November 26, 2002

Confrontational style defended

I write the way I do in the Maroon because it works. History has shown the confrontational style to be the best way to attract attention, stir those who agree with you to action, and persuade those undecided people who lack the time or inclination to learn all the facts and subtleties of an issue to subscribe to your view.

All I have to do to prove my point is cite Maximilien Robespierre and Joseph McCarthy. These demagogues mobilized whole populations into frenzies of focused activity by using one-sided and divisive rhetoric. Our political parties use less extreme examples of extreme rhetoric, which has always racked up votes by portraying the other side in a harsh negative light. They would not engage in this behavior if they did not know that it works. Even-handed, measured political arguments may net trophies at Model U.N., but they are useless for persuading and mobilizing masses of people.

Would we be better off if political issues were discussed over Earl Grey and meringues by impeccably dressed participants speaking in a conversational tone, yielding points to their opponents? Quite possibly. As someone who tries to stay well informed it bothers me that petty, emotional appeals win the day so often. However, I would be foolish if I thought that situation could ever change. It is the way the world has always worked, from Athenian demagogues haranguing the crowds to talking heads shouting each other down on MSNBC.

I am not saying that people's stupidity is to blame for this. For one thing, plenty of intelligent people just don't care to learn about the issues in politics. The success of the confrontational mode results more from the human instinct to divide up into groups. We do this by rooting for a baseball team, joining a political party, or drinking a particular brand of bourbon. It is the nature of politicians to capitalize on people's latent desire for group identity. They accentuate the differences and downplay the similarities between themselves and their opponents to create a strong us vs. them feeling that secures allegiance and stimulates action.

Therefore it is a bit unfair to criticize students for engaging in somewhat petty, raucous disagreements in the pages of this newspaper, given the universality of this behavior. I will not deny that young people often lack conviction in their beliefs. All of my friends during freshman year of high school were socialist liberals. By senior year they all had jobs and had become as conservative as I am. I recall one guy looking at his paycheck and saying to me, "Hey, what's this? Medicare, Social Security? That's my money, where'd it go?"

"It's gone, and you'll never see a penny of it, those programs will be in receivership by the time you're 65."

"That's not right."

Clearly, their "allegiance is ruled by expedience," to quote Tom Lehrer. Ten years from now all the pacifists and Marxists and anti-Americans on this campus will be minivan-owning suburbanites. However, it is wrong to generalize that because a lot of young people's beliefs are transitory, all students are ideologically rootless. I developed my conservative beliefs long ago, on my own. I would venture that pro-Israel or pro-Palestine advocates are not indulging in some temporary fad either.

The reason you don't see me taking to the streets to voice my beliefs is that student protest is, and always has been, pretty useless. Examples include:

Prague 1968: Students protest. Result: Soviets crush protests, status quo persists. Beijing 1989: Students protest. Result: Chinese crush protests, status quo persists

America 1960s-70s: Students protest Vietnam War. Result: protests not crushed, simply disregarded, status quo persists. Disengagement from war comes only when silent majority turns against it.

I disagree with the bulk of protestors, be they anti-war, anti-globalization, pro-abortion, or what have you. But I do not begrudge them the right to their usually irrational demonstrations. After all, it is only after college students become adults holding jobs and offices of importance that they can bring about significant political change. By then their shallow, faddish beliefs, if they had them, have usually sloughed off. So let students be students.

I will not apologize for what is perceived as an "uncivil" tone in my writing. I am 20 years old, highly opinionated, and an improv comedian (Off Off Campus, 15th Generation). Looking for maturity from me is like searching for the Northwest Passage. The Maroon is a big megaphone that allows me to stir things up and get people thinking and talking. That is the most I can hope to do at this stage of my life. Now, if you want a subtle, balanced column I have some enthralling Classics and Western Civ papers from last year I can start publishing. Whoever wants those raise your hand. Nobody? I thought as much.