Politics of Destruction

By Guest Contributor

Most people in the world who look at Middlebury College see a bastion of decency, fairness and social justice. Most people see Middlebury’s continued commitment to carbon neutrality amidst difficult economic conditions as evidence of an exceptional dedication to the future of our planet. Most people see the College’s need-blind admissions policy as both a strong statement in favor of distributive justice and as an effective effort to provide opportunities to students who otherwise would not have them.

As they are so keen on making clear to us, the “Middlebury Radicals” are not most people. Rather than being proud of Middlebury’s commitment to making the world a better place, the Radicals want us to be ashamed of our school. Their anger at Middlebury was evident last week in the falsified press release they emailed. It was evident when they heckled students looking to donate blood several weeks ago in the McCullough Student Center. The Radicals see the core of the College as evil because the institution exists in and perpetuates a political system they wish to do away with: namely Jeffersonian Republicanism. Thus, virtually anything Middlebury does is subject to the Radicals’ intolerant and egomaniacal criticism.

The protest of the American Red Cross, which purported to be about the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) discriminatory policies that prohibit men who have had sex with men (MSM) from donating blood, tells us all we need to know about this radical politics. Let’s ignore the FDA’s argument that because gay men are allegedly 2,000 times more likely to be infected with AIDS than other first-time blood donors, they should be “deferred” (a nice word for prohibited) from donating. Let’s just focus on what the Radicals decided was the appropriate response to a controversial and, due to advances in blood testing, outdated policy. The American Red Cross and its donors do more good in one year than every student group at Middlebury combined has in 213 years. Protesting the Red Cross requires thorough justification and consideration, neither of which is requisite in the Radicals’ platonic conception of “activism.”

It might be possible to justify these protests if a) the participants had made an effort to meet with President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz or Dean of the College Shirley Collado before the Red Cross came to campus and b) if the Red Cross had not announced its opposition to the FDA’s MSM policy back in 2006. But the students chose to forgo any communication with the Offices of the President and the Dean of the College (both of which sympathize with the cause) until the day of their protests, when they left buckets of fake blood in Old Chapel.

Such childish “activism” was taken to new extremes with the falsified press release emailed to the Middlebury community and various media outlets on Oct. 12. That action caused more damage than the blood drive protest. The Office of the President spent several days responding to calls from alums, board members, journalists and parents. A local Vermont news station broadcasted the story and later had to issue a retraction in embarrassment. The Radicals claimed the email was satirical. While they were laughing, many members of the Middlebury and broader Vermont community had their weekends — and more — ruined.

One might pass this sort of behavior off as silly or marginal and thus not worthy of our attention. That would be a mistake. Both the protest of the Red Cross and the falsified press release were carefully planned. The students involved are not shallow, but rather intelligent and deliberate. As such, we must assume that they were fully aware of the potential consequences of their actions. Considering that, we should be seriously concerned. Far from constructively effecting positive change, these students’ actions have hurt members of this community. They greatly upset members of the administration, who seek the same trustful relationships many of us strive to establish on campus, but also students who thought, rightly, that by donating blood they were doing good.

The Radicals’ actions have risked the meaningful progress made by the Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) club. SRI is enacting positive change by working with the Office of the President. That progress has taken time — a dimension radicals, virtually by definition, have no patience for — in part because the student members of SRI have had to prove themselves honorable and serious. By eschewing integrity and sincerity, the falsified press release risked greatly jeopardizing the relationships SRI has built.

There are serious problems in the world and at Middlebury. I, along with many other students on this campus, care deeply about solving them. It is appealing to look at the Radicals and sympathize with their politics. Many well-meaning students may feel compelled to join the cause, which is why the group’s destructive activism must not be dismissed. Because the truth about these radicals is that their priority is neither social justice nor human rights. Their priority is themselves. That unpleasant truth is evidenced by their self-aggrandizement and ruthless demonization of others. The Radicals justify their behavior by falsely suggesting that they understand something the rest of us do not. The truth these radicals — whose ideas, far from being newfound, have been debated since the French Revolution — refuse to acknowledge is that just because most students and faculty do not share their views is not evidence that we lack critical thinking or a commitment to ameliorating suffering around the world.

It is thus ironic that the Radicals should choose go/compassion as the on-campus web shortcut for their blog. Indeed, by forgoing any collaboration with the administration, by disregarding the hurt caused by their destructive conduct and by failing to recognize the potential validity of others’ opinions, the Middlebury Radicals demonstrate an outright bewilderment concerning the true nature of compassion.

Written by HARRY ZIEVE-COHEN ’15 of Brooklyn, N.Y.