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Opinion

Op-Ed: Who cares if students burn flags? We pay too much attention to campus life

Protest against President-elect Donald Trump in Oakland
A demonstrator drags a burning American flag through the streets during a march through the streets in protest against President-elect Donald Trump in Oakland, CA. on November 10.
(Peter Dasilva / EPA)

Do students love a flag aflame? At Hampshire College, in western Massachusetts, a student burned a flag to express opposition to the president-elect. At American University, in our nation’s capital, flags were burned as students unleashed obscenity-laced chants against the United States. At the University of Missouri at Columbia, students are alleged to have burned a flag, and at Brown University in Rhode Island, some students removed flags placed on a campus quadrangle to mark Veterans Day.

But if students (a small number, anyway) love flag desecration, conservatives love it, too. They’re always eager to whip the sad, broken-down mule of flag-burning panic, happy to ruthlessly drive that tired beast a few yards farther down the road.

A perfect example, from Tuesday: Flag burners should be punished with “perhaps loss of citizenship or [a] year in jail!” wrote President-elect Donald Trump, or whatever being controls his Twitter account. Since 1989, when the Supreme Court protected flag burning as a form of political speech, pseudo-patriots have hyped every rare episode with the intensity they bring to fighting their imaginary war on Christmas. They propose anti-flag-burning bills that don’t get passed, and they get pusillanimous liberals — like Sen. Hillary Clinton, in 2005 — to cosponsor or vote for their pointless legislation.

If we’re going to look for influence, good or bad, it makes far more sense to focus on faculty research... rather than student mores or student activism.
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For this very stupid debate — about a rare activity that is constitutionally protected and that need not offend anyone who chooses to look away — there is blame to go around. We can blame the students, who have chosen a crude, symbolic rebellion that, one suspects, doesn’t actually convey their message. (They don’t really hate the United States, at least not under President Obama.) We can surely blame hypocritical, conservative retailers of false outrage, most of whom, if they were being honest, would agree with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who wrote in 2006 that flag burners “pose little harm to our country. But tinkering with our First Amendment might.”

We can also blame the vast majority of Americans, including those of us in the media, who pay far too much attention to what happens on college campuses.

The current flag-burning outrage is entirely sparked by the actions of a tiny number of young people, possibly only three or four. And in this time of global disruption — the refugee crisis, terrorism, climate change — journalists still report obsessively on campus hookup culture (“Hooking Up Is Easy to Do — But Pretty Complicated,” in New York magazine last year, is one of dozens of recent examples), drinking culture (you could read, for example, “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking” in The New York Times), and, of course, political correctness. Mockery of “safe spaces” is largely driven by campus stories, as is a huge amount of writing about the inadequacies of over-parented, incapable millennials.

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Colleges and universities do matter. They help produce the ideas — about literature, history, computers, physics — that the rest of us live by. They are full-time thought incubators. Their best ideas result in supercomputers, the preservation of dying languages, vaccines. Their worst ideas can over-jump their walls to infect the world outside. The current spike in anti-Semitism, for example, began about 20 years ago as a left-wing phenomenon on campuses, where sometimes it has been confusingly intertwined with principled anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel.

But if we’re going to look for influence, good or bad, it makes far more sense to focus on faculty research — which, to be clear, is often valuable, is badly underappreciated and is woefully underfunded — rather than student mores or student activism.

Only 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds are in college; one third of college students are in two-year schools; many students at four-year schools are commuters or older students; and most students who are at such schools are pretty indifferent to politics — the most popular major, by far, is not women’s studies or Chicano literature, but business. In other words, the cohort that so fascinates us, those four-year residential students who have time to party, read Karl Marx and protest the government, are atypical specimens.

Besides, in the 21st century, students are not, properly speaking, adult actors. Fifty years ago, students were likely to marry within five years of graduating — if the men didn’t get sent to Vietnam first. Today’s students have no draft and are in little danger of imminent marriage. Many can’t even legally drink until their senior year. We have infantilized them, and they have acquiesced.

Radical, safe-space-obsessed students are a minority within a minority, and it’s time for politicians, and the rest of us, to cease writing, or legislating, about what they drink, whom they bed and what they do to their American flags.

Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing writer to Opinion, is the author of three books, most recently “Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate.” He is the host of the podcast Unorthodox.

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