This OR That – Two Students’ Conflicting Philosophical Responses to the Election

Jonathan Smith and Celeste Marcus articulate respective responses to the state of American Politics in the two articles below

Cross-Community Activism by Jonathan Smith

Following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States individuals like myself must ask how we can use our power as members of the community to curb the many nefarious trends brought to the fore. I, a foreign national from the Arab World with a deep connection to the highest aspirations of the American Dream, believe it is my duty to use whatever power of activism I have to resist racism, sexism, bigotry and the disillusionment of many Americans. I rush to express solidarity and act to protect the rights of many of my friends and classmates who feel victimized and in danger by some of the entities emboldened by the soon-to-be reality of a Trump Presidency.

I also feel the need to think about activism that might engage members of my own community with Trump voters that made the choice they did because of the failure of a neoliberal technocracy. I can’t forgive those voters for overlooking my safety to vote the way they did right now but I must accept their choice and reach out to them to make sure that in the future this country will be less divided and better. The idea of doing so fills me with dread and anxiety; right now I fear that such action will endanger my safety. Nonetheless, I realize that to the extent I can do so I must. I couldn’t bring myself to walk four blocks in the dark today let alone engage with Trump supporters but I know I must. I must because I can’t fathom eight years of Trump. I must because the vocal Trump supporters who are explicitly racist and hateful cannot be afforded 8 years of free reign. Not acting would confirm all of the intuitions of Trump’s disillusioned base and this would be wrong.

As to what such a category of activism constitutes I am less certain. I’d like so suggest three ideas, in no particular order, that could be a basis for future inquiry on how to maximize the effectiveness of any activism going forward. While I fear implementing such proposals right now I believe that we must implement similar activism over the next four years.

First, we conduct food drives and community service in rural and suburban communities. Many of the communities that voted for Donald Trump record high levels of poverty. Every single one of the 10 towns with the lowest per capita income voted for Trump this election. Five out of the ten towns with the lowest GDP per capita voted did the same. A sizeable portion of Trump’s voters have struggled economically, including in communities not too far away from major urban areas. We could consider going to such communities and helping in community revitalization efforts, food drives and other initiatives.

Second, college students like myself conduct town halls and other similar forums in rural and suburban community. We must stop demonizing each other and while discourse isn’t the only answer it is an important part of the solution. A lot of thinking would have to go into deducing how to implement such a solution. Done poorly, such a forum might make college students vulnerable to hostile and possibly bigoted people and not forward constructive dialogue. On the other hand, done effectively forums such as the ones I could propose could prove to be an empathy-building exercise activity for all involved and could well prove instructive on the question of appealing to Trump supporters going forward.

Third, we reach out to blue-collar workers and other Trump voters and together we denounce the racism and sexism rife in the Republican Party’s campaign. Many of Trump’s voters are tired of being caricatured as racists; giving them a means to do so may also prove to be important to help the country going forward. An interesting initiative to do this might juxtapose the disillusionment of Trump’s voters with the discrimination suffered by minorities and marginalized groups through a series of narratives. Such a collection of stories could be an important mechanism for empathy building. I don’t claim that any experience is equivalent, only that there are likely striking parallels between all of our struggles and we must aim to find those.

While such activism will be crucial we must prioritize the safety of our peers belonging to various marginalized communities. In all honesty, I sense that white, male, heterosexual and non-Jewish allies might be the individuals best placed to embark on such activism for the moment. Admitting that identity could be so crucial for activism is tragic, however, not doing so would endanger marginalized identities including my own. Such activism might be necessary but for many, even most, who might wish to affect similar civic action that might be impossible. Not acknowledging this reality would be highly irresponsible. I certainly feel daunted by the thought of implementing my suggestions due to my own identity.

On the other hand, we must ask always how we can use the resources we have to affect change and in my view that will necessarily mean exploring how to engage with Trump’s voters. To that end, I bring you my suggestions. I realize that they are limited, flawed and maybe even unviable. I hope that you critique each of these suggestions, tear them apart if they deserve such a treatment. At the moment, I view the commencement of inquiring as to what means will be most effective to be an imperative intellectual issue and I hope you all join me in pursuit of the answers to the questions I hopefully raised.



Books Before Binding by Celeste Marcus

I want to make posters and organize marches. I want to reach out to local charities and minority groups to express solidarity and to offer my services in whatever capacity they may need. I want to write angry letters and make persuasive, empowering speeches. Activism is the obvious antidote to the itching helplessness in our fists and feet. It is natural. It is insufficient. It is secondary. It is true that kindness has never been more necessary. Today the strangers on the street deserve warmer smiles than they did a month ago. We are hurting because we do not know each other.

But increased kindness is a superficial solution and it will not hold. Our task as students and as future operators in the country we love and now see hemorrhaging is study. Students have a responsibility now to sink deep into the texts and papers we have been assigned. If we aspire to create the leaders we do not have we must first make ourselves the sort of people others need. Dependence is a reaction to trust and trust must be earned. We will earn trust by becoming authorities in the fields we take seriously – the fields America has abandoned.

I am talking about the humanities.

The prioritization of professionalism over substantive thought has yielded a dearth of human wisdom. Our stores of human wisdom are empty. We have deemed the study of philosophy, history (our own as well as others), literature, language, and art superfluous and so lack a leadership conversant in humanism. We don’t trust our leaders because they do not know us. They do not know human beings. They have not educated themselves in the vicissitudes of human history or in an appreciation for the rhythms of the human soul. We think them out of touch because we have told them they should be. Their knowledge is practical (“This is how the system works” is sexy – “This is where we came from” is archaic). They do not know because we told them they did not have to. Trump majored in economics in college, Clinton in Political Science. They have been groomed for professions and so lack proficiency in human wisdom.

This wisdom does not yield prophetic powers. No student of history, or of anything else, can foresee the challenges our nation will face. But they prepare us for those challenges the same way that novels acquaint us with death, love and betrayal. Indirect confrontation with extremes educates us.

Our greatest leaders have been giants of such wisdom. Lincoln, an autodidact with a dysfunctional (read: substantive) relationship with God knew the Bible backwards. After completing a BA in sociology at the age of 18, Martin Luther King joined the church to slate the “inner urge to serve humanity.” These are our leaders. These men earned America’s trust.

We must learn from this history. Study must be our balm. We must use it to tend to our self inflicted wounds.

I am not denigrating activism or volunteer work. These are important elements of a full education. Learning is not done only in classrooms and we must know how to sink our souls into one another if we intend to earn trust. But the itching in our fists and feet misleads us if we allow it to direct our primary attentions away from our books. Leaders must know how to love but a trust based on love rather than on need is a shallow trust. Lovers who give one another affection and nothing else are lesser lovers than those who provide one another with intellectual and moral counsel.

Why the humanities? They teach us how to think. A mind that has grappled with foreign and conflicting genius is a sharper, stronger one. A mind with a reverence for reading and analysis is a stronger, sharper one. Capacity for such thought is a prerequisite in leadership: before anything else, we must demand that of our leaders. We must not be satisfied with intellectual agility alone, but we must not be satisfied with anything short of it. Why? Why thought? The answer should be obvious but it deserves scrutiny.

Our needs our best appreciated when they are not fed. Our stores of human wisdom are empty. We have abandoned our books. What has that created? An addiction to superficiality.

A people that is hungry for a sustenance it does not know is hopeless. A baby cries when it is hungry because it recognizes the hunger but has not yet learned to tend to it. A mother is charged with such knowledge. We are an orphaned nation, starving for the sort of leadership we do not know. We are attempting to slate hunger with sugar and so have grown both fat and dizzy.

We cannot be experts in human needs without first studying the human story. The brightest and darkest chapters of this story offer troves of knowledge necessary for a student hungry to lead. We cannot hope to pull ourselves out of the muck we are in without this study. Martin Luther King said, “Nothing is more dangerous in this world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” We cannot pick up the poster boards before our pages have been worn thin, our pencil points rubbed blunt, and our minds made sharper for it.