Michael Froid ’21 wrote an op-ed published in The Herald on April 6 that argues against the University’s decision to invite Jeb Bush to give the Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs. Froid’s op-ed is an excellent piece, and it makes this dissent especially difficult to put together. Both Froid and I disagree with nearly every one of Bush’s social, political and economical viewpoints.
But let me be blunt. Millions of Americans share Bush’s views, and ignoring this central fact is not helpful. Forty percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal. Thirty-three percent of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage. In sum, over a third of U.S. citizens believe in things Froid calls “morally unjustifiable.” This number is most likely way above the proportion of Brown students who also believe those things and is in no way aligned with my own ideals, but it is the reality of the country we live in. So I’m saddened to hear about the backlash against the University’s invitation to Jeb Bush to speak at Brown because inviting him is one of the most responsible things this University can do.
I don’t want speakers who perfectly “represent the values of Brown students,” as Froid writes, because these speakers aren’t students. They’re an educational opportunity. I want to learn how the other side of the aisle thinks. I want to know what it values, what it believes and what it prioritizes. The real world is a hodgepodge of ideas that can offend and humiliate. If we want to lower the percentages of Americans who support “morally unjustifiable” ideas, those who can have to learn about the viewpoints that make us angry and marginalized. We don’t have to elevate them or even agree with them, but we have to recognize that they are there and learn how to beat them.
Let’s stop pretending the controversy over Bush’s invitation is a question about qualifications. The Odgen lecture has hosted senators, CEOs and even a newspaper columnist. Having direct experience in the State Department or equivalent is obviously not a requisite. This backlash is a partisan one: Bush’s very association with the Republican Party causes shrieks all over campus. This reaction is not surprising: After all, it is 2018, and President Trump is in office. It’s interesting to me that students have not criticized the Ogden Lecture for its other invitees, such as the President of Colombia or the Ambassador of Iran to the United States — representatives of countries with human rights records that make Froid’s grievances against Bush pale in comparison.
Further, it isn’t meaningful to evaluate a politician’s policy agenda using the measure of morality. If I were asking Bush a question at this lecture, it wouldn’t be about how he justifies his “unjustifiable morals.” What sort of person would be able to answer that honestly? Rather, I’d ask him how his marriage views comply with the Due Process Clause of the 14th amendment, because according to the Supreme Court, they don’t. I’d ask him about Roe vs. Wade and the multiple models of Florida flooding under rising sea waters. Froid writes, “Individuals of moral character do not hold these indefensible positions.” But “moral character” means different things to different people, based on their own philosophical interpretations — the same interpretations that let both the left and right call themselves righteous. Policy implications and the Constitution are more concrete than morality, and evaluating Bush’s positions against these definitive benchmarks by asking him questions, in person, is far more productive.
In a more immediate sense, refusing to invite conservative figures like Bush does not help Brown students express their own worldviews and refine their grasp of policy. When Froid writes that Bush’s views are “unjustifiable, dehumanizing and rooted in ignorance,” I am reminded of the time that administrators had to cut short an event with Raymond Kelly, the police commissioner who supported the stop-and-frisk policing policy that disproportionately affected people of color. We were gonna grill him to the end of the world, man! We were going to show him that we as students knew the statistics, facts and evidence that proved his policy agenda wrong and misguided. But students, of all political stripes, never had the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of criminal justice and even have a conversation. How can we prove to Americans that we have better ideas than conservatives if we don’t engage at all with conservative speakers who come to campus?
Here’s what I propose. Let Jeb Bush come. But the University should sponsor talks and workshops before and after the event that tackle why his ideas can marginalize communities, how progressive politics can win and how young liberals should interact with the American right. Instead of just calling his ideas “morally unjustifiable and outrageous,” let’s tell Bush why. Student groups should make safe spaces as they deem necessary, but also mobilize together to create the most impact on campus discourse — impact that I think is only possible if Bush comes to campus. Boycott the lecture, or go dressed in black shirts and dark shades, holding up signs that spell out “PLEASE CLAP.” But let Jeb Bush speak so we can hold him accountable for every word he says, or God knows he’ll just find another place to say whatever he wants with little opposition. Show him the strength of our conviction and the intelligence of our discourse — let’s show him who we are as a Brown community.
Mark Liang ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.