Rendering Swarthmore Politics

One of Swarthmore’s legendary Political Science professors, discussing campus politics last year, reminded me, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” In other words, when you’re a citizen in this state called Swarthmore, you have to honor certain unspoken rules. Sure, there are other sources of authority—likely sitting in higher, loftier Adirondack chairs—but it’s important to appeal, at least when you’re within the bounds of our arboretum, to the Swarthmore code.

At Swarthmore, that means there’s a mandate to be quirky, peppy and engaged. But it has also meant, since the Quakers first took root, that political expression is encouraged, so long as it’s on the left. Quoting Edward Said or Noam Chomsky proves you’re well-read. Citing Edmund Burke or—gasp!—Ronald Reagan—could lead to a swift vote off the island.

Starting with a botched attempt to hold a Veterans’ Day service freshman year, let’s just say I haven’t always operated within the Swarthmore framework. In a matter of a few tumultuous weeks, I was associated with the “carpet-bombing” of Vietnam, fascism and outright conspiracy. The result (hint: no November 11th honorarium) was partly due due to my own bombast and partly because Swatties too often harbor a cartoonish notion of conservatives as fiendish foes of humanity.

But a lot’s happened since my freshman fall. So far, I’ve ignored Vice President Biden’s advice and avoided putting anyone in chains. Most liberty lovers, you see, aren’t big fans of enslavement. Today, believe it or not, I think Swarthmore is starting to feel more and more moderate. A wave of political toleration looks to be setting in. Just ask the many people who stopped to chat with the conservative table at our annual activities fair, where we ran out of pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, courtesy of the Cato Institute.

On a national level, the GOP shellacked its way to a historic congressional victory in the 2010 midterms. This was a clear measurement of political and economic dissatisfaction, even if the only openly conservative students at Swat at the time had to search far and wide for a television airing the election results. On campus, several conservative and libertarian voices began expressing themselves in our student papers.

In 2011, we invited Patrick Michaels, a curmudgeonly climate scientist with unconventional views on global warming, to the Science Center. Most of the audience consisted of protesters who unveiled Exxon Mobil signs, but hey, it was a start. Last spring brought a voluntary talk by Robert Levy, a libertarian Constitutional lawyer and organizer behind the Supreme Court’s landmark D.C. v. Heller Second Amendment case. It was disappointing that we couldn’t get any political science professors on board, but the students who showed—along with a few residents from the Ville—asked great questions and found the lecture informative.

Swarthmore, of course, still has a long way to go. To my knowledge, there are very few centrist professors—certainly none that are openly right-of-center. A good start would be a few noteworthy or up-and-coming conservative faculty. At Princeton, Catholic legal scholar (and former Swattie) Robert George co-teaches a popular political science class with Cornell West, an outright socialist. I imagine it gets lively. How great would that kind of roundtable be at Swarthmore?

I think we’re ripe for it. A high point of my first week back included a humorous hall “debate” between the merits of James Madison versus Alexander Hamilton. Later in the week a classmate and I shared a giddy moment as we talked about the ethical implications of Aristotle by the McCabe printing station. This sounds nerdy, silly or even banal at a place like Swarthmore. But two years ago, these nonpartisan nuggets were exceedingly rare.

Unfortunately, the political onesidedness probably stems from the academic agenda set by departments. Why is it that classes deconstructing sexuality abound, while you can literally go years without an American history class making the course catalog? I’m all for approaching the past with a critical eye, but there’s far more to Western heritage than McCarthyism.

Still, there have been important turning points, namely the training session behind last orientation’s Diversity Workshop. Dean Zapata, formerly head of multicultural affairs, drew upon a quote from Professor Emeritus Robert DuPlessis: “Only by encountering and attempting to comprehend the origins, assumptions and logics of perspectives that are different from—even repellent to—our own, can we adequately understand our own convictions. True learning, in short, requires broad exposure along as many parameters as possible. This type of ‘deep’ diversity is not politically correct but educationally mandatory.” Professor Duplessis’ remarks are a bit of a rallying-cry for how I hope to conduct my own mission for change and liberty in Swarthmore-styled education.

Our expectations for college discourse must transcend blinding leftism (or raw, snarky conservatism). As a friend and I perused The New York Times one morning, I made a joke about the Wall Street Journal being noticeably absent from the Kohlberg coffee bar. She rolled her eyes at my cheekiness and said I’m the one who chose to attend Swarthmore. The exchange was in good fun, but I have a quibble with the premise behind her statement, as if all students who enroll at Swarthmore forfeit a right to political pluralism.

I acknowledge that Swarthmore is a pretty progressive place. Sometimes it’s a source of amusement, sometimes a reason for frustration. I witnessed a far better exchange last Sunday at the activities fair: A freshman confessed he wanted to know more about politics but didn’t know where to start in today’s partisan mayhem. A peer suggested he begin by reading both the NYT and WSJ and their respective editorial pages. Three cheers for the marketplace of ideas.

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