March 8, 2010

Frustration in Advocacy

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Yesterday’s resignation of Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) was a major letdown for many Cornell students who campaigned tirelessly for the former congressman in 2008. Facing an entrenched incumbent in one of New York’s most conservative districts, Massa incorporated the members of the Cornell Democrats into his campaign — rallying them to canvas the 29th Congressional District and make innumerable phone calls on his behalf. On election night, this hard work paid off as Massa won by the slimmest of margins, 4,414 votes.

But now, 16 months later, Massa leaves Washington amid controversial circumstances, much to the disappointment of the students who advocated for him in 2008. While these students are understandably discouraged, it is important to recognize the oftentimes unfair nature of politics, and not to let the shortfalls of individual politicians dissuade future political action.

Massa’s case is particularly frustrating and tests our faith in our political leaders.

First there was the accusation of sexual harassment levied by a senior, male member of Massa’s staff. Massa acknowledged this misconduct in a statement published on his website, saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that I did in fact, use language in the privacy of my own home and in my inner office that, after 24 years in the Navy, might make a Chief Petty Officer feel uncomfortable.” In addition, Massa cited how a potential ethics investigation would “tear [his] family and [his] staff apart.”

However, in a radio address Sunday Massa implied that he was leaving Congress not because of a serious ethics issue but because high ranking Democrats, specifically White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, used the sexual harassment accusation to push the congressman out of the House due to his position on the healthcare bill. “This administration and this House leadership has said, quote-unquote, they will stop at nothing to pass this healthcare bill. And now they’ve gotten rid of me and it will pass. You connect the dots,” said Massa.

Regardless of the true nature of Massa’s resignation, this controversy serves as a cruel lesson to those Cornellians who campaigned for Massa. It reminds would-be activists that politics is a dirty game, that good intentions can only get you so far in activism. Unfortunately, no matter how many phone calls you make or how many doorbells you ring, your hard work does not always yield virtuous governance.

So once we recognize this hard reality, what is there to do next? Do we simply wash our hands of all things political and go about our business ignorant of the so-called “dirty game?” Or do we persist? And how?

Whether you campaigned for a president who has gone against his professed ideals, or a governor who solicited sex from high-end escorts, or a congressman forced from Capitol Hill amid shady circumstances, disappointment is a necessary part of political advocacy. Yet being daunted by this disappointment does nothing but exacerbate the problem. And while we don’t want to get into the tired old argument of, “We are the future so it’s our duty to believe we can change the system,” it is important for students not to become cynics in the face of political frustration.

Eric Massa will not be to the last upstate New York politician to disappoint the young activists who so vigorously supported him. And the Cornell Democrats will not be the last campus group to be dealt a blow by our ugly political system. So instead of quivering at these inevitabilities, we must acknowledge them. We must advocate out of passion, not out of fear of disappointment.