The Anthropology of the Political Campus

Simon Radford

There is a series of books called “Letters to a Young… [insert identity here]” in which some superannuated Baby Boomer passes on their wisdom to an imagined young self just starting out. To be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t recommend them. Christopher Hitchens’ “Letters to a Young Contrarian” isn’t bad, I guess, but the one which really riled the younger me was Todd Gitlin’s “Letters to a Young Activist.” Gitlin is now a professional bearded reminiscer of the 60s and how—if only those pesky Weathermen and other undesirables had listened to him—it all would have turned out for the best. To him (and most folks engaged in 60s student politics), it was the only time to be alive and those battles are still the only battles worth  fighting. You can almost hear the audible sighs emanating from the book of both wistful nostalgia and baleful regret of how things are not like they were.


Well, I am no baby boomer. And, if comparisons must be made, I would rather strive for the glamor and anarcho-syndicalist radicalism of Tom Hayden than his erstwhile colleague, Gitlin. But I propose here to run the risk of doing precisely what irked me those few years ago: passing on advice to those politically engaged in the here and now, gleaned from the golden years of my earlier youth.

In mitigation, I do still consider myself engaged and I will claim loudly that I am not that much older than you, dear reader, despite what anyone might say to the contrary. From my undergrad days at Cambridge, to my Masters at Brown, and now here at USC, I do see some patterns in terms of the “tribes” of political types on campus. I regret that these tribes cannot learn from each other rather than simply cohere amongst people with the same approaches as themselves. It is sometimes difficult, like in The Life of Brian, to explain to the members of The People’s Front of Judea that they have more in common with the Judean People’s Front than they might think.

The most obvious political sort on any campus is the campaigner. They come in two flavors: those who haughtily eschew anything party-political as impure and sullied; and those who eschew outside-party campaigns because otherwise they would be weakening the party that represents many causes by diverting attention to only one. Rarely, for example, do the members of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation show an equally active regard for a campaign in the mayoral race. Similarly, how often do those who can chirpily recite the latest in redistricting demographics show the same concern and passion for workers’ rights or turning the campus green? Just because change needs inside and outside pressure doesn’t mean you have to choose one or the other. You can still wear a suit on the picket line. Lyndon Johnson helped pass the Civil Rights Act while Martin Luther King marched on Washington. Was either less important than the other? Why not work towards both? Those who hold the key to change are, more often than not, office holders. Their currency is power secured by reelection. It doesn’t take Saul Alinsky to point out that both tactics should be utilized together to serve a common purpose.

The next tribe is the pontificators. The pen is mightier than the politician. Changing minds is a longer-term project than changing voting preferences. Needless to say, the pontificator looks down on the campaigner as an egotistic Neanderthal running around without spending the time to understand the finer details of the cause in which they seem so invested. Which economists would the SCALErs cite to support what might be considered western protectionism? Isn’t labor a form of comparative advantage? Screw your Ricardo, the SCALErs reply. We’re talking about people dying in factory fires. So eros despises logos. So contemplation is seen as an excuse for inaction. Politics is in the street, not in back rooms with politicians or in seminar rooms. But the pontificators will prefer their pamphlets to their pickets. Too often, however, the pontificators point to the effect and glory of the active campaigners on the streets and, despite professing all kinds of concern on the issues at hand, rarely can be seen linking arms in the streets in solidarity or engaging the public on behalf of a candidate.

Then there are the professional politicians. Larry Summers, when asked to talk about his meeting with the Winkelvoss twins at Harvard regarding Mark Zuckerberg’s alleged theft of their idea, remembered that he immediately took against the tall, Aryan ubermenshen because only douches wore suits on a college campus as students. So, too, some political types can be seen nowhere when it comes to protesting the everyday injustice of the here and now, but are quick to have photographs taken and business cards ready when professional politicians come to campus. The greasy pole, as they see it, is there to be climbed. Those repelled by this idea often mistake powerlessness for purity. Taking and using power is what politics is all about. Refusing to do so shows a disregard for the cause for which you claim to advocate. Just as in economics where the theory goes that bad money drives out good, so too do the worst in preening, pre-professional young politicians-in-training put off those very same people who should see a career in public service as a sacred duty to be hoped for, rather than a selling out. Politics from the peanut gallery is easy. But real change comes from access to formal positions of power as well as pressure from the outside. True bravery is being willing to do both. Besides, try doing it for a living: it’s harder than it looks.

The point of this exercise, of course, is to point out that there are points to be made for and against each group. The writer of “Friday Night Lights”’ was clearly a Leninist with his “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts” mantra so closely resembling Lenin’s decree that the revolutionary’s ”heart should be on fire, and mind on ice.” To truly make a difference, you should be campaigning, thinking, writing, deciding and power-seeking all at the same time. That’s where change comes from. And, even when change seems small, it has huge ramifications for people who you can’t even know. Campaigning for a raise in the minimum wage would transform the lives of many working class families in this community; changing where we source our apparel from means real change for workers we will never meet; changing a few minds with a polemical essay can change how people see the world for decades to come. Whether it is an issue involving USC, the City or Congress, progressives of all stripes need to come, meet, think and work together. I was not a natural on a protest march but someone more seasoned took the time to make me feel comfortable. I was always looking to tell someone passionate about progressive causes that we needed their help electing people who supported their views. And while my attempt at elected office was as much by accident as design, it gave me a unique insight into how better to go about ‘politics’ in general.

So, take it from me, I’ve been there before. And just as this probably annoyed you, just as Gitlin annoyed me, I hope you pass this advice along too. When your time comes.


Simon Radford is a Provost’s Fellow PhD student in Political Science and International Relations. He has written for magazines like The Liberal and Commonweal, as well as sundry student publications; he’s campaigned for student welfare campaigns at Cambridge, divestment from Sudan at Brown, and ending the dictatorship in Belarus; he also was a candidate in the 2005 General Election in the United Kingdom. He still finds time to often shout at his TV.


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