Political movements should grow from internal criticism

Last year, I wrote a column in The Miscellany News entitled “Politicization of the VSA must be questioned in election,” which stoked significant discontent from some students. For those who haven’t read it, the title is misleading (I didn’t write it) because the article did not oppose politicization of the VSA—I recognize that the VSA is an inherently political body. It did, however, reject the stranglehold of a single ideology, progressivism, over a body politic that doesn’t uniformly agree with it. The wild idea that people should be free to believe what they believe and speak their beliefs without fear of persecution didn’t play well with the progressives who dominate Vassar’s political culture.

Yet, as I begin this year with the intention of continuing to write for The Miscellany News, I feel it would be helpful, if not necessary, to clarify my purpose for writing. Contrary to popular belief, I am not a conservative. Nor am I a fascist, a libertarian or even a moderate, as I have previously believed and stated. I am a liberal. My opposition to Vassar progressives is not rooted in ideology but rather in politics. What I see in the progressive movement is a group with laudable goals that seems dead set on never seeing those goals achieved. I hope to push the left to achieve electoral success and build a stronger political movement.

It is understandable that given the calamitous nature of the current administration, political columnists are expected to write about the Trump menace week after week. After all, that’s what CNN and The New York Times usually do. Yet, even if every student at Vassar read one of my columns talking about how bad, despotic or idiotic Trump is, what impact would it have? The vast majority of them would probably just agree, learn nothing new and have their beliefs affirmed. Without contrarian journalism, ideas would go unchallenged, hypocrisy would go unchecked and flaws within the political sphere would continue to be exacerbated, decreasing the quality of our public discourse. I don’t want to simply yell into an echo chamber. Furthermore, based upon reactions to my writing, it seems that my most impactful articles were not the ones I wrote about Trump, but rather the ones that flew in the face of the prevailing ideology of Vassar’s political crowd. I choose to at least try to have an impact not only on the overall discourse of Vassar, but on its many staunch political activists both on the left and the right. The only way to do this is to challenge their firmly held beliefs. This accomplishes two things.

Firstly, an ideology is only strengthened when subject to scrutiny. Take, for example, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Many saw her platform and the DNC platform as unempathetic and outdated. Many political scientists, however, believe it was strengthened by the tough ideological challenge that Bernie Sanders mounted against the Democratic establishment and the political status quo. Even Democratic insider David Axelrod argued that Sanders’s impact is “reflected in her messaging and very specific policies” (“How Bernie Sanders changed Hillary Clinton,” Politico, 05.03.16). In general, the more compassionate shift in her views on healthcare, the minimum wage and income inequality can be attributed to Sanders’s powerful grassroots campaign, according to Lee Miringoff, the director of Marist polling, who said that these positions “probably moved [their] way up into higher in her stump speech because of what Sanders was saying” (Politico).

Sanders had this massive impact because he, more than any other Democratic politician, had the courage to look at the status quo on the left, which he saw as flawed, and vocally challenge it. When his ideas ultimately resonated, they had a significant impact. Now most people would consider a policy position such as single-payer healthcare mainstream just two years after it would have been dismissed as fringe. Critique of the left has the potential to spur better fortunes for Democrats, bring the nuances and complexities of politics to the front of the left’s discourse and help guide activists spawned by the 2016 election to become more effective political actors. Political engagement is the key to maintaining a working democracy. Yet, as condescending as it sounds, these efforts have been as much a hindrance as a help. All too often, the left has descended into shutting down certain speech and political discourse in the center and on the right and using violence as a political tool. Just as constructive criticism is an opportunity, so too is listening to the other side.

Right-wing ideas are often silenced, dismissed, labeled and sometimes met with violence. Progressives fight to silence certain schools of thought and speech with the justification being that they harm marginalized communities. Simply put, this is a weak and counterproductive solution to both hate speech and the broader ideology of the right, which I believe is rooted in a politics that are antithetical to the important ideals of equality for all and social justice.

Yet, just because I disagree with that ideology does not mean I have a right to suppress it, nor should I. To suppress those ideas would be to concede that they have enough merit to persuade people. If they are truly as harmful and radical as those on the left portray them to be, then they should be allowed to defeat themselves in the arena of political thought.

Then, of course, there is the problem of the slippery slope or regulating offensive or hateful speech. As those who embrace identity politics argue, it takes experience to create true empathy and understanding in politics. So I’d like my readers to try and empathize with those they are trying to suppress.

Imagine what would happen if our government had the authority to regulate certain speech that some may find offensive and insulting. Imagine if Donald Trump, Mr. “Bigotry and hate on all sides,” ran a government that could fine or arrest people for something as broad as hate. I, for one, am very glad we don’t have such a law for the President to pervert.

Progressives at Vassar, it seems to me, don’t seem to have the same respect for the First Amendment that they once did. Shutting down the debate is fine as long as we are all clear that they won. Trust me, if I went to Liberty University or Southern Methodist University, I would be talking at conservatives in exactly the same way.

It’s not about ideology; it’s about basic freedom of expression for all, as long as the expression doesn’t directly infringe upon someone else’s expression (the basic voicing of rightwing ideas does not meet that criteria). It’s about having a debate that is worth having, not one where one side overpowers, shames and labels the other. This goes for both white people towards black people and progressives towards the right, both of which are problems at Vassar.

Finally, I want to touch upon the violence that has become a tenet of left-wing movements. My opposition to political violence is aimed at all people and groups who commit such acts in the name of ideology, and my condemnation is equally harsh for all. Ideology is not a shield that insulates one from the law and absolves them of crime.

Whether you’re on the left or the right, you must understand that violence as a means of political protesting is not only wrong, it is stupid. This violence is wrong because it is not morally justified. No ideology is inherently right or wrong, and no person is any more justified in throwing a punch, one that is not in self defense, than any other regardless of their beliefs.

It is also stupid, because whenever a left-wing protester throws a punch, they add fuel to the right wing fire that labels liberals thugs and criminals with no moral standards. Therefore, they are only hurting their movement, but also helping to grow the movement they seek to oppose. I will continue to challenge the prevailing attitudes of the left and Vassar students that I view as flawed.

I have far too many criticisms to put into a column of about 1500 words, and I want to take the time and have the space to expand upon them properly and explain my reasoning as clearly as possible.

I encourage those who disagree with me to voice their dissent, preferably in a constructive way that avoids easy labeling or name calling. Most importantly, I hope some on the left will keep an open mind to ideas that may strengthen their movement, just as I know I will keep an open mind to ideas that will improve my content.

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