On elite college campuses, the agonized swoon has become the Hermes scarf of social gestures, the clearest way to instantly signal status to an audience of acutely status-conscious peers. It’s familiar stuff.
In 1880, the New England physician George Miller Beard published a treatise on the emergence of a new neurological disease, a kind of nervous exhaustion that he called “neurasthenia.” That disease was little understood, Beard wrote, because medical researchers mostly worked in “institutions of charity”—where they could freely experiment on their patients. Gathered to do research among the poor, doctors had overlooked “the miseries of the rich, the comfortable, and intelligent.”
And it was a shame, because the very finest people were the ones who were truly suffering, afflicted as they were with the most exquisitely refined constitutions. Beard hoped to convince young colleagues that “Fifth Avenue is in some features a very much better field for pathological study than Five Points.”
The Rise Of Rehabilitative Luxury
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, an entire industry of luxury resorts arose to help the victims Beard had identified. In a rapidly industrializing nation, the members of a new executive and professional class found themselves absolutely devastated by the stresses of modern life, often joined or preceded by their jittery wives and daughters.
Exhausted by their nervous disease, bourgeois moderns were compelled to convalesce for entire seasons at the early equivalents of the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton. Their fragile health simply demanded it, and the suffering residents of Fifth Avenue and comparable places were forced into rehabilitative luxury by the pain of existence. Another physician, Silas Weir Mitchell, developed the “rest cure” implied by Beard’s description, and whole swathes of the haut monde retreated into a therapeutic regime of naps, stillness, and more naps, with the occasional plate of oysters and a medically necessary beer at lunch.
Writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman gave us the classic depiction of the neurasthenic, “The Yellow Wallpaper”: a short story, first published in 1892, that depicts a well-to-do woman forced by her nervous condition to live in a rented mansion and do nothing. In Gilman’s telling, forced leisure is a prison and a path to sickness; under-stimulated and over-pampered, the cosseted patient descends into psychosis in her safe space. The rich yellow wallpaper of her elegant cage begins to crawl.
So let’s talk about Yale.
Elite Colleges Suffer Similar Psychological Tortures
On the campuses of elite colleges and universities, students are somehow in deep pain. Terrifyingly, people sometimes disagree with them, and say things they don’t like. It’s a form of psychological torture, wounding students in New Haven and Claremont to their very core. Brutalized and agonized by the fact that other people believe in the concepts of “truth” and “free speech”—Eurocentric, white supremacist constructs—injured undergrads are demanding protection from the horror of people saying things.
If you haven’t already, watch Yale students screaming and writhing in the presence of Professor Nicholas Christakis, whose wife inflicted pain on them by suggesting that they choose their own Halloween costumes without the protective shield of the university’s administrative guidance. Shaking, sobbing, and screaming, a generation’s victims line up to confront their tormenter, who lashes into them with the white male weapon of talking to people.
Like nineteenth century neurasthenics, America’s suffering college students are the people who can afford the pain. Jerelyn Luther, the Yale undergraduate who infamously screamed at Christakis that her residential college at Yale is “not an intellectual space,” grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, a town with a six-figure median income. Jonathan Butler, the University of Missouri hunger-striker, is the son of a railroad executive who pulls down seven-figure compensation.
Ziad Ahmed, the New Jersey teenager who was just admitted to Stanford after sending that university an admissions essay that consisted only of the words “Black Lives Matter”—repeated a hundred times—is the son of a hedge fund manager. He apprenticed in the struggle for social justice at Princeton Day School, where high school tuition is just under $35,000 a year.
And so on; to say the whole thing in one example, I give you Black Lives Matter protester and Occupy Boston veteran Noah McKenna. No comparable stories of youthful struggle have arisen from the vocational education programs at Bakersfield City College, where students have to worry about getting to Applebee’s on time for their shift. Like neurasthenia, social justice agony is a rich kid’s disease.
Today’s Undergraduates Are Obsessed With ‘Self-Care’
Also much like the privileged Victorians who used resort travel as medicine, undergraduates at elite colleges and universities are obsessed with the concept of “self-care”—which starts with retreat and shelter. Campuses respond to national elections and controversial campus speakers by creating “safe spaces,” protected rooms “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” They are in deadly earnest about this, and it will only take you four minutes and 39 seconds to watch “Our Sound Our Silence: Self Care in Student of Color Activism,” a Scripps College senior thesis presented as a documentary film. The opening moments are…clarifying.
And then there’s the increasingly violent act of silencing, as students riot to shut down speakers they disagree with (on the vaguest and least-informed of terms): Charles Murray at Middlebury, Heather MacDonald at Claremont, Ben Shapiro at Cal State Los Angeles. Taking a shortcut, undergraduate social justice warriors skip the stage where they heal from hearing that people disagree with them by making sure no one can say that they disagree with them.
“Safe space” campus culture grows from three ugly roots: Marcusian political strategy, the transition of higher education to a customer service model in which undergraduates are relentlessly pampered and flattered, and the emergence of virtue signaling as the key that opens the door to the ruling class. Outrage is a positional good; writing that “Black Lives Matter” rant to Stanford, the son of the hedge fund manager is demonstrating his social breeding. He’s performing his objections to inequality to preserve his own access to its benefits.
Campus Outrage Has Gone Horribly Wrong
But the outrage maneuver has gone horribly wrong. College campuses seethe with misery and insanity; at three of the five undergraduate colleges in the Claremont University Consortium, administrators are the targets of student strikes, protests, and demands for ritual self-humiliation. (At a fourth, Claremont McKenna, SJWs already took down their victim.) Even mildly heterodox professors are hunkered down, afraid of their students.
We’re nearing the moment where the Red Guards turn from attacking external class enemies to the internal policing of ideological purity and zeal for the cause. If someone tries to hire you as the dean of something at some point in the next two years, don’t. Students will be enraged at the sight of your face before they’ve even heard your name.
And the misery isn’t just social and institutional—it’s distinctly personal. A series of surveys and reports have concluded that the current cohort of undergraduates “has greater levels of stress and psychopathology than any time in the nation’s history.” College students who lived through the Great Depression and World War II have nothing on their contemporary equivalents who have had to live through the cancellation of “Girls.”
The pampered Marcusian neurasthenic has found her room with yellow wallpaper, a hell you build yourself with some friends from Intro to Sociology. Playing at relentless daily rage and sorrow, undergraduate social justice warriors find themselves surrounded by (guess what) constant messages of rage and sorrow, which lead to, amazingly, real feelings of rage and sorrow. Consistent daily pretending turns into being. The fetal position, adopted as a social gesture, sticks.
Pity those spoiled idiots gathered around Nicholas Christakis: They’ve locked one another into their safe spaces, and the wallpaper is starting to crawl.