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Knocking some sense into the Duke community

What we've got here is a failure to communicate, and like the first monkeys, we can start by pointing fingers.

Debate at Duke and across the nation is scraping bottom, and this demands introspection. Now we all know that popular liberalism has become uninspired and downright moronic. Mainstream conservatism is really much worse off, in many ways undergoing a suicide, to be replaced, zombie-fashion, by little more than naked antagonism. And naturally, it wants your brain.

Duke provides a nice subject for understanding modern debate's problems, and this column is aimed squarely at the university's vocal right, as represented by the Duke Conservative Union and its publication, New Sense. I don't want to spend time making fun of NS, which would be too easy. (Quick one-why do its covers look like they're made of lint?) I'm more interested in the type of thinking DCU embodies. Besides, it's past due to start confronting some of their ideas.

Let's start with DCU's central problem. As I read through the last four issues of New Sense, I decided to take a little survey. For every article expressing an opinion, I noted whether the piece chiefly attacked something or argued for something. Now, out of the 59 such opinion articles in the last four issues, can you guess how many are predominantly negative? Incredibly, all 59! Every last one is a diatribe, on anything from the Literature Department to hip-hop music.

This is not merely a credibility problem for DCU; it is a symptom of a greater disease.

Pick up any copy of New Sense and what cannot help but strike you is the unreasonable level of anger and derision towards anyone not fully in lock-step with, well, New Sense. At best, the tone and argument are just unsettling, but at worst, the magazine starts to sound (ironically) like a 1920's Russian newspaper. Favored are words like "drivel," "opprobrium" and "radical." The Chronicle becomes a "pernicious bastion of politically correct palaver." Really? Pernicious?

The language is familiar because DCU members have learned it from conservatives like Ann Coulter and Bill Kristol. Problematically, this immature attitude can only place a freezing effect on rational discourse. I imagine this raw anger that is so hypnotic to the reader must be doubly so for the writer, thereby resulting in NS lines like, "The administration has opposed everything the DCU stands for, and would probably destroy the group if it could." How did Duke engender this opinion - by generously funding DCU or almost completely ignoring it?

As to content, NS is plagued with incoherencies. Take two major points: First, "diversity," "dialogue" and other administrative lingo is "leftist drivel;" second, this campus is overrun with "leftist radicals" and we need to make room for more conservative thought.

In other words, we need more diversity. Not to mention some healthy dialogue.

It's crucial here to understand the difference between recognizing the too-frequent inanities of academic goals as implemented, and the DCU's reflexive scorn against the ends themselves. Only the former posture leaves the door open for constructive debate. What DCU should do is admit that diversity, etc., are obviously good things, but Duke has the wrong approach towards themâ_"and present a better method. For instance, how should the University go about DCU's goal of diversifying the politics of its professors - hiring edges for the right-of-center?

That's a nice segue to a logical gap from NS' last issue. A number of columns deride the creation of the Gender Task Force, arguing that sexual disparities are largely the results of choice and that the administration aims for special, not equal treatment. Yet you could simply plug in "political view" for "gender" in these arguments, and end up strongly at odds with NS' politics. How exactly is DCU's oft-stated goal of increasing political diversity any different from the task force's goal for gender?

Tellingly, DCU entirely ignores any calculus of student need - they never stop to wonder if students like or benefit from diversity programs, as it seems many do. They claim the African American Studies Department as a "sworn enemy," but nowhere is this really explained - should the study of race in America be completely ignored by Duke, or is the department just valued too highly? As a major university of the South, shouldn't Duke have a strong AAS department?

A serious problem for NS, and all highly slanted debate, is the way passion gets in the way of facts, whether through carelessness or outright dishonesty. One unfortunate example is Matt Baldwin's article on the anti-war rally at the Chapel, in which he strongly disparages The Chronicle's coverage of the event. He dramatically concludes, "The finished product featured in the next day's edition made another fact clear to me: Integrity was absent that day."

Baldwin backs this up with three complaints about the article: an overestimation of the crowd size, and the twin failures to cover the pro-war rally nearby and the pulling of fire alarms immediately prior to the rally. Let the first one stand as highly debatable. The other two, however, are outright blundersâ_"both these facts are mentioned high up in the story and a pro-war protestor is even given a lengthy quote. People make mistakes, but apologies are due and a question lingers: Is it possible that Baldwin wrote a condemnation of the article without reading it first?

Here's my point: Philosophy advances through persistent challenge; we need thoughtful conservatism to come back and wrest liberalism from its malaise. Today's salient political topics are being treated with dangerously little thought.

Take the important question of whether the U.S., or any country, is justified in using military force solely for the purpose of freeing oppressed peoples. Many conservatives, like the anti-"nation building" Bush of 2000, would have wavered on this only a year ago, but have since migrated to a militant "Yes," perhaps because they gambled on "Saddam Hussein in the broom closet with the anthrax" and needed to scrap. A more mature approach would recognize the question's inherent unresolvability. Military intervention, like sex, is not always right and not always wrong - wise choices deal in nuance and consequence.

As to actually answering the question, perhaps New Sense could give it a crack. I would be very interested in what they have to say.

Mike Miller, Trinity '03, is a former Chronicle health and science editor.


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