September 20, 2012

Letter to the Editor: Political cautionism

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To the Editor:

Re: “Political Theater Disappears From Cornell Campus, Professors Say,” News, Sept. 18

Profesor Kramnick’s assertion is an insightful, if not entirely accurate, one. The observation of a decreased presence of theatrical student activism is important, with causes that reveal the new pressures and challenges that Cornellians face today.

First of all, it’s not entirely true that students have become silent in the public sphere. Less than a year ago, the Occupy Cornell movement sprang up and attempted to raise political awareness, along with the greater Occupy Wall Street movement. Their activism was met with derision from students (see Judah Bellin’s article from November 28, 2011 for a taste of this). Independent student activism is often referred to by students at Cornell as useless and annoying, pushing opinions on people who don’t want to hear them, and worst of all, a waste of precious time.

These perceptions shift our political conversations to the Internet and other forms of media. At a glance, the potential to communicate with peers on these platforms seems limitless. However, it often constrains one’s audience to friends, followers and allies who likely agree with the posts of their like-minded colleagues. There is so much political chatter on the Web that we only see the journal posts, status updates and political discussions of those with whom we surround ourselves. With the help of privacy settings and on social media sites, we can retreat into our safe political zone, limiting our commentary to only those we want to see it.

That particular feeling of unease isn’t only about our peers, however. Cornell, like most other universities, is a competitive environment that prompts us to focus our energies on to things that are “productive,” or more accurately, things that show up positively on our transcripts or resumes. If someone is interested in public policy, they’re much more likely to be brushing up on their resume for their upcoming interview with a governmental agency or working with a political group on campus to organize a political event than they are to independently change the minds of their peers. “Spoke sporadically with a megaphone during lunchtime on Ho Plaza” is not something that shows up well on a job application, especially when most of those highly coveted positions after graduation are for large corporations. A dream employer might be put off by those afternoons spent shouting to bring down the corporations and the state, and based on the recent arrests of anarchists Leah-Lynn Plante and Matt Duran in Portland, Oregon, the U.S. government might not like it too much, either.

The solution for this dilemma is a very bold one: Students need to throw their social and job prospects to the wind and be true to themselves by speaking their minds more freely. This is, however, easier said than done, especially when students are scared and uncertain of their futures. Professor Kramnick, until students feel safer and more comfortable, expect those theatrics to stay in intermission.

Paul Maier ’13