Reading this past Friday’s Argus (Oct. 17, 2008, Vol. CXLIV, Number 14), two things struck me quite forcibly. The first was the fact that no one had written any Wespeaks, which I take to mean either that all film series failures, racism, sexism and heteronormativity have magically disappeared or that those few politically correct bloodhounds with oversensitive noses who notice such things were simply too drunk/high/busy last week to write.
The second, and much more fascinating thing, was that apparently Students for Ending the War in Iraq (SEWI) has made the decision to dissolve, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) may benefit from this as spiritual heirs to SEWI (“SDS takes up activist mantle from struggling SEWI,” Oct. 17, 2008, Volume CXLIV, Number 14). Considering that I find both the absence of Wespeaks and an increase in the power of left-wing groups to be distasteful, I hope this piece will do a good deal to remedy both problems.
The fall of SEWI surely has different implications for different people, but in reading the article, I was reminded of nothing so much as the fall of trade unions during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The bitterness radiating from the losers in both situations is certainly comparable, as is the delusional and nostalgic view which those groups take of their failed struggle. I sometimes wonder if Leftists enjoy losing struggles precisely because of this ability to turn any defeat into a story of martyrdom in the face of evil authority.
The truth is somewhat less romantic—having been present at most of the meetings which SEWI held with members of the Board of Trustees, I remember distinctly that the members of SEWI were so obsessed with speaking truth to power that they failed to show even the most basic level of courtesy towards the Trustees they were trying to persuade, or towards those who opposed them because of economic or moral concerns.
Their Wespeaks, which hysterically accused their opponents of being “ruthless, disgusting and dangerous” (to use an example which is actually printable, from “Wesleyan needs to get out of the carnage market of ’moral war,’” Feb. 22, 2008, Volume CXLIII, Number 31), were substantially worse. I don’t expect a “young socialist” with idealism-poisoning like Erik Rosenberg ’08 to acknowledge this, but perhaps the reason SEWI now finds itself obliged to shut down is not because of a deficiency of liberalism, but rather because it has shown itself to be capable of such illiberal speech and behavior.
I could go on. I’m sure that if the College Republicans had been forced to shut down instead of SEWI, they and their ilk would not have hesitated to tap dance on our grave in every issue of The Argus printed between September and Christmas. However, I think the previous 429 words of gloating are more than sufficient to put the water under the bridge. SEWI is dead, anyway, and if it’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead, it’s even worse manners to go on at great length about it. Since SDS appears to have absorbed SEWI’s defectors, however, there may be some point in preparing for the inevitable future conflicts between SDS and the College Republicans.
And since those conflicts appear to not be far off, especially considering SDS’s shockingly naive and mistaken opposition to Bank of America, this seems to be the right time to prepare. I find myself both professionally disappointed and personally relieved that SDS does not plan on continuing the repulsive legacy of its ’60’s predecessor, especially considering that I’m sure that neither I nor my room would survive contact with an explosive. However, saying you will not blow up innocent people does not strike me as a particularly difficult promise to keep, though one never knows with the Left. Even if SDS does keep this promise, therefore, I must caution them as a friendly member of the Opposition: if literal firebombs are deadly to their moral authority, literary firebombs are just as damaging to their credibility.
I recognize that this campus is not especially used to the presence of opposition—until recently, Wesleyan operated under the control of what was effectively a liberal hegemony, and anybody who tried to disrupt this sort of behavior was instantly tarred as a right-winger or, god forbid, a reactionary.
Some even went so far as to suggest that those who weren’t extreme liberals had no concept of right or wrong. This sort of behavior might play well in an echo chamber, but there’s a problem with echo chambers—eventually, their residents go deaf and forget they’re not the only ones around anymore. In this manner, the extreme Left came to believe that just because almost the entire campus was liberal, they automatically could speak for the entire campus.
They saw threats where there was only friendly criticism, and stopped trying to argue intellectually because they thought there was no one to persuade. Eventually, if the behavior of the Left during my freshman year is any guide, they lost the ability to argue intellectually, because they were too used to appealing to consensus to actually fight.
So it’s no surprise that when SEWI mounted a campaign the way their Left-wing ilk had always done it—by appealing to universal consensus and expecting the campus to be guilt-tripped into agreeing—they were totally unprepared for opposition.
Hopefully, SDS is less subject to ideological tunnel vision, and perhaps this year will mark the first genuine attempt at debate between Right and Left this campus has seen in a while. It may surprise my readers, but I do not wish to see all left-wing activity on this campus exterminated—an echo chamber for the Right would be just as offensive as the echo chamber for the Left that Wesleyan has been in the past—but that is what will happen if the left-wing opinion leaders and activists go the same way as SEWI by lobbing moralistic grenades with short intellectual fuses at their opponents.
Therefore, I hope SDS will welcome the vigorous debate that their proposals will engender as part and parcel of the wonderful education we receive.