When I saw him, he was outside Payne Whitney. Nothing about the tall, gray façade suggests it is the university gym, unless there is a new trend of contractors housing athletics departments in Gothic cathedrals. You wouldn’t guess by looking at the frosted glass panes and arches that the third floor hosts the world’s largest suspended indoor swimming pool. It is a work of art, like the rest of Yale’s buildings.
Marcus was smoking by a bench, his face jaundiced from three packs that day. This is atypical for Yale students—most abstain from smoking. There was no reason for him to smoke so much, just as there was no reason for me to ride around campus on a blue Razor scooter. But Yale students tend to have such quirks. His suit-jacket was dusty and smelled of sweat—he didn’t mind lifting weights in a dress shirt and trousers if that meant more time to read Nietzsche alone at the bar.
When I hugged him, he felt skeletal. I asked if he had eaten today. He assured me that his earthly requirements were limited—no need for anything other than alcohol and cigarettes. “I can buy you a sandwich.” He refused. I insisted. A nice one. Bacon and egg. Or steak and cheese. I was testy now. “GHeav is right there. I’ll be back in six minutes.”
He turned his face towards me, warm with friendliness—and with one sentence, he changed our relationship forever.
“You know I’m rich, right?”
“You know I have a trust fund, right? I can buy my own sandwich if I wanted it.”
This is the moment when after three years of friendship, Marcus sat down and told me his life story. His cottages in Norway. Sneaking into the family study. Learning about the cost of hardwoods and hearing his boorish, critical father sulk in 5-star hotel rooms.
Marcus did not act this way out of anxiety, grief, stress, or because he had nobody to tell him his habits will kill him. He lived as a starving writer not out of necessity, but for the aesthetic. Out of some desire to imitate the Bohemian 19th century writers. Out of artistry. Style. Intentional choice.
In terms of income at Yale, I was in the bottom 2%. And the people to whom I extended my generosity did not need it, whatsoever. This is mildly entertaining, but not the point. This is not a story about me, or about Marcus, or about our amusing adventures at Yale.
This is a story about an institution and an elite that have lost themselves.
The top universities can’t keep out of national news. Just in the past few months, there have been several high-profile stories about Yale and Harvard. Harvard is being sued for discrimination against Asians. Yale is being sued for not admitting women into its fraternities.
These scandals have been framed as a consequence of the culture wars. Left versus right. Political correctness versus free speech. Empathy and inclusion versus economic realities. Students fighting for social and racial justice against morally bankrupt faculty and administrators. But after attending Yale for some of the larger scandals in recent years, these dichotomies ring hollow.
Over the past decade, elite colleges have been staging grounds for what Matthew Yglesias has termed the Great Awokening. Dozens of scandals have illustrated a stifling new ideological orthodoxy that is trickling down into the rest of society through HR departments, corporations, churches, foundations, and activist organizations. The nation is becoming polarized and its parts disconnected. The right is evil, and the left is stupid. Or is it the other way around?
The campus “free speech” debate is just a side-effect. So are debates about “diversity” and “inclusion.” The real problems run much deeper. The real problems start with Marcus and me, and the masks we wear for each other.
The story of how I ended up at Yale is not typical. Yale’s tuition costs $50,000 per year, but if a student’s parents earn less than $60,000, they can attend virtually for free. This means that for the poorer subset of American society, Yale is not just cheaper than the state school, but cheaper than community college. Through the magic of the universe, I figured this out, and I wanted to go. I wanted to leave my small town, and I had the SAT score to try.
Based on statistics from the class of 2013, approximately 2% of students hailed from the lowest income quintile, while 69% came from the top 20%. How did those poor students fare after graduation? Around 2% of students at Yale move from the bottom to the top quintile. In other words, nearly all of them. You show up poor, and you leave rich. Going to an Ivy League school may be the fastest way to join the upper class.
But this low number of 2% surprised me because when I was at Yale, everybody kept talking about how broke they were.
“Want to go out for brunch?” “I can’t—I’m so broke.” This was a common line. Sometimes the conversations had a more accusatory tone. “Wow, you took a taxi to the airport? I always take the subway.”
Poor people—actually poor people—don’t talk this way. They tend to stay under the radar because they don’t know the rules of the game. But I bought it—at least when I was a freshman. If they were constantly announcing how broke they were, my assumption was that they must have even less money than I do.
This turned out to be wrong. The reality was that they were invariably from the upper-middle and upper classes. I know this because they eventually told me, like Marcus did. But there were tells. These students didn’t act the way my friends and I did growing up. They didn’t know how much pens or flights or cars were supposed to cost. They couldn’t tell when a restaurant was a good deal.
Pretending to be poor is a lot easier than pretending to be rich—just because there are so many different ways to be poor. But there are still small quirks you have to get right. Social class doesn’t just influence how you walk and talk; it influences how you interact with others. The stereotype is that poor people are improper—but sometimes it is the opposite. They try to do things as they think they are meant to be done. Spending a hundred hours building bat wings for a Halloween costume. Renting a limo for their child’s prom.
But lying about anything is tricky—you risk being found out—so what were these people trying to accomplish by acting broke? And this raises the broader question: why pretend to be of a social class you are not?
The Benefits Of Being Poor
The usual answer is that rich people need safety. A Saudi billionaire wants to avoid being kidnapped, so he keeps a low profile. But that same Saudi billionaire still needs to demonstrate his status somehow to make friends and business contacts.
There were bodyguards at Yale who lived in nice, off-campus apartments next to their assigned student’s off-campus penthouse. These students were briefed by their parents about what to discuss publicly, and what to keep private. The point was to disguise their status-signals, so they would appear to be smaller targets. These are the hyper-rich.
What about the regular rich? Not the children of billionaires, but the children of millionaires. The common impulse is to emulate the people one or two levels above you—so they might also act poorer than they are. But whereas the super-rich learned purposeful discretion from their parents at weekly dinner table meetings, the regular rich did not. They learned it through mimicry—and with varying degrees of success. The less sophisticated copycats end up brazenly proclaiming that they are “broke” and “upper-middle class.”
For some people, this isn’t an act; they actually believe this. After all, they do seem poor when compared to the hyper-rich. They can’t afford spontaneous Spring Break trips to private Bali islands. They see their prep-school classmates’ Facebook photos and realize that they are one, or maybe two, pegs down from that, and so they use the term “upper-middle class” without really knowing what this term refers to. They have no idea how the actual upper-middle class, the middle class, or the poor really live. Those students never went to their prep school, so for all intents and purposes, they do not exist. Like Krasnoyarsk, Siberia—we know it exists. We can find it on a map. But we don’t need to concern ourselves with it. Often, this is what the real poor are to rich people—they are a theoretical construct that exists somewhere else.
Poor people pretend to be rich to look cool. Go visit the Russians on Brighton Beach in their tank tops and gold chains. Rich people pretend to be poor to fit in. Go to San Francisco and play a round of “Homeless or tech billionaire.”
But bizarre effects emerge when signals are mixed up. In particular, I have seen bizarre effects from mixed-up wealth signaling structures.
The most noticeable one was that nobody believed me whenever I said I was broke. I usually kept this to myself during my time in college, but sometimes, in strange circumstances, it would come up.
Once, I was shamed in front of a crowd for not donating to a society—even when I had donated a different gift just a day ago—and I confided my feelings to a close friend. His response: “What, so you’re upper-middle-class?”
In another instance, I was privately discussing with a professor the pros and cons of a Food Stamp reform proposal. After some analysis, I commented on my own experience with the program. His response was complete shock. “You don’t really mean you were on welfare. You just mean you were supported by your parents, right?”
In a world of masks and façades, it is hard to convey the truth.
And this is how I ended up offering a sandwich to a man with hundreds of millions in a foreign bank account.
But are the bizarre effects of distorted wealth signaling all that bad? Society is complicated, and there is miscommunication in every interaction. Being vague about your social class, and assuming other people are also being vague, can be useful—just as white lies, and sometimes actual lies, can be useful.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with haphazard and sometimes warped class signaling. But if you put on a façade for long enough, you end up forgetting that it is a façade. The rich and powerful actually start believing that they are neither of those things. They actually start believing that there is not much difference in status and resources between themselves and the upper-middle class, the middle class—and eventually, between themselves and the actual poor. They forget that they have certain privileges and duties that others do not. They forget that the inside joke was just a joke all along.
When do the rich lose sight of their status? For most people, it starts well before Yale. One incident stands out from my high school years. I had attended a summer program at the Center for Talented Youth at Princeton and befriended a well-spoken boy of 17 from Hartford. The other students mocked him—not for being poor, but for being too rich. They would elevate their voices into a high-pitched taunt to mock his prestigious prep-school. I was angry, but didn’t know what to say at the time. I had no idea that these students were themselves from Harvard-Westlake, a prestigious and prohibitively expensive private school in Beverly Hills. I had no idea that these kids were even richer than the boy they were mocking. The only difference was that my friend showed the tells of his class.
When these kids grow up, they end up at conferences where everybody lifts their champagne glasses to speeches about how we all need to “tear down the Man!” How we need to usurp conventional power structures.
You hear about these events. They sound good. It’s important to think about how to improve the world. But when you look around at the men and women in their suits and dresses, with their happy, hopeful expressions, you notice that these are the exact same people with the power—they are the Man supposedly causing all those problems that they are giving feel-good speeches about. They are the kids from Harvard-Westlake who never realized they were themselves the elite. They are the people with power who fail to comprehend the meaning of that power. They are abdicating responsibility, and they don’t even know it.
Normal class dynamics shouldn’t trouble anyone. It doesn’t do much damage to society for the rich to sometimes hide their status to stay safe, or for the poor to pretend that they are richer than they are to fit in with their idols.
But something else is going on—something more systemic. We mock each other over wealth and mannerisms, to the point that we forget how and why wealth is built in the first place. We forget the extent of our own power and start blaming an ephemeral elite beyond ourselves for the ills of society. And when something does need to be challenged in elite thought, not in the fake, recuperated way that Greta Thunberg ritually challenges an already-supportive crowd at Davos, but in the real way that carries personal risk—we bail. When we see an unfashionable truth that may risk criticism or ostracism, we forget our own position of strength and assume we cannot bear those risks. We give up the fight before it even starts—as if somebody else can or will fight it.
That is what can lead to societal dysfunction. But it is also a symptom of that dysfunction.
Bad Times Make Bad Elites
There is another reason why people might pretend to be poor. This reason is much more serious than fitting in or avoiding hitmen. The rich and powerful are expected to take responsibility for things, and blamed when they go wrong.
“Check your privilege.” Just about every college student has heard this phrase since 2013. What it means is evasive. But like most memes that strike a chord with people—there is some point to it. The rich have privileges. They therefore also have responsibilities. The responsibilities are not always so fun.
Imagine you are in a prehistoric village and you are 25% bigger than everybody else. To compensate, you need to eat 50% more food. Food is hunted collectively and then divided up. How would everybody feel about this arrangement?
You might suspect that this is great—it is better for you to be bigger and stronger. But there is a cost. Something more would be expected from you than from everybody else. Perhaps you would be on call longer. Or perhaps you would be sent to negotiate with hostile neighbors. With greater consumption and ability comes greater responsibility. You don’t need any grand theory of legitimacy to see how this works—this responsibility simply emerges from the rules of interpersonal politics. From the rules of cause and effect. If you do not pull your weight, if you do not prove that your greater consumption is serving some purpose—that with your higher consumption and ability you are doing some good, you better watch your back.
What happens when you have power, but you do not take responsibility? You would be in trouble. Resentment would grow. Why do you get to eat so much of our hard-won food? What makes you so special?
You do more work not just because of the possibility of jealous retaliation and the threat of being usurped, but also because if you fully understand your role, you should want to. The greater capacity for violence and power gives you more control over, and more stake in, the fate of your tribe. You do the work of leadership because that is your unique niche in the social order. If you don’t pull your weight and lead, your investments within the tribe would start to lose their value. The things you care about would cease to exist—first gradually, then all at once when your people face threat by nature and rivals. Your weak leadership would be seen by others in your tribe who want power—or by outsiders who want to invade.
Would you want to be the strongest man in the village right at the moment when you failed to use that strength properly and the village is dying and rivals are out for blood? Or would you rather be the average person, eating the normal amount of food, without being hated?
But that was just a thought experiment. Those are people in crises—in a hunter-gatherer village at war. We live in America. Certainly things are different during a stable, prosperous period, in a technologically advanced society. Would you want to be exceptional then?
Not necessarily. The elite are faced with certain hard burdens.
The elite are expected—by everyone else, and by each other—to use their power to make sure society works properly. That is, they are expected to rule benevolently. The reason they are expected to do this is that if they don’t, nobody else can or will. The middle class and the poor do not have the powers and privileges that the rich and elite do, and cannot afford the necessary personal risks. But without active correction towards health and order, society fails.
Every society exists in a fragile balance. The Holocaust and Communism had their peak in the 1940s. Genocides in Yugoslavia and Cambodia were as recent as the 1990s. The Rwandan Genocide only ended in 1995. Syria was a flourishing nation just a decade ago, but has now descended into total war. Venezuela was stable just six years ago. Society without benevolent and competent leadership becomes vulnerable to takeover by insane factions, or to collapse into chaos.
Elites thus have an incredible weight of responsibility hanging over their heads.
In times of political uncertainty, when things are not going well, elites face more scrutiny, and more internal pressure to find people to blame—whether rightly, or as scapegoats. It becomes a bigger liability to be openly elite.
Further, such times are themselves caused by political dysfunction among the elite, when elite institutions forget how to listen to reason (or have decided not to) and forget how to coordinate towards benevolent rule.
At elite conferences, they wonder how to regain trust, or otherwise deal with the rising atmosphere of populist discontent. They acknowledge that something is deeply wrong. But they dare not lay the blame at their own feet, caused by their own overreaches and dysfunction. Anyone who did would immediately be under suspicion. No longer one of us, but one of them. So, those who might otherwise lead the difficult but necessary elite self-critique instead keep their mouths shut, or they say the wrong thing without ideological, psychological, and social preparation for the consequences and get cast out. Only the true believers incapable of self-critique, the incompetent, and the cynics, remain as voices in the public forum. They talk in circles, never quite able to correct course and come to any new conclusions, except the need to double down on current ideological practices.
The younger generations, who don’t necessarily see the full shape of elite dysfunction, can still tell that now is not a comfortable time to be a rich and powerful elite. Too much expectation, and no good examples to be seen of what to do with that expectation. Better to present themselves as just another member of the “upper middle class,” or even an underdog.
But this just tightens our feedback loop. Something is wrong in elite circles, preventing clear examination and correction of ideological errors. This creates an atmosphere of impotence and guilt that contributes to rich young people pretending to be broke to escape that responsibility. But this just contributes back to the decay of elite functionality that could have allowed course correction in the first place. When they misunderstand both the nature of power and their own power, how can they be expected to coordinate to use that power to rule well? How can they be expected not to abuse it?
The Secret Of Yale’s Demons
They say that the recent scandals at Yale had to do with racial and social justice. I don’t think that’s what it was really about. When looking at one or two scandals, it’s easy to buy the story that it is just students organizing and using their rights of free speech and assembly to protest what they see as injustices perpetrated by the university. But when looking at all of the scandals together, another narrative starts to emerge.
And that narrative is much closer to this: members of the ruling class are not sure what to do with themselves—and they are not even sure they want to rule.
Yale is different from other Ivy League schools in that its history is rooted in public service. It started in 1701, when a few ministers were disappointed by Harvard and left to start a more pure, more good, more proper university. There is a reason why Harvard’s motto is “Veritas”—truth, whereas Yale’s motto is “Lux et veritas”—light and truth. Truth without light is pointless. Knowledge without an aim is at best not useful—and at worst, destructive.
When people think of universities, they think of their local state school, or else Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. And when they think about Yale, it is often when they are reading about a president, a Supreme Court justice, or an editor of The New York Times. That’s because Yale graduates play no small part in running the world. It is the school the elite want to send their kids to. It is the school the lower classes assume their kids will never go to.
No matter how far I have traveled, something from Yale has always followed with me.
–President Gerald Ford
Great things have happened and luck came my way, and I want to say that whatever credit is due of a personal character in the honor that came to me, I believe is due to Yale.
–President William Howard Taft
What happens when a school with this position is embarrassed about its role as an international trendsetter? What if instead of doing the hard work to set the tone for responsible rule, it abdicates that responsibility?
At Yale, I encountered the unique institution of the Master. The Master is the person who memorizes student’s names, meets with parents, and is a welcoming presence. There were twelve of them—one for each residential college (Yale’s name for an all-inclusive dormitory, a self-sustaining community with its own dining hall, library, gym, and administrators). The dean of each residential college handled administrative and academic concerns, whereas the Master was involved in cultural matters. The Master throws Master’s teas, where they curate and welcome special guests. The etymology of the word stems from “magister” of the Oxford system. Such a title does not exist at any other U.S. school, and neither does the role. Its presence speaks to an institution which wants to create a culture. A welcoming spirit, a sense of refinement. I found this attention-to-detail admirable, and this was one of the reasons I chose Yale over Harvard and Princeton. At Harvard, this sense of culture was nonexistent. A welcoming party with the president? Wine? Forget about it. We picked up our welcome packet and were sent on our way.
How would a university with vision act when such cultural institutions come under attack? In Yale’s case, several students began to agitate that the term “Master” had problematic racial connotations. In other words, “Master” was also what African-American slaves called their owners. In the case of authentic individual tensions—if a student had a difficult background where they had been forced to use the term—perhaps the university would find a reasonable resolution to make the student comfortable. But in the case of broader misunderstanding, perhaps it would be better to educate the students about their academic heritage. The administration could have explained that this term has nothing to do with slavery in America and actually derives from a rich history that makes Yale unique.
What actually happened? After some debate, the title was quickly changed to “head of college.” The suspicion is that this was done to appease the student body as a compromise for not changing the name of a dormitory. In the end, the compromise was rejected, a large number of students took to the streets, and both were changed.
But the appearance of bottom-up protest politics is always a bit of a false narrative. It would be one thing if the students were polled and a majority said they wanted the name changed, or some other process was used. At least the university could say that it was making decisions based on some objective democratic process, and wasn’t just being pushed around. But this is not what happened. No polls were taken. There was no authoritative process. The school said no for a few months, then caved. If the school were actually confident in its position to resist, it could have easily pushed back on the protests. Instead, it folded on demands from a small number of students willing to make noise. Either the university administrators are spectacularly spineless, or the protests just provided a convenient impetus and excuse to do something they already wanted. We can look at several more incidents and notice a similar trend.
The Halloween Costumes incident also made national headlines. It was another test for Yale. The Intercultural Affairs Council wrote an authoritative email to the entire student body before Halloween, instructing students to be mindful about offensive costumes. A few students approached Erika Christakis, a professor, child psychologist, and wife of Yale Master Nicholas Christakis, and told her that they found it strange that the Council could just email the entire student body and tell it what to do. Erika took note and wrote her own email, proposing that Halloween costumes should be policed not from the top down with institutions instructing people on their behavior, but from the bottom up, with students having conversations with each other.
What happened next? If this were 2005, nothing would have happened. Erika’s letter was benign and non-confrontational, centering on her experience and research with children, and invoking notions of self-regulation and free expression. But this was 2015, so all hell broke loose. Students called for her to be fired. When her husband stood by her, he became a target, too. Both professors, with ambivalent and ambiguous support from the university, stopped teaching. It did not matter that Erika’s classes were so desirable that she had despairingly long waitlists.
In the Calhoun incident, people took to the streets because the name of a dormitory was offensive to them. The reason? It was named after Vice President John C. Calhoun, who, even for his era, was vocally pro-slavery. After months of student protest, it was changed to Grace Hopper.
Then there were the Yelp reviews. The student newspaper parsed hundreds of Dean June Chu’s Yelp reviews, found all of the worst ones, collated them into a PDF, and published it in the student newspaper. What would a university president with vision have done? What should he have done when national newspapers reprinted the piece? Maybe the student newspaper would be placed on suspension, or receive a guidance order. Maybe he would add a faculty advisor. The point is that collating the ‘worst’ of a dean’s activity online and publishing it as a single document—unless there is something criminal or truly heinous—has less in common with journalism than with a revenge plot.
How did leadership respond in real life? Chu was supported at first, but then, when it was found out that there were seven offensive reviews and not just two as she initially claimed, she was let go, and no student was punished. This case made national headlines, but the actual administrative proceedings that determined her leave are still a black box. Perhaps she was already in hot water, and this was the last straw. Perhaps she was paid off to leave and keep quiet. Nobody knows. The public story is that her leaving was solely because of the Yelp reviews.
Some conflicts were public explosions, and some were completely private. The change from “Freshman” to “First-year” happened when an administrator requested that all instances of “Freshman” be changed to “First-year” in all of the materials and pamphlets for the 2018–2019 school year. But women were not asked if they were actually offended by the word. Students were not asked what they thought. This was a change that came completely from the top.
What do all of these events have in common? Some had student support. Some did not. Some started as public outrage taken to the street. Some were completely internal. What they had in common was an administration and student body coordinated around an ideology that continually mutated to ensure moral entrepreneurship and a continued supply of purges, as new forms of human behavior or commonplace descriptors became off-limits. Some of this energy was genuine, some cynical.
These were not kids protesting the Vietnam war, or graduate students mobilizing for better pay and medical care. Nobody would have had a gun shoved into their arms and sent across the world if Yale had not fired the professors. Nobody would have lost money if they did not change “Master.” In fact—Yale lost money on these changes in the form of alumni donations and administrative time. Meetings, committees, redone paperwork, and brand new “head of college” plaques. These changes were neither meant to save lives, nor to save money.
But what was the point of it all?
What’s Really Behind The Campus Wars
The news stories portrayed the Halloween Costumes debacle as either an obvious issue of professors’ rights, or an obvious issue of minority rights. But they missed all the messy emotions on the ground.
You must understand—a woman—one professor—wrote an email, and the entire campus went insane. For an entire year, nobody knew what was going to happen. Will the professors really be fired? Can you be fired over an email like that? A cloud of tension drenched the campus. Those opposed to the “politically correct” view whispered among themselves about if, and how, they should mobilize. Those who wanted the firings waited anxiously for the administrative response. On the national scale, this was a minor news story updated every few months, but on the campus these were not minor debates. They changed the entire dynamic. These issues were debated in dining halls. They split apart friends. They formed a mist over everything else—for an entire year. The people who wanted the professors to stay? Either because they disagreed with the scandal, or they liked their classes? They were not just wrong—they must also be cruel.
Thousands of hours of human effort and labor. And for what? What was it for?
If you ask supporters, they will tell you the cost does not matter so much, because this is about creating an ideal world. Of course the professor should be fired—how dare she stand against the minority student organizations? Of course it’s okay that the Yelp reviews were published—she should never have written them. Of course names should be changed if they hint at or honor the wrong ideology. What does preserving history matter if history is racist? The university is handling things according to its proper ideals of empathy and inclusion.
In short, their point was that this was all to help poor people. Immigrants. People whose parents are from distant, impoverished lands. People of color. Changing “Master,” firing the dean, and firing professors was all for this.
Except this did so little to actually help any of these people that this could not possibly have been the main motivation.
None of this was actually to their benefit, except for the few activists willing to invest time and energy into the game. It is not easy to stay up-to-date with the new, ever-more-complex rules about what you are allowed to say to qualify as the bare minimum of sociable and sane. It is cognitively and socially demanding. I had to not just study psychology and computer science, but I had to stay up-to-date with the latest PhD-level critical theory just to have conversations.
I had to debate with people why it is not racist that my Russian parents actually liked the word “Master.” That they liked that Yale was drawing from a rich, centuries-long tradition. “Master” connotes mastery of a subject. It connotes responsibilities and a cultural aesthetic far beyond what “head of college” connotes.
If words like “Master” are deemed offensive based on questionable linguistic or historical standards, then this means other words and phrases can become offensive at a moment’s notice. Under these rules, only people in the upper ranks who receive constant updates can learn what is acceptable. Everybody else will be left behind.
The people best positioned for this are professors at elite universities. They are ingrained in the culture that makes up these social rules. They get weekly or even daily updates, but even they cannot keep up.
Erika and Nicholas Christakis were on-the-record liberals who had fought for minority issues at Harvard. That didn’t matter; they didn’t get with the program, so they had to go. June Chu had penned an article saying that deans need to be mindful of their students’ backgrounds and diverse challenges. If even competent, qualified, liberal, well-meaning, tenured professors at Ivy League universities are in danger of losing their livelihood for arbitrary reasons just because they said something subtly wrong to the wrong student organization, then what hope do the rest of us have?
Nicholas Christakis was ousted as if he were a bad guy. His on-campus family was bullied. His entire life was cast aside over one email, as if the email were the one standard by which he should be judged. Jonathan Holloway, the African-American then-Dean of Yale College, was shouted at by students for not doing enough for black students. Whether June Chu was a good dean or not—and maybe she wasn’t—does not matter. What mattered was what she wrote on Yelp.
A cynical observer might conclude that this is all just revolution as usual—a small clique of agitators seizing more and more power, and purging their enemies by virtue of their superior internal solidarity, a bold and demanding ideology, lukewarm popular moral support, and no real organized opposition. In some ways, that is what’s going on. They have the bold ideology, the ambient support, and no real opposition.
But importantly, they don’t have internal coordination by any means other than adherence to the ideology itself. Even members of the clique are never really safe. Anyone who contradicts the latest consensus version of the constantly mutating ideology, even if they have worked to its benefit or are otherwise obviously on side, gets purged. If you don’t keep up, you get purged.
It doesn’t matter that the ideology is abusive to its own constituents and allies, or that it doesn’t really even serve its formal beneficiaries. All that matters is this: for everyone who gets purged for a slight infraction, there are dozens who learn from this example never to stand up to the ideology, dozens who learn that they can attack with impunity if they use the ideology to do it, and dozens who are vaguely convinced by its rhetoric to be supportive of the next purge. So, on it goes.
This is the nature of coordination via ideology. If you’re organizing out of some common interest, you can have lively debates about what to do, how things work, who’s right and wrong, and even core aspects of your intellectual paradigm. But if your only standard for membership in your power coalition is detailed adherence to your ideology, as is increasingly true for membership in elite circles, then it becomes very hard to correct mistakes, or switch to a different paradigm.
And this helps explain much of the quagmire American elites are stuck in: being unable to speak outside of the current ideology, the only choice is to double down on a failing paradigm. These failures lead to lower elite morale, resulting in the class identity crisis which afflicts so many at Yale. Ironically, the result is an expression of that ideology which is increasingly rigid on ever more minute points of belief and conduct.
Abandoning The Ship Of State
There is some truth in virtually every ideology. But ideas don’t win, and get the backing of elite power, because they are the most true or important. Nor are they ultimately about that truth. Many of the most important truths that the critical theory PhDs deal in—truths about the structure of power, how power manifests through language, how even “objective” social institutions are tools of hidden power—are hobbled from their full and proper expression by being confined to a small set of acceptable uses within progressive ideology. The ideology, once picked up and recuperated by existing powers, becomes a containment system for those truths, a way to reliably transmute dissent into loyalty. Ideologies win because they serve some purpose to the powers that invest in them, and they become about that purpose.
What is the point of this new ideology? This ideology is filled with inconsistencies and contradictions, because it is not really about ideological rigor. Among other things, it is an elaborate containment system for the theoretical and practical discontent generated by the failures of the system, an absolution from guilt, and a new form of class signaling. Before, to signal you were in the fashionable and powerful crowd, you would show off your country-club membership, refined manners, or Gucci handbags. Now, you show how woke you are. To reinforce their new form of structural power, people dismiss the idea that they even have the older, more legible forms of status. They find any reverse-privilege points they can, and if they are cis-white-men, they pose as allies. On an institutional level, the old ways of legitimizing power are gone, and the new motto is this: diversity is legitimacy.
There is a deep comedy to this sort of signaling. Only around 2% of the student body was in the bottom 20% of American society, and yet extremely wealthy Singaporean students who had spent just a few years in America marched in the street and referred to themselves as “people of color.” People’s experiences were ignored when they volunteered information that countered the main narrative, because the surface-level debate wasn’t the point. The point was to signal that you were with the program. Only a select and secret group of student “leaders”—who were already savvy enough to engage comfortably with hierarchy—were invited in to chat with administrators.
Shouting from the rooftops that “They aren’t doing enough!” is much easier than following any traditional system of elite social norms and duties, let alone carefully re-engineering that system to reestablish order in a time of growing crisis.
Western elites are not comfortable with their place in society and the responsibilities that come with it, and realize that there are deep structural problems with the old systems of coordination. But lacking the capacity for an orderly restructuring, or even a diagnosis of problems and needs, we dive deeper into a chaotic ideological mode of coordination that sweeps away the old structures.
When you live with this mindset, what you end up with is not an establishment where a woke upper class rallies and advocates for the rights of minorities, the poor, and underprivileged groups. What you have is a blind and self-righteous upper class that becomes structurally unable to take coordinated responsibility. You get stuck in an ideological mode of coordination, where no one can speak the truth to correct collective mistakes and overreaches without losing position.
This ideology is promulgated and advertised by universities, but it doesn’t start or stop at universities. All the fundraisers. All the corporate events. The Oscars. Let’s take down the Man. They say this in front of their PowerPoints. They clink champagne glasses. Let’s take down the Man! But there is no real spirit of revolution in these words. It is all in the language they understand—polite and clean, because it isn’t really real. It is a performative spectacle about their own morale and guilt.
If you were the ruler while everything was burning around you, and you didn’t know what to do, what would you do? You would deny that you are in charge. And you would recuperate the growing discontented masses into your own power base, so that things stay comfortable for you.
Yale students, if they weren’t powerful when they came in (and most of them were), they gain power by being bestowed a Yale degree. What would you do with this power? You don’t want to abuse it; you’re not outright evil. No, you want something different. You want to be absolved of your power. You are ashamed of your power. Why should you have it, and not somebody else—maybe somebody more deserving? You never really signed up for this. You would rather be somebody normal. But not, “normal,” normal. More like normal with options and vacations and money “normal.” Normal but still powerful. Or you want to be something even better than normal. You want to be the underdog. There is always a certain strange sense of pleasure in being an underdog. Expectations are lower. Whenever you accomplish anything at all—it is an accomplishment. You would rather have a narrative story of “coming up from the bottom.” Someone who not only does not have the responsibility of power, but someone who has a right to feel resentful of those who do. And better yet—someone who can use this resentment as a tool for self-interest.
How do Yale students give up their power? They do this in one of two ways. One way is termed “selling out.” This usually means taking a high-paying job at an institution that is at worst blatantly unethical, and at best not intentionally idealistic. A consulting job, a meaningless tech job, or a position at an investment bank. This is generally seen as the selfish route.
But there is more to selling out that nobody talks about. These jobs are the dream jobs of the middle class. They’re not supposed to be jobs for the sons and daughters of millionaires and billionaires—these kids don’t actually need the money. They want independence from their parents and proof that they can make it on their own—and prestigious work experience—but they have wealth acquired through generations that they can always fall back on. These people are generally as harmless as the middle class—which is to say completely harmless. They keep to themselves. They quietly grow their bank accounts and their 401ks. And just like the real middle class, they don’t want to risk their next promotion through being too outspoken. They have virtually no political power. This mindset is best encapsulated by: “I’ll go with the program. Please leave me alone to be comfortable and quietly make money.”
They effectively become middle class, because there is no longer any socially esteemed notion of upper class. They have a base of power, of f-you money, that they could use to become something greater than just another office worker or businessperson. But there is no script for that, no institutional or ideological support. What would it even mean to be an esteemed, blue-blooded aristocrat in 2019? So they take the easy and safe way.
How else do Yale students give up their responsibility?
They go in the other direction. These are the people who call themselves idealists and say they want to save the world. They feel the weight of responsibility from their social status—but they don’t know how to process and integrate this responsibility into their lives properly. Traditionally, structurally well-organized elite institutions would absorb and direct this benevolent impulse to useful purpose. But our traditional institutions have decayed and lost their credibility, so these idealists start looking for alternatives, and start signaling dissociation from those now-disreputable class markers.
The capacity to really think through what an alternative should look like, and create one, is so rare as to be effectively nonexistent. Instead, idealists are forced to take the easy way of just going along with dominant ideological narratives of what it means to do good. They feel guilty about their wealth and privileges, and feel that they won’t be doing their part unless they do something very altruistic, and the idealistic ideologies reinforce these feelings. So they go overboard, and rush headlong into whatever they are supposed to do. They purport to speak for and be allied with underprivileged groups. They get their professors fired for minor infractions. They frantically tear down whatever vestiges of the old institutions and hierarchies that they can, and conspicuously feel guilty about the rest.
These are the people who buy clothes from Salvation Army and decline your Sunday brunch invitation because it’s too expensive, sometimes with the implication that they are saving their money to donate to more effective causes, if they aren’t pretending not to have it. They are the people who might attack or cut off their friends for ideological reasons. They discharge their personal responsibility by sacrificing everything outside of their distant mission, including friendships and social fabric.
It’s an understandable impulse. After all, given the state of legacy institutions, what else are you going to do with the energy of idealism? But ultimately, by going along with the narratives of an ideology that can efficiently capture these impulses, but has no structural ability to deliver on its promises, it just diverts more energy from what a normal benevolent elite should be doing.
These people might sometimes say that they are “tired of fighting”—but this is not the full truth. Fighting is fun. It is always fun to be a warrior—to have something you believe in that guides you. To be part of a tribe, working for the good of mankind. To be revered and respected for being on the bleeding edge of the paradigm.
Especially when you’re winning.
Who Is In Charge?
Who is winning? This question is an important one. Yale administrators had lofty goals. In an attempt to placate their own biases, the administrators and faculty forgot that they are the ones who are supposed to be teaching. Instead of expelling or suspending the small number of people actively undermining the student body and university as a whole, the university does nothing, or actively accelerates the process. The professors are the ones who leave. The radical clique feels emboldened.
Now we can begin to understand the real problem at Yale. It is not free speech—and it is not non-inclusivity. The standards of reality, and the standards of morality not based solely on being woke, are ousted. That’s because the conventional standards of elite morality, based on responsible use of power—actually responsible, not just a convenient feeling of doing good—are much harder, and based on the very self-consciousness that everyone is trying to avoid.
The faculty get pushed around by a small number of students, and administrators actively fire up conflict on their behalf. If an administrator wins favor among them, that administrator gains power. If administrators come to understand that they can gain power via this vector, it makes sense why they would chip away at existing holders of power: the people on the board, the donors, the alumni, and the traditions of the institution itself.
In effect, a large fraction of the administrators form a revolutionary class within the rest of the university structure. They use both their existing power and new ideological mandates to expand their own domain at the expense of other players. The purpose of the administrators is to shape, tear down, and rebuild the university on the institutional level, which lets them act on ideological goals in a way students and faculty generally cannot. The people filling these expanded roles often come from the student body itself, having served in student government or activist student organizations before transitioning into their bureaucratic roles after graduation. This is the human institutional structure behind the ideological phenomenon.
The result is an institution increasingly unable to carry out its own mission, as tuition rises to pay for more administrators, and ideological drama makes it harder and harder to actually teach. And now we are back at the original question. What was the point of Yale? What was the point of going to Yale? What is the point of elite institutions?
Is the point of Yale to promote the humanities and knowledge of the West that is hard to learn anywhere else? This is not the full mission. Donald Kagan and Lee Bass’s year-long history of the West program was cut, due to faculty protesting that it was not multicultural enough, despite having large interest and $20 million in funding.
Is Yale’s vision a futuristic, technocratic university? Is the university divesting from the liberal arts for the purpose of committing to the technology of the future? This isn’t the case, either. Computer science enrollment has increased significantly in the past decade, but Yale’s computer science department is lagging behind other schools. The university has taken steps towards improving the department, but in general shows no signs of a visionary commitment to expanding tech or significantly expanding professorships.
Yale is having an existential crisis. Students are taught to break the system, but Yale doesn’t even want to teach them what the original system is, what it was for, or how to productively replace it. The university is so lacking in vision that it doesn’t even know what the ideal student looks like, or what it wants to teach them.
Maybe the university has lost every purpose other than giving students a social environment in which to party. If the students aren’t educated or visionary, at least they’re networking and hedonically satisfied.
Except they’re not. It would be one thing if they were happy—but even this is not true. They don’t know what is expected of them, or what they should aspire to be. The lack of expectations creates nihilistic tendencies and existential crises. In 2018, around one quarter of Yale undergraduates said they sought mental health counseling. One quarter of Yale students took the “Happiness and the Good Life” course in 2018 in an attempt to find answers. Students are demanding more mental health resources. A new wellness space was created with bean-bag chairs and colored walls. But the real sources of unhappiness are more systemic. They are rooted in uncertainty about the future.
If Yale students are uncertain about the future and their role in it, what does that say about the rest of society?
What will happen after Yale? Its high level of prestige established over centuries is important and entrenched. Yale will not be replaced any time soon. Its worldwide brand recognition is worth trillions. And Yale’s role as an institution older than the Republic is important. It is the preserver of cultural knowledge. While Stanford can produce entrepreneurs, it still falls to Yale to produce the bulk of Supreme Court justices.
Current Yale administrators have a sense of self-preservation for themselves and their corporation, but not for what made them great in the first place. They are quick to appease students, when they go along with the new zeitgeist, as if students and the latest wokeness were the preservers of cultural knowledge. This is the key to understanding why beloved faculty members can end up purged, against all public sentiment. Whether out of ideological commitment or hard-nosed realpolitik, these apparatchik administrators, bolstered by a minority of students, have effectively outmaneuvered their rivals. In doing so, they have also accelerated the tearing down of Yale’s institutional legacy and undermined its historical mission.
If they were confronting a university and student body with a powerful commitment to that mission, things might be different. But they aren’t. As we’ve seen, the classes represented at Yale have themselves opened up a massive ideological vacuum. Shrinking back from their position and opportunities, they have lost the ability to coordinate.
So What If Yale Dies?
So what if Yale, and Yale students, are abdicating responsibility? We can all just send our kids to Harvard, or MIT, or move to California and go to a state school. I heard UC Berkeley is pretty good.
But the problems present at Yale are present at every other university, and schools outside of the United States look to elite American universities as role models. If things are broken at elite universities, things are broken, period.
The most important fact is this: Yale is a school that sets the standards for other universities. When and where Yale goes, everything else goes, too. Its curricula and administrative policies have a disproportionate effect on the standards for excellence not just for universities, but for industry. Yale psychology undergraduates become Princeton psychology professors, join the American Psychological Association, and determine which conditions get covered by insurance policies. Art students go on to join the National Endowment for the Arts and decide which projects deserve funding. A single idea from a single professor at Yale Law can determine how a future justice chooses to vote when she joins the Supreme Court.
“Why is Yale in the news so much?” “Why do people care about Yale’s tiny controversies?” “Why do alumni care about what happens? They’re gone. It’s not their Yale anymore.” These are questions that people ask me often. These questions show a misunderstanding of what Yale is and its role in society.
Every once in a while, the staff and editors of the Yale Daily News ask these questions. “Why are people so critical of us? If you don’t like what we print, you have every chance to join the News Team and write for us yourself.”
They forget one thing. The Yale Daily News is reprinted by national newspapers. The Yale Daily News has a history of getting students suspended, and even faculty fired. But the Yale Daily News is not accountable to anybody. There are no faculty advisors. They are completely independent, and yet have disproportionate power—not just for a student organization, but for any organization at all. That it is a student organization just makes it even more incredible.
This lack of self-consciousness brings us back to the phenomenon I first saw among so many “broke” rich kids. The same vacuum of awareness crops up again and again, influencing both people and institutions, until they are unable to even grasp the potential of their position. Without doing that, rebuilding a shared set of goals around which to coordinate on a large scale will remain impossible.
Yale is supposed to be using its power and reputation to set standards for excellence, but instead it is abandoning its responsibilities and getting embroiled in controversy after controversy. Yale is not special in this regard—other colleges are also often embroiled in controversies. But the controversies of top colleges matter most because they determine what is acceptable for everybody else.
And what’s happening at Yale reflects a crisis in America’s broader governing class. Unable to effectively respond to the challenges facing them, they instead try to bail out of their own class. The result is an ideology which acts as an escape raft, allowing some of the most privileged young people in the country to present themselves as devoid of power. Institutions like Yale, once meant to direct people in how to use their position for the greater good, are systematically undermined—a vicious cycle which ultimately erodes the country as a whole.
Segments of this class engage in risk-averse managerialism, while others take advantage of the glut to disrupt things and expand personal power. The broader population becomes caught up in these conflicts as these actors attempt to build power bases and mobilize against each other. And like Yale, it seems a safe bet that things will continue and even accelerate until some new vision and stable, non-ideological set of coordination mechanisms are able to establish hegemony and become a new ground for real cooperation.
As much as Yale is watching the world, the world is watching Yale. As it should be.
Some people tell me to forget about all this. I graduated. None of this matters anymore. Except it still seems to follow me around.
Even on the very day in 2016 that I walked up in cap and gown, these scandals were still ever-present: Yale President Peter Salovey used his graduation speech that day to talk about the merits of free speech. Imagine the Yale University president standing up at the podium and unexpectedly talking about the need for a marketplace of ideas. This was a point he could have made all year; instead, he made it on the day when it all was over. He could have called an assembly. He could have sent a mass email. But he was not thumotic enough, and now, on graduation day, everyone was listening to a not-so-covert jab at all the scandals that occurred in the past year. At least now we knew what the president really thought. Except later, we would watch the students who helped lead the race riots be honored with prizes for improving race relations.
Why do I still care about any of this? For one thing, pre-frosh kids still send me messages asking me what the hell happened over there. I give them general mentorship advice, and then they ask me what the Halloween thing was. They don’t understand it, because they haven’t yet spent time in the echo-chamber where the ideas stack up just gently enough to somewhat make sense. I have to explain it to them, and watch them grow more and more confused.
They ask me if I had a good time at Yale. I tell them that I did.
This year, I saw a hopeful article about Nicholas Christakis, the professor who was so unsupported during the Halloween Scandal, and was harassed at his house. He stopped teaching for some time, and now the schizophrenic university awarded him the highest honor—the Sterling Professorship. It cannot undo past damage, but it can set precedent for what it wants from the future.
Marcus, the trust-fund kid, is still a dear friend of mine. I visit him whenever I can. Most of my life-long friends and my acquaintances are either a direct or indirect result of my attendance at Yale.
I still visit the campus sometimes. Some of my friends are younger and haven’t yet graduated. Besides, the campus is especially beautiful in the fall and spring, where the scent of the leaves and pollen create a transcendent intellectual and spiritual halo around the campus.
Once, I was walking with an English professor among the trees. The conversation was leisurely. He smoked, not out of addiction, but as if a Davidoff was the natural pairing for a stroll through the cherry blossoms, just as you would eat a scone with English breakfast tea. After some time, he asked me what I thought about campus politics. We talked in abstractions, and then he stopped to ask, “Why do you care so much about what happens to the university?”
My answer surprised him, which in turn surprised me, because it was one of the few truths that I know is truly incontestable. I told him, “Yale was the most important thing that happened to me. I didn’t have anything before. And now I have everything.”