Columbia is a microcosm for what is happening in the nation. America’s motto E pluribus unum speaks of unity arising out of diversity, of a shared national identity deeper than those identities that differentiate and divide her citizens. Columbia is presenting a vision of a nation that might be better characterized by the motto Ex uno plures, where shared institutions function as little more than battlegrounds for competing, incommensurable visions of identity. The old sources of unity have become the new theaters for conflict.
Columbia University has announced that it will be hosting multicultural graduation ceremonies this summer. This is yet another sign of our fragmented times. Graduands in the following categories will have their own ceremonies in addition to the one for the whole class: Native, lavender (LGBTQ+), Asian, first graduate from a family/low-income household, Latinx, and black. Were I graduating in the Class of ’21, I would only qualify for the ceremony for first family graduate. But given the gospel of intersectionality, one can assume that other students can attend more than one.
There are numerous ironies here. First, the whole point of traditional graduations is to emphasize unity and not diversity. Everyone, regardless of class, sex, or even discipline, wears the same robe and the same hood. Graduation is about identification with an institution, not an opportunity for self-expression. Before my graduation ceremony in 1988, all the male graduands’ socks were examined, to ensure there was no deviation in the approved shade of gray. I assume the women had a similar check with regard to pantyhose. This might seem pedantic. Indeed, it was pedantic, but it was pedantry with a purpose. It was part of a ceremony that communicated a message about equality of status: that which bound us together—our university—was on that day more important than any act of self-expression.
But equality is not what it used to be. Equality now means that each group should be granted the ability to perform, and to be recognized in its act of performance. The result is not equality at all, but rather a new form of hierarchy. If you want to know who runs society, then look at the captains of the culture industry and see whom they provide with platforms for performance. These ceremonies are not inclusive—except within the limits of taste that the New York Times finds tolerable. Why no ceremony for afficionados of BDSM? Anti-vaxxers? Orthodox Jews? Trump supporters?