The semester I left campus, I was involved in running an Aldermanic campaign for Ward One. Our candidate, Paul Chandler ’16, was a senior in Pierson and was running against an incumbent who had done a fairly bad job of connecting Yale students with New Haven city (as it happens, she is still in office). Our campaign sought to metaphorically catapult Yale students from Phelps Gate across the green to City Hall, to engage with and influence local issues in the city. Hundreds of students took part, in both our campaign and our opponent’s. It was the democratic process at its best, and we all learned a little more about the city in which we live.
And my experience wasn’t unique. Yalies have a proud history of not just “talking the talk” but actually diving into efforts to effect change at a local, national and often international level. College campuses in the United States have long been revered as forums not only of debate but also of acting on one’s beliefs and opinions. Whether it was the Civil Rights Movement or antiwar protests, the college campus was an engine of national disquiet and political activity.
In this regard, Yale was the nation’s Rolls Royce. Our campus used to be a place where the results of resolutions at Yale Political Union debates were immediately sent by telegram to Washington because the nation’s leaders wanted to know what their likely successors were thinking. Under Kingman Brewster, students opened their dorms to protestors visiting New Haven for the May Day Black Panther trial. As recently as eight years ago, hundreds of students temporarily withdrew from Yale to work on then Senator Obama’s Presidential campaign.
Sadly, heartfelt organizing around real issues has been replaced by a rabble of proxy campaigning, designed to attack abstract concepts that are easily mistaken for injustice or inequality, rarely relevant to or even comparable with the malfeasances that truly warrant outrage.
Campaigns to reduce racial discrimination have become squabbles over the name of a residential college. Efforts to address racial inequality and hate crimes have been channeled into the handling of an email regarding Halloween costumes.
And organizations such as Students Unite Now, an organization that seeks to “work to create a world where decisions are made collectively in the interests of social, racial and economic justice, not unilaterally in pursuit of increased profits for the privileged few,” have opted to dedicate their entire on-campus efforts this semester to eliminating the student contribution for a handful of Ivy League students.
When did we decide that we should devote our attention solely to issues that affected our bank accounts, our transcripts, our Saturday nights or where we ate our lunch? When did we become so afraid of real problems facing our city, or the country or our planet?
Yalies must recognize their position in the world on this campus. We are watched by the decision makers of today who recognize the decision makers of tomorrow. Instead of seeing wars rallied against, injustices attacked and tyrants exposed, they witness the demise of Yale’s campus as a pathway for political and economic stewards. Instead, we are becoming an amphitheater for adolescent complaint, where screams of “It’s unfair” can be heard from those who ignore the real problems going on outside our walls.
We all have a responsibility to address this. Next time you’re asked to sign a petition to further a measure you would directly benefit from, take a moment to ask why that effort isn’t being directed elsewhere. The next time you notice an abstract concept is being used as a catalyst for protest, ask why the protest isn’t focused on much bigger problems than metaphors.
And here’s a little advice for the Yale administration — don’t encourage students. Next time a loud but unrepresentative group of students sets up camp outside Woodbridge Hall declaring they have unanimously taken offense to something you’ve done, congratulate them on their enthusiasm and politely suggest they find more ethically fulfilling work that will help real people.
Ben Mallet is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .