Let’s Make Campus Politics More Constructive

Marc Blecher, Professor of Politics and East Asian Studies

I was lucky to come of age during a time of social and political radicalism. The 1960s movements for democracy, justice and peace taught me the profound value and significance of political engagement. They are the reason I chose a career in the academy. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be able to ply my trade among a community of such bright, serious, socially responsible and politically engaged students as Obies. In that context, here are my hopes for campus politics for 2016 and beyond.

Today, race dominates politics on our campus and our country — from police violence to incarceration to extreme segregation of neighborhoods, employment and education to the ugliness that has sullied even the presidential campaign, to name just a few. The completely justifiable outrage we feel tempts us to respond with our own epithets against a litany of deplorable “-isms.” But we also know that that’s no substitute for looking at what’s actually going on in all its complexity. Sure, Oberlin College always has much more to do around diversity, justice and equal opportunity. But to understand and act on our shortcomings, we need to know more and think harder. Are we not taking racism and diversity as seriously, or understanding them as fully, as we need to? Are we trying hard but failing? Is the problem incompetence, insufficient resources or something else? It’s easy to demand that Oberlin truly become a place for all, but it’s much harder to work out what it will actually take to make that happen. It’s work we need to do, and it’ll require forthright discussion and thoughtful, dispassionate analysis that follows the facts where they lead us.

Can we also look outward? Oberlin and other college campuses could do a lot better, but, frankly, they pale in comparison with what’s going on in our cities, battlefields, environment, economy and halls of power. Joe Queenan once wrote, “The left gets Harvard, Oberlin, Twyla Tharp’s dance company and Madison, Wisconsin. The right gets NASDAQ, Boeing, General Motors, Apple, McDonnell Douglas, Washington, D.C., Citicorp, Texas, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Japan and outer space.” Let’s not fall into their trap. I hope 2016 will be a year in which, for just one example, students who care so deeply about racism finally put together a national movement to stop police violence and advance equality in education and employment, to name a few important goals.

Can we think harder about choosing our targets? The llame bánh mì turned out by Bon Appétit may have as much to do with culinary inexperience, problems sourcing authentic ingredients or the requirements of mass production as with disrespect. I love Obies’ penchant for politicizing everything, but the theory of cultural appropriation can find way bigger and juicier targets than that. Now, of course, the popular news and opinion media had a field day blowing some pretty ordinary late-semester moaning about dining hall food way out of proportion. But that’s another good reason for choosing targets strategically, so as not to give opponents easy avenues of attack. Perhaps we can talk more about macroaggressions by putting the great perversions of economic, social, cultural and political power front and center. They are, after all, what drive microaggressions in the first place.

And speaking of aggression, even in blogs, and most certainly in public documents, can we think twice before pillorying individuals anonymously and without evidence?

Can we put the concept of “safe space” back where it belongs — as a small haven from the rigors of battle where people can find a little rest and support? Expanding it into a way of life can create deep, structural barriers to understanding each other and to living and working together, which we should treasure and which is unavoidable anyway in our increasingly interconnected world. Perhaps we can also begin to transcend “allyship,” which is premised on what divides us, by returning to some good old-fashioned “solidarity” around what unites us.

Likewise, can we try to understand the way the focus on privilege undercuts real conversation, analysis and participation in common causes? It might help to focus more on what’s being said and less on the social background of who’s saying it. Too many white people on campus now feel they cannot think, talk and act around race; too many men feel the same about women’s issues; on and on. I’ve had students in tears in my office around this. That should never happen at Oberlin. Of course experience and social position affect how we understand and work for change, but they also have serious limits. As a professor of Chinese politics, I tell my Chinese students that they understand many aspects of their country better than I do, but also that my position outside it, and my colder analytical and theoretical tools, give me a valuable perspective that’s hard to get from inside. I never, ever want to hear anyone say, “As a [fill in the blank] person, I really shouldn’t be talking about this” or, even worse, “You shouldn’t be talking about it.” Of course we should all talk fearlessly about everything.

We’ve spent the last decade or more elaborating analyses of the ways ability, class, ethnicity, gender, nation, race and sexuality, to name just a few, intersect to create perverse permutations of exploitation, oppression and injustice. This has taught us a great deal and has highlighted problems to which we were insufficiently attentive. The unintended effect, though, has been to divide us into an increasingly complex array of subgroups that vie for attention, focus us inward and make it difficult to prioritize our struggles for change. Can we now start to focus on how, despite our profound differences, we can join together to identify our common targets and fight effectively?

Finally, can we take much more seriously the complex material roots of the crises we face? Police violence has a great deal to do with plain old racial hatred, but the ways in which African-American communities have been ruined over the last several decades by the employment crisis of late capitalism, perverse real estate markets and the collapse of educational and social provision resulting from neoliberal attacks on the state are also its mother’s milk. The poverty-level wages and employment conditions of food service workers should be front and center in our thinking about Bon Appétit, not just tossed in as an afterthought, like a crouton on a salad. And one of the most significant victories we could win for racial and gender justice would be the national campaign for a $15 minimum wage, which the Oberlin Student Labor Action Coalition has been helping to push forward here in Ohio.

Here’s to a wonderful, powerful and delicious new year of progressive politics together.