I’ve enjoyed many a movie at Cornell Cinema, and I believe that art is what makes life worth living. Naturally I tried to do what I could to protest the proposed defunding of the cinema by the Student Assembly. I signed the petition, went to the S.A. meetings, even spoke to a few assembly members that I happen to know personally. When I heard that the resolution had been tabled and that they’d decided to “negotiate on alternative funding possibilities,” I felt like I had played a very small role in accomplishing something good.
On a meta-ethical level, however, I felt compelled to reflect on my decision to support this cause. It seems silly to be worried about a movie theater while melting permafrost releases methane into the atmosphere. Should I really be expending mental energy on Gabe Kaufman when the president of the United States just personally insulted a notoriously unstable, nuclear-weapon wielding dictator?
Now I acknowledge that I am far from an activist dynamo. If I haven’t gone to those student assembly meetings to defend Cornell Cinema, I probably would have stayed home and watched Curb Your Enthusiasm. But for the sake of the discussion, let’s imagine the platonic ideal of a socially conscious go-getter. What should this perfect progressive spend their time and energy defending?
Being active in one’s community is widely considered a commendable thing. People identifying local issues and taking steps to make their voices heard; what could be wrong with that? I do not think there is anything “wrong” with such action, but I do believe that it betrays an almost capitalist framework of progressivism. If every activist chooses the issue that they are most inclined to choose, then the invisible hand will push everything toward its ideal state.
I consider Smithian thought to be the most blatantly fraudulent institution since the selling of indulgences, and with good reason. Free markets enable lapses in judgement, and a free market of sympathy is no different. Consider the “happy holidays” phenomenon. Well-meaning individuals advocate the replacement of “Merry Christmas” with the phrase “happy holidays” so as to not place Christians above other members of society. A fine sentiment, but it misses the big picture. Hanukkah is not a Jewish high holiday; it attained its position in the public consciousness because it happens to be around the same time as Christmas. December is the holiday season because it’s the Christmas season. Say “happy holidays” all you want, but nobody’s moving school vacation to late September or early October so that it’s in line with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I don’t know if we should advocate for an areligious break schedule that attempts to optimize student mental health, but I know that it would be better than polishing the turd and patting ourselves on the back.
Moral philosopher Peter Singer advocates for what he calls “effective altruism.” There should be no difference in the giver’s mind, Singer says, between a member of their community and a starving child thousands of miles away. Or, to apply his thinking to our situation, there should be no difference in our minds between Cornell Cinema and a hospital in a third world country. We shouldn’t let our personal attachments get in the way of using our resources to do the most good. Nobody, including Singer himself, behaves completely in accordance with this advice. (The following may be the most context-dependent and therefore misquotable statement of all time, but Singer has been rightly criticized for paying his mother’s hospital bills). That being said, I think he’s got a point.
Singer is especially relevant in today’s climate (and I use the word “climate” both metaphorically and literally in this instance). Everyone should be in crisis mode if they aren’t already. Yes, Cornell Cinema has a great deal of educational value, and education is the means by which society is improved. But there’s no time for the long game. The world is crashing down around us. If everyone were to march on Washington, there might be no one left to prevent the local park from becoming a Starbucks. But unless the more fundamental societal problems are addressed, progressives will forever be stuck on the treadmill.
Ara Hagopian is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Whiny Liberal appears alternate Fridays this semester.