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The Value of Science

in Columns/Opinions/The Fan Letter by

The historic March for Science, a worldwide protest led by scientists and activists in support of the value of scientific inquiry and evidence-based policymaking, took place this past Saturday. One of the signs at the March read “I have faith in facts,” alluding to Kellyanne Conway’s notorious “alternative facts” remark. Other signs highlighted the benefits of modern technology, or the urgency of climate change and environmental degradation. While I agree with the overall message of the march, we must not unconditionally extol the benefits of “scientific progress.” Focusing on the end product of science distracts us from what makes science and its methods intrinsically valuable and meaningful.

A quick survey of the history of science shows that science is not always beneficial. Newtonian mechanics and gunpowder significantly improved the power and accuracy of artillery and made them more deadly. Atomic science and nuclear physics contributed to the development of atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, countries are using artificial intelligence technology to develop Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), or “robot killers” that can track and kill human targets with minimal human supervision.

Science is responsible for racial eugenics, and the remnants of “scientific racism” persist in the ideology of white supremacy. Science is responsible for the Industrial Revolution, which led to child labor, poorer working conditions, as well as surging income inequality. Science is responsible for the creation of engines, cars, and power plants, but science is also responsible for their emission of greenhouse gases and for climate change.

It is hypocritical to focus only on the benefits of science and ignore all its harms. Science is a powerful tool that can be used or abused, and any application of science is a political act, whether it is the development of new technologies or the use of scientific knowledge for society.  I believe a stronger case can be made that science is valuable for its own sake, rather than for any extrinsic reason. Only talking about what benefits science can bring risks politicizing the subject; science itself  is and must be free from political and partisan interests.

The purest of sciences, maybe paradoxically, should be useless. Pure science is about discovering eternal truths of nature, rather than improving quality of life. Albert Einstein never intended his theory of relativity to be anything other than an exposition of the fundamental laws of nature. He dedicated his life to finding a Theory of Everything, the Holy Grail of theoretical physics. The avant-garde of physics, or string theory, is a more extreme example. There seems to be no way to experimentally confirm whether the theory is correct or not. In other words, whether string theory is correct has no effect on our everyday life.

In this idealized realm of the purest sciences, scientific theory inextricably merges with the beauty of mathematics. G. H. Hardy, the famous author of the now classic text “A Mathematician’s Apology,” counted Maxwell and Einstein among “real mathematicians,” a high praise he reserved only for those who work in areas that have “little practical value … for ordinary men.” His remark was unfortunate; five years after his book was first published, the world saw the creation of atomic bombs, the possibility of which was first indicated by Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation. But the point remains. The beauty of science owes much to the beauty of the mathematical language in which it is expressed, and mathematics is (or should be) innocent and harmless. While it was perhaps a little premature for Hardy to deride the ugliness of “useful science” and contend that Einstein’s and Maxwell’s theories were perfectly useless, string theory, with its mathematical success, has the potential to claim the throne of theoretical science.

I suspect that the argument that science is beautiful is not terribly convincing to the more practical-minded of the readers. For these readers, I shall argue that the scientific method is our best tool to dispel myths and ideologies. This is not to say scientific knowledge should always be revered and unconditionally accepted. To make this claim is to argue that scientific knowledge is absolute truth, a claim even the scientists themselves cannot rationally support. Scientific progress is impossible if new generations of scientists uncritically accepts everything that has been said in the past. Imagine if a student of evolutionary biology now still believes in the discredited theory of eugenics.  He or she is not only a morally bankrupt racist, but also a terrible scientist at best.

But as the example of eugenics has made clear, science often is influenced, if not controlled, by some ideological agenda. To some extent, this problem is perhaps unavoidable. As philosopher of science Karl Popper makes clear, scientific observations cannot be purely objective, since our interests and expectations tend to affect what we see. But Popper also argues that the scientific spirit of critical rationalism is the best tool we have for creating knowledge. The standard of rigorous critical thinking employed in science allows us to conclusively refute false theories in the past, and hopefully our knowledge system is made better as a result.

As Popper correctly points out, there is no reason why the methods of science cannot be used in other areas of our society as well. Dogmatic ideologies must be rejected because they resist the test of evidence and criticism (Popper is himself fiercely anti-Marxist because of this). It is better instead to keep an open mind and critically debate each issue on the basis of facts and evidence rather than blindly endorse any particular ideology that is most popular at a time.

The large turnout at Saturday’s march is uplifting given the dark time in which we live. But if we fail to appreciate science for its own sake, the March for Science is just going to be another case where political actors take advantage of science and the independence of scientists from political interests gets undermined. The least we can do is to start a conversation about what really makes science so wonderful.

Is America Really a Democracy?

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Despite one’s political leanings, President Trump’s election is a phenomenon in need of an explanation. How did Donald Trump, a businessman of no experience with public policy, become the leader of the free world? More specifically, how did he lie his way to the presidency?

Some, as exemplified by Kellyanne Conway’s justification of “alternative facts,” attempt to rationalize Trump’s apparent lies by attacking the “elitist liberal establishment” that holds conservatives to an impossible standard. Others contend that Trump’s claims are not meant to be taken literally. Cornell University Professor Anna Katharine Mansfield, for example, recently argued in the Washington Post that Trump is delivering a different kind of truth: “emotional truth” that captures the frustration many Trump supporters feel. She claimed this kind of truth cannot be discredited by facts and evidence.

Instead of treating Trump’s lies as just another form of democratic discourse, why can’t we admit that American democracy is broken? What is a democracy when its participants cannot observe the basic laws of logic and reason, when slogan shouting has replaced thoughtful deliberation?

As a citizen of China, manipulation of facts and logic is not foreign to me. Our history is replete with examples where defiance of reason has led to spectacular policy failures. The Great Leap Forward, a Mao-initiated campaign that aimed to “reach Britain and surpass America” (Ganying Chaomei) in domestic production within 20 years, led to the most devastating famine in human history. According to the University of Hong Kong historian Frank Dikötter, the death toll of 45 million people was almost comparable to that of the Second World War.

My grandmother was a survivor. She used to tell me that in order to reach Mao’s goal of doubling steel production, her fellow villagers would set up “backyard furnaces” and melt cooking pots, thinking that somehow low-quality iron could thus be transformed into high-quality steel. Villages competed to grow and harvest unrealistic quantities of crops, sometimes by fraudulently combining crops from several different fields. When the famine hit, food was much more difficult to come by for a big family like hers. Malnutrition was pervasive; some were so starved that their bodies started to bloat, like balloon animals filled with body fluid. I was 10 when she told me that story. It is a gruesome reminder that grand designs must always be grounded in reality. Otherwise, people die.

Is America really a democracy? Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that democracy is not equivalent to “majority rule,” where even the basest of desires and prejudices deserve satisfaction when enough people have them. Instead, democracy has to be deliberative, which can only happen when citizens and their representatives come together and converse on the basis of reason and facts.

Trump’s popularity stems partly from his many outlandish promises that, not unlike Mao’s, he has no chance of fulfilling. His racist and xenophobic messages represent not the exception but the rule of American politics, which rewards manipulation of emotion more than honest discussion of what’s best for the people. Instead of offering realistic solutions to the problems his supporters face, Trump the politician does what most before him did: concoct the perfect lie and hope everyone believes it is the truth.

A tale of two countries

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A couple of days ago, I went to a faculty-led panel discussion on Fidel Castro, the former president of Cuba who passed away last year. Before the talk, I knew embarrassingly little about this controversial figure, except that he was a socialist. About 15 students showed up, and we formed a circle around the professors and waited intently for them to begin. After chatting with her colleagues in Spanish, Professor Désirée Diáz started reading from a pre-written introduction about her mixed feelings toward the Cuban revolutionary. As she put down her script, it was now Bryn Mawr College Professor Enrique Sacerio-Garí’s turn.

A celebrated scholar on Latin American politics and a commanding speaker, Professor Sacerio-Garí had none of the ambivalence of the previous professor. He prefaced his speech by saying that he supports Fidel Castro. What ensued was a spirited defense of his patriotism and his love for the Cuban people. Professor Sacerio-Garí talked about Castro’s education and literacy campaign, his anti-apartheid and anti-racism beliefs, as well as his courage to stand up to America’s “psychopathic desire” to harm and control the Cuban people. Notably missing, however, was much mention of Castro’s socialism.

Does a country’s ideology actually matter?

This is a question I often think about as a citizen of another socialist country, China. When I was growing up, I heard many stories about Mao’s China. My paternal grandmother told me that during the Great Chinese Famine, she only had carrots and a thin layer of rice for lunch every day. My dad told me he witnessed gangs beating young people to death with bats covered in nails during the Cultural Revolution. My maternal grandmother, a leading expert in cardiology, was humiliated and persecuted by the Red Guards.

However, both of my parents are members of the Communist Party. When I vowed not to join any Communist Party-affiliated organization, my grandparents were concerned. They told me I was being ungrateful. If not for the Communist Party, they said, I would not have the life I have today.

Officially, China is still a Communist country, even though China’s current economic system is closer to capitalism. Many western commentators mark Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, which embraced privatization and globalization, as the end of Maoism. However, the Communist Party is still the only ruling party in China, and previous attempts at liberalizing the regime all ended in failure.

My father participated in the 1989 Democracy Movement as a protestor. Now, he is no longer a believer. Western style democracy will never work in China, he says, because nobody will care enough to vote and participate any way.

Does a country’s ideology matter? Not to the citizens, based on my experience. Castro defenders need not defend his socialism, just as Chinese Communist Party members like my parents need not be actual Communists. But the purest ideologues can argue all day about whether communism or capitalism is better. A Maoist can pontificate about the evil of money and the downfall of capitalism, while being blissfully ignorant of the pain and sufferings that Mao caused to the Chinese people. A conservative can tell you all about the invisible hand and the importance of deregulation, while neglecting millions of people in America who live in poverty and dejection. We need a new way to think, a way that focuses not so much on ideology, but on policies that make a difference. Calling oneself a communist or a capitalist is intellectual snobbery, because ideology does not help people.

SAO refocuses toward more political role

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The Swarthmore Asian Organization is shifting to become a political group. This change, which comes after decision made by SAO leadership in the 2015-2016 school year, was marked by a “re-birthday party.” The event was both a 30th birthday for the group as well as an opportunity to refocus their organization.

SAO was formed originally as a political group to advance the interests of Asian and Pacific-Islander students, faculty, and staff, but shifted over time into its current form. In recent years, the group has served as a social and cultural group. Part of SAO’s shift is to change the perception of who SAO is for, as the group’s membership mostly consists of students of East-Asian descent, according to SAO co-presidents Josie Huang ’19, David Chan ’19, and Shuang Guan ’19. Guan explained some of the reasons for the shift.

“The way SAO started, its mission was political in order to increase numbers of API students and faculty on campus. … SAO was really a home for a diverse number of people falling under this label of Asian or Asian-American, and we’ve found that, in the past few years, SAO has been kind of shifting towards a social [and] cultural kind of path and our member base has also gotten very East-Asian-American. And, that’s led to some people telling us that they feel a little bit excluded from SAO or they don’t feel comfortable coming to SAO events because they don’t see a lot of people who look like them or represent them,” she said.

SAO hopes that the political shift will make SAO more welcoming to a wider group of Asian and Asian-American students.

“Instead of SAO being tied together by this social-cliquey feeling of ‘oh my friends are here so I belong here’ … hopefully it’s that people are passionate about working on API issues,” Shuang said.

Shuang also described the group’s political plans.

“We want to do more collaborations with other affinity groups to build community at Swarthmore. We also hope to volunteer with Philly organizations (currently in talks with AAI, Asian Arts Initiative). We are trying to increase awareness and support for Asian-American Studies at Swat by bringing Asian American Studies scholars to talk at Swat while advocating for more Asian-American Studies courses,” she said.

“We’re really hoping that one, we take up SAO’s political mission again, and really do political work, talking about API issues, possibly working with organizations in Philly who already do work in arts and community empowerment and education and also doing more collaborations with other groups on campus,” she said.

The “re-birthday party” was intended to help SAO start becoming a political organization, and was well received event. According to SAO leadership, some of the attendees were not regularly attending SAO members. This suggests that students see SAO less as an organization for students of East-Asian descent and more as one that represents students from many API backgrounds.

The co-presidents also met with the leadership of other groups representing Asian-Americans on Swarthmore’s campus in order to best serve the interests of Asian-American and Asian students across their different organizations.

“There’s a bunch of other Asian-affiliated groups, and what we’ve realized in having conversations is that the nature of these groups tends to be more cultural, so it’s kind of like us deciding to not overstep the things that they’re doing and to kind of fill in for the spaces that they don’t have … having SAO is sort of a space for us to have these [political] conversations outside of the cultural groups,” Huang said.

The reactions to SAO’s political shift have been generally positive, according to the co-presidents, and they are optimistic about the future.

“We had a SAO-rebirthday, which was when we announced the change, and it was also a celebration of SAO’s 30th anniversary. We had a lot of people come to this, except …. we’ve realized that, because of the nature of how SAO is right now, it’s going to take a lot to change [the perception that SAO is primarily an East-Asian group]. The people that came to the event, some of them were people that we haven’t really seen before at past SAO events, but a lot of them were also still primarily still East-Asian, and so what we realized after this event is that it is a little bit difficult, that it is going to be a work in progress. This change is mainly to open up SAO again to the rest of the community. We did get a lot of positive reception from people who were at the event, who expressed that this is something that they had been looking for,” Huang said.

SAO included other Asian-affiliated groups to discuss the shift and get feedback.

“We gathered the board members … of other Asian-affiliated groups in the IC to talk about our idea to shift from being a social cultural group to mainly be a political group and get their feedback.

Aamia Malik ’18, the president of Deshi, a group for South Asian students on campus, expressed that she thinks the change will be positive for other Asian-affiliated groups on campus.

“The biggest shift will be SAO acting as more of an umbrella organization for other groups instead of its own entity as it is acting currently. In my opinion, this is a good shift because it will create a space for more IC groups to communicate and collaborate, something that needs to happen more,” she said
The implications of SAO’s changes are likely to be more pronounced next year when the incoming Class of 2021 enters and interacts with Swarthmore’s cultural, social, and political organizations for the first time.

The dangers of insularity

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President Trump ran on a platform of nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism from both economic and social standpoints; his anti-immigration stances and his proposed pro-tariff policies are salient examples of Mr. Trump’s embodiment of the populist ideals that seem to have taken hold of the U.S. voting constituency. As citizens, it is of great difficulty to look outwards amidst a tumultuous political climate, where unexpected and unforeseen legislation and initiatives are gaining momentum with each day, prompting even the most well-versed and politically literate individuals to find themselves outpaced by rapid developments in their own nation. This propensity to become detached from the ongoing affairs of the world around us is heightened by the tone being set by one’s own national government, devaluing the significance of international relations and interactions between different states, causing individuals to feel that there is a diminished importance of being aware of what is occurring in foreign lands. The disengagement with the international system on both an individual, institutional, and governmental level is worrisome, as we become less attuned to trends that are affecting nations indiscriminately. Populism had begun to create ripples throughout the world in the years leading up to the past U.S. election; this is just one example of how sweeping movements can be traced and predicted, perhaps even staved off and prevented altogether, if we only open our eyes.

Now, populism is not intrinsically bad. Definitionally, populism describes a movement in which individuals collectively band together against a government or institution made of elites. This sounds rather familiar to the spark that can ignite meaningful and successful revolutions, if we contextualize a chain of events as such within the American Revolution, for one. However, what is concerning about populism is the effects it can bring with it, notably a diminishing of domestic institutions that traditionally check the power of executive branches of power and government, particularly those which promote democratic ideals and prevent a consolidation of power within an all-powerful leader. As we have seen in many European nations throughout history, the rise of populism has been accompanied by a weakening of individual liberties, rights, and freedoms. We are now seeing a growing influence of right-wing movements and parties in nations that have long been heralded as beacons of liberal democracy: Britain, Germany, France, and most recently the Netherlands. This development has a few important implications for us as conscious and engaged citizens. We first ought to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of individuals throughout the world, irrespective of the nature of their regime or the state of populism in their respective nations; however, if we are able to recognize what many experts now consider to be an evident trend of populism, we ought to educate ourselves and understand how to reform our political systems or our international order to ensure that the deleterious impacts of populism can be prevented from striking. In addition, we need to ensure that as a constituency, we are pressuring our government to remain engaged in the international system and abreast of the dynamic relationships between and within states that will inevitably impact the future of our world. Not only is this necessary to prevent conflict and promote peace, but such cooperation and collaboration between nations is also the only way in which ongoing and potential global crises, such as global warming and nuclear armament, can be combatted most effectively.

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s inauguration and initial actions in office, we have seen marches, walkouts, and protests on issues ranging from immigration to women’s rights. It has been both heartening and inspiring to take part in these movements and to witness my friends, peers, former teachers, relatives, and mentors engage in an impactful way to make a statement. I want to urge each of us, however, to engage with issues that may seem like they are striking less close to home, and remain observant and aware of what is occurring in nations near and far. It is harder to notice a detachment from the arena of international politics when so much is going wrong at home, but the threat of a disruption to the fabric of our international order can have potentially devastating consequences, the ramifications of which may be near impossible to alleviate upon being actualized. What is happening here with respect to a surge of populism is also happening in other countries; our institutions have so far served our democracy steadfastly, maintaining checks and balances and preventing an overreach of executive power when conflicting with constitutional values. This may not be the case for other democracies and nations in which institutions and governing bodies may fall prey to populism’s diminutive effects, à la Hungary.  Now is not the time to turn a blind eye to international affairs, nor is it the time to isolate ourselves from other nations and their affairs. We have a responsibility to hold our government accountable, not just on issues of domestic significance, but on the matters that impact the world around us.

What is Freedom of Speech?

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As a citizen of China, one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, I must say that I am disappointed by my fellow liberals’ indifference toward free speech. My experience tells me that whether or not citizens have the right to free speech is the most important distinction between a democracy and a dictatorship. To give you an idea of what it is like to be a Chinese citizen, for the first 18 years of my life, my typical class schedule included a “Politics and Thoughts” class that taught Communist Party propaganda, a History class that taught alternative history carefully censored and rewritten by the Communist Party, and a literature class that included only authors and articles the Party deemed appropriate. I was required to memorize key speeches and principles invented by Party leaders in order to pass the ideology test, in which if anyone dared to write anything negative about the Communist Party, he or she would automatically get a zero and not graduate.

In China, online forums and social media are carefully monitored so that “counter-revolutionary” comments are promptly removed and perpetrators are punished. Human rights lawyers and activists are routinely jailed in secret locations or sent to “forced labor camps” for their beliefs and activities. It isn’t that life is insufferable for normal people without free speech; the brilliance of censorship is that it makes you think only one kind of view can possibly be right, so you don’t feel the need to protest, dissent, or even think.

In high school, during a summer at Yale, and my first time in the United States, I took a human rights class and a legal philosophy class. For the first time in my life, I read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” I read John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and his belief that everyone should have the absolute right to free speech. I read the landmark Supreme Court case, National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977), in which a Jewish lawyer of the American Civil Liberties Union defended the Nazi Party’s right to march in a predominantly Jewish village. I learned about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, on which information was censored in China and where brave college students fought for democracy. They fought for freedom of speech and thought only to face the crackdown of an illiberal regime stuck in its own ways. I learned that liberalism means tolerance and commitment to our inalienable and indivisible rights, no matter what powerful people say, and I began to proudly call myself a liberal. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that most of my liberal friends at Swarthmore not only advocate violence against those who hold a different view, but also believe that freedom of speech is somehow a “conservative value.”

Most debates about free speech these days are simply confused. The kind of knee jerk reaction that many liberals display toward claims of free speech is largely a response to the hypocrisy of some conservative politicians, who, while arguing that liberals are stifling free speech on campus, are perfectly willing to withhold funding from colleges they deem too “radical.” Free speech as a constitutional right is different from the kind of “campus free speech” for which such conservatives are clamoring. Unfortunately, many liberals fail to draw the distinction and end up losing faith in the doctrine of free speech in general. Even more unfortunate are attempts to equate free speech with oppression or even white supremacy. Without freedom of speech, only those in positions of power can speak.

Freedom of speech as a legal, constitutional, and human right is important because it is the bedrock of democracy. Every attempt to undermine this right risks undermining the foundation of democracy and making the U.S. more like China or Russia. You may think I am being alarmist, but plenty of examples exist where free speech restrictions in other liberal democracies have backfired. After a German comedian accused the Turkish President and Dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of oppressing minorities and having sexual intercourse with farm animal Erdoğan sued the comedian with the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under an old German law. In France, after the terrorist attack in 2015, a Muslim was sentenced to a year in prison for shouting “I’m proud to be Muslim. I don’t like ‘Charlie’ [“Charlie Hebdo,” a far-left French magazine previously attacked for mocking Islam]. They were right to do it.” As Howard Gillman, the Chancellor of UC Irvine, argues, “[d]emocracies are more fragile things than we might like to believe.” Free speech is important partly because it allows political minority groups to voice their opinion without fear of retribution.

The constitutional right to free speech, however, is not absolute. Child pornography, obscenity, fighting words, libel, and incitement, for example, are not protected by the First Amendment. But these exceptions are meant to be exactly that – exceptions. Some have argued that hate speech is not free speech. It is factually incorrect as a descriptive claim, and practically and legally problematic as a prescriptive claim. Since the issue of hate speech matters deeply to many skeptics of free speech, I’d like to set the record straight here. In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992), a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law that banned the placement of a burning cross or Nazi swastika on public and private property. The majority reasoned that the law was unconstitutional because it only prohibited particular kinds of fighting words that involve “race, color, creed, religion or gender.” In other words, the law constituted both viewpoint and subject matter discrimination. Even though in Beauharnais v. Illinois (1952) the Supreme Court upheld a similar law because the Court considered speech targeting racial or religious groups to be “group libel,” as constitutional law scholars Kathleen Sullivan and Gerald Gunther explain, most judges no longer believe that Beauharnais is good law.

Should the government be allowed to ban hate speech as many free speech skeptics wish? I do not believe this is a good idea. While it is permissible for the government to prohibit speech that incites imminent violence (see Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)), or increase penalty for hate crime (see Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993)), as the Court argues in R.A.V., any specific prohibition on hate speech involves content-based restrictions. If, for the sake of argument, the government is allowed to ban speech based on its content, then who is to stop right-wing politicians from passing laws that prohibit speech, for example, that advocates for the violent overthrow of capitalism or mocks Christianity? As the ACLU argues, “free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you.” Of course, the Court can recognize a hate speech exception to the First Amendment, but as The Economist argues, such an exception will only encourage ideologues to harass those who hold a different view. In India, a psychologist and well-known public intellectual was charged under the country’s hate speech law for making a point about corruption and lower-caste politicians. He has since said that because of the incident, he “will have to be careful now.” Similarly, a hate speech law may allow Trump to sue Clinton if she had instead said Evangelical Christians or white Trump supporters belong to a “basket of deplorables.” I am not arguing that instituting a hate speech exception is constitutionally impossible, but I suspect it will either be too broad so as to amount to censorship, or too narrow so as to be utterly indistinguishable from other exceptions such as fighting words.

Speech on campus, of course, is an entirely different matter. Public colleges are required by the Constitution to provide First Amendment protection for everyone. Private colleges like Swarthmore, on the other hand, should protect the most vulnerable members of their communities, but they should also promote diversity of political opinion and speech that has intellectual value. The decision to allow or disallow certain speech is ultimately a balancing act, but colleges should not, for example, disinvite conservative speakers merely because their viewpoints are unpopular or offensive. (I do not, however, believe Milo Yiannopoulos deserves a platform on campus, because I do not believe his speech has any value at all.) Some, however, have argued that hate speech deserves a place on campus. Gillman and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, for example, argue that only by subjecting hate speech to examination can we expose the lie and bigotry that it is. I am sympathetic to such arguments even though I believe the line should be drawn where students might begin to feel unsafe.

There is another issue: do some students, because of their “privileges,” have no right to discuss certain topics or issues? There is a strong case to be made that those who belong to groups that traditionally have less voice should be given more voice to enrich the “marketplace of ideas,” but I think the answer to this question should be no. A friend of mine told me that when his public policy class was discussing whether catcalling should be made a felony, he was told by a female student that his view does not matter because he is not a woman. However, as a low-income and minority student, he knew that such laws disproportionately affect minorities. Regardless of whether his view was correct, he was capable of making a valuable contribution to the discussion. The point is, in the context of campus speech, more speech is almost always better than less.

Coping with Trump’s presidency

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We unlocked the door with our twisted imagination. Beyond it was a dimension with sounds, sights, and perspectives that we had never seen before it. Shadows descended upon our senses and judgment to nullify any real substance, and since November of last year we’ve been living in a 21st century Twilight Zone. Most people on this campus didn’t expect Trump to win the presidency. I was one of them; in my mind, I was convinced that the America that I knew growing up, despite its contentious and problematic history, always strove for progress and inclusion. The country wouldn’t, in the span of an election, voluntarily decide to go back to the America of the 1950s. Although in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was with the outcome. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are the daughters of bigotry and hatred. They’ve been woven into the fabric of America since its tortured beginning. I knew this already, so I don’t understand why I’ve been so infuriated by Trump’s presidency.

It’s been about two-and-a-half weeks since his inauguration, but each day feels like an eternity. Each day he (or maybe Steve Bannon at this point) declares a new executive order from his little box of horrors. From reinstating the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines to instructing federal agencies to weaken Obamacare, he’s already shown complete disregard for the communities that are most vulnerable. Since his inauguration, he’s signed more than twenty executive actions. While he’s been busy turning D.C. on its head, I’ve been trying to ignore him but to no avail. Whether it be on TV or on the internet, I’m frequently stressed out as the consequences of his actions loom over me like the clouds did the day after he won the election.

With the prospect of declaring my major relatively soon, applying for research and study abroad opportunities, and dealing with back-to-back 8:30 classes for a heavy course load, Swarthmore has been difficult for me. Maintaining mental health takes just as much work as maintaining physical health and the last thing I needed was to get enraged over something which I have no control over. There’s a limit to how much you can react angrily on Facebook. Besides, at this point nothing that he says or does really surprises me.

That changed about a week ago when I20 hosted the Immigration Panel Discussion regarding the possible repercussions as a result of his executive orders changing the H1B/H1B1/work visa programs. As a natural-born citizen, I was privileged about not having to worry about this, so I didn’t go to the Immigration Panel Discussion. In retrospect, I’m ashamed that I didn’t go since shortly afterwards I realized for every problem that didn’t directly affect me, it would affect someone I knew. He/She/They would have to carry that burden with them, only for the cycle of fear and anxiety to repeat itself each day. There’s a difference between dedicating time to yourself and being selfish, and I’ve erred on the wrong side for too long.

Of course, Swatties already know about the multiple ways to resist Trump’s fascism: protest, call your senators, donate to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, etc. and yes those are all wonderful courses of action to take. However, there’s something else that I want to suggest for those who are currently afraid of our increasingly uncertain future.

I asked a good friend of mine how he was going to live through Trump’s presidency and his response stunned me. Even though he firmly believes everyone should have and should continue to fight for equal rights, we can’t expect to live the same life as those with privilege do and we have to reconcile with that. My grandparents who witnessed the Civil Rights Movement believed that one day we’d live in a more equitable and just society. They carried that hope with them until they passed away, gave that same hope to my parents who in turn passed it on to me. Whenever all feels lost, through this hope I find the strength to persevere. Hopefully, someday my future children and grandchildren can find the same solace. Regardless for now, I suggest that there are two actions you should perform:

Find Joy. It doesn’t matter how but this is important. Whether it be through your friends and family or socializing, making it a priority to find joy in your life is one of the greatest acts of self-love that you can do for yourself.

Be content in who you are and live your life. No matter what Trump does, he can’t determine how far you go or the dreams you make for yourself. The fact that you exist and there can be no other human being like you is proof of your uniqueness. Just by doing what you already do on a daily basis is the ultimate form of resistance and signals how powerful and indomitable you already are.

The next four years will be difficult for sure, but that doesn’t mean your life has to be made any worse. Whatever you decide to do, I hope that you can find your own peace and happiness.

Trump and the violent, enraged Muslim ‘other’

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Much has been said about the implications of the executive order signed by President Donald Trump that bans immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, indefinitely ends the acceptance of Syrian refugees into the United States, and suspends the U.S. refugee program at large for a 120-day period. Even amongst friends who generally align with Trump’s charades, it has been difficult to find a single individual that takes no issue with the order: if not with the policy itself, then with its heedless execution. Arguments ranging from the impacts on the U.S. economy, historical parallels to the horrendous 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and a compromise of fundamental American values are all issues that have been rightfully raised.

Similarly, there is a general consensus by opponents of this order that, by far, its most destructive immediate impact applies to displaced populations who will perish as they attempt to seek refuge and asylum in a world that ferociously denies their very existence. I completely agree. However, it is also necessary to call attention to the “race branding” of Muslim populations, of which this order is the manifestation par excellence. This is no novel phenomenon. United States politicians have always struggled to speak of Muslims as anything other than products of a cultural milieu, or Islam as anything other than a manifest political ideological project. Politicians across the spectrum have always encouraged Muslim communities to seek out the “Bad Muslims” amongst their ranks. This feeds well into the narrative of an imaginary cultural war against an enlightened western world and the other half that ostensibly “lives in the dark.”

To begin, othering Muslim populations is no novel concept. Western academic discourse has a tradition of granting Muslims subaltern status as an extension of a larger imperialist project. One need not travel far to read the words of the Guardian article by Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” in which he explicates, “why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” Lewis’s essentialist speculative discourse defines a “Muslim subject” that possesses little volition of their own who is programmed by an external political ideology that replaces their blood with violence and rage directed, of course, against the enlightened peace-loving west. Similar orientalist and imperialist predilections carry through future works such as Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” in which he predicts cultural wars under the assumption of western cultural superiority and its right to establish global hegemony. These orientalist renditions of enraged Muslims, their supposed ideological predilections, and their imagined ontological inferiority are what inspire the policies of Trump and his cabinet appointees.  

In the context of this stream of orientalist thought, Trump’s campaign rhetoric against Muslims is not all that surprising, yet its incorporation into mainstream presidential rhetoric is all the more alarming. In a December 2015 rally in Charleston, South Carolina, he boisterously shouted, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”  Here, Trump searches for the means by which “Lewisian enraged Muslim subjects” are being mass produced.

Further testament to Trump’s staunch commitment to target Muslims is seen in his cabinet picks. Newt Gingrich, a top Trump ally, claims, “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported.” Furthermore, Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, proudly exclaims, “Islam is a political ideology masked behind a religion, using religion as an advantage against us.” This fabricated imagination is sadly Trump’s and his advisors’ shared reality, yet it is not an entirely newly held belief. Rather, it is a continuation of a time honored tradition, tracing back to Lewis and Huntington, that is now being further normalized, popularized, systematized, and operationalized. The parallels between these efforts and the underpinnings of past examples of ethnic cleansing and genocide are unnerving.

The use of the word “mask” by Flynn captures the scrutiny under which Muslims are continually placed by governments and citizens alike. According to Flynn and his cronies, Muslims are always concealing and conspiring under the guise of a religion, Islam, which makes claims for peace, but in reality is an ideological project that plans to undermine global peace. Such suspicion of Muslim communities crosses traditional party lines. Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton in one presidential debate stated, “Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community. They’re on the front lines, they can provide information to us that we might not get anywhere else.” As to what lines the American Muslim community occupies and what information they possess is unclear, but the suspicion of communally shared secrets hidden behind an Islamic veil is certainly not a novel phenomenon.

This suspicion is further manifested in the ubiquitously practiced post 9-11 “Good Muslim” “Bad Muslim” litmus test by which Muslims are tirelessly scrutinized in order to determine their degree of “radicalization” or supposed commitment to extremist doctrinal commitments. What politicians fail to recognize is that, sadly, the screening of Muslims is not only a governmental procedure. Muslims are being constantly vetted, even within their own communities. The ideal ‘Moderate Muslim’ that has just the right horizon of attachment and detachment to Islamic principles, however, can only be defined by the outside objective eye. The visual nature of many traditionally practiced Muslim aesthetics becomes a direct target of this screening. Trump’s rhetoric only strengthens these screening practices and provides them with institutional endorsement from the highest echelons of civil government. In doing so, many Muslims are constantly forced to live an increasingly apologetic existence. The social pressures placed upon Muslims to meet this imagined standard are suffocating and aim at producing groups of docile acquiescent subjects that constantly aim for outsider propriety rather than individual expression.

Trump goes to great lengths to differentiate between Christians and Muslims in the countries in his ban, and deems Muslims from these countries as ontologically inferior in his new foreign policy. He tweets in clear prose that refugee Arab Christians should be given preference over refugee Arab Muslims for admission in the United States. While he would be right to give voice to the unique pressures and struggles of Christian minority communities throughout Muslim-majority counties, Trump’s benign appearance relies less on affirming the struggles of Christian minority groups, and more on negating the suffering of both minority and majority Muslim communities throughout the region. This is clearly expressed in his move to release statements about allowing Christian admissibility in the United States directly following his statement about banning all immigrants from the seven Muslim majority countries. University of California’s Professor of Religion Reza Aslan encapsulates the bigotry embodied in Trump’s sentiment in his statement, “A Christian fleeing discrimination in Yemen would be given entry, but a Shia facing death and starvation would not.” Additionally, such statements only exacerbate existing fraught relationships and antagonisms between Muslim and Christian communities in these countries and compromises existing examples of solidarity and peaceful coexistence.

Trump’s new obsession with popularizing the adage ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ is tied up in the aforementioned power-relations. This is yet another clear attempt from Trump to ‘other’ Muslims and view them as a single collective unit rather than self-determining individuals. The adjectival use of the word ‘Islam,’ sandwiched between the words radical and terrorism is also a clear ‘race branding’ practice. This aims to permanently associate the words radical and terrorism with Islam in the public conscious. In essence, its use posits that Muslims only exist for Trump’s team as a collective herd that are constantly susceptible to alien forces that are attempting to push them towards ‘radical behavior.’ This, of course, implies that this is an inherent aspiration of Islamic discourse that must be actively combatted and resisted. Rather than citing dogmatism as an inherent human potential or a feature of globalized discourses, this phrasing localizes such critique on one such body of knowledge and in turn makes its practice stigmatized and taboo. This also completely disregards the dynamic exegetic practices of classical religious texts practiced by almost all religious communities. One must ask why such factors are being intentionally overlooked.

One of the most insidious effects of the current executive order is it role in promoting a typological study of Muslim subjects as solely products of a culture. Treating Islam as a culture radically opposed to western liberal democracies further creates antagonisms in areas where such tensions need not exist. This study of cultural conflicts also dismisses the roles of history, socio-economic factors, and other forms of western intervention that might have influenced the birth of the current political climate. Such a lens of study also undermines self-agency and individualism. This does not absolve local forces that spur acts of violence in these regions of blame, but rather, serves as a necessary contextualization that can help us better understand their rise.

As Trump continues to issue Islamophobic platitudes through both his Twitter and national speeches, we should be critical, wary, and alert of his regime. Such blatant race branding and scapegoating practices almost always carry underlying political motives. In service of such, we should recognize the origins of these sentiments and recognize the harmful effects of their global normalization in public discourse.

One of the most worrisome things I faced while writing this piece was a phone call from my aunt and, soon after, one from my mother. My aunt saw a Facebook post in which I mentioned Trump, admittedly one of perhaps too many, and out of worry called me to say, “You cannot say such things, we cannot, we’re Muslims—we are not safe.” Word travels quickly in my family, and soon after my mother was on the phone telling me, “they’ll take us away and no one will realize, we are in such small numbers.” I don’t know why I took their words so seriously. I generally don’t when it comes to these matters. However, I think their sentiment captures the fear and anxiety faced by first generation immigrants particularly well. Writing, however, is a strong form of resistance. In face of such injustice, it is important that our ink does not dry.

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