OP-EDS

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April 14, 2009

Speaking to the choir

Campus groups should bring in speakers who provoke real debate and discussion

Former Colorado congressman Tommy Tancredo began his address at Kent Hall last month with a personal tale about his immigrant grandfather. Joe Tancredo, according to his grandson, arrived at Ellis Island with no parents, no money, no directions, and (horror of horrors!) no English skills. The only thing he did have was a willingness to assimilate and a slip of paper suggesting he make his way to Iowa. He went to Colorado instead.It is, no doubt, a story the younger Tancredo has told many times and in many places. He tells it well, with just the right dose of emotional attachment. And the story of the immigrant ancestor who made something out of nothing and went about things the right way is one that most white Americans can immediately relate to—which is precisely the point. Tancredo hopes his American dream bona fides will give him cover to quash everyone else’s. And therein lies the fundamental contradiction in Tancredo’s story. He spreads grand themes about how Western civilization is under attack from immigrant hordes and “the cult of multiculturalism,” without acknowledging that the grandfather whose immigrant tale he spun with relish was once viewed as a threat to that same civilization. (Cartoons from the late 19th century depicted Catholic alligators landing on the shores of America with sideways, perforated papal hats for heads, preying on innocent women and children.) Lost in the swirl of “the cult of multiculturalism” is that Tancredo never explicitly states which elements of multiculturalism we should be afraid of, and who comprises the “cult.” Which parts of Western civilization are being assailed? Is it the Great Books Program? And what is this cult like? Heaven forbid it’s anything like the secret society in Eyes Wide Shut.My lasting impression of Tom Tancredo’s address in Kent Hall was that he was scared. Scared of an influx of unfamiliar people, to be sure, but scared as well of engaging in a serious discussion. He emphasized repeatedly that he welcomed a legitimate debate over immigration, and then proceeded to paint his opponents as, alternatively, supporters of a North American Union, or hysterical, anti-American academics. He consistently changed the subject—from multiculturalism to jobs to national security to gang violence and back again—instead of explaining any of those problems. All of this, however, was to be expected. The issue isn’t that Tancredo is ignorant, or delusional, or mildly racist. (Many of his best friends are cab drivers!) Rather, it’s that he was invited to speak in the first place.There are certainly intelligent, respectful arguments to be made for curtailing illegal—and legal—immigration, but Tancredo has never made any of them. His sole source of credibility comes from the fact that he was once a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a legislative body so prestigious Bobby Rush has been elected to it nine times. His most memorable policy idea as congressman came when he suggested that, should the U.S. ever be nuked, it should retaliate by incinerating both Mecca and Medina. (We’ll pass that one on to the President, Mr. Tancredo.) What’s the value of bringing a hysterical ideologue to campus if no one intends to engage him? Tancredo fielded about six questions at the event, most of which were the rough equivalent of “I love your show, man.”I don’t mean to pick on the College Republicans—they did, after all, bring the wonderfully mustachioed John Stossel to Hyde Park last year. The same problem flared up this winter during Israel’s military action in Gaza. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies sponsored a panel discussion featuring three speakers, all strong opponents of Israeli policy, and a protracted quarrel has ensued. Any event about Gaza is likely to provoke strong reactions, but the homogeneity of the panel made for a missed opportunity.The U of C—or any university, for that matter—presents a unique opportunity for debate that is impossible in nearly every other realm of society. You can’t organize a panel discussion on international politics at an investment bank or consulting firm. But speakers like Tancredo don’t further the debate, they run from it and hide behind backward-talking points better fit for talk radio and message boards. Student groups can do better.

Tim Murphy is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history.