An insightful comment from a Columbia student about the antidemocratic attitudes there:

Columbia University is a place for rich kids - rich kids who agree with each other. Sure, some come from well-to-do Hispanic families - we're not all poor Mexicans, you know - and a few are from the black upper middle-class. But at Columbia, being "from Brooklyn" means you grew up in Park Slope. This is why Columbia has problems with free speech.

But first, a clarifier: The students and non-students who caused a ruckus at the Minutemen event last week were an assortment of radicals and fringe thinkers. They weren't "typical Columbia students" in any way, shape or form. Many weren't students at all. But the radicals on campus exist and act - much as radicals anywhere - with the tacit support of the broader community. Why is Columbia a sanctuary for these people? Why was Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen, forcibly silenced and not just ignored?

Call it white guilt, though in a mutated form. There are Latinos at Columbia, but most of them are like me - our Hispanic heritage is invisible to the naked eye. Very few are brown, and even fewer come from poor or even working-class households. And the fact is that most Columbia students are afraid of poor people, or at least people who look poor. They see going above 125th Street as "being adventurous."

The insularity and homogeneity of Columbia's campus makes students feel guilty when they come across New Yorkers who are visibly less privileged. In the eyes of my fellow students, poor and working-class minorities are an exotic, vulnerable species that needs the protection and support of upstanding Ivy Leaguers like ourselves . . . Except when we actually have to be around them, in which case we complain about their bad manners and uncouth behavior. ("Can you believe that greasy-looking Dominican guy just whistled at me like that? How disgusting!")

Jim Gilchrist and the Minutemen hit a nerve at Columbia, because they say the things that so many students here at Coumbia feel so guilty about thinking.

Immigration in America isn't really about race. It's about class. There were no jingoist protests during the 1980s and '90s when equally dark-skinned doctors and software engineers from India flooded the American labor market. No, we loved them. Poor people, well, that's another story. I was talking with a classmate, one of Columbia's white Latinas, last week, and she explained to me her problem with "people who have no class." She started off complaining about the anti-immigrant tone that Midwestern Democrats have displayed as of late. "I don't know if I can still be a Democrat," she said. Then she started talking about the Mexicans that had invaded her placid Queens neighborhood when she was still in high school. "They left trash all over the soccer field!" she gasped. Well, what did our burgeoning little Latina activist do? She supported the building of dozens of mounds on the field so that it would no longer be suitable for soccer. Those dirty Mexicans stopped coming around after that, she explained. Never would they mess up her neighborhood again. So much for "Si se puede," I guess.

It's easy to support poor immigrants when they're a theoretical entity and you never actually have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis. The Minuteman melee is a case in point. The insularity of the campus, much as with the upper-crust suburbs from which Columbia students largely hail, leaves a lot of young people feeling empty about their lives. It all feels so structured and sanitized and safe. Where's the gritty reality we read about in all these books? Where's the anti-war protests and civil-rights struggle of our parents' generation? Where's the grand struggle for a just cause?

Of course, having never seen much grit for most of their lives, Columbia students tend to balk at the first sight of too much reality - like going above 125th Street. On the other hand, joining a protest group is easy and safe but still "edgy" and cool. It lets students feel good about themselves and their convictions and their fight against "the man" without ever having to leave the shelter and structure of campus. "No person is illegal," read the trilingual (English, Spanish, and Arabic) banner unfurled in protest as students stormed the Minutemen's stage last week. I wonder how many of those kids know a single illegal immigrant? (Well, maybe they know the pizza-delivery guy . . .)

I, for one, believe that the people who climb mountains and trek through the badlands of south Texas and Arizona to work in this country pay homage to the dogged, never-say-die spirit of the American dream. Illegal or not, they underpin the American economy and they do jobs that other Americans are unwilling to do. They should be embraced and legalized somehow, someway.

But the principle of free speech and the free exchange of ideas is at the heart of that American dream. Under no circumstance is it OK to forcibly silence or prevent from speaking someone we don't like, even a xenophobe or demagogue. It is a sad comment on the state of the American mind, but Jim Gilchrist is an important and influential voice in contemporary American politics and he deserves to be heard by the rich, guilty white kids of Columbia University.



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