Brooks and Nocera

Poor, delicate Bobo is all upset by “The Campus Crusaders.”  He whines that well-intentioned moral fervor on campuses today often slides into a dangerous type of zealotry.  In the comments “HeyNorris” from Paris had this to say:  “Our Mr. Brooks never fails to delight when he tut-tuts over-reaching liberals – in this case college students – while willfully ignoring similar behaviors exhibited by his dear over-reaching conservative friends.”  (And if anyone should know about dangerous zealotry it’s certainly a Republican, right Bobo?)  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Motown Getting Its Groove Back?”  He says there’s something happening in Detroit, with entrepreneurship and budding manufacturing taking hold.  Here’s Bobo, straight from the fainting couch:

Every generation has an opportunity to change the world. Right now, college campuses around the country are home to a moral movement that seeks to reverse centuries of historic wrongs.

This movement is led by students forced to live with the legacy of sexism, with the threat, and sometimes the experience, of sexual assault. It is led by students whose lives have been marred by racism and bigotry. It is led by people who want to secure equal rights for gays, lesbians and other historically marginalized groups.

These students are driven by noble impulses to do justice and identify oppression. They want to not only crack down on exploitation and discrimination, but also eradicate the cultural environment that tolerates these things. They want to police social norms so that hurtful comments are no longer tolerated and so that real bigotry is given no tacit support. Of course, at some level, they are right. Callous statements in the mainstream can lead to hostile behavior on the edge. That’s why we don’t tolerate Holocaust denial.

But when you witness how this movement is actually being felt on campus, you can’t help noticing that it sometimes slides into a form of zealotry. If you read the website of the group FIRE, which defends free speech on campus, if you read Kirsten Powers’s book, “The Silencing,” if you read Judith Shulevitz’s essay “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” that was published in The Times in Sunday Review on March 22, you come across tales of professors whose lives are ruined because they made innocent remarks; you see speech codes that inhibit free expression; you see reputations unfairly scarred by charges of racism and sexism.

The problem is that the campus activists have moral fervor, but don’t always have settled philosophies to restrain the fervor of their emotions. Settled philosophies are meant to (but obviously don’t always) instill a limiting sense of humility, a deference to the complexity and multifaceted nature of reality. But many of today’s activists are forced to rely on a relatively simple social theory.

According to this theory, the dividing lines between good and evil are starkly clear. The essential conflict is between the traumatized purity of the victim and the verbal violence of the oppressor.

According to this theory, the ultimate source of authority is not some hard-to-understand truth. It is everybody’s personal feelings. A crime occurs when someone feels a hurt triggered, or when someone feels disagreed with or “unsafe.” In the Shulevitz piece, a Brown student retreats from a campus debate to a safe room because she “was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against” her dearly and closely held beliefs.

Today’s campus activists are not only going after actual acts of discrimination — which is admirable. They are also going after incorrect thought — impiety and blasphemy. They are going after people for simply failing to show sufficient deference to and respect for the etiquette they hold dear. They sometimes conflate ideas with actions and regard controversial ideas as forms of violence.

Some of their targets have been deliberately impious. Laura Kipnis is a feminist film professor at Northwestern University who wrote a provocative piece on sexual mores on campus that was published in February. She was hit with two Title IX charges on the grounds, without evidence, that her words might have a “chilling effect” on those who might need to report sexual assaults.

Other targets of this crusade had no idea what they were getting into. A student at George Washington wrote an essay on the pre-Nazi history of the swastika. A professor at Brandeis mentioned a historic slur against Hispanics in order to criticize it. The scholar Wendy Kaminer mentioned the N-word at a Smith College alumni event in a clearly nonracist discussion of euphemism and free speech.

All of these people were targeted for purging merely for bringing unacceptable words into the public square. As Powers describes it in “The Silencing,” Kaminer was accused of racial violence and hate speech. The university president was pilloried for tolerating an environment that had been made “hostile” and “unsafe.”

We’re now in a position in which the students and the professors and peers they target are talking past each other. The students feeling others don’t understand the trauma they’ve survived; the professors feeling as though they are victims in a modern Salem witch trial. Everybody walks on egg shells.

There will always be moral fervor on campus. Right now that moral fervor is structured by those who seek the innocent purity of the vulnerable victim. Another and more mature moral fervor would be structured by the classic ideal of the worldly philosopher, by the desire to confront not hide from what you fear, but to engage the complexity of the world, and to know that sometimes the way to wisdom involves hurt feelings, tolerating difference and facing hard truths.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera, writing from Detroit:

Tom Kartsotis, the wealthy co-founder of Fossil, has no connection to the Motor City. He lives in Dallas, where he now oversees a handful of ventures he’s invested in. In early 2011, he decided to build a small watch factory that would sell high-quality watches that were priced, as he puts it, “at the entry point of luxury.”

He also wanted to make these watches in America. “So many big companies have sourcing infrastructures whose knee-jerk reaction is to head to China,” he said. He couldn’t compete with China at the low end of the market — nobody can. But he felt that the kind of watches he had in mind — priced between $450 and $600 at the low end, with a distinctive but classic design — could be made competitively in the United States. So he decided to put his new factory here in Detroit, a city once renowned for its manufacturing prowess that, in recent times, has needed all the help it can get.

That original idea turned into a company called Shinola. It has eight retail outlets and employs around 375 people, most of them in Detroit. Although those stylized watches are its biggest sellers — the company expects to sell between 150,000 and 180,000 this year — it also designs and makes bicycles, leather goods and other well-crafted, high-end products. Not only are those products built in Detroit, but Shinola also tries to buy the parts it needs from other American companies. Its leather, for instance, comes from the Horween Leather Company, a Chicago tannery more than a century old. Its bicycle frames are shipped from a company run by a fourth-generation Schwinn.

Although it was a philanthropic impulse that moved Kartsotis to set up shop in Detroit, it has turned out to be a very good business decision. The space Shinola needed to build its factory was cheap. There was also plenty of talent — engineers, for sure, but also former auto assembly-line workers, people eager to work who Shinola could train to be watchmakers. When I visited the watch factory recently, I saw rows of employees bent over their desks, focusing intently as they placed tiny, intricate parts inside the unassembled watches.

Indeed, to spend any time in Detroit these days is to be amazed at the extent to which it is humming with entrepreneurial activity. Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans — which he relocated to Detroit — has bought more than 70 buildings and is converting some of them into office space for small businesses. There are other buildings with common work spaces and tools like 3-D printers than can be shared. The city’s government and, especially, its foundations are focused on helping peoplewho want to start a new business. I spoke with a woman named Julie James, who, with her four sisters, manufactures a brand of juices they call Drought. It employs 32 people. Another company, The Floyd Leg, makes handsome, colorful legs for furniture; its work force is seven people. New companies like these are starting every day.

Kartsotis told me that “creating a few hundred jobs isn’t going to move the needle.” He’s right about that, of course. But, collectively, all these small companies do seem to be helping to bring Detroit back. Young people are moving in to the downtown and midtown areas. The unemployment rate is dropping. Once-abandoned buildings are being reoccupied. There are retail stores and restaurants that didn’t exist even a few years ago. Something very good is happening here, and it’s largely the result of private-sector activity. Kartsotis isn’t the only entrepreneur whose desire to come to the aid of a once-great city has turned out to be a smart business move.

If it seems clear that companies like Shinola are the way forward for Detroit, it is not so clear whether they are also the way forward for American manufacturing more generally. “I’m proud of what this company stands for,” Jacques Panis, Shinola’s president, told me. When I asked him just what that is, he replied: “High-quality manufacturing jobs for America.”

Shinola’s products are well-designed and made. They are selling briskly. But they are not cheap, and they’ll never be mass produced. I’ve written before about how even big manufacturers like Caterpillar and General Electric employ far fewer workers than they used to thanks to automation. Shinola offers a different twist on that idea. It’s not automation that is restricting the number of workers but rather the niche appeal of its products. I’m not sure its example is particularly replicable.

As for Shinola, Kartsotis is readying its next product: Shinola-style headphones that can compete with high-end models like those from Beats. He told me that he has just completed a round of financing and hopes to take the company public one day.

Which will be good for him — and Detroit.


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