Almost everything wrong with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization and the liberal activist movement on this campus could be summed up in one headline. Specifically, the headline on the front page of the News last Friday.
“Protest decries Levin’s silence,” the bold type blared, hovering next to a large picture of several GESO members looking righteously indignant. A sub-headline clarified the controversy: “GESO calls on president to rebuke Summers.” Apparently, the protesters wanted Yale’s President Levin to join his counterparts at MIT, Princeton and Stanford in denouncing Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ incendiary remarks last month about the biological differences between men and women. Levin’s refusal to do so, in GESO’s view, highlighted Yale’s own “rocky history with women and minority faculty.” And GESO wasn’t taking this outrage sitting down.
Before I launch into a Jamie Kirchick-esque rant against GESO and the activist left, let me clarify a few things. In principle, I have nothing against GESO. I have nothing against unions at Yale. And I certainly have nothing against campus liberal activism. Yale, like any powerful institution, corporation or government, needs activists who are constantly willing to stick their necks out and stand up in defense of what’s right. Otherwise, employees earning minimum wage, TAs struggling to stay afloat in a brutally competitive environment, disadvantaged students on financial aid and New Haven residents at large might not be able to stand up to the Yale Corporation on their own. Social justice is always worth fighting for, and complacently assuming that those in a position of power will fight for it is usually a poor strategy.
But that said, GESO and its undergraduate counterpart, the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, frequently push things too far. Yes, of course the protection of minority and women’s rights is important. And although Yale is in most respects an astonishingly progressive place, the University could arguably do a better job of creating and fostering a more diverse faculty. The protest described in Friday’s article over Levin’s audacious “silence,” however, like some other recent GESO and UOC protests, was not a protest of a legitimate problem or injustice. It was, indeed, nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Does anyone in GESO actually believe that Rick Levin hasn’t spoken out against Summers because he thinks women are biologically inferior? I for one can think of a few less sinister explanations. Maybe he just has more constructive things to do with his time than condemn administrators at other universities. Maybe, filled with the same compassion for Larry Summers that most spectators feel at a public hanging, he has decided not to pile onto what has become a national feeding frenzy. And just maybe, after seeing what happened when Summers opened his mouth on the subject, he doesn’t want to touch this particular issue with a 10-foot pole — because he knows that, whatever he says, GESO and company are liable to take issue with it.
Which brings me to my point. This isolated protest was not a big deal, but it is part of a much wider and more disturbing trend. Certain activists at Yale frequently seem less interested in advancing social justice and more interested in creating controversy. On a liberal campus like ours, most students tend to support your run-of-the-mill progressive causes — affirmative action, anti-discrimination practices, fair wages and so forth. But feisty student activists feel they aren’t really doing their job if they say things that the general student population agrees with — they have to constantly push the envelope. And so they deliberately pick fights.
Why couldn’t GESO have simply criticized Summers’ remarks? Because it was so passe — everyone had already done that. The logical step was to drag their favorite antagonist, Rick Levin, into the mix. Both the UOC and GESO target Levin with tedious regularity, making him the bad guy in a host of different struggles. Whether the topic is New Haven taxation, financial aid reform, unionization, civil rights or being appointed to Bush’s bipartisan intelligence panel, Levin is constantly portrayed as crushing social justice under his jewel-encrusted fist. I have no doubt that Levin, concerned about the University’s bottom line, is on the wrong side of some important community issues. And the occasional incendiary protest on Cross Campus when he truly does step over the line is sorely needed. But reflexively adopting an antagonistic posture toward the administration, making arbitrary demands and shouting about how “The Man” is trying to keep us down, as GESO and the UOC constantly do, is neither an effective strategy for change nor a good way to be taken seriously.
Moreover, this strategy tends to create a disturbing wider political dynamic on campus. Yale conservatives who are generally moderate start foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of GESO and have come to view some of their shenanigans in the most cynical possible light. When they read a headline like “Protest decries Levin’s silence,” they scoff, roll their eyes and assume that the protest organizers are simply self-promoters seeking the limelight. Worse, they take this to be the current face of Yale liberalism, and in turn grow more radical as they attempt to distance themselves from it. This explains a lot to me about “Light and Truth,” the Party of the Right and other reactionary Yale bastions. GESO and the UOC, when they go too far, needlessly polarize the campus and drive students on different sides of the political spectrum farther apart.
Many of my good friends are liberal campus activists, I respect them deeply, and I frequently admire the causes for which they labor. However, they need to bear in mind that while an effective activist never shies away from controversy, neither should a responsible one eagerly pursue it.
Roger Low is a sophomore in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.