I was talking with a friend of mine, a Yale student, a little judgmental, fancies herself a journalist. We were talking about the YPU, and she told me the following:
“The YPU seems to be a little silly, kinda goofy. They’re eccentric, and the politics seem to me to be fetishized in the procedures and rhetoric of the YPU. All that parliamentary procedure, the booing and hissing, it makes me feel like we’re just little kids playing at politics.”
For the sake of fairness, I found myself doing what I never thought I’d do — defending the YPU: “Yeah, but you can’t deny that a good deal of serious political discussion goes on.”
“On occasion,” she replied, “but the tone they take is so unserious. The politicized way they attack each other? Ridiculous! I received this e-mail from the Party of the Right asking me to come listen to the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and then help them ‘condemn liberals for their frequent practice of creating political issues for the sole purpose of chastising the Bush administration.’ When I asked the sender why he chose to employ such politicized rhetoric, he responded that all the parties do it to hype up their members. To be honest, I believe him. I’ve seen the ridiculous satisfaction people get out of making ‘comedic’ ad hominem attacks on their opponents, and the responses it elicits from the crowds — seated by party, no less — hisses and catcalls from one side, and from the other, chuckles that remind me of the wine and brandy room at the club.”
“Those are strong words,” I said, “but you can’t deny that, amidst all the petty rivalries, people are engaging in some heavy political discourse.”
She replied, “That’s debatable, and beside the point. I think most of the members’ main interest is the advancement of some form or another of a political career. Beneath the flamboyant, playful gestures of partisanship, there is an established camaraderie — a sort of relationship develops across the political spectrum that some would characterize as one of respect, but is just a little too flippantly chummy for my taste. For me, it conjures up images of empty Senate chambers receiving testimonials. The parties just seem to be playing and joking 70 percent of the time. My limited experience tells me that everyone in the Independent Party is either oversexed or on drugs, and the Progressive Party has an even better dealer. Seriously, I need them to hook me up.”
I knew that was true, because I’ve been receiving those cracked out Progressive Party e-mails for over a year. I had to admit, also, that the YPU did seem to be, before anything else, a prime opportunity for networking. But, I reminded her, there are plenty of political groups on campus that are more active in effecting change.
“Take the Roosevelt Institute,” I told her, “you’d have to be Helen Keller not to see or hear about all the great things they’ve been telling us they’re doing.”
Her assessment was not favorable. “The Roosevelt Institute seems, how do we say, a little presumptuous. I find their can-do, self-promoting attitude nauseatingly optimistic, but not nearly as irksome as their presumptuous claim to be non-ideological — as if all we need are bureaucratic ‘solutions’ to technical ‘problems,’ as if we can simply move ‘forward’ without moving left or right. They’re just blase, Teddy Roosevelt progressives, more interested in schmoozing with politicos in formalwear than taking direct action. They’re more interested in propagating ideas to whoever will listen … and they don’t even have any ideas! All these people care about is furthering their own political agendas.”
I don’t think she was any different, but her comments got me wondering — what do Yalies’ choices among political groups on campus reveal about their perceptions of power? It is common knowledge that our generation is more jaded, apathetic and pessimistic about the prospects of direct political action. Across the board, Yale’s student body appears to be more interested in rising up the corporate and bureaucratic ladders to effect change. Frankly, I don’t blame them; their actions reveal less about Yale students and more about the sad reality of where power lies.
This is not to say political demonstrations do not still take place, and are not still (sometimes) successful in eliciting meaningful responses. But we clearly have less faith in them than we used to, and our faith in institutionalized reform has only grown. In addition to a sense of powerlessness, perhaps it is also the extreme political uncertainties of our time that make us want to nestle close to what is safely familiar, to let the organizations we join set the parameters for our political participation. The consequence of this tendency, however, has been a stifling compartmentalization of politics on campus, and the inevitable labeling that accompanies it.
William Palmer is a sophomore in Berkeley College.