Just visually, secret societies at Cornell are a bit jarring. One meets at the top of a stone tower, while another claims an Egyptian style tomb sitting above a gorge. At least two encourage their members to buy and wear hundred dollar rings. I think there are robes involved, and maybe some shouting, but I honestly can’t be sure. They feel like a bit of a vestigial structure, an echo of the kind of University that Cornell used to be.
In an interview she gave in 1981, Toni Morrison described teenagers as something not completely human. She was worried about a deficiency she saw in American adolescence. The nation had tried to ease its children into adulthood, and give them the chance to consciously decide the person they wanted to be. It placed them in an ecosystem made of adult professionals whose job it was to support their pursuit. These teens could keep busy with the vocation of becoming.
By nature, student organizing is ephemeral. Its leaders are passionate and authentic; the moments they create are powerful and important. Yet the inescapable truth is that student activism is always the flawed product of temporary citizenship. The opinions we form about our University have just four years to emerge and instrumentalize before Cornell evaporates from our lived experience. As a result, campus movements often have quite a short half-life.
There’s a column out there, if someone can find it in them to write it, that rails against Cornell for increasing tuition by another 3.75%. It calls out the total absence of moral leadership in American universities that allows skyrocketing costs to be an immutable reality, and implores the student body to take a stand. Hopefully it points out that the $10 million increase in financial aid promised for next year is accompanied by about a $13 million increase in sum tuition for the nearly 50% of students who rely on financial aid. And if we’re lucky, it will mock Provost Kotlikoff’s absurd posturing that claimed to have “augment[ed] Cornell’s commitment to increasing the socio-economic diversity of its student body.” The generations who paid for debt-free school with loose change and a summer lifeguard job will quickly comment that the author is ungrateful and foolish, and the cycle will repeat. That column should be written, but I don’t have it in me this week.
We know, at this point, that massacre is routine in this country. 17 children were shot and killed in an afternoon at school. It wasn’t the first time shots were fired at schools this year, or the fifth or the fifteenth. It wasn’t the first mass shooting this year, or the fifth, or the fifteenth, or the twenty-fifth. Perhaps for older generations it is still experienced with shock, but those my age have a memory dotted with acts of domestic terror.
There is a sudden and explicit way to experience our obligations to others, but it usually requires some kind of loss. The mayor dies. A neighbor takes a new job. The man who bags groceries and teaches Sunday School moves south to be closer to his ailing mother. It’s discovery by absence, the sudden realization that in some way, and for whatever reason, we have obliged ourselves to care about the life and wellbeing of a stranger.
Over the last two weeks, a group of Student Assembly members, supported by several leaders of student organizations, has been on a crusade to cut student funding to the Cornell Cinema. This culminated in a joint statement with Provost Michael Kotlikoff on Wednesday committing to “begin a collaborative process to ensure Cornell Cinema does not shut down.” This statement is genuinely encouraging; however, despite this qualified success, the nature of this campaign has been quite concerning. In an effort to take a stand, the S.A. held a valuable institution hostage, and put the livelihoods of its full-time employees in jeopardy. Setting aside individual intentions, the tactics that these students have taken, both in public statements and in a letter to the editor this week, have ranged from bizarre to downright reckless. The power to control large organizational budgets carries with it the responsibility to be considered and thoughtful.
This week my Judaism became suddenly quite visible. When anti-Semitism was plastered across campus, Jewish went from being a private piece of self to the subject of public discussion, in classrooms, on social media and with peers. Yet even in a moment when Jewish identity was directly vandalized, the conversations I have had this week remind me that my lifelong experience with American Jewry has been a constant tension. On one side is the rich and complex sense of Jewish self that my parents and community have offered, while on the other lie the two-dimensional assumptions of everyone else. Recently, Jewish has been something I have searched for in places where it once thrived.
The most useless columns I write treat politics like a profile picture. They are snapshots of whatever kind of political aesthetic I would like to have attached to my name. Sometimes, this is a regurgitation of the campus consensus, while at other times it is contrarian purely for its own sake. They are honest, but only in the most superficial sense. That is, they are honestly the beliefs I would like you to think I hold.
Hate is a brute expression of power. At its most transparent, a cross burns on the lawn of a black family and a sign is posted in a storefront signaling who need not apply. Then, hate is motivated by a desire for power, a gruesome declaration of exactly who ought to belong. White Americans are trained to spot this kind of power grab, shown black-and-white diagrams in textbooks outlining racism like it’s some strain of poison oak that we can sketch, memorize and hop over on our way to get where we’re going. Yet when confronting bigotry that requires us to break stride, when an act of hate expresses a kind of social power from which we benefit, our response is often insufficient.