Columns

Rosenbloom ’13: ROTC and the tyranny of the masses

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Democracy and freedom are often assumed to be codependent. In truth, these two concepts are often in direct conflict. In many cases, majorities vote to rob minorities of freedom. This despotism of the masses can be seen throughout the world. It can also be seen right here at Brown.

The debate over the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps shows that students and administrators do not value individual freedom — in this case, the freedom to serve one’s country. Instead, they prioritize the will of the majority, even if this will robs others of liberty. If Brown wanted to honor individual freedom, it would have invited ROTC back to campus immediately after the army rescinded its homophobic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

While Harvard immediately welcomed ROTC back to campus after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Brown’s indecision proves that its continued ban is motivated by more than just logistics. I will acknowledge that Brown’s investigative committee does not constitute a simple majority vote about ROTC. However, the length of the investigation, as well as the desire to get significant student input, proves that the University’s decision-making process about ROTC is being greatly affected by popular sentiment on campus. Soliciting student opinion before making a decision seems reasonable enough, but in this case, such a democratic move would empower one group of students to effectively rob another group of students of the freedom to follow a certain career path.

If we want a campus that respects individual freedom, it does not matter what most students and administrators think about the army. It is irrelevant that ROTC would not fit into our campus culture. Proponents of ROTC should not have to prove that it would have a beneficial impact for the entire school. Students who want to attend an elite academic institution and serve their country should have the freedom to do so, regardless of other students’ political opinions. Brown students claim to love freedom, yet by wavering on the return of ROTC, they impose their worldview on others and force conformity.

The beauty of a genuinely free society is that no one person or group can prevent other people from expressing their individual wills. Nonconformists are entitled to the same dignity and legal protection as everyone else. Launching a lengthy investigation into reinstating ROTC sends the message that the individual freedom to choose one’s career path can be sacrificed on the altar of popular opinion.

This forced conformity is anti-American. We protect minority rights and unpopular choices, as long as these choices do not harm others. When the military had an officially homophobic policy, the presence of ROTC would have hurt Brown’s gay community. However, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” eliminated this obstacle, and ROTC enrollment does not infringe on any other students’ rights.

Enrolling in ROTC should be viewed in the same way as a decision to join any other student group. There are certainly many student groups on campus that are not popular and that could even be voted out of existence if the University empowered its students to decide their fate. Thankfully, Brown respects the individual rights of its students to join unpopular clubs. I only ask that the University maintain consistency and respect the unpopular ROTC’s right to exist on campus.

The only issue that should be investigated is how to align ROTC’s academic standards with Brown’s academic standards. This purely logistical discussion would not require any lengthy political debate or investigation. It would also certainly not require some Brown students to impose their political ideology on the rest of the campus.

To bolster my case against majority will and for individual freedom, I will cite a position with which most Brown students can agree — that gays should be allowed to marry.

In my home state of California, gays used to enjoy this human right. Then, we empowered our citizens and let them vote on the issue of gay marriage. The voters of California subsequently passed Proposition 8, robbing them of the right to marry. To the surprise of no one with a rudimentary understanding of human nature, the majority voted to impose its own worldview on the minority and oppress those with different lifestyles.

Muslims in Europe face similar persecution from hostile majorities. In 2009, Switzerland empowered its people to vote on the issue of building new minarets. The Swiss people predictably chose to stifle nonconformist Muslims and robbed them of religious freedom by banning minaret construction.

Clearly, pure democracy often leads to the oppression of minorities. We should therefore be skeptical of soliciting popular opinion with regard to the lifestyle choices of fellow students.

Some individual rights are beyond popular polling. Our constitution is motivated by the understanding that tyrannical measures are often popular. The best way to protect minority freedom is to enshrine rights in a legally binding document. The United States is not especially tolerant compared to the rest of the world — rather, it has stronger institutional checks against the oppression of minorities. Brown’s decision-making should follow this principle and respect the rights of students to join unpopular groups such as ROTC.

 

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be reached at oliver_rosenbloom@brown.edu