Make Duke students debate again
a political night vision
As an international student who has always been passionate about U.S. politics, I was really excited to study at Duke in part because that meant living in a research university. I thought this would be where conversations happen and ideas shape the world, and where students determine the outcomes of elections. I pictured myself in the midst of the constant contest for power and the predominance of ideas between conservatives and liberals, in debate societies, talks or student newspapers, in an atmosphere of tolerance and intellectual growth.
I was disappointed to discover that, in this election year, politics and debates are hardly part of campus life. As opposed to the universe of healthy controversy that I imagined, Duke’s political scene has exhibited an unchallenged and almost unquestionable liberal consensus.
Many people have argued that this overwhelming consensus is due to 2016’s particular election, in which a populist, racist, bigoted, egomaniac and almost-diabolical Republican nominee opposes an experienced and rational Democratic nominee. No debate is possible with supporters of Donald Trump, and the majority of Duke faculty and students, being educated and tolerant, do not intend to argue for voting Trump.
Though constructive debate is nearly impossible this time around, this election might be one of the most prone to debate in recent American history. In fact, Trump has consistently challenged many of the foundational aspects of U.S. policy and politics, while echoing the views of millions of Americans.
Ian Burgess, in his column, “If Trump wasn’t Trump,” showed that the Trump phenomenon is in large part due to the fact that many white working-class communities have suffered from a decrease in living standards, higher unemployment and the feeling of being abandoned by the government. Instead of disparaging Trump for opposing free trade and “openness to the world,” one should wonder what is wrong about the current economic status quo that makes so many people approve Trump’s rhetoric on trade.
Trump’s foreign policy platform could be understood and appreciated in the same perspective. Critiques of the nominee point out that he is advocating “isolationism.” In other words, he wishes for America to retreat from its position as the leader of the global liberal order it has built politically (support for European integration), economically (World Trade Organization, IMF, multilateral free trade agreements) as well militarily (NATO) for decades. This would mean that Trump wishes to abandon America’s closest allies like South Korea, Japan or the Eastern European Baltic states facing the threat of Russian aggression.
However, the reasoning of mostly middle and working class people supporting Trump’s foreign policy could be summarized as, “How are we benefiting from this liberal order in which we put so much of our taxpayer money? Perhaps by losing our jobs to competition from our so-called allies?”
Even Trump’s most controversial and divisive policy statements on immigration and radical Islamic terror cannot simply be ruled out from public debates. True, we want to avoid creating divisions in American society and alienating oppressed minorities. But in order to do so, is it really necessary to overlook realities that need to be taken into account in policy-making, merely because they are not empathetic to these communities? Is it really necessary to claim that “ISIS has nothing to do with Islam” as President Obama suggested? Failing to gain the support and trust of the Muslim American community, Trump has nonetheless been the only candidate to mention, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, that radical Islam is an ideology which is incompatible with Western values and institutions, which nourishes terrorism and therefore should be named and opposed.
Although Trump has built much of the appeal of his immigration platform on falsehoods and paranoia, there is nothing blatantly ridiculous in asserting that “if we don’t have a border, we don’t have a country.” In other words, there is nothing fundamentally wrong in opposing migration waves that could potentially put a strain on public services, put a downward pressure on wages and threaten the country’s national identity, values and way of life. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in building a wall on the U.S. border, which simply means upholding the Westphalian principle that one cannot enter a state’s territory without its direct or indirect authorization, and such in order to ensure the safety of its inhabitants.
Therefore, if at least some of Trump’s proposed policies make sense and are worth debating, why is it that not once have I had a conversation, a real conversation, with a Trump supporter or someone who intends to vote for Trump? Although the Duke community’s makeup is not favorable to Trump, there is no doubt that there are people in my classes, discussions and everyday encounters who intend to vote for him, and have reasons.
I believe these people are reluctant, if not terrified, to publicly announce their support for Trump and argue for him on Duke’s campus. They fear the backlash. They fear being labeled “racist,” “bigoted,” “ignorant” or “insensitive,” and fear marginalization in the largely progressive Duke community.
This extends further. Many across academia and beyond are worried about, and fighting for, freedom of expression on American campuses. On Sunday, the president of the University of California system, Janet Napolitano, wrote in the Boston Globe “to show how far we have moved from freedom of speech on campuses to freedom from speech.”
“If it hurts, if it’s controversial, if it articulates an extreme point of view, then speech has become the new bête noire of the academy. Speakers are disinvited, faculty are vilified and administrators like me are constantly asked to intervene,” she said.
President Napolitano is exactly right. If one is accused of being ignorant merely for wanting a wall to protect the border, or Islamophobic for saying that ISIS’ ideology is one of many different interpretations of Islam; if one has to calculate each and everyone of their words and actions in order to avoid perpetrating "microaggressions," if we must use the right "trigger warnings" and check whether one is in "safe" space; then indeed, there is no more freedom of expression on American campuses.
In the 1960s, students in campuses across this country bravely stood up against the establishment to defend the rights of oppressed Americans—particularly women and minorities, despite the climate of suspicion and scrutiny which conservatives had put in place.
But since then, roles have been inverted, and certain positions on women and minority rights have become the sacrosanct dominant ideologies of America’s intellectual establishment. Criticize them, and you might be shut down.
Because restriction on free speech has become a part of our generation’s culture, I believe that rarely has freedom of speech been so endangered in America. The time has come to stand up for it, so that Thomas Jefferson’s words to his University of Virginia could always be true.
“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind,” he said. “For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.
Emile Riachi is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "a political night vision," runs on alternate Thursdays.