April 3, 2011

Ezra Was a Republican

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It seems that Cornell’s conservatives are shaping the campus discourse. Don’t believe it? Consider this: One of the most, if not the most, anticipated events of the semester is Karl Rove’s upcoming speech on April 13; likewise, the Program on Freedom and Free Societies’ “Conservatives, Libertarians and Visionaries” speaker series has boasted an impressive roster of right-wing academics, policymakers and journalists. On Tuesday, the newly-formed Students and Workers for International Free Trade (SWIFT) will protest the Farm Bill as well as debate the well-established Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA) on the morality of sweatshops. Finally, with the exception of The Sun, the Cornell Review’s blog is probably our most popular student-run website. This is hardly surprising. Conservatives on campuses like Cornell’s invariably find themselves in the ideological minority, as the majority of their peers rarely encounter, and often are openly hostile to, their political outlook. It’s clear that in face of such widespread opposition, conservatives find themselves on the defensive with regards to their positions and feel obligated to constantly sharpen and publicize their arguments. Doing so, they realize, requires a sustained outreach effort to the broader University community, which results in the serious and impressive programming we see today. This is not so for liberal groups, who face no such pressures to constantly clarify or promote their message. Case in point: the Cornell Democrats, whose policy positions are shared by an overwhelming majority of faculty and students, have therefore not seen fit to vigorously promote their message. For instance, when Representative Barney Frank showed up on campus last semester, the Democrats did not seriously publicize the event. This choice was somewhat puzzling, considering that Frank was the most prominent figure the Democrats had brought to campus in a while. However, it makes sense when one recognizes that the Democrats do not need to convert the masses and therefore have little reason to reach out to the larger student body. In fact, it appears that they see themselves as somewhat redundant. Conservative students are not so privileged: If they wish to make any sort of meaningful impact, they must become active players in the University’s public sphere. They will necessarily have greater exposure. Another, related, explanation for the dominance of conservative viewpoints is the prevalence of political apathy at Cornell. Even though most students consider themselves politically liberal, activism in support of liberal causes on campus is conspicuously absent. This serves to amplify the already prominent conservative voice. The student body’s relationship to President Barack Obama provides a striking example. Once the celebrations following Obama’s election subsided, his followers on campus — many of whom saw him as their generation’s candidate — decided politics were no longer “their thing.”  Tellingly, they did little to publicly support the healthcare bill, in spite of Obama’s exhortations to college students to fight on its behalf. In fact, many seemed unaware that a debate was taking place. This apathy might actually reflect a conservative persuasion. In contrast to the student activists of the 1960s and 1970s — who believed our institutions were fundamentally broken — and the political correctness demagogues of the 1990s — who contended that individuals were hopelessly corrupt — today’s college students are generally content with the status quo, and see little reason to shake things up. Given continued economic growth and bright job prospects, this apathy will persist, and may well come to represent conservatism’s greatest success. Of course, apathy shouldn’t be the end goal. Cornell’s conservatives must not fall into an easy complacency, but rather continue practicing “politics” in the way the political theorist Hannah Arendt envisioned it. For Arendt, true politics was an active affair: It required debate, discussion and creation. She therefore contrasted the men of American Revolution — who believed themselves to be shapers of history — with those of the French Revolution — who viewed themselves as its puppets. The vigorous activity of conservatives on campus therefore serves as a linkage to the past, and affirms our individual capabilities above the currents of history.Conservatives have every reason to celebrate these victories. However, they should pause before wholeheartedly embracing these developments, and consider their deeper meaning.For many of us, college is the only time we’ll live in an isolated area that also boasts tremendous cultural and intellectual resources. In many ways, it resembles the early American township, an institution Alexis de Tocqueville described as the “cradle” of American democracy because it trained residents in the art of social interaction, deal-making and policy formation. However, this could only occur if there existed opposing perspectives with which one could disagree and create compromise.We aren’t quite there — yet. Therefore, if Cornell is to serve as a training ground for our future civic engagement, it must be home to serious political action from all ends of the ideological spectrum. The conservatives have already done their part. It’s time for liberals to pick up the slack.Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin