March 5, 2020

WILK | The Pitfalls of Political Hobbyism at Cornell

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Picture this — a panoramic shot of a quad glimmering under the early fall-semester sun. You could be at any college campus in America or, more likely, suspended in a place that doesn’t actually exist except as an amalgamation of the essence of college campuses nationwide. You see people: walking, frisbeeing, speaking different languages, laughing, lounging and lugging kegs. You continue to snake through the bubbling crowd and you start to get bombarded. You hear calls from table-ers, flyers are pushed into your abdomen, you are entangled in a flock of demonstrators; you’ve been caught in the ever-present and unignorable politics that has long been a token of collegiate life.

It’s a prevalent theme in our media and undeniable in on-campus experiences across the states, but it’s worth asking — is all this clamor, this passion, this civic performance we understand as so central to the American university really politics at all?

More frequently than we realize, the stuff we confidently name and engage in as politics is something quite different, something political scientist Eitan Hersh has coined as political hobbyism, which he analogizes is “to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.” And you don’t need to look far to get a clear picture of this phenomenon. Many of Cornell’s most notable political student organizations are simply hobbyist groups with rigorous audition processes. Take Cornell Political Union, for example, a well-respected, well-recognized and well-attended student organization whose self-professed mission is to “provide [their]  members and the general public unique opportunities to discuss today’s most pressing political and social issues … help members grow professionally by connecting them to exciting leadership, engagement and work opportunities.” CPU has a strong membership and an impressive agenda, but this agenda is narrowly centered around repeated, cyclical discourse between its cherry-picked members and the decorated speakers they occasionally invite to campus.

Now, this is not to say that the kind of platform CPU and similar organizations create isn’t important — It is. Educating and fostering civil debate on the intense politics of today can be a difficult mission and they execute it well. However, talking about politics isn’t doing politics. There’s no community or constituent organizing, no outreach, no attempt at change or action within or outside the university.  The goal of these “political” organizations gets lost in the echo-chamber of self-gratifying synopses of podcasts, CNN clips and Washington Post articles that make up the diet of a ravenous political hobbyist.

This problem, though, isn’t specific to Cornell and its student organizations. It’s not even an issue confined to college campuses. It speaks to a larger trend of the lack of advocacy in the presence of privilege, which is the real danger of hobbyism:

 “White people reported spending more time reading, talking, and thinking about politics than black people and Latinos did, but black people and Latinos were twice as likely as white respondents to say that at least some of the time they dedicate to politics is spent volunteering in organizations. Likewise, those who were college-educated reported that they spend more time on politics than other Americans do—but less than 2 percent of that time involves volunteering in political organizations. The rest is spent mostly on news consumption (41 percent of the time), discussion and debate (26 percent), and contemplating politics alone (21 percent).”

The disconnect here is that in political hobbyism, attachment to politics exists as a form of self-expression rather than an earnest and desperate acquisition of power for a people, which is supposed to be the function of politics.  Hobbyists don’t have material needs; instead, they have laments. Their knowledge is relevant. It’s beyond impressive. It’s palpable — you can see it bursting out of the corners of their closed mouths even when they’re allowing you time for a rebuttal before they go back to playing devil’s advocate. But, it’s not useful. Because no matter how intelligent, up-to-date and well-versed they are regarding contemporary politics, there’s an overwhelming unaffectedness, a detachment that eclipses the motivation for real, effective, grassroots action.

I also don’t mean to imply that politically aware hobbyists don’t actually care about politics, or don’t take them seriously. Seriousness has little to do with hobbyism. In fact, hobbyists are deeply emotionally connected to their politics — nowadays, perhaps tragically and maddeningly so. The issue is that this emotionality marks the end of their connection. Rage, sorrow or triumph don’t have consequences if not paired with action, and hobbyists fail in this aspect.

Of course, our campus and the United States are not devoid of real political action, or of students and staff with devotion and an intrinsic obligation to this kind of work. Great political work happens here. Student organizations like the Ithaca Tenants’ Union and the Peoples’ Organizing Collective mobilize students to create change on and around campus for people who need it. It’s just concerning that these groups remain much smaller, and operate with less support, than our numerous hobbyist groups: CPU has double the Facebook following of People’s Organizing Collective, and well over three times the following of Ithaca Tenants’ Union.

Maybe this just serves to exemplify a truth that we all know deep down, but try to ignore — that the status quo, as turbulent and unsettling as it is, is not enough to make these people do something because they don’t have enough to lose. It highlights clearly the very crucial difference between ideology and praxis. Hobbyists create and perfect standards of oration that drown out the earnest, urgent needs of those whose existence is inseparable from the oppression that hobbyists’ polysyllabic buzzwords signify. But ultimately, with no active effort to create change comes no relief to the issues they swear to fight for.

Alecia Wilk is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.