ON THE STATE OF THE UNIVERSITY: ROTHING AT THE MOUTH AND CAMPUS PUBLICATIONS

WORDS: BENJAMIN ROMERO '16, MANAGING DIRECTOR
IMAGE: HENRY WESSEL, JR. 

The Wall Street Journal has got to chill. 

This past week, they published not one but two articles chronicling our “Middletown, Conn. campus.” But they aren't the only ones: the New York Times, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, The New Republic, Salt Lake Tribune (?), Gawker, Jezebel, among many, many others. Soon after, the mighty high horses of college opinion editors everywhere galloped triumphantly in to defend ‘free speech’ and ‘liberal democracy.’ Mr. Idrees Kalhoun of Harvard University went so far as to publish, “Stalinists in Our Midst”  in the Harvard Crimson, detailing the “sheer totalitarianism” of Wesleyan’s activism. Yes, an applied Mathematics Major at Harvard is equating our recent activism at a liberal arts school of three thousand in central Connecticut to a totalitarian dictator who caused the deaths of some fifty million people. I’ll borrow Mr. Kalhoun’s words when I say, “Read that and weep.”

For those who hid in the WestCo Tunnels for the past weeks, much of this coverage chronicles the debate on campus surrounding Mr. Stascavage’s piece and the funding of publications. And yet, even with the one-hundred and thirty-six articles on the topic found via Google News, I sit here and think: you’re drunk, media establishment, go home.

For four years, I’ve seen various media outlets use tropes to oversimplify Wesleyan, e.g. “a school known for its activism and epitomized by the 1994 movie PCU,” though it’s still unclear as to whether anyone has actually seen this movie. I’m frustrated. If you’re wondering, the exact moment my faith was ruptured was the time The New York Times, yes The New York Times, paid John F. Kennedy’s granddaughter to chronicle a drug-pick up at Wesleyan. Spoiler alert: she didn’t succeed.

But this time, genuinely, regardless of egregious exaggeration and Kennedy narcs and the generally impossible task of describing any college campus in four sentences, the media outlets genuinely missed the story. This isn’t to say the debate on free speech isn’t important: it is. I’ll repeat myself: debate on free speech undergirds a functioning democratic society. But in this case, they misinterpreted, misdiagnosed, and, with rare exception, genuinely missed the novelty of this activism.

This missing of the point culminates with our own President Roth. In his blog post “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech,” Roth preached,

“Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.”

Free speech is important. Period. Debate ‘enlivens and instructs.’ Full stop. No, seriously stop, move and you’re a Stalinist. It brushes over any nuance in the title itself, “Black Lives Matter and So Does Free Speech.” President Roth can have his cake and eat it too.

In terms of politically correct culture, there seems to be a generational divide. From conservative to liberal, older generations seem confused and alarmed by trigger warnings, safe spaces, and terms of ‘correctness.’ Look at the recent Atlantic coverage. College students are ‘coddled’ and ‘can’t take a joke.’ We’re in a ‘culture of victimhood.’ They seem committed to Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere and to the democratic marketplace of ideas, to free speech and free thought.

I’ll spare you the academic critique of Habermas. Quite simply, free speech is critical to a democratic society, and in theory, the public sphere operates to produce innovation and dialogue. However, we have to ask questions of participation and representation in the public sphere. The public sphere operates on the idea of equity, that we move together towards common consensus to produce political opinion.

And yet, what happens when our institutions become rampant with a distortion, such as systemic racism? Do we create new institutions, or do we fix the old ones?

This is what makes this activism so novel. In an article from from The New Republic, one written by someone whose father was a Wesleyan professor and pointedly knows the Wesleyan Community, astutely observes,

“The radical students I remember from Wesleyan’s past had a do-it-yourself ethos, understanding that they could not expect to change structures by working within them. Today’s Wesleyan students could have reacted to the piece in question by writing a response in the Argus. They could have started their own radical newspaper. They could have leafleted, or invited speakers, or used any other means to respond with better, more enlightened speech.”

And yet, we did not start ‘our own radical newspaper.’ We went to the institution itself and demanded it change. For reference, this is the same journalistic institution that published, “In a Pickle (Stand) and Loving it,” and, “Wesleyan’s Issue with Tissue: Some Thoughts on Paper Towel Prohibition.”  This is not to belittle the issue at hand but to give a frame of reference. Members of our community cared enough about such a publication that they demanded change from the inside, demanded to make an institution work for them. This is a generational shift from “Fuck the Man,” to “Why is it a man?”

And this is different, something that demands questions older generations loathe to even suggest. Millennials get called “the Me Me Me generation” by some and the “least useful generation in America” by others. And yet, I don’t see that. I see a generation that got handed a raw deal: a crumbling economy, an imploding climate, a Congress so dysfunctional it makes the Study Abroad Office look like the pinnacle of efficiency. We move forward with a well-worn cynicism, but with the pace of life as it is, we still move forward. I won't go so far as to claim we're the next great generation, but something's changing. 

Just a few months ago, President Roth concluded his article, Young Minds in Critical Condition by saying:

“[College education] should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.”

As we move forward with the debate on publications, let us take an earnest approach to how to optimize publications on campus. The recent WSA resolution regarding work-study positions is a step forward in this direction. Sophia Jennings and I constantly discuss the challenge of juggling a publication on top of classes, jobs, and simply being a human being on this campus. In a school that prides itself on having a thriving student culture and over three hundred student groups, making it possible to participate in said student-culture is critical. 

However, we cannot end there. We must address issues of diversity and inclusion, pointedly on this publication itself. How can we make sure campus publications represent all voices? How can we engage in meaningful and intentional dialogue? How can METHOD do better?

And yes, we should continue funding the Argus. We should continue to make voices on this campus heard, to move forward as best we can in making our institutions equitable. President Roth, we’re beasts of your own creation. Be proud. You too, George Devries Klein.