names because these “whitebread fuckbois” need to be “exposed” and “expelled”. We also wouldn’t be focused on a disparity in SAT scores, as if academics were the only criterion for admission or factor in college success, or as if test scores and misogyny are somehow connected. Which sounds pretty fucking arrogant, by the way. I understand this is an emotional issue for many people. It’s hard to look at what is going on around the world and on campus and not feel angry and hurt. I feel that way all the time. I just feel angry and hurt about stuff that’s actually important, not a bunch of fucking emails.
Please don’t misinterpret my frustrations. If there’s one thing that pisses me off more than coddled, deluded liberals, it’s coddled, deluded conservatives talking out their asses about coddled liberals. It is absolutely worth considering how the institutions and groups we are a part of serve to perpetuate the entrenched dynamics of power and privilege. Also, I reject the idea that the left has shot itself in the foot by spurring a reactionary right that defines itself in opposition to some “toxic” new brand of identity politics. The newly-mobilized populist right are getting their take on campus protests from Fox or worse, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart. These people don’t have a clue what the “death of free speech” might actually look and feel like. They don’t know their asses from a hole in the ground.
But the problem with the vomit-inducing arguments coming from the Sam Harrises and Conor Freidersdorfs of the world is not that this “toxic” brand of identity politics doesn’t exist. (Side note – “toxic” and “problematic” are not in themselves adequately descriptive to constitute a point.) The problem with these guys is that in trying to deconstruct the shortcomings of millennial progressivism, they perpetuate an equally rigid identitarian narrative that places all student activism and resistance thereto into uniform, opposing camps. In Freidersdorf’s description, student activists approach the administration with such fierce anger you’d think they might tear down the halls, but in the end, their demands are not presented in the language of structural injustices and reforms, but of sensitivity and paternalism. He neglects to give offer a hypothesis as to why this might be, or how campus activists stand to lose in framing their complaints this way. Instead, the vague implication of internal inconsistency leaves his right-leaning readers to conclude that students’ grievances are either illegitimate, or else too nebulous to constructively approach.
The language of student protestors is more personal than ever because the prevailing analytical framework for understanding social injustice is focused on how discrete units of culture and interaction arise from these deeply entrenched, unjust power structures. Millennials’ rage does not so often outstrip the seriousness of a given transgression because they are a generation of pansies, but because they believe that every offhandedly racist comment carries with it the combined weight of centuries of violence and injustice. That’s why blame often gets cast wider than it should, and why bloodthirsty progressives seem to think a few innocent people getting thrown on the cross is a small price to pay for “justice”. Because, well, fuck ‘em all anyway. The other reason is that, let’s be honest, it’s fashionable to be angry about stuff. These ways of thinking are absolutely legitimate and useful… to a degree. However, if the underlying dynamics of power and privilege were so deeply entrenched that our transgressors were in effect irredeemable, punishment would be moot because we’d all be fucked anyway. Surely our pasty young liberal isn’t so pessimistic, otherwise he wouldn’t be sending text messages giving his teammate kudos for a contribution to the email chain one day, and writing an article damning him the next.
Just Do It.
The contradiction inherent in the pursuit of progressive values at Amherst is that we choose to attend a school like Amherst because we expect it to give us an advantage that other people won’t get. This advantage is not just built on the quality of education, but on a reputation that has been built through the centuries because of and by profoundly unjust, inequitable power structures. Likewise, the advantage-perpetuating quality of athletics is, to a certain extent, precisely what makes it a worthwhile pursuit. Despite my good/decent grades and high test scores, I don’t know if I would have made it through high school or college without having been part of a team. In my career as a student-athlete, this was an unfair advantage about as much as H2O was a performance-enhancing drug. Also, my Amherst education was most likely paid for by one of these highly-resentable old white dudes. Good chance he was an athlete too. Most people believe, as I do, that at least proportional racial representation at Amherst is absolutely critical. But how could we ever say that about class representation? If I had needed to pay anything out-of-pocket to come to Amherst, I wouldn’t have been able to. The only way people like me can get the financial aid we need is if some people pay full tuition, and then some of those people go on to donate.
As long as American society as a whole remains so strikingly unequal, I find it unlikely that we will be able to assuage all the tensions of campus life. Furthermore, greater diversity within the different classes of an inequitable society doesn’t fix the inequality, in fact if we’re not careful it can moralize it. So why should we bother to fight for greater diversity at Amherst and within the groups it sanctions? One reason is that an Amherst education, despite itself being a manifestation of inequality, remains one of the best tools for impacting the change we want to see in the world (or so I’m told). There is also the simple fact that diversity makes Amherst a better, more open place to live and learn. I really believe that the reason I chose to stake out my identity and friendships among so many different groups – my team, my J4 crew, ACOC – is that I didn’t feel like I fit perfectly (not even close) into the mould of any given one. And this is the only reason I could serve as a bridge between people in those different groups.
Reconciling the apparent inconsistencies of fighting for justice within an unjust system goes a long way in helping us understand how the language of student activists can be co-opted and diluted by what is, despite its veneer of progressive values, a fundamentally conservative institution. And why, both on campus and within society as a whole, change is always slower than we hope it to be (I mean, who knew that healthcare could be so complicated?) It does not, however, explain why the administration has time and time again failed to engage in honest conversation, and exhibited selective attention, poor judgement, and weak leadership on issues of class and race at Amherst, sexual violence, and the place of athletics. These failures are evident in the absolute train wrecks of decisions they have made in the wake each controversy. A wholly-unqualified and dodgy appointment to Title IX coordinator. The newly-established sinecure of Chief Student Affairs Officer (is this woman blackmailing you or something!?) Dumping millions of dollars into facilities that avail themselves only to athletes. Removing Ned, and then promising little more than to ponder the role athletics and its associated procedures. And, despite the fact that I have nothing positive to say about fraternities, banning them outright seems to have done little more than stir resentment amongst our petty statesmen-in-training.
If the college truly wishes to bridge the athlete/non-athlete divide, and if it gives any credence to its stated goal of being a transformative force in society, the disparate racial and class makeup of athletics teams is simply unacceptable. Despite the erstwhile athletic director’s insistence to the contrary, it’s painfully obvious that the patterns of destructive behavior we have witnessed find occasion and venue more often amongst uniform groups such as (but not limited to) teams, and that these uniform groups are necessarily more insular. While athletics provides an important means of alumni involvement with the college, and stimulates donation that we all depend on, perhaps a greater proportion of donation would come from non-athlete alumni if a greater proportion of the school’s wealthy students were non-athletes. And while race and class quotas for athletic recruitment sound ridiculous on their face, the current system of recruitment, which matriculates athletes who are disproportionately wealthy and white, is effectively a class and race quota system in the opposite direction from what we want. The administration should not think we are so naïve as to believe that these disparate outcomes simply happen by chance, or are else unavoidable. They should find a solution so that athletes are more representative of the larger student body. And I don’t mean in terms of SAT scores.
The pessimist in me sometimes wonders why I should even care what happens to a place that is simply not mine anymore, and never felt much like it was in the first place. A place that shows me again and again that I can’t be proud of what it stands for. But if I let this way of thinking move me, I’d have moved to Canada by now. For all its shortcomings, this place was my home. These people my family. So I hold out for any sign of hope.