Political performance art
Rence Nemeh’s Duke Student Government presidential campaign was funny and raised a legitimate concern about how narrow social constructs of leadership stifle individuality. Placing leaders on pedestals indeed glorifies an ideal of infallibility and rejects inconsistencies as weaknesses. Though given his critique of candidates’ hiding things to remain legitimate, there’s irony in Nemeh’s hiding the most significant element of his campaign—his non-candidacy—for that reason.
Yet his installations don’t recognize the purpose idealization serves. Candidates do create presentable, selective social constructions of themselves as “leaders,” but not because our community can’t accept alternatives. Rather, candidates’ constructions seek to show that they can successfully reconcile their private lives and their public duties. This assures us that what candidates do on their own time will not affect how well they’ll do their jobs.
Nemeh uses the act of shotgunning a beer to exemplify conduct incompatible with the social construct of “leader,” but, if that disqualifies Duke students from leadership, our campus organizations would face a major power vacuum. It’s not that we can’t accept a campus leader shotgunning a beer, we simply want to see in candidates’ campaign materials their abilities to switch on and off parts of their personalities and lifestyles, which will allow them to carry out their public duties. Alcohol consumption is not part of the narrow leadership construct because alcohol consumption is not part of the job. Some “polishing” reflects unhealthy pressure to conform, but the role of DSG president actually should entail some conformity to prevailing campus opinions, regardless of the individual’s beliefs.
And Nemeh’s criticism that DSG takes itself too seriously? Completely valid. But most politicians “take the joke in their own hands” by making light of themselves in an external venue, then go back to governing with the same seriousness as they always have. DSG doesn’t preside over the most earth-shattering problems, but importance is relative: Serious water shortages in India don’t mean California’s state government shouldn’t take its own drought problems seriously.