April 28, 2014

GLICK | Ready for Hillary, but not for the Revolution: Cornell’s Crisis of Politics

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I consider myself a moderately progressive Democrat. I believe that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act is a vital addition to our social safety net; I shudder to think what havoc Supreme Court-led assaults on voting rights and campaign finance restrictions will wreak on our democracy; I consider attempts to roll back safe access to abortion and birth control to be abhorrent; I think our immigration system, that ever-churning engine of the American Dream, is in dire need of liberalization and reform and I know that every one of us ought to be able to marry whomever we love.

And yet I have spent much of the last month wondering why I suddenly feel like a grumpy old man — a John McCain, if you will — of campus politics. I watched in horror as the President of the Student Assembly Ulysses Smith ’14, voluntarily submitted to a takeover by a few dozen students who, because they were unhappy with the outcome of democratic processes, decided that democracy was altogether too mainstream. And my horror only continued, in the weeks that have followed, as coup-apologists in The Sun and elsewhere subscribe to the convenient narrative that this takeover of the Student Assembly was a somehow noble exercise in the democratizing potential of students devoted to change. It was not.

Let’s be clear: this coup would have never occurred had the S.A. not tabled Resolution 72. This tabling — if not the most well-considered political move in history — was completely in-keeping with any democracy that functions not through plebiscite but through the discretion of an elected committee. Instead of accepting their defeat, Resolution 72 supporters had the temerity to assume that simply because their own priorities were not perfectly mirrored by the S.A., the S.A. must be illegitimate.

The embittered supporters of Resolution 72 thus continued to link many progressive Cornell goals — curbing sexual assault, lowering prohibitive tuition rates, and embracing the LGBT — to the macro-political and clearly divisive Resolution 72. That, I have argued, was their goal all along; to link up opposition to Israel, in whatever capacity, to the progressive mandate that Cornellians have long cherished. With their takeover of the S.A., Resolution 72 dead-enders took another step towards radicalizing otherwise innocuous issues of campus discourse and gravely endangered our politics.

Once the S.A. had been so nonchalantly overthrown, the Students’ Assembly opened its agenda of hot-button issues and forced all those watching to endure a litany of bloviations that sought to tie relevant progressive issues to Cornell’s “corporatism,” “imperialism” and “settler colonialism” In short, everything was brought back unnecessarily to Israel and the specter of Resolution 72. There was no true devotion to progressivism at the Students’ Assembly, only a publicity stunt that drew these tenuous linkages, under the facade of progressivism, in order to prove that the S.A.’s only relevant sin, its rejection of Resolution 72, somehow makes it illegitimate. Smith, in a stunning act of political cowardice, agreed; he apologized to the “Students’ Assembly,” even as its leaders sought to disembowel the organization he is entrusted to lead. He later pled with them to allow President David Skorton to speak, proving that it is folly to give the keys of the castle to anarchists and then expect to get them back if you ask nicely.

What happened at the S.A. two weeks ago was not democracy, and anyone saying so does not understand the word. Democracy, at its core, involves a respect of institutions, even if that respect involves severe external pressure in order to accomplish one’s goals. If SJP and its allies had set up camp outside Willard Straight Hall and demanded the S.A. change its procedures or reconsider Resolution 72, they would have been unimpeachably within the realm of democratic protest long present at Cornell. It would have been respectable activism, whether or not one agrees with it. But in taking over the S.A., supporters of Resolution 72 appeared not unlike the very thing they purport to hate most, by quite literally occupying a legitimate, democratic institution simply because the legal and political consensus underlying this institution does not support their immediate goals. A few dozen unelected Cornellians dictating an agenda is not democracy, but mobocracy. It is shameful to suggest that these efforts to demolish Cornell’s system of shared governance is anything but infantile. Reform is one thing, coups are another.

I will end this column with a warning. Cornell, like most similar institutions, is filled with liberal-minded students who yearn for change in society without seeing society completely reconfigured. They are, in short, “Ready for Hillary” but not ready for the revolution. If false crusaders for democracy continue to hijack legitimate political debate on campus for their own vainglorious ends, Cornell will be unable to inculcate the reasoned leaders of tomorrow that we have become accustomed to producing. There is room for radicalism, of course, but that radicalism cannot become the banner beneath which all progressive students are forced to march. Our political debate cannot become a dual option between anti-establishment anarchy and arch-conservative apologists for authority. A failure to avoid this will alienate the vast majority of Cornellians from conversations in which they must be a part.

Let’s hope the Class of 2018 does better than the Class of 2014 in preserving our campus politics. Our University, in many ways, depends on it.