I remember someone rented a flatbed truck. I remember that a group went to the home of my friend Noah’s parents, who conveniently lived in Cambridge, not even a mile from campus, and loaded up the structures from the back yard. Were they partly assembled? Not assembled at all? That I don’t recall. I know that it was around three in the morning, and the rest of us were waiting at the edge of Harvard Yard, and that in the middle of the hallowed green, we mounted a cluster of flimsy but covered wooden structures. Shanties, get it?
In the middle—this was our innovation in the genre—was a two-story thing with a pointed top and an upper level into which you could hoist yourself and roost, if, say, you were making a point of occupying the space for the night. This construction was painted white. The ivory tower, you see. Most didn’t see. They were like, “What’s that?” and then we explained. Harvard invested in companies that did business in apartheid South Africa, and for years campus activists had agitated for divestment. Now it was 1986, and Harvard’s endowment had passed $6 billion, largest of any university. It was time already.
I rarely think about it anymore. Things changed, and not just the object of our activist ardor, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela would be freed four years later. But in America too; as Reagan became Bush, and Bush became Clinton, the whole landscape of politics was different. A supposedly liberal administration was triangulating its way to reckless deregulation and disregard for the poor. In a world shorn of the scaffolding of the Cold War, finance capital asserted its hegemony. Also, we were young. There was growing up to do. Our small triumphs on campus—we kept the shanties up through graduation that year, disrupting the pomp of Commencement—we accrued to personal development, and they warranted some pride; but life was yet to come.
We scattered. I was never the school-spirit, reunion type, so what few updates I got on my contemporaries—beyond a lasting circle of close personal friends—came in the news. It was Harvard, after all, incubator of power and prestige. More than a few became leading scholars in academic fields, which is something different. Some wield influence in media and Hollywood, and I’m sure plenty got rich in banking. But the ones you hear about are in political life, shaping public destinies.
And it brings satisfaction, sometimes. Jamie Raskin, the progressive Congressman from Maryland, was a Harvard Law School radical my freshman year, one of the big-sibling types in whom we found guidance and a link to our activist ancestors of the Seventies. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs (and lately, a target of Trump’s whining), was a year behind me. (We took a seminar together. She was brilliant.)
But my college class also produced John Yoo, the right-wing law professor who, as a Justice Department official under George W. Bush, wrote the infamous “torture memos.” (Freshman dorm, two floors up.) As well as David Barron, who wrote the “drone memos” justifying extra-legal killings for the Obama administration. (Bipartisan fuckery.)
Barron now sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. In fact, it occurs to me now, either of them could end up on the Supreme Court—could have been up for confirmation right now, in lieu of a certain contemporary from Yale, the school that was so different and also exactly the same. In the event of their nomination, I’m afraid I’d have no stories to tell, beyond what the record makes plain.
A few days ago, as the testimonials to Brett Kavanaugh’s vomitous, bar-brawling, possibly rapey Yale years surged forward like last night’s Cuervo shots and slices from Demery’s, the historian Jacob Remes, who studies activism, took a moment on Twitter to remind us what some of the judge’s college peers were doing at Yale in the same period.
I remember it now. How the kids at Yale put up shanties the same month we did, April 1986. How the Yale workers’ strike served as model and energized the independent Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW), in whose support we staged rallies and sit-ins, and got an education in labor organizing and stakes.
I remember that plenty of our own student activists came from privileged backgrounds and attended posh schools. Coming from prep school didn’t make you an asshole, at least not irremediably. There was plenty to cringe about in activist circles, of course. The phallocratic culture, with pompous men dominating endless meetings. The chronic awkwardness on race, and botched attempts to build coalitions with Black student groups. General self-importance. And yet, I remember that people tried.
It’s the Kavanaugh types, really, that I don’t remember at all. They were there; perhaps they controlled the place the whole time. They partied in the final clubs—the all-male social clubs that existed in lieu of fraternities—and had massive keggers in Kirkland House, and you heard that these things went on, but you didn’t care about them, and the sentiment was reciprocated. The tribalism of college life reinforced cultural difference as much as it invited a select few non-natives into the networks of privilege—on condition of assimilation, and accepting the terms.
But for the milieu whose tawdry habits are now the subject of national scrutiny, this weird sudden dive into disgusting dorm rooms and UB40 concert aftermaths, the whole thing was effortless. You showed up, you drank like a fish, you prolifically puked, you probably molested some girls, maybe you got into fights. If arrested, you pleaded no contest, and it got expunged. That was the tradition, the real legacy. George W. Bush, Yale ’68, got terrible grades and joked about it. He became President. Meritocracy.
Middle age finishes crushing any residual illusions you might have had about the relentless reproduction of systems of power, and the deployment, in service of same, of discrimination, lies, and hypocrisy. Kavanaugh, with his unsurpassed sense of entitlement and his perfect vulgarity, comes to us in this moment as an archetype.
Still, what a waste. Even back then, other paths were possible. We could have made the world better. Perhaps, as events force us to inspect our generation’s moral condition, those of us who came of age—whatever that means—in the Eighties will remember: We still can.
Siddhartha Mitter Harvard Kavanaugh Blast from the Past