Swat Overlaps

“What Swarthmore Really Stands For” or, Fuck Your Constructive Dialogue

By Kate Aronoff

This piece was drafted somewhere around mid-April, and the references within it to various campus controversies reflect that.

New York Times Columnist and Princeton graduate Ross Douthat wrote recently of “the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.” As much as generous financial aid, a relatively racially diverse student body and a prevailing myth of equality might try to convince the campus community that Swarthmore is a classless and colorblind utopia, we cannot escape the fact that the college was originally set up in direct service of a white, upper class elite. Swarthmore, in this sense, is not so far removed from what we would like to think of as our more problematic and uncritical cousins: the Ivy League.

Unlike Douthat’s Princeton, Swarthmore—with the exception of an ostracized few conservatives—is a campus of liberals. Even conservatives here might consider themselves classical liberals in the intellectual tradition of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith rather than Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. Liberalism at Swarthmore is as much form as content: it is the ability to compose oneself in the debate ring, a cool command of facts and the belief that if we argue well enough, things will get better. Reacting to the Greek life and commencement speaker controversies, liberals and conservatives have found themselves suddenly united, deploying identical arguments in defense of tolerant civil discourse and either administrative decision or inaction. In fact, the two sides have become almost indistinguishable, the details of their difference rendered irrelevant behind a re-emergent mainstream. In the wake of election season, Romney and Obama supporters alike have joined forces against an even more ill-defined radical strain on-campus. That is, those who break the liberal script.

To disavow either Zoellick or Greek life is to also disavow the self-perpetuating nature of elitism and Swarthmore’s role in that process. To be radical is to disavow both. Even as fraternities, sororities and Zoellick represent the most blush-worthy tenants of Swarthmore’s legacy, indicting them remains more threatening to the “average Swattie” than questioning their alignment to the college’s stated values. Both fall comfortably in line, however, with Swarthmore’s actual values; namely, the proliferation of well-educated elites into the highest realms of government, industry and education. In times of crisis not unlike the last few weeks, elites of all ideological stripes tend to drift towards the same side, or, more accurately, against a more radical one. Such was the case in early Cold War McCarthyism, when Black radicalism in the US and liberation movements in soon-to-be post-colonial states seriously threatened white power structures, and white liberals rushed to the defense of their own sanitized, stand-alone visions of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even this could only happen when the mass movements they tried to pretend didn’t exist made de jure racism unfashionable among the elite, forcing white liberals to support the path of least resistance to the dominant order.

As they have before, reactionary forces continue to come to the defense of civilized debate, what has in recent days been portrayed as “constructive dialogue.” They argue that hyperbole and emotion, as opposed to facts and reason, move our community farther away from a speedy resolution of conflict. Conflict itself, of course, is fundamentally uncomfortable for those whom more traditional avenues of change have benefited. At Swarthmore, those avenues are “open and robust dialogue”, not structural change or the breaking of convention. Constructive dialogue as social change is a much easier strategy for people whose contribution to those discussions—personal, professional, academic and otherwise—are most often validated in forums of debate privileged within elite institutions.

Underlying this call for reasoned discussion has been a re-assertion of rights for certain groups within a broadly defined campus community who already have them. Liberals leap to the defense of sectorsas specific as Robert Zoellick, and broaden out to include frat brothers and students hoping to pursue careers in the international relations, up to and including men writ large and students seeking a “mainstream” party culture at Swarthmore. When the terms of the debate shift, so to do those most likely to come out on top. Where these groups enjoy the benefit of society’s doubt, radical fringes within Swarthmore are questioning the basis of that assumption and provoking a reaction common to crises of the elites: witch hunts premised on their opponents’ irrationality and asking for too much too fast.

In a piece dedicated to his students at Brandeis in 1968, Herbert Marcuse writes that, “Tolerance cannot be indiscriminate with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed: it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the possibilities of liberation.” To ask for tolerance is to assume equal circumstances, not to demand the destruction of the inequality and elitism that keeps “tolerance” as we know it so disingenuous. We are all Swarthmore students, but we are not all the same, and—good liberals as we may be—not all of us are interested in the project of liberation. Free speech cannot exist where freedom, or even the desire for freedom, does not exist. Tolerance at Swarthmore can only be reactionary, a shield to hide behind when the terms of debate become too threatening.

Calls to tolerate our classmates going on to work for Goldman Sachs and other big banks, those members of our community who will go on to make six figures engineering wars and free trade agreements truly are calls in service to Swarthmore and its liberal values. Unlike Aristotle, quoted by President Chopp in a now-infamous email, not all of us enjoy the privilege of “[navigating] all of the many complexities of life with grace and fidelity.” Grace, by President Chopp’s definition, would mean supporting survivor and rapist equally, supporting the oppressor as we do the oppressed. While this may be what Swarthmore stands for, Swarthmore as we know it stands on the wrong side of history without its most socially responsible members guiding paths forward; radically, defiantly against rapist in support of survivor, against oppressor in support of oppressed, against the liberal project in support of liberation.

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