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Silverman '13: In call for discourse, Resnik '15 misses the point

Ben Resnik's '15 column ("Starting the conversation - a manifesto," Sept. 11) called for more thoughtful political discourse on campus and announced the creation of the Brown Political Forum. I like the idea of a place where students can go to debate the political issues that impassion us. But his message wasn't only preachy and condescending, it seriously exaggerates, distorts and misunderstands the truth about campus activism and existing political dialogue at Brown.

Resnik writes: "Half a century ago, when student activism was in its heyday across the country, Brown students ... were at the forefront ." He lists as examples marches for workers' rights, racial and gender equality and against the Vietnam War. "But today ... too many causes we champion end up in unresolved stasis." His examples here are Occupy Providence, which has "largely fizzle(d)," or enthusiasm for President Obama, whose presidency has seen "petty bickering return on both sides."

Do you know what other movement largely fizzled away in due course? The anti-Vietnam War movement! The Civil Rights movement, for all its triumphs, did not nearly realize the transformative impact it sought to have on American society - in fact, "unresolved stasis" is a great way to characterize the complicated, uneasy and inferior social and economic position of African Americans in contemporary America. To cast the past in black and white and the present in gray is to sweep much about past events and their persisting impacts under the rug.

Occupy Providence? The movement opened a winter shelter for the homeless in Providence and made questions of fairness, citizenship, equality and social justice central parts of our public discourse, shifting the Overton Window to the left and away from deficit reduction and austerity.

Resnik writes that "our efforts to address real political issues, both on and off Brown's campus, have slowed." Perhaps we attend different Brown Universities. I think there is an extremely vibrant political activist scene here on campus. Democracy Matters alone, for instance, recently helped pass a bill at the State House - the Transparency in Political Spending Act.

"From freshman year on," Resnik writes, "'liberals' join the Brown Democrats and 'conservatives' join the Brown Republicans, and that is, more or less, the end of the story." Well, that is the point. We join groups that reflect our values, beliefs and preferences as individuals.

"When is the last time those two bodies sat down together and tried to hash out their differences?" This is a strange question, because it implies that deeply held moral-ideological convictions that inform our beliefs can be "hashed out." I don't think this is how serious ideological commitments work. How can you ask someone to "hash out" their fundamental beliefs?

"When is the last time the Brown Democrats or Republicans sat their members down to try to reconcile their personal beliefs with their parties' inconsistencies?" I think few Republicans or Democrats would argue that their party is right about everything. What they would argue is that their party is the best of any alternative. Partisan identification involves the pragmatic choosing of a party best able to achieve a set of desired ends.

"Our unwillingness to talk with the other side is a real problem." In my three years at Brown so far, nothing I've seen has convinced me that Brown students are unwilling to talk to others who do not think like them. To support his thesis, Resnik is making a baseless assertion.

Resnik suggests the Brown Political Forum as an antidote to the conflict that plagues our political system. In doing so he reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the causes of partisan gridlock. Broad historical and societal forces, not a decline in civility, have led to the decline of bipartisanship over time. These include the development of new forms of media and the 24-hour news cycle. As a result of these factors, politicians now find themselves under the constant glare of the spotlight, unable to make deals out of the public eye as in the past. Redistricting has made the bulk of seats in the House of Representatives uncompetitive in the general election, shifting the real competition to the primaries, which reward ideological extremism. And the rise of outside expenditures has made politicians more dependent on increasingly powerful corporate, labor and ideological interests that financially punish those who do not toe the line.

The view that more discussion will solve our problems is characteristic of what New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait calls the "cargo cult of bipartisanship" mentality. Tribal cultures that traded with more technologically advanced Westerners would engage in rituals such as building landing strips after the Westerners and their "cargo" had left. Mistaking effect of change for cause, they did so to summon the Westerners back, failing to understand why they left in the first place. Respectful discourse does not cause bipartisanship - bipartisanship causes respectful discourse.

Finally, the column seems demonstrative of a tired trend in elite political opinion - the fetishization of centrism, compromise and bipartisanship for an individual's own sake, rather than as means to achieve goals. As that great ideologue Barry Goldwater said, "Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."


Bradley Silverman '13 is a senior concentrating in public policy, economics and political science, and he is an ideologue.



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