The greatest generation gap

Posted: Apr 14, 2003 12:00 AM

The most evocative news photo to come out of the liberation of Baghdad may be one of a young Iraqi man, dressed in a denim jacket, holding a homemade poster celebrating the "Hero of the Peace" -- George W. Bush -- and kissing the president's faintly smiling photo.

Something about this picture seems more significant than even the shot of Marines taking their ease in a presidential palace parlor. And something about it is almost more meaningful than the picture of the giant, deposed statue of Saddam Hussein heading, much to the obvious delight of the Baghdad throng, for history's ash heap.

Maybe it's the kiss itself, reminiscent of all the fairytale kisses that break evil spells, or maybe it's the expressive face of Iraqi gratitude toward an American president who has awakened a nation from a nightmare of brutality and repression. Or maybe it's something else entirely, another face, one not present in the photograph, but easily imagined: the contrasting face of chagrin and disappointment on the anti-war Left (best personified by the professorial radical at the forefront of anti-war protests everywhere) twitching at the prospect of having to face up to a popular, American-led coalition victory.

After all that has been said about Mr. Bush and the war -- not to mention shrieked, spat and gnashed -- this won't be easy. In fact, even as the president's unwavering commitment to disarm Saddam Hussein has put liberty within reality's grasp in Iraq, it seems unlikely to put reality within academia's grasp in America.

This is clearer now than ever, and not just after reading the inflammatory rantings of Nicholas De Genova, the Columbia professor who, at a teach-in, expressed a wish for the military tragedy of "a million Mogadishus" to bring about his vision of world peace. (He later claimed to have been quoted in a "remarkably decontextualized ... manner.") The deepening disconnect between academia and reality is also apparent in the relatively dispassionate comments appearing in a New York Times story about the "role reversals" the war has revealed "between professors shaped by Vietnam protests and a more conservative student body traumatized by the attacks of September 11, 2001."

"Professors protest, as students debate" went the story's headline. "Even in anti-war bastions like Cambridge, Berkeley and Madison, the protests have been more town than gown," it said. "At Berkeley, where Vietnam protesters shouted, 'Shut it down!' under clouds of tear gas, Sproul Plaza these days features mostly solo operators who hand out black armbands. The shutdown was in San Francisco (not the student campuses of Berkeley), and the crowd was grayer."

But not wiser, if the professors interviewed about the protests are any measure. "We used to like to offend people," Professor Martha Saxton of Amherst's women's studies department told the newspaper. "We loved being bad, in the sense that we were making a statement. Why is there no joy now?"

Frankly, there's plenty of joy now, only it's in Baghdad, not Berkeley. This, of course, will do nothing to cheer Ms. Saxton, still pining for the days when "being bad" made a "statement." And she is not alone. "In Madison, teach-ins were as common as bratwurst," said Austin Sarat, another nostalgia-minded professor at Amherst whose salad (bratwurst?) days came while studying political science and protesting the Vietnam War in Wisconsin, or vice versa.

Now, as the newspaper puts it, he tells his students that, "if you love the United States, you must, as an act of patriotism, oppose the war."

Which is one way of coping with a protesting past. "There was a certain nobility in being gassed," Mr. Sarat explained. "Now you don't get gassed.

You walk into a dining hall and hand out informational pamphlets." Nobility aside, Mr. Sarat should look on the bright side: At least Iraq's Kurds don't get "gassed" anymore, either. And informational pamphlets will probably suit them just fine.

Meanwhile, American students are practically AWOL when it comes to recreating the sort of mass campus anti-war rallies of yesteryear. Why? The New York Times has pointed out that war in Iraq entails no draft -- once upon a time, a major incentive (and guilt-trip) for draft-exempt, nobility seeking students of the Vietnam era. Then there's the fact that more students today receive financial aid, and may actually feel compelled to make good grades rather than statements -- bad, joyous or otherwise. And there is another explanation, this one from Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis: "These are the kids of Reagan," he told the newspaper. "When I lecture on Reagan, the kids love him. Their parents are horrified and appalled."

Their parents and professors, both. Talk about a generation gap. But today's students hardly form a pro-regime-change-monolith. Every campus poll on the war I've seen indicates an evenly divided student body. It is the professoriate that forms the monolith, a statistical oddity due less to changing times than to the professors who fail to change with the times -- and fail, ever, to grow up.