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Nelson’s Corner | May 2024

Nelson’s Corner | May 2024


It is often useful to step back from the trees and take a gander at the forest.

In April, the latest inquisition by the Republican House featured the cowering performance of Columbia University President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik. She and her companions gave new life to the Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion — Roar-ee the Lion being the official Columbia mascot. In addition to her secular grovel, she cheerily agreed with Republican Representative Rick Allen, who was flabbergasted that she would invite God’s wrath onto campus by not adequately disciplining all the antisemites who dare criticize Israel’s near-genocide in Gaza.

Shafik, having smilingly groveled before the McCarthyesque proceedings, got her roar back when returning to campus and summoning the NYPD to break up a merely hours-long pro-Palestine encampment on the campus lawn. So brave, lioness!

Last fall, Dartmouth College’s president similarly called the local police to arrest two students who occupied tents on the front lawn of her huge campus mansion. Maybe it’s an Ivy League aversion to tents.

I vividly recall the anti-war protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In early ‘66, I ignored, with amusement, the several Vietnam War protestors on my college quad, clad in camouflage, sitting by a small campfire. I was a privileged preppy — albeit a liberal one — who had not paid much attention to the war. Six months later I was marching through the “campus” of Fort Benning, GA wearing a real Army uniform in basic training. The Selective Service had selected me, and it was not an honor.

By 1970, I had served as an Army officer without distinction and returned to college to resume my academic career by actually attending classes. The slaughter of students on May 4 at nearby Kent State sparked particularly vehement protests, including on my new campus quad. This time I paid attention.

The shackling of more than 100 Columbia students in April drew surprising commentary from the usually reliably liberal-ish New York Times readership. The vast majority applauded the university for standing up to the rule breakers. Many comments came from parents who deeply resented the protestors’ interruption of their children’s inexorable march toward MBAs, especially after they had committed some of the proceeds of their own MBAs to the perpetuation of their privilege. It generally went without mention that the encampment inhibited nothing, although fairness requires that I acknowledge that a few pro-Palestinian protesters said some ugly stuff.

Those are a few of the trees. Here’s a glimpse of the forest from my corner.

Colleges and universities — and society — have become nearly unrecognizably corporatized since the ‘70s. Boards are comprised of donors, occasionally limousine liberals, with deep commitments to capitalism and the protection of their own capital. They hire leaders, like Minouche Shafik, who won’t rock the boat — or their yachts.

Humanities are shrinking toward extinction, and business majors have proliferated. Schools are assessed as “superb” based on the exorbitant earnings of graduates. In my later days as head of a Manhattan school, the quality of “elite” preschools was judged by the earnings of their grads!

Politics are equally skewed. Today’s “progressives” are essentially Eisenhower Republicans. Today’s Republicans are essentially to the right of John Birch. It seems nearly everyone, including too damn many Democrats, rail against the “radical left.” There is no “radical left” except perhaps in the fevered imaginary world of Truth Social.

Protestors then and now do not always comport with Emily Post’s rules of etiquette. But is something not deeply amiss when students are locked up for camping while yahoos with AR-15s parade through America’s streets with impunity? I guess some Amendments are more important than others.

Lip service is paid to the right to protest. One such lip server suggested that the protesters be removed to a place where others wouldn’t have to hear them. In cities large and small, protests are confined to cordoned-off corrals where spectators can view them, and a few AR-15 toters can taunt them from the perimeter.

Protests are meant to disrupt. In a culture that has grown more conservative and complacent, protest is demanded. I may not always agree, as is the case with some of the pro-Palestinian rhetoric, but thank goodness there are young — and older — folks who care deeply enough to take a stand for justice. And while I abhor violence, sometimes violence is all that will get the Establishment’s attention.

Yes, I abhor violence, but I’ll reserve my abhorrence for 34,000 dead in Gaza — mostly children and women; 43,000 gun deaths in the U.S. last year; violence against women by men and legislation; law enforcement killing of Black boys and men; the violence of child poverty; and the violent, right-wing assault on kindness and decency in our culture.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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