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Controversy is good

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It’s no secret that Swarthmore is a predominantly liberal institution. Last semester, Alec Ferry ’21 conducted an ethnography about the political identities of Swarthmore students and found that indeed, Swat students generally tend toward liberalism over conservatism. Not surprisingly, Swat isn’t the only college that is this way. Most colleges in the U.S. are liberal-leaning, according to various research. I can attest to this phenomenon too, as most of the people I have come to know at Swat are liberal. By “liberal” and “conservative,” I am simply talking about ideologies and values. Liberals and conservatives differ in values for various political, economic, and social issues. For example, liberals tend to value government regulation, whereas conservatives tend to value limited government, and it is because liberals and conservatives differ in this way that they often have opposing opinions on issues like minimum wage and long term state-funded social welfare programs.

As a conservative myself, I personally don’t mind Swat’s political sphere all that much. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that I’m surrounded by people who, for the most part, disagree with me politically. In fact, I think of it as a good thing. I have had meaningful, challenging discussions about controversial topics like abortion and economic policy with my friends and in classes, which ended not only in me strengthening my value system but also, more importantly, understanding the values of others and their reasons for holding such values. That has helped me relate to a more diverse group of people with whom, prior coming to Swat, I might not have even conversed. One of my best friends at Swat, for example, is very liberal, and he disagrees with me nearly every time we have talk about a political issue from abortion to gun control — but I have learned to appreciate why he believes what he believes while still being true to my own beliefs. This is the reason why I value controversy so much and sometimes even seek it. Controversy allows an opportunity for people to understand and make meaningful, personal relationships with the “other side” which, in an era of polarized politics, religious and non-religious violence, and international conflict, is and will be a thousand times more important than I can even say in words.

Yet, I’ve noticed that listening to opposing viewpoints doesn’t really happen outside an academic atmosphere, especially if a conservative student expresses their beliefs to a liberal student. In Ferry’s ethnography, two of the three conservative interviewees described negative experiences with political conversations not for any other reason than because they held conservative ideologies.

According to Ferry, this is also something that researcher Amy J. Binder noted, “that at each University conservative students felt as if hiding, or protecting, their actual political identity would yield more positive interactions with professors and classmates.” I certainly did this in my “Religion and the Meaning of Life” first year seminar last semester. When the topic of capitalism came up, some of my classmates argued for a less competitive market system with much government control — border-lined socialism, really — I disagreed with them, but I bit my tongue and restrained myself from speaking in fear of being disliked. The Swarthmore Conservative Society, too, recognizes that political controversy may not be very welcome at Swat. Once in an SCS meeting, someone said something I can’t quite remember, but I do remember everyone in the room immediately joking about how he shouldn’t say what he said so openly and without the door closed unless he wanted someone to come in and verbally attack him. Even my same liberal friend suspects that if there is controversy between conservatives and liberals on campus, it doesn’t end well.

“Swat is too liberal,” he said.  “People can’t say what they want because of the shit they’re going to get.”

Probably the most controversial issue I’ve seen on campus so far is with Swarthmore Christian Fellowship after Eduard Saakashvili’s article “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship has a Sexuality Problem” was published last semester. The article, which exposed SCF’s anti-homosexual bias, sparked much discussion online, in my religions class, and I’m sure in many more venues. I personally don’t agree with SCF’s policy, but I can’t express any detestation towards them because I understand where SCF is coming from. I myself grew up in a conservative household and in a conservative church, so I understand the values that SCF holds and why SCF holds them. I can imagine myself in another reality as an SCF leader holding such views, even though in actuality I may disagree. That is why I feel that if one were to truly understand someone else — where they came from, how they were raised, what environment they grew up in, and anything else that could have factored into their being — all feelings of hostility and hate would go away. That’s why I really can’t hate on SCF, since I can empathize with them despite disagreeing.  It was my observation, however, that many people didn’t use the controversial issue to understand SCF because they instead bashed and attacked the organization and its members. In my religion class, everybody expressed disgust not only towards the actual organization but even towards fellow Swatties who are active in SCF. I don’t think any of these negative responses are productive or indicative of understanding. And it’s very, very important that we try to understand even those with whom we disagree. Choosing not to understand the other side will always foster some kind of intolerance or internal pain. In this case, those in SFC who refuse to understand those who identify as both Christian and queer and will only lead to increased homophobia, and those who identify as both Christian and queer who refuse to understand SCF could miss an opportunity to relieve any internal conflict they might have, which I hope everyone can agree are problems that ought to be fixed.

I admit, perhaps we’re lucky here at Swat because someone can choose to not understand SFC’s values and simply start their own club — in fact, that’s exactly what some people did. But some people don’t have the choice of simply starting over. In countries where homosexuality is illegal, fair policy changes will really only happen if both the government and non-homophobic people listen, understand, and empathize with each other. In some cases, this understanding literally could be the difference between life and death. Having empathy for those in opposition, by the way, in my opinion the best way to solve any problem or misunderstanding of any size scale, by. One of my favorite historical figures and one of the best examples of empathy is Mahatma Gandhi who, despite being a devout Hindu, refused to stand by Hindu nationalists in fighting against Muslims. He said, “I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew — and so are all of you.” To acquire this much understanding and empathy between such a diverse group of people is indeed inspiring, but I don’t think someone has to go through the extreme oppression and religious violence that Gandhi went through to imitate it. We could have many opportunities for controversy on this campus if we tried for anyone to learn how to understand each other, and I think it’s time all of us do just that.

There will always be differences in opinion — that will never change. So we might as well make the most of that diversity and try to understand it, instead of blindly pushing it away as if it were harmful to our own ideologies, as if attacking it and being mean would somehow solve anything. Diversity only truly matters if we understand and appreciate our differences. Otherwise, the diversity and inclusion Swat boasts from the first day of freshman orientation week to the ongoing diversity trainings might be tragically wasted. I’m not saying everyone must agree on everything; two people don’t have to agree to understand each other. In fact, it has been my experience that when I disagree with someone I understand them the most because controversy always presents a clear opportunity to learn from others. Controversy is daunting and can be intimidating, but it can be good if approached with conscious conversation with a sincere intention to learn. For that to happen in the political sphere here at Swat, conservatives — starting with myself — must not be afraid to speak up, and liberals must not close off their ears to listen.

A picture of a conservative

in Caps Not Crosby/Columns/Opinions by

Not everyone’s political choices are going to make sense to those around them, and it is easy to vilify others for making decisions with which you do not agree. As an unapologetically staunch Democrat at a largely liberal institution, I find myself surrounded by people who think like myself. It is quite easy for me to fall prey to making such assumptions about those who place themselves across the aisle, often essentializing them in my mind into this singular, unfavorable conglomerate. Here’s one person whose story challenges that conception.

 

Best known for his scathing op-eds breaking down the Washington, D.C. political scene, Jeffery McNeil has never been one to keep his opinions to himself. A self-reliant individual and dedicated columnist for Street Sense, a multimedia news outlet covering issues surrounding homelessness, McNeil pours himself into his pieces, working tirelessly on each one and expounding his beliefs even if they may be unpopular with his peers. But McNeil was not always so disciplined, and he was not always a writer.

At the age of 40, McNeil left New Jersey and came to D.C. with $30 in his pocket. Jobless, alone, barely literate, and plagued by addictions to drugs, alcohol, and gambling, McNeil found himself attracted to sheltered locations that gave him a place to go during the day; the district’s seemingly-ubiquitous libraries fit that description perfectly.

“When I was sleeping near Franklin Square, the Martin Luther King library was down the street, and the George Washington library was right by Miriam’s Kitchen,” McNeil explains. “I also went to the Library of Congress where you can get any book you want.”

Surrounding himself each day with more literature than he could ever hope to read, McNeil took advantage of this unlimited access to periodicals, reference texts, novels, and works of political theory to give himself the education he never got in high school. Ironically, although he had just moved to a city full of liberals, it was the conservative works that peaked his interest.

“When I first came down here, I was this bleeding heart, far-left progressive, but then I started reading up on economics — Milton Friedman, the Wall Street Journal. I started reading a lot of the Black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams, but I think the book that really changed me the most was the biography of Malcolm X.”

“I had always thought of Malcolm as a liberal, but he’s really a conservative. And it was the same type of philosophy about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps — like not wanting to be on welfare or on food stamps — that had a great influence on me.”

After seeing what he has seen, clawing his way back from poverty, fighting addictions, battling depression, and single-handedly educating himself, McNeil has become a strong proponent of organizations like Street Sense, liberal leaning as it may appear, that allow the homeless to help themselves.

“Either you give a man a fish, or you teach the man how to fish,” McNeil asserts. “I want to get people out of poverty instead of them being dependent on the government.”

This belief is one McNeil frequently incorporates into his biweekly column. Upon becoming a vendor in 2007, his newfound literacy granted him the opportunity to contribute to the paper, where his love for reading quickly transformed into a voracious appetite for writing. Building upon the theories of Freeman, Sowell, Williams, and X to tear fearlessly into various aspects of Washington politics, writing a regular column granted McNeil the discipline his life was missing; two years later, he was able to quit drinking for good.

During his 10-year tenure at Street Sense, McNeil has become an important voice for numerous D.C. news outlets. He writes regularly for Street Sense, and has been featured in smaller local publications whose coverage spans across the aisle including The Washingtonian and The Daily Independent Reader. Currently residing in his own apartment on Franklin Square, McNeil is now promoting himself as a freelance author and has just started working on his second book. He is an avid and active conservative. He has been sober for eight years.

I neither agree with nor support the vast majority of McNeil’s political views, but after hearing his story, his opinions are ones I respect. His story is one that stays with me when confronted with world views opposing my own, and his face is one I will always remember when considering perspectives that do not necessarily make sense in my own head. His beliefs are derived from experience, research, and intellectualism; who am I or anyone else to regard them as invalid? As Swatties, we formulate our own ideologies in the same way. Conversing with Jeffery was one of the most interesting and unexpectedly enjoyable experiences I have had discussing politics. Although it is far easier to surround yourself with people who think and vote exactly like yourself, you aren’t going to broaden your knowledge or that of anyone around you, by remaining inside what many of us affectionately refer to the “Swat bubble.”  

At the same time, I know conservatives at this school who feel pressure to keep their opinions to themselves because they are regarded as an unpopular and unacceptable minority. This is not productive. Discourse across any spectrum, political or otherwise, is necessary for progress of any kind. In a country as polarized as ours, it disgusts me that informed, intellectual Swatties contribute to creating such a close-minded attitude. Refusing to interact with or getting angry at those who think differently will only make things worse. Instead, we could all benefit by seeking out more Jeffery McNeils; perhaps we can start with those who reside in our own community, those who feel their voices are unwelcome in Swat’s sea of blue.

One year later, an ode to the immigrant

in Columns/Opinions by

I have never been more acutely aware of the color of my skin, the home country of my immigrant parents, or the gender I identify with, as I was on Election Day of last year. Growing up in an all-white town, surrounded by symbols of wealth and privilege, I had spent the bulk of my adolescence attempting to refute the notion that I was brown. As the only Sikh student at my high school, I wanted to flee the stereotypes which colored the lenses of the the students around me. Growing up in the US as a second generation Indian, I wanted to be white more than anything. I dressed like the white girls at my school, hiding behind my sleeping bag of a North Face parka and covering my brown ankles with white high-top Converse sneakers, spending late nights studying at Starbucks, and emphasizing how I was born south of Chicago—not in India, unlike the rest of my family—at every opportunity I got. The students of color at my high school were few and far in between; the handful of Indian students were mostly male and probably just as fearful of acknowledging their brown skin as I was.

I realized, slowly, that I could cheat on my faith, in a way that my turbaned brother and father could not. Dressed in my white-girl camouflage, I could slide through the halls without drawing attention to myself as a Sikh woman of color; my brother couldn’t, and still cannot, fill up his car’s gas tank without being spit at by a white man as he was told to go back to where he came from. It was easy for me to pretend that I was independent of the immigrant identity of my family members.

It took me years to embrace my culture, faith, and origins with pride. I now feel ashamed of myself and how embarrassed I once used to be during school-wide events, hoping desperately that my turbaned father would not attend and that my mother, with her moderate Indian accent, would not speak up. It pains me deeply to think that I once found the people who I idolize and worship the most so humiliating to my existence. Coming to Swarthmore and finding a community of both international and domestic students who not only took pride in where they came from and what they looked like, but also actively promoted greater opportunity and advancement for the communities and groups that they represented, I gained a greater appreciation for the immigrant story. I started listening more carefully to the stories of my own parents, who left India and arrived to the US with the equivalent of seven US dollars; the retellings of my mother, who worked three jobs at a time under the table to make extra cash; the narrative of my brother, whose turban was ripped off from his head in middle school, who would go on to preach the values of patience, tolerance, and kindness to me when I’d angrily tell him to fight back with the same level of vitriol.

In the wake of the election, with anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment at all time highs given Trump’s condonation, I learned to find solidarity between myself and other women of color. I looked to my father, who escaped from the corruption of India’s democracy in progress to come to a country where democratic institutions, values, and principles are still, to this day, upheld, and found solace in the company of other first and second generation students. He reminded me to not lose faith in the American democracy, or in the institutions that would serve to counteract the potential damage an incompetent and unfit president could inflict. With this being said, he and I both recognize that the US is currently exhibiting the lowest degree of social mobility in all of American history and some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world; in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory one year ago, it is near impossible to have blind faith in free markets and democratic institutions, the most fundamental underpinnings of American society.

However, this past Election Day, one year after what I considered to be the D-Day of American democracy, Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first Sikh mayor, Ravi Bhalla. Prince William County, Virginia, elected its first openly transgender state legislator, Danica Roem. Helena, Montana elected its first black mayor, Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia. A refugee from Vietnam, Kathy Tran, became the first Asian-American woman elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates, and the House of Delegates also elected its first two Latina female members, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala. The elections of 2017 show us that when constituents mobilize at a grassroots level, collectively organize, turn out to the polls, and demand change, we create a government that starts to look more like the diverse America that I have come to be so proud of, where individual identities and differences are celebrated. I was disheartened to find that so many of my peers had ignored their civic responsibility by choosing not to vote this past Tuesday, assuming the election was unimportant and didn’t deserve their attention. This lethargy and complacency was precisely what led to poor voter turnout on behalf of Democrat voters in 2016, and contributed to an ultimate Trump victory. There is true and tremendous promise in the future of the American democracy, but—like my conservatives across the aisle have preached for years—we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps to create it.

 

Liberals host festival to target right

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In hopes to unite all liberal and left-leaning students toward fighting against and exterminating every trace of conservatism and libertarianism on campus, leaders of Swatties for Hillary, College Democrats, and Democratic Socialists of Swarthmore co-hosted the first ever Swatting the Right (SwatRight) Festival. Held the day before Labor Day on Sept. 4 at Parrish Beach and Mertz Field, every student-led organization on campus, except for the Swarthmore Conservative Society, was invited to help contribute to the school-wide event.

“The point of this event was to turn every Swattie into a liberal,” said Chelsea Flipflop ’17, president of Swatties for Hillary. “We want to make it clear that the liberal way is the one and only right way for Swarthmore, for Pennsylvania, and for America. We want to crush the few conservatives on campus—particularly the idiots running the Swarthmore Conservative Society—and make them incapable of advocating for their peculiar right-wing values and thoughts. Thankfully, our institution is already a very left-leaning place, and now it is our duty to drill even more liberalism into the community to make it as progressive as our role model Hillary was when she entered college… Oh wait… ”

The event was set up like a carnival, with each activity exuding anti-conservative messages in various forms. The most popular booth, according to Flipflop, was the Republican Piñata, which featured various piñatas bearing the faces of various Republican politicians—current and former—including the Bushes, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump. One piñata bore the face of Mitchell McKoch ’18, president of the Swarthmore Conservative Society.

“These events help trigger hatred toward Republicans and their ideals in the community,” said William Carter ’17, president of the College Democrats. “Conservatives and their views do not deserve any form of respect in our community. All they care about is money and power. What else is there to understand about the right other than that? It’s simply not worth my time to try to comprehend the views crafted by a bunch of rich old white men that cannot care less about our country.”

In order to further drill the event’s main purpose into the community, the three organizations designed and hung large posters all around the campus. Residence halls Alice Paul, David Kemp, Mertz, and Parrish, as well as Clothier and Sharples Dining Hall, all of which border the site of the festival, were covered in gigantic posters that blared provocative anti-Republican and anti-conservative messages. The poster on Parrish Hall, which covered the entire building, was particularly viewed as “iconic” by attendees, featuring unflattering caricatures of Republican politicians, along with the words, “Scumbag Republicans doing scumbag things for the money.”  

“Everyone knows that the Republican Party is being driven by big money donors, and the politicians in the Republican Party are doing their jobs not for the people but for the money,” said Bernardo Colonel ’18, president of the Democratic Socialists of Swarthmore. “Essentially, we have a problem if the millionaires and the billionaires in this country are buying elections to their favor. That’s what Hill… I mean the Republicans are doing—flattering big money conglomerates and acting for their interests instead of the general American public. We need to build a system that works for all of us, not just the top one percent.”

The festival concluded with a finale performance of the Swarthmore diversity peer advisors (DPAs). After singing a vitriolic anti-conservative song composed by DPA Deejay McPaces ’19. Nancy Lee ’17, the lead DPA, delivered a speech emphasizing the “problems of having a politically diverse community.” Lee stressed that conservatism will “damage the harmony of the Swarthmore community,” and thus “must be removed from our campus.” She further called the members of the Swarthmore Conservative Society “admissions mistakes” and requested them to “shut down the club and reflect on themselves for the beliefs they held.”

“All of the DPAs here at Swarthmore know which types of diversity is good diversity and which are not,” Lee said. “Political diversity is something that must never happen here at Swarthmore. As a DPA, I believe it is my duty to advise students to stand against political diversity. I applaud the three organizations for hosting the SwatRight festival, as it served as a platform to continue criticizing the uneducated people on the right side of the spectrum, and I hope to continue working with them, as well as the other DPA’s to continue to discourage political diversity on campus.”

Disclaimer: Names that appear in this article are not real people. The information presented in this article is purely meant for satirical purposes, and is completely false.

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