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Johnson '11: Thanks for all the fish

My four years at Brown have been a welcome experience of maturation, and like fine wine and deliciously stinky cheese, the school only improves with age. From the moment wide-eyed first-years walk up the impossibly steep College Street and through the gaping Van Wickle Gates, there is something about the campus that changes their impressionable young minds. Mine was no different.

I went to a fairly liberal public school in the middle of backwater New Jersey. The Tea Party has a firm hold on the more rural areas of my county, and the congressman from my district makes U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., look like Karl Marx. Yes, such a place actually exists, and in the sleepy county unknown to absolutely everyone besides some die-hard geologists and snowboarding fans — Danny Kass was from there — we happily claim that we have more livestock than people. For instance, Walmart was a recent addition, to much ado. Yet at my high school, we read such scandalous books as "Catcher in the Rye" and learned about contraceptive use in health class.

When I came to Brown, I will admit my worldview was downright barbaric compared to that of the predominant community already on campus. I knew I did not approve of the past eight years of the Bush administration, and I worked on President Obama's campaign during the primary season. But I will be honest and say I was not very accepting of gay marriage, nor was I even aware of the myriad issues Brown students tackle every day.

It is my belief that the university experience generally liberalizes. There are notable exceptions, of course, but those who attend such universities attend them for that particular reason — they are eddies in the stream of liberalizing education. If the general trend is to nudge eager young minds to the left, the Brown experience is a gigantic shove off the side of the cliff of conservatism. And it is not a gentle feather's ride down.

My world was shattered. I met my first homosexual classmate, and he was an all-right guy. I met more Jewish classmates than I ever had in high school, and met my first Muslim classmates. To my impressionable young mind, Brown was a place where all these people could get together, learn about the world and about one another and strive to come together to meet the challenges of an increasingly flat world.

By the time I signed on to write columns for The Herald in my sophomore year, that idyllic picture of the Brown landscape was muddied so deeply that it became hard even to remember it existed. Supporting Israel is deemed apologist, supporting capitalism is greedy and unethical and having even remotely positive feelings about the Reserve Officers' Training Corps on campus is to align oneself with the brutal murdering machines of the U.S. armed forces. Even being religious has become demonized — the outspoken atheists among us ridicule those who believe in a higher power.

What I initially saw as a unifying atmosphere has become a dictatorship of ideas. In an atmosphere where the dissenting viewpoint is allowed to flourish and even become prevalent, those in support of it have become zealots. While the opinions expressed on campus have a right to be heard and debated, the minority opinions have a right to be considered.

Recently, the Coalition Against Special Privileges for ROTC circulated a tableslip that declared "Brown Says No!" to ROTC on campus. I was confused because I was not aware that "Brown" as a whole had spoken. In fact, I was just recently filling out the undergraduate survey on the topic. The coalition does not speak for me. Nor does any other student group on campus, for that matter. What I have learned at Brown is that I have a voice, as do we all, and here on College Hill, we have an opportunity that not everyone receives — we speak and expect to be heard and have our opinions considered.

No student group gets to decide what "Brown says" about anything, especially not in such a fledgling stage of an important debate. I recognize that I may be getting my dander up more readily because I happen to be on the other side of the question than the folks in the coalition, but it does not change the fact that to extinguish the opposition is despotic and immoral.

In my four short years on campus, the marketplace of ideas has unfortunately closed for business, and it is threatening to remove Brown as a place of enlightenment and free discourse and place it in the dubious company of universities that do not tolerate dissenters. Brown is a wonderful place of vibrant diversity socially and economically, forging the perfect environment to create the leaders of tomorrow. Yet if we keep demonizing our ideological counterparts and silencing those with whom we do not agree, tomorrow's leaders will be just as ignorant as yesterday's.

Mike Johnson '11 will perform a double backward somersault through a hoop while whistling "The Star-Spangled Banner" at graduation.


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