May 1, 2019

JOHNS | Cornell’s Activist Myopia

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Just how global is the focus of Cornell’s globalist activist community? At first glance, it is globalist without reservation: From climate crusaders demanding the University divest from fossil fuels to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, campus progressive activists this semester repeatedly have called for Cornell to make dramatic changes to further their political vision.

Cornellians certainly have the right to petition the University, and it is understandable why they would begin their activism here. President Martha Pollack, for her part, properly noted in her response to the BDS movement that “the principal purpose of our endowment is to provide income for advancing our mission-related objectives.” The endowment, she said, “must not be viewed as a means of exercising political or social power.” That is sensible logic.

Of course, this will not deter activists from their quest to politicize the University endowment. But in the slew of public protests and open letters aimed at achieving some vague notion of global justice, how global has their focus even been?

In March, orange-clad activists demanded that Cornell completely divest from fossil fuels, placing particular focus on “raising awareness” about their campaign. The Sun’s editorial board endorsed this fossil fuel divestment campaign less than a month later, arguing that the University should not be invested in “resource extraction firms that have sent the planet hurtling toward climate ruin.”

Yet, throughout months of campaigning for more aggressive climate policy, not once did activists (or The Sun) mention the world’s most egregious environmental offender: China. It’s quite an omission. Currently, China’s carbon emissions exceed those of both the United States and Europe combined, and it’s a gap that, as activists overlook it, is continuing to widen. Meanwhile, the U.S. actually is leading developed nations in its reduction of carbon emissions, which fell by 758 million metric tons between 2005 and 2017. As Forbes noted in 2017, “That is by far the largest decline of any country in the world over that timespan and is nearly as large as the 770 million metric ton decline for the entire European Union.”

Unlike Cornell, which has committed to an expensive and ambitious plan to achieve a carbon-neutral campus by 2035 and has reduced its emissions by 36 percent in the last decade, China, under the leadership of its governing Communist Party, conversely has recommitted to building new coal-fired power plants. Logic would dictate that calling out China, the world’s worst current polluter, would be a sensible starting point for any environmental activist. Yet activists could not find time to even mention, much less target, China’s environmental behavior in their campaign on climate change.

Sadly, progressive activists’ double standards do not stop with the environment.

BDS activists earlier this month insisted that the University divest from Israel, which they repeatedly claimed “[profits] from the occupation of Palestine and human rights violations,” going as far as to outrageously describe the country as a “racialized apartheid state” in one February letter in The Sun. To say nothing of the biased and deeply flawed origin of these claims, they may have been taken more seriously if there was any outrage whatsoever directed toward the world’s worst human rights abusers — and that list does not include Israel, the only functioning democracy in the Middle East.

The respected human rights monitoring organization Freedom House’s annual report assesses the human rights conditions in 210 countries, ranking each as “free,” “partly free” or “not free.” In 2018, it found 49 of the 210, including 12 especially egregious violators, “not free.” Israel, conversely, ranked among 45 percent of the nations deemed “free” by the human rights monitoring group.

Yet BDS launched no divestment campaign against these 49 nations of the world deemed “not free.” And, just as activists ignored its egregious environmental track record, China again escaped scrutiny, even though it remains engaged in serious and systematic human rights violations, as I noted in a column last September. Nor were there any letters to the editor regarding China’s “racialized apartheid state,” even as it holds one million Muslim Uyghurs in indoctrination camps built to destroy their language and culture in the hopes of “Sinicizing” them in the Communist Party’s image. The Uyghurs are but one group targeted by Beijing, which has also destroyed Christian churches, targeted individuals in Tibet and countless other religious and ethnic minorities.

It’s not that the University is unengaged in this country; indeed, it has substantial and enduring academic, institutional and financial connections with China. Just this year, for instance, The Sun uncovered a secretive research partnership worth $5.3 million with the Chinese telecom company Huawei — by far the largest sum granted any U.S. university from this largely Chinese government-controlled corporation. But activists failed to even mention this vital fact in months of so-called “human rights” advocacy, despite international attention invited by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who congratulated The Sun on its attention to the Huawei deals.

Some activists may rightfully reply that no human rights campaign can be totalizing; those focused on pushing for greater transparency on Cornell’s Qatar campus, for instance, cannot be fairly expected to find the time to push against Cornell’s investments in China as well. While this is true, it nonetheless should shock the campus that no student group took it upon themselves to follow up on The Sun’s groundbreaking Huawei reporting. No outraged letters to the editor from student activists demanded University disclosure; no rallies were planned; no symbolic Student Assembly votes were scheduled. The Sun, to its credit, was alone in editorializing for full transparency on this questionable relationship.

The campus will doubtless witness future campaigns for myriad issues — and the University will likely face demands to politicize its endowment in the years to come. But a modest proposal: In a world filled with injustice, wrongdoing and sometimes outright evil, a logical starting point would be to focus on the worst offenders.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.