CHRONICLE

Vol. XXV, Issue 1 October 1, 2013

THE VASSAR

The Geo-Politics of Queer Identity: Re-Framing Queerness as Rural
by Gideon Thompson-Aue

page 12

VASSAR DEBATE

WHY VASSAR SHOULD DIvEST U. S. INTERvENTION AND HUMAN RIGHTS

4 18

NATIOnAL & FOREIGn PAGE 6-7

ONIoN EDITOR-IN-CHIeF WILL TRAcY ’05 DIScUSSeS POLITIcS, SATIRe

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

THE VASSAR CHRONICLE

TABLe OF CONTeNTS

Rhetoric on Campus Affects Solidarity
STAFF EDITORIAL
Last year, the Vassar community confronted a shocking number of hate and bias incidents: multiple instances of graffiti in communal living spaces, posters with extremely derogatory remarks, and a visit from the United States’ most notorious hate-mongers, the Westboro Baptist Church. The frequency with which these events occurred surprised us not because we believe that Vassar students host absolutely no hatred in their hearts, but because we presume that Vassar students are courteous enough to channel their hateful impulses towards constructive discourse aimed at resolving differences and reaching collective solutions to our social problems. And yet, members of our community continue to employ hateful rhetoric. A recent post on SayAnything derided Vassar’s Posse Scholars as murderers. Though many students may feel uncomfortable with the United States’ military-industrial complex – for legitimate reasons – such blanket assertions fail to recognize the various social, political, and economic reasons that individuals join the military.  To accuse anyone of being a murderer requires serious moral reflection and a deep understanding of the accused’s culpability. Such a charge ought not be lightly thrown around. Others, not content with the already exclusionary treatment of persons of color on campus, see fit to troll a student-run website dedicated to exposing microaggressions and instances of bias on campus. And though we are sure that the moderators of that website, Shit White People Say at VC, intend only to expose the privileged assumptions which underlie many of Vassar’s social structures, they too occasionally employ aggressive rhetoric to alienate and criticize students. We understand that it is quite easy to ask of people that they “take the high road,” but when one’s task involves bringing about a wholesale change in attitude, we believe that such decorum is essential. Moreover, we recognize a disturbing trend of polarization in campus discourse. Though most Vassar students consider themselves liberal, many adopt different theoretical frameworks for analyzing and solving social problems. Though these frameworks are not mutually exclusive, many students, even those that are ostensibly leaders in the Vassar Student Association (VSA), fail to recognize that their perspective relies on assumptions that other individuals may not hold. This failure to recognize that we all come from different perspectives, and that some individuals may require more knowledge before being able to participate cogently in a sustained discourse, breeds debates that gestate into sometimes nasty arguments. This year, we urge Vassar students to seriously consider the words they use and how those words may affect others. By words, we include not only the spoken and written word, but any form of action which expresses an opinion or feelings about another individual or group. We also urge the VSA and other student organizations to continue to investigate how Vassar can sustainably deal with internal and external instances of hatred. A permanent structure must be created that brings Vassar students together to incite change in the world outside of the Vassar bubble. Vassar students must not be forced to rely on ad-hoc organizations, as they did last year during the Westboro Baptist Church protest – the VSA should create such a permanent structure and ensure that it has the power to collect funds and organize volunteer work for the public benefit.

Staff Editorial Vassar & Local National & Foreign Affairs Debate & Discourse Humour The Last Page

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EDITOR-IN-CHIeF SeNIOR EDITOR
CHRIsTA GUILD JosHUA SHERMAN
PUBLISHeR-IN-EXILe VASSAR & LOcAL NATL. & FOReIGN AFFAIRS DeBATe & DIScOURSe COpY & STYLe COppY & STYLe ASSTS. ILLUSTRATOR Will Serio Marya Pasciuto Nathan Tauger Gregory Perry Hannah Matsunaga Jenna Amlani Logan Hill Madeleine Morris

ZACK STRUVER

TReAsUReR

Letters Policy: The Vassar Chronicle encourages its readers to voice their opinions by writing Letters to the Editor, several of which will be selected for publication in each issue. Please address correspondence to chronicle@vassar.edu. Advertising Policy: All advertisements will be clearly demarcated as such. Contact chronicle@ vassar.edu for rates. All material is subject to editors’ discretion.

Correction
The Vassar Chronicle’s Executive & Editorial Boards would like to apologize for an error uncovered in our numbering system. This current edition, published October 1, 2013 is Volume XXV, Issue 1. The edition published on November 6, 2012, was incorrectly numbered as Volume XXII, Issue 2. We corrected this error in the previous edition, published on February 26, 2013, which was correctly numbered as Volume XXIV, Issue 3. All past editions since December, 2010, excepting the February 26, 2013, edition, were also numbered erroneously. The following is a list of the correct volume and issue numbers for prior editions of the Chronicle, published since December, 2010, which were incorrectly numbered: • • • • • • • • • • December, 2010: Volume XXII, Issue 1. February 22, 2011: Volume XXII, Issue 2. April 5, 2011: Volume XXII, Issue 3. May 3, 2011: Volume XXII, Issue 4. October 4, 2011: Volume XXIII, Issue 1. November 29, 2011: Volume XXIII, Issue 2. February 15, 2012: Volume XXIII, Issue 3. October 2, 2012: Volume XXIV, Issue 1. November 6, 2012: Volume XXIV, Issue 2. February 26, 2013: Volume XXIV, Issue 3.

Nota bene: The opinions published in The Vassar Chronicle do not necessarily represent those of the editors, except for the Staff Editorial, which is supported by at least 70 percent of the Editorial Board.

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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

VASSAR & LOCAL
Standardized Test Requirement Excludes Students in Admissions
Adam Ninyo Contributor

s college application deadlines get closer, I am inspired to ponder on what the Vassar College Class of 2018 will look like. In doing so, I am also prompted to reflect on what I was doing a year ago. I wasn’t beginning to enjoy senioritis or try out some wacky, new activity. Actually, at that point, I was abandoning some of my current activities because I was studying for the SATs, which I was taking for the second time. I had already spent countless hours studying for that test the first time around and several more taking it, but I was hoping that those few extra points would get me into the college of my choice. Who knows? Maybe, they did; maybe, they didn’t. Frankly, who cares? If my scores did help or hurt me, I’d like to think that they weren’t the factor that tipped whatever scales admissions officers use to weigh our application to get me into college. The college admissions process’s reliance on standardized testing is an undue burden on students that makes the process much less human and destroys its integrity. Vassar and its peer institutions often toss around terms like “holistic review” when discussing how they evaluate applications, claiming that attention is given to every part of the application. Unfortunately for

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the many talented high school students who do not excel at bizarre logic-based questions on Saturday mornings, Vassar looks at standardized test scores as a significant part of their application. By preemptively locking out talented students by scrutinizing their scores, Vassar prevents perfectly qualified applications from gaining admission, as well as inhibits its own ability to obtain a diverse applicant pool. To be clear, I’m not saying that Vassar should not allow students to submit scores or that some form of comprehensive evaluation is not important. I think that great scores, when supported by a strong transcript, can be an excellent way for a student to show their academic competency. However, I also believe that bad scores are an unfair hindrance to an application. They can cause a student to set their standards lower than they should and be locked out of an elite college or university. Having heavy test requirements can also hurt the educational institutions themselves. There are many worthy students who have scores below Vassar’s “range” that are discouraged to apply and instead decide to apply to peer colleges that are test optional. If Vassar is as serious about increasing socio-economic diversity as it claims to be, it should make applying easier for those who come from lower-class backgrounds. Most students

taking the SAT do not have the resources to afford the test preparation courses or tutoring that their peers can, and, thus, do not perform as well. Personally, I know that, had I not been able to take advantage of test preperation, I likely would’ve scored significantly worse on the SAT. At Bowdoin College and Bates College, studies have shown that there is not a noticeable difference in performance between students who submit scores and students who do not. In 2005, Bates noted that “the difference in overall GPAs at Bates is .05 (five-hundredths of a GPA point); the exact difference is 3.06 for non-submitters and 3.11 for submitters.” Suffice it to say, the SAT and ACT are not valid metrics for determining academic ability. Another compelling, if somewhat shameful, argument can be seen in the status boost that moving to a test-optional system would provide. Application numbers would skyrocket, which would decrease our acceptance rate, and not considering a portion of the incoming class’s standardized test scores would likely increase the average mean SAT score of admitted students. That may be an unscrupulous way to analyze the situation, but other schools, whether intentionally or not, gain a rankings boost from relaxed testing policies, and potential applicants do look at rankings. Thus, by increasing our name-recognition, Vassar will be

able to further intrigue many attractive prospects. We must be able to better compete with the schools that have lenient testing requirements, consistently outrank us, and attract not only more applicants, but more diverse applicants. Part of what attracted me to Vassar is that it came across as a place where I would be encouraged to engage in thoughtful discourse, explore who I am and what I passionate about, and meet new and interesting people. In the month that I have been here so far, it seems to be just that. However, I think that by going testoptional, it can further strive towards that ideal. Vassar can attract many students who, in the current climate, would not consider applying, as their scores are lower than what would be considered acceptable. Ironically, such an increase in “selectivity” (according to the acceptance rate) would allow Vassar to further realize its goals of diversity and openness. If we give students the opportunity to apply in a way in which their application is not colored by their scores, we send the message that we are a welcoming community that cares about who they are, not how they did — regardless of whether or not they gain admission. Vassar is leaps and bounds above many other colleges in terms of diversity, but we can still improve greatly if we focus more on appealing to diverse application pools than on the average SAT score.

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There once was a gentleman Weiner, Whose track record couldn’t be cleaner. After media rants, He pulled up his pants, yellin’ Come on! You had to have seen her!
by Gregory Perry

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

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Why
I

To fight climate change, we must squash more than carbon footprints
Dylan Finley Contributor

VASSAR & LOCAL Divestment is Here
multiple demonstrations, a sit-in at the pivotal Trustees meeting that remarkably turned bloody, the creation of the Campus Investor Responsibility Committee (CIRC), the creation of the Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC), and, finally, the divestment from five of six major banks engaging in “questionable operations” in South Africa. The CIRC was a committee on socially-responsible investments intended to advise and report to the TIRC. The TIRC would, in turn, make its own recommendations to the Trustees. Again, in 2005, Vassar divested from

to

Stay

t’s a reassuring notion to believe that we can have an impact on climate change simply by altering our lifestyles. We’re sorting compost from trash at the recycling bins; we’re biking into town instead of driving; we’re buying compact fluorescent bulbs for our desk lamp. Maybe, somewhere along the way, we signed a petition to cut back on emissions. Collectively, the fact that millions of us do these things every day sends a message to our government — as a generation, we are serious about the future of our planet. Perhaps when we compel our colleges to reduce their carbon footprint, we are turning our institutions of higher learning into beacons of energy efficiency in which students can take pride and serving as pioneers for other schools in the Green movement. It’s a way of thinking and a means for action that have settled comfortably into the minds of Vassar students, faculty, and administration. Unfortunately, due largely to our investment in fossil fuel companies, it’s an underachieving mindset, hypocritical to the core, and nonetheless ubiquitous on college campuses across the nation. The fact remains that while all of our efforts to make Vassar an environmentallysustainable place should be recognized and supported, they occur alongside the college’s sizable investments in the very corporations leading us to a future of environmental catastrophe. We have plenty to blame in ourselves for the reckless ways we abuse our planet. We’ve allowed ourselves to become addicted to coal, oil, and natural gas. These are mistakes we must rectify for the betterment of society and for ourselves. But society’s demand for energy does not absolve corporations from guilt — those that, for the sake of profit, regularly and deliberately abuse public health, the global environment, and human rights. Oil spills, air pollution, hydraulic fracturing, mountaintop-removal coal, the dismissal of climate change as a hoax, and the obstruction of a low-carbon national energy policy are all either ongoing policies or direct consequences of policies championed by the fossil fuel industry. To champion such corporations with financial investments, and thus to profit from the exact exploitative enterprises we condemn, is inherently deceitful. Removing monetary investments from such companies is the socially responsible thing for Vassar’s Board of Trustees — the committee charged with determining investment decisions — to bring about. In 1978, Vassar’s Trustees recognized the duplicity of fostering an educational environment heavily geared towards social consciousness while at the same time investing in companies profiting from the government of South Africa, which was considered at the time to be one of the world’s most blatant violators of human rights. A campus-wide uproar led by the Proxy Review Committee (PRC) resulted in

“In terms of the potential impacts on the college’s finances, there is something to be said about the continued economic ependence on an industry doomed to expire in the rapidly approaching future.”

companies tied to the genocide in Darfur. Though numerous pleas have been made in recent years to divest from other socially irresponsible companies, these are the only two instances of divestment since the creation of the CIRC 35 years ago. Vassar’s ongoing hesitancy to divest from fossil fuel companies since the campaign commenced a year ago should, therefore, not be surprising. In fact, it is doubtful that either of the aforementioned instances of divestment would have occurred in the first place had it not been for overwhelming pressure from students and faculty—something that the fossil fuel divestment campaign has been lacking. Historically, the members of the Trustees have put the social responsibility of companies far below their priorities of sustaining revenue and maintaining similar investments. One could justifiably view their creation of the CIRC and TIRC after the ’78 riots as an attempt to divert concerns about investor responsibility away from themselves and toward a comparatively labyrinthine bureaucratic system. If we view the Trustee’s history in this conniving light, the fact that CIRC has in recent years taken on a similarly obstructionist stance on divestment, especially towards fossil fuels, seems to be a victory for the Board. This situation is by no means unique to Vassar. Colleges across the country have billions of dollars invested in fossil fuel companies. Middlebury Matthew Vassar drills for oil. College in Vermont, an

institution whose commitment to carbon neutrality and LEED-certified buildings makes them far more dedicated to environmental consciousness and energy efficiency than Vassar, recently refused to divest. Only three small colleges in the United States have divested thus far, though the movement is gaining ground and driving impassioned debate on over 300 campuses. Those opposed mainly cite the riskiness involved with overhauling the finances of a college, especially when financial aid and the college’s spending money may be directly affected. Further criticisms cite the implausibility of a significant economic impact on fossil fuel companies, of which the estimated $11.75 billion invested by American colleges is dwarfed by the total market capitalization of about $3.6 trillion, according to the PFC Energy 50. A recent article in the New York Times entitled, “A New Divestment Focus on Campus: Fossil Fuels,” raises concerns that divesting from companies would eliminate a college’s ability as a shareholder to cast proxy votes and thus to influence the direction or management of the company. Unfortunately, having proxy voting rights does very little when dealing with companies as large and dominant as those of the fossil fuel industry. No major political or social statement may be accomplished by raising one’s hand and saying, “Nay!” when, for instance, an oil company elects to drill in an Arctic preserve. Moreover, in terms of the potential impacts on the college’s finances, there is something to be said about the continued economic dependence on an industry doomed to expire in the rapidly approaching future. Oil and natural gas reserves are expected to deplete by the end of the century. At the same time, future

government regulation will likely further limit their exploits. Conversely, renewable energy is rapidly expanding and should be seen as a viable industry in which to reinvest. If the impact of divesting stops short as being symbolic of a stance against fossil fuels, then so be it. It is unlikely that divestment by colleges from multibillion dollar energy giants will, in any way, cripple these companies. It is disputable that they will become more accountable in any way for their devastation of the environment and human health. What it can do is demonstrate to anyone—any city, any organization, any business—that it is not merely an idealized vision for multinational companies to cease earning profits from a practice that we, as embittered citizens of a ransacked planet, fundamentally oppose; it is a feasible future. From San Francisco to Seattle to Ithaca, cities already have divested hundreds of millions of dollars. To divest from fossil fuels now is not radical, but, nevertheless, it strikes as poignantly revolutionary. Coming from such an esteemed establishment as Vassar College, the act would initiate a shockwave of consequences. In the previously-mentioned New York Times article, President Catharine Bond Hill was quoted as saying that as an alternative to divestment, students “have lots of proactive ways to engage policy makers.” We are fortunate to have a president interested in supporting climate change political activism and committed to improving on-campus sustainability. We have an administration interested in expanding our Resource Conservation Fund and increasing the availability of alternative energy. As a freshman entering the divestment campaign, I am resolutely focused on what we lack. What we have yet to see is an administration willing to directly stand up to fossil fuel corporations. Unfortunately, the epic crusade against the forces of climate change cannot be won without battling the corporations running the show. A slow and steady transition to alternative energy only works in situations where the clock isn’t ticking on a mountain of dynamite. Waiting for energy giants to deplete their reserves puts the nail in our overheated coffin. The omnipresence of these fossil fuel corporations embedded in our society, our political processes, our political agendas, our economy, and our public opinion elevates them to an unprecedented level of Public Enemy Number One-manship. Their nefariousness might not be as concentrated or obvious as the forces behind apartheid or Darfur, but it exists in a far more extensive and pervasive system. The Times may have identified Vassar as rejecting divestment, but the final showdown yet stirs on the Dylan Finley horizon. It’s too important to let it fade from sight.

PAGE 4

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

Failure of Pink Bike System Reflects Lack of Social Cooperation
Nathan Tauger Natl. & Foreign Editor

VASSAR & LOCAL

W

hen I ride my pink bike around Vassar people say a lot of stuff to me. Usually “nice bike,” said with respect by decent Vassar students and with supercilious contempt by the worse ones. I acknowledge each remark with a perfunctory “thanks” and nod. But deep in my head I think about something else: the pink bicycle’s noble origin and tragic fall. The class of 2009 gave the pink bikes to Vassar as their sophomore gift in 2007. They raised about half of the funds for the first fleet of 30, and Paul Lehman’86, a small business entrepreneur, donated the rest. Lehman gave the money as an avid cyclist, and also as a memorial to his roommate, Thomas Tsao ‘86, who died in 2000. Inscribed on each pink bike is “Imo Tom Tsao ’86” and below that “Bill With the Hat Lives.” Who “Bill

despite Cappy buying an additional ten with discretionary fund money. Moreover, the bikes were difficult to lock and many were stolen by the end of the program’s first year. By the fall of 2008, the shared bike student organization took the pink bikes out of commission so improvements, including a new locking mechanism, could be made. They returned to campus later that semester. The pink bikes were then used for purposes besides transportation across campus. Admissions wrote to potential freshmen about the pink bikes. Cappy cited the pink bikes in her portion of the Winter 2007 alumnae/i quarterly as “just one example of how a ‘green’ consciousness is permeating life at Vassar these days.” The Miscellany News occasionally ran stories about security guards fishing the pink bikes out of Vassar waterways. But despite having more than 200 people signed up for the program, the

of environmental sustainability. It was fall 2010 and President Obama was not popular. After stagnating in Congress, the healthcare bill had just barely passed. Despite having lost the Presidential election, the Tea Party was picking up steam for mid-term elections. In my hometown in West Virginia, ads on TV talked about the inefficiencies and laziness of government. Anything collective was socialist, and anything socialist was awful. And there I was fresh out of the college admission rollercoaster. I read somewhere on the Vassar website or in an admissions packet about the pink bike program. I excitedly told my fellow freshmen about it and I made sure to get a key at the activities fair. This would be Vassar’s own small preserve of shared enterprise – a collective effort to improve everyone’s lot. Like nearly every other person who put in their $10 deposit for a pink bike

pink bike. On my separate saddle I saw the program crumble. On the morning of Sunday, April 24, I saw my friend rip the locking mechanism off a pink bike

“The class gift committee and Lehman chose pink to represent Vassar’s classic colors of rose and gray, and to prevent theft. During the week of January 28th, 2010, the Miscellany News reported that the Poughkeepsie Police returned a pink Vassar bike that they saw a “nonstudent” riding.”
so another friend could ride with us. Later that day the Miscellany News blog “From the Newsroom” reported that the shared bike program would end that year. After the shared bike program ended, Vassar security adopted all of the remaining bikes. They now operate a renting service for students who request bikes early enough in the semester. Partially of nostalgia and partially of necessity I used the service to get my very own pink bike. My favorite thing about the pink bikes is the complete surrender of function to style. Despite looking expensive, and most likely, being expensive (Pleasant Valley Bicycles’s “Fuji Sanibel”, the same model as the pink bike, retails for $285), the pink bike is a technological anachronism. I peddle with a modicum of force and the loose chain snaps off. I get to the bottom of the hill to the gym and TAs and only imagine a gear shift as I descend to push. I want to brake – I peddle backwards. My pink bike is now a wretched caricature of its former self. The pink paint is scarred by charcoal black grease from the loose chain, which falls off at least once a day. The handlebars have partially melted into a sticky tar that inexplicably remains wrapped around the metal. The seat is still comfortable but now noisily expels air when I sit on it, making me self-conscious whenever I mount my pink steed in public. The way I see it, the failure of the pink bike program had a lot to do with ideology. Maybe the Tea Party was right and we should have embraced however Ayn Rand would distribute bicycles. But maybe shared bikes failed because our campus culture was not ready. Maybe one day we will be. One day a few more people might understand what the vast majority of us already see, that we can get drunk without recklessly destroying valuable things. Maybe one day people will value the good of the program above hiding bikes behind the bushes of Joss beach. Or maybe, we should all just get forest green cruisers.

The Vassar pink bike system was victim to the tragedy of the commons.

Nathan Tauger

with the hat” is remains a mystery. The class gift committee and Lehman chose pink to represent Vassar’s classic colors of rose and gray, and to prevent theft. During the week of January 28th, 2010, the Miscellany News reported that the Poughkeepsie Police returned a pink Vassar bike that they saw a “nonstudent” riding. The program proved too popular from the start. There were not enough bikes,

shared bike program ended in the spring of 2011. The pink bike program failed in large part due to a dearth of bicycles. The student organizers blamed lack of student involvement and expensive upkeep, partially due to vandalism. This was a loss for the campus as a whole, but I took it personally. When I got to Vassar I saw the pink bikes as emblematic of something greater than a step in the direction

key, I loved the idea of the program, but I did not do all I could to make sure it worked. More than once, I hid a bicycle behind a bush so I could use it in the morning to get to class. And I saw the vandalism first hand – drunk boys threw them on fences and in bushes, breaking the spokes and ruining the chassis. I capitulated. By the middle of freshman year I had my own bike, a forest green cruiser with a similar look to the stylish

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

PAGE 5

Will Tracy ’05 on Being Editor of The Onion
Zack Struver Editor-in-Chief

NATIONAL & FOREIGN AFFAIRS
in regard to Shakespeare, and also Mark Twain. I took other classes with him where he focused a lot on Twain. My thesis advisor, Paul Kane — who’s wonderful, if you guys haven’t taken a class with him, you should — the freshman class I took with him was an Australian literature class, and I took a number of other classes with him from that point on, but my focus was more early American literature — more 19th century stuff, a little bit of colonial early-American stuff. Paul was great with anything with that. Those are the kinds of names that come to mind. ZS: And the way that they taught you to read—I know you probably have to read a lot of news to write for The Onion. Looking at the overall picture of The Onion, you have to know what’s going on in the media. Does the way that you were taught to read at Vassar influence the way that you read the news now? WT: You know, I wish I could say yes. I remain, despite my job, probably not as diligent of a news reader as I should be. But, then again, we’re in a position where I need to be abreast of what’s happening, in a general sense, or have enough of a sense of what’s happening to have an opinion about it. But at The Onion, we don’t really have to because we’re not like The Daily Show or Colbert where our job is to “make fun of the news.” Our job really is to “make up” the news. We’re not riffing on the news so much as we are entirely inventing from whole cloth things that didn’t happen. So it really has more to do with just fiction writing than actual news analysis. So, at least, this is what I tell myself to conduce the fact that I don’t read the news as closely and as adequately as I should. I think we all think of ourselves as comedy writers completely, and not as news commentators. You know, we do stories that oftentimes, especially if it’s around a timely event, feel more like news commentary than they might of absurd comedic fiction. But, at the end of the day, we’re making everything up. We are creating quotes that did not exist and attributing words and actions to people that never, in fact, happened. In that sense, I don’t have to follow it too closely. ZS: So, I guess The Onion creates its own little reality. How does that reality in your mind compare to the constructed reality that we usually ascribe to and that the normal news media reports on? What’s the significance of this reality that you’re constructing? WT: For me, I always think, just, “comedy first.” So, in terms of significance, I just like world-creating and creating a comedy universe that feels real. I like the fact that, although we don’t hit you over the head with it every single day, The Onion has its own fake little token history; we have a family that has owned and controlled The Onion forever, and there are recurring characters in The Onion, and there’s this whole sort of universe that we have that we adhere to fanatically. That’s why you don’t see any bylines of writers on any articles and why we don’t lift that veil — because we want to preserve this voice and this universe that we’ve created. And that’s so many of the things that I’ve loved in terms of comedy, like SCTV, the Simpsons, and The Best Show on WFMU. They tend to create in those cases their own little smalltown worlds, where you know all of the people in the world, and you know how the world runs and who is powerful and who controls things. There are characters that come in and out and they all belong to the universe, and I think The Onion actually has that. A lot of our discussions in the writers’ room are about, “oh, The Onion wouldn’t do that; that’s not The Onion’s point of view — The Onion would say this.” And it’s because The Onion itself is a character that we’ve created. So I’m most interested from that point-of-view in terms of creating a reality. Now, it also allows us, as you said, to satirize the actual media reality that we’re given. I think that what we try to do, at our best, is to take a step back; instead of just commenting like every other media site does — just immediately commenting on something and having a knee-jerk opinion — I think we like to step back and almost make a comment on the comment that everybody else is making. Or, if everybody else is making the same joke about something, we’ll step back and we’ll make a joke about how everyone’s making the same joke. I think we just try to be a little bit removed — step back and observe everything that’s happening within that kind of media maelstrom at that moment and then make fun of how they’re doing it. So, I think we’re just trying to be an even bigger smartass than everyone else is trying to be.

Zack Struver ’15: How do you think your experience at Vassar influenced the course of your career? I know you worked for a publishing company before working for The Onion. How did Vassar prepare you for all this? Will Tracy ’05: Well, I mean, the first thing is that it brought me to New York because most of my friends who I was in college with moved to New York right after college; the girl I was dating at the time moved to New York, so it was kind of the place where everyone else lived. So, that might not be the most exciting answer, but it did get me to the city and it got me to that first job that I had — that publishing job — which I was fired from. I would never have worked for The Onion had I not been fired from that job because I was immediately then in kind of a panic, casting around for something else to do. And then I saw that The Onion was looking for an intern on Craigslist. I was an Onion fan but just out of a sense of, “I need something to fill the hours of the day with that would be somewhat constructive and might look nice on a resume,” I took an internship with The Onion at that point. So, in that sense, it’s kind of like, I wouldn’t have gotten the Onion job had I not been fired from that one job that I wouldn’t have gotten had I not moved to New York, which I wouldn’t have done had I not gone to Vassar. So, in that roundabout way, Vassar led the path directly to The Onion. But then, beyond that, in terms of stuff I learned? I dunno. I mean, it made me less dumb. Y’know, I’m smarter now because I went to Vassar. It might be a negligible degree of “smarter,” but it’s smarter nonetheless. I think that being an English major at Vassar and being interested in writing — I think Vassar helped foster that interest in writing. I had never wanted to be, necessarily, a comedy writer. I still don’t necessarily know if I want to be a capital-c Comedy writer for the rest of my life. But I just wanted to be a writer, and I think that being at Vassar encouraged that. I think there was a lot of encouragement at Vassar, overall, because it’s a small school, class sizes are small; they make you feel special, and tended to, and talented, and creative. It’s that kind of a school. I think that kind of encouragement obviously played a part in what I do now. But it’s hard to say. Some combination of all that stuff. ZS: Were there any specific professors or courses at Vassar that influenced you? WT: Yes. Just because I was an English major, the English department pops into mind immediately. I don’t know if Everett Weedin is still there. He was an English professor when I was there. There were two Shakespeare classes that were regular classes offered every year. One was by Donald Foster, who’s been kind a big name, especially in the Shakespeare world, and then the other was taught by this guy Everett Weedin, who’d been doing it a while. Real eccentric, in the best way. He taught me to read in a closer and more engaged way than I had before, especially

piece of satire that you read and you think, “That’s not what it’s like at all!” or, “No, that’s not the right point!” or, “Wait a minute — that’s not who the target of this joke should be!” or, “Wait, they seem to be taking this person’s side, but this person’s awful!” or, “This company’s awful!” or, “Why is The Onion siding with that?” If we don’t really do our homework on all of that stuff, then we look stupid, and, also, it’s just not as funny. It’s much funnier when it hits you as being honest and smart and informed. That, to me, always makes a piece of comedy funnier. And that’s what makes it work, unless, again, you are trying to intentionally be awful. And we will do that. We will intentionally run the absolute wrong side of an issue, because that, in itself, is funny. And then, it helps also to have a point. Usually, I think it’s clear to the reader when we’re doing that, and when it’s not, well, then, y’know, too bad. Yes, we try to make a point, and, oftentimes, especially after an awful or tragic event, we will sometimes put up something that is maybe even cathartic or therapeutic in some way, so that someone might read it and it will make them possibly feel better in a way because it will still accurately reflect what they’re feeling on that day. So we will oftentimes try to do that, but, to me, it’s always in the interest of being funny. Not so much “activism” in any way. ZS: Recently, we noticed that Subway got kind of upset about your “Subtember 11” article, so in the vein of what you were saying about having to be aware of who

Will Tracy

Gregory Perry ’15: So, you said, in that vein, that the main focus of The Onion is comedy. Obviously, The Onion is a business and it’s entertainment, but also, it’s definitely used politically as an ideological tool. How do you negotiate that balance? WT: Sure, that’s absolutely true. I don’t want to make this sound like a cop-out, because it really is true that we all think, “comedy first,” but something that has a politically wrong-headed, or uninformed, or ignorant view — unless we are intentionally trying to being ignorant, uninformed, or ill-intentioned — it just doesn’t come off as very funny. It’s not a

you’re making fun of and which side you’re taking, how do you really feel when these sorts of companies get upset from your satire about them? Do you feel, maybe, that Subway is responding in the wrong way to your satire? WT: Yeah, in that specific instance, they definitely responded in the wrong way. There’s a way that they could have handled that. And, first of all, I should say that I love it. I do. I have no moral reservations about doing those kinds of stories, those are some of my favorite kinds of things to do and I love it when companies feign hurt or try to take some position of moral superiority. I love that. And, in the case of
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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

Tracy

Discusses

NATIONAL & FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Satire as Entertainment,
positions of power are doing to the people that you would call the victim? WT: Yeah, absolutely, and I think we also specifically make a decision to call people’s attention to things that, perhaps, their attention is not being called to in other news sources. Actually, recently, there have been some people who have, I think, misinterpreted some of The Onion’s Syria coverage over the last year and a half as being very hawkish and very prointervention. And it’s actually not that, so much as, for months and months and WT: To me, it says more about the situations in those respective countries. I think the biggest examples in the past year or two were in Iran and China, where, obviously, there is massive government control and media censorship, and in which there’s really not a whole lot of free access to information. So, therefore, I think there is a greater chance for people in countries like that — if they’re even near countries like that — to be fooled. I just don’t think that’s something they would even think to look out for. And, it may also be that the comedy thing doesn’t translate. It might be the kind of thing that someone in some big news agency in China would see that on the wire and would look at it without ever stopping to think that, “Oh, this is an elaborate, satirical parody that is supposed to very closely resemble an actual news source.” Because, obviously, those are countries where I don’t think that news parody or news satire is at a premium. So, they’re not used to seeing that, maybe. It doesn’t happen in America so much as it used to. It used to for a little while, but I think American journalists and media organizations very quickly learned what The Onion is. A lot of journalists and media people are very big fans of The Onion. So, it would be a major faux pas at this point for anyone who is an American journalist to take an Onion story seriously. We usually only see it overseas; I think it’s interesting that it has happened most famously in two countries, Iran and China, with very oppressive state-media. It means something — I’m not sure what it is, but I’ll leave that up to someone else. ZS: News media in America don’t make the mistake anymore, but people in America do. WT: Yes, absolutely, that’s a great distinction. People still do. All you have to do is read our Facebook comments under stories that we’ve done, or see certain people re-tweeting the story with, “What?!” to know that, despite, I guess, my thinking that The Onion is more popular than it is, there have been many stories that have been taken wrongly. The most recent example would be the, “George Zimmerman winning the lottery,” story, which many, many people were just outraged about, thinking that this was real. So, it definitely still happens just with regular citizens. But, yeah, with journalists and media people, it almost never happens in America. ZS: Do you think, then, that satire needs to be somehow taught differently in the United States? Or, perhaps, that the American public should be informed about things like The Onion being satirical sources? WT: I don’t know. Part of me wants to say “no,” — I don’t think a big component of The Onion should be, necessarily, pranking people and making people think that The Onion is real. Again, I want The Onion to look real — I want it to look and feel and read like a real newspaper because that’s funny. But, it’s never our mission to fool people.

Political

Tool

Continued from Page 6

Subway, they absolutely played it wrong. I think they responded by tweet, in which they said something to the extent of, “Like everyone, we were deeply offended by The Onion’s September 11 story.” So, of course, immediately, if you look underneath that tweet, there are hundreds of people responding saying, “Like everyone? I wasn’t offended…” So, that kind of gutmove — they played it wrong. If they had just said, “We personally find that offensive — that day is something that we don’t like to joke about,” and, maybe, “We knew people who were involved in September 11,” that would be one thing. I still wouldn’t regret doing the joke, but that would be one thing. But the way that they responded was very, very kind of corporate and creepy and cold, which is perfect for us. So, I always love that kind of thing. And, you know, I don’t know how much some of our people in sales love it when we go after big brand names like that — people who could potentially advertise with The Onion. But, I think part of what makes The Onion great is that no one from sales or management is coming and saying, “Don’t do that joke — don’t do that joke!” Most of the time, someone will say, “Ok, do what you have to do,” because if we didn’t do it anymore, we wouldn’t be The Onion; our brand would suffer and then advertisers really wouldn’t want to do business with us. ZS: So, do you then feel that there are any jokes that are off-limits? You said you have no moral reservations about being offensive, but does The Onion have a specific moral compass? Where do you see your moral role in discourse? WT: About that specific instance, I don’t, but there are many jokes that we wouldn’t make. It’s not something I think about, so much as, in the [writers’] room, I think, we have our own moral compass and we know what’s funny and not funny. To us, there’s really no distinction between, “awful and reprehensible,” versus, “okay,” and, “not funny,” and “funny.” We think about it in the same terms. If something is awful and morally reprehensible and just wrongheaded, we don’t think it’s funny. So, that’s just how the room thinks. And, for us, there are many jokes that we wouldn’t make — most of which we wouldn’t make because they’re just, probably, not very good jokes; not because, “OH MY GOD, THAT’S AWFUL.” And, I think that with us, it’s more about the specific jokes — whether they work or they don’t work. There’s no topic that we don’t make a joke about. We make jokes about absolutely every topic; I do think that every topic is fair game. It’s just a matter of what joke you make on that topic — specifically, who or what the target of that joke is. If the target of the joke is off and you’re targeting the victim, for some reason, then the joke doesn’t really work and I would, then, believe the joke isn’t very funny. ZS: Do you see The Onion as defending some people, then, against what you would view as poor treatment, since you’re attempting to make light of what people in

“I think some people looked back on our Syria coverage and thought that we were beating the drums for some sort of ground or air invasion of Syria, which we never have. I think we’ve always played both sides. And, sometimes, we will do that. We will play both sides, which I think you have to do with an issue as complicated and chaotic, frankly, as Syria.”
months — and I know because I would watch our web-traffic in real time — whenever we put out anything on Syria, nobody clicked on it because the average American news reader, honestly, did not care much about Syria until a month or two ago. We were doing Syria stories a year and a half ago, and we would, actually, continue to run them when we saw that nobody was clicking on them. Our stories became about how the average American news reader wasn’t really interested in Syria news stories so much. And then, they did become very interested and I think some people looked back on our Syria coverage and thought that we were beating the drums for some sort of ground or air invasion of Syria, which we never have. I think we’ve always played both sides. And, sometimes, we will do that. We will play both sides, which I think you have to do with an issue as complicated and chaotic, frankly, as Syria. ZS: So, I guess The Onion, then, has more room than other media outlets to play on both sides of an issue and think things through more. Do you see that? WT: Yeah, of course, we can be jerks! We can be jerks, but then, we can also show a bias when we want to — quite clearly and brazenly. Both of those things allow us to have much more freedom. And, of course, the freedom that comes from being able to make up the news and not having to report facts. ZS: I guess, sometimes, what you publish is too real — countries like Iran and North Korea have run Onion articles as real pieces. What do you think that says about the perception of the American media abroad and what does it say about The Onion’s role?

That being said, it is kind of fun when it happens sometimes, so I don’t necessarily want people to be more informed because I do like the occasional 4000-word email we might get from someone saying, “How could you?!” thinking that we were serious in an actual story. We did the same when we did our story when Obama was running for president — “Black Guy Asks Nation for Change,” — and we got a long email from someone saying, “How can you call yourself an actual news organization? You don’t even say his name in the article! You just call him, ‘the black guy!’ His name is Barack Obama and you don’t even call him that!” And, so, it’s fun to get that. It’s fun to see someone so incensed over something so clearly silly and made-up. ZS: You mentioned moving over to more of a daily format. Why did The Onion make the transition? WT: There are obviously business realities to that, but, for me, I always think of everything, again, in terms of the comedy and the satire. I just don’t think that you can effectively, or accurately, or bitingly, satirize and parody the modern media organization in the year 2013 if you aren’t putting out stories every day, and reacting to the news, and being active on social media, and having a 24-hour mentality. I don’t think you can do what we used to, which was basically a weekly print issue. If we’re playing the role of this big, huge, massive, powerful media organization, then we have to actually run our operation a little bit like that. We meet every morning and we’ll pitch stories and headlines, and then we’ll craft more of a daily web-based issue based on that. Now, compared to what an actual media organization will put out every day, it’s still just a fraction of what the New York Times or something puts out. We really don’t have that much content every day. A lot of the content that we put out is not actually timely — it’s sort of evergreen stuff that we could run any time. I just don’t think that we can accurately satirize a modern media organization unless we kind of participate in the daily coverage of news. It’s more fun that way; it should be funnier that way. It’s why we do things like slideshows now. Some of the slideshows we’ve done have been some of the most biting and satirical and provocative things we’ve done all year, even though slideshows themselves are supposed to be mindless click-bait. And I think we do get people to mindlessly click on our slideshows, but I think that once they click onto it, they’re given something that was not what they expected. It’s oftentimes very dark or very provocative. For the tune of what event we’re going to do next, I always look to what actual news organizations are doing, to say, “Okay, well what are they doing?” And that’s what we’ll do next. We’ll do our version, or our evisceration, or parody of that. -Gregory Perry and Joshua Sherman contributed to this interview.

Read the rest of The Vassar Chronicle's interview with Will Tracy on our website, www.vassarchronicle.com.

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

PAGE 7

Idolization of Centrism is Killing the Democratic Party
Gregory Perry Natl. & Foreign Editor

NATIONAL & FOREIGN AFFAIRS
people that would foster leftist positions, the unrelenting gravitational pull toward a fluidly constructed “middle” dictates the agenda of the so-called party of the left. The fear of internal criticism stifles substantive progress. There are several problems with this. First of all, in a context of pervasive apathy and lack of faith among one’s foundational constituency, the best course of action usually does not include estranging them even further. The redundant betrayals of already watered-down principles test the patience of even the mildly informed liberals in this country. The chosen course of action is to adjust the party line to accommodate “the middle,” as if centrists strongly hold moderate positions, whereas the reality is that they for the most part do not hold strongly an ideological positioning. Rather, it is the lack of strength in ideology that is venerated as reasonable and is rewarded with integrity and social capital. To be deviant from the mainstream flow of nonsense that we consider political discourse in the United States is to be “radical.” And “radical,” as we all know, is wholly synonymous with “irrational.” Go figure. arguing which mentalities and principles should be adhered to, for if that were the case, liberals might actually realize the broad extent to which they are being misled and abandoned. Instead there is a constant contraposition to the other guys. At face value, this idea doesn’t sound half bad. “The other guys” are perfectly nuts, after all. Who couldn’t gain from pitting oneself as the alternative? The problem with this is two-fold. Related to the public perception problems mentioned earlier, the under-informed, partial participants in political discourse, those who constitute a vast portion of the alleged “middle,” routinely interpret this format as a sign of weakness. Especially among people under-informed about political issues, conceptions of integrity are inseparable from the delivery of content. Ideological concerns often are not the determining factor when formulating one’s opinion. For very many of them, to not speak of one’s own positions in order to expand upon the outrageousness of the opponent’s reveals a lack of strength of one’s own stance. Lack of strength in one’s own stances alludes to lack of integrity and lack of substance. And they’re right. The

P

olitical discourse is dictated by particular rules in particular spaces. The degree to which the Republicans have dominated the terms of political discourse has forced liberals into a linguistic channel of apologetics in which every ideological claim must be justified in contraposition to the Republican party narrative. The American Right has successfully implemented a system in which the distancing of oneself from extremisms that have been erroneously extrapolated has become a prerequisite for the expression of leftist belief. Plagued by the fear of perceived extremism, the Democrats are trapped in the confines of discourse delineated by the fallacy of 50/50 representation, which tends to pose the evaluation of content of the claims on each side of an issue as a separate concern from their deserved air time. It implicitly relies upon the utterly absurd and erroneous assumption that each participant is operating sincerely according to their principles, and that they believe these principles are best for “the country” (although this of course is taken to mean very different things in different circles). Whatever contraposition is drawn between a leftist position and some absurdity of neo-conservatism is always hedged on. It is as though each time one dares to vouch for the delivery of a civil service as an important aspect of governance, we must verify his/her loyalty in a framework reminiscent of McCarthyism. Apologetics cripples the debate. The fact is that most people are mostly uninformed about what is actually being discussed, if they’re even aware that it’s being discussed in the first place. So it is not a nuanced or reasoned deduction that leads them to many of their positions on an issue, but often tangential or superfluous qualities of its presentation. These have been both subconscious operations as well as consciously held criteria, be it a noted observation that a position “sounds shaky” when uttered by someone tripping over his/her own hedges and clarifications, or merely an impression of confidence, class, and candor from someone speaking with conviction. After a second term of Bush, liberals have become fearful of the nightmare of a split ticket. No rational person should look at another Nader debacle lightly, especially since the consequences of the first one unequivocally exacerbated the problem of homogeneity in the political establishment. They do not consider that perhaps it was the divide between the antiestablishment leftists and the Democratic Party that caused the problem. Instead, the dissatisfaction with the establishment itself when taken to too much of an extreme was the cause of disaster in the past. So rather than striving to accommodate the people of the party’s ideological base who grow increasingly disenchanted, apathetic, and unengaged, or even to try to distribute information to uninformed

Gregory Perry

Centrists’ ideological positions are fluid. They are posed relative to the dynamic perceptions of extremes that pervade discourse. What the Democrats must do to de-cripple themselves is to adequately make the case for their ideology, not to change the ideology to conform to current conditions of deception and ignorance. The Party’s conception of “changing people’s minds” is limited strictly to the material decision of an individual as to which name gets written on the ballot in against a backdrop of two repugnant options. The business of governance incentivizes that the party alter its product for consumption, marketing it as a product in opposition to insanity instead of fostering appeal for its own sake and ideological standing. The strategy does not so much include

Democrats are without a vision. But even more importantly, the saturation of discourse by dissections of conservative positions serves principally to frame issues according to the Republicans’ constructions, even when dissecting in opposition to them. The result is that, however high the mountain of blunders performed by conservatives may grow; the Republican Party is defined by what it is, while the Democrats define themselves by what they are not. In either case, nearly all discussion is framed and contextualized along conservative ideas, even when those ideas are being actively opposed. The Democrats are stuck like cement in the position of reactionary to the absurd. Part of this is merely a time management issue. Once a liberal is done articulating

all of the (should be) self-evident rebuttals to an outrageous claim, the Republicans have just come up with three more to be entertained next. When a claim that should be selfevidently dismissed is instead given air time in order to refute it, the result is not a positive one. The substance of the refutation undoubtedly is important, but the more salient consequence of entering the discussion is that an inappropriately large amount of credibility is given to the refuted point. Never is the tool of self-evidence asserted for fear of too forceful an appearance. Political discourse is incessantly stifled by gratuitous disclaimers and clarifications for the sake of preserving a “moderate” face. But by the time the Democrats are done dislodging one arrow from their armor, several others have already been thrust forth and embedded into discourse. The game is about framing discourse. A discussion about whether or not we will have to endure Obamacare death panels ending with the entire room in agreement that this won’t be the case is not a victory for the Democrats. Despite that the room unanimously disagrees with it, this is nonetheless a victory for the conservatives expounding the claim, merely by virtue of the time wasted by indulging the discussion in the first place. The alleged “incompetence” of the Democratic Party in this area is more allusive to a position complicit with the ruling aristocracy than to an inability to act. They make no attempt to put forth a leftist agenda, or to actively foster leftist mentalities whatsoever. They fail to make even a light-hearted attempt at fostering ideology in favor of their own positions. The perceptions of people without a contextualized perspective often are limited to the mentioned content of the discussion, regardless of its foundation in reality. It is not uncommon that the framing of discourse proves much more significant than the outcome of any particular discussion. This is due largely to a prepared exposure which is actively refined in the interest of fostering particular conceptual frameworks that oftentimes lack the evaluative aspects which require more time to pursue. Against a backdrop of a vast majority unengaged and under-informed population, the final conclusions of a discussion fail to carry the same degree of influence as the structuring of what is being discussed in the first place. It is important to keep in mind the place of hermeneutics in this discussion. The origins of a given claim are incredibly pertinent to its evaluation, especially considering the context in which the outcomes of those evaluations yield consequences in the distribution of power. “Obama wants to take your guns and kill your grandmother” is of a different nature of discussion than “John Boehner handed out lobbying money from the Tobacco industry on the floor of the House during a subsidy vote” or “the Republicans want to take away your Medicaid, Welfare, and Social Security.” The latter two, one should

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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

Democrats Prove Complicit in Betrayal of Own Principles
Continued from Page 8 note, are founded in actual events, based on actions and statements the people themselves performed. The Democratic Party could take up the task of trying to inform people about substantive issues. But they don’t. In fact, they actively avoid it. Despite having the most powerful possible figurehead to endorse anything in the United States as a Democrat, rarely does one see him make the case for any sort of leftist idea. Rather, his thesis is usually oriented in the opposite direction, toward “reaching out” to an entity that has without exception slapped his hand away every time. “Obamacare,” as Republicans love to call it, perhaps is the most notable sliver of President Obama’s “progressive” achievement yet. The healthcare bill passed in the earlier stage of Obama’s first term essentially amounted to a mandate to purchase the commodity of healthcare insurance from a private corporation, without even any notable regulation of premiums. The result is forcing thousands upon thousands of people in financial straits to endure yet another yearly expense they must struggle to meet. There are several problems with this issue. First of all, the fact that our civil service structure still is so firmly lodged into the private sector, the same private sector unilaterally motivated by profit incentives, is nothing short of absolutely sickening. It is astounding that we as a “modern society” have somehow been led to believe that it might be a reasonable idea to include profit motive in consideration of the delivery our most fundamental services for basic human sustenance. This profit motive, of course, exists in opposition to human protection laws which were created to counter the tendency of aristocratic organizations to shamelessly exploit the masses for selfish gain. A centralized, single-payer health insurance system (sweet Jesus! A government provided civil service!), as was definitively promised by candidate Obama, was conceivably passable in both houses of Congress when the debate was taking place. There was an adequate amount of Democratic support to get a bill on the table without needing a single Republican on board. Yet, somehow, ambition seeped out of the faces of the Democrats as if their numbers had been cut down by plague in the night. The Single Payer argument was relinquished before the case was even adequately made for it. By the time the health care debate reached the public eye later in the summer, there was no one left vouching for the truly leftist ideological stance. Throughout nearly the entire course of the debate, the issue was framed instead along the lines of the Public Option now as the leftist position, versus the lack of reform from the status quo still as the conservatives’ position. The fabled Public Option was the compromise, but in the name of advertising the image of centrism, our politicians of the “left” tended to neglect to clarify or reiterate this. Unfortunately, it seemed as though there must have been a serious disjuncture between public opinion and the Democratic Party’s perception of it. But the Democrats, even after having compulsively watered down their positions past the point of unrecognizability, still received no reciprocal concessions or guarantees of support and passed a bill conceding even the possibility of entertaining a non-profit-oriented civil service system. Despite having overwhelming public support, simultaneous with near complete control in the legislature, and an executive who promised to make it happen, the Democrats lost even the compromise of the public option. Instead, we have an identical structure to what we had before, with the primary motivation of course being profit maximization, with the actual (and/ or adequate) delivery of the service as a secondary concern. But, there are some regulations to prevent a few very specific exploitative practices. Some aspects of the bill undoubtedly must be appreciated. The abolition of contract rescission for “preexisting conditions,” for example, allowed thousands of people to receive medical care who wouldn’t have…had there not been any change whatsoever. But it must be called into question whether this is an appropriate comparison to make. What this situation amounted to was the concession of a major ideological battle before any public discussion took place. Preemptive concessions were made in advance of any reciprocal agreement, in the vain hopes that the Republicans’ hearts would grow three sizes bigger and they would be suddenly inspired to cooperate out of collective interest. At least, this is how the situation was constructed, whereas in reality, what could be called their “collective interest” united them in quite a different, more sinister way. Anyone who knows the first thing about negotiation would consider the notion of preemptive concessions incomprehensible. But even more outrageously, this occurred in the context of possession of the decisively advantageous position in the power dynamic. It isn’t just the idea of preemptive concessions, however baffling that is in itself. It is the idea of preemptive concession while in a position of enormous power over the adversary, relative to what even could be conceivably available. All of this happened in the context of unabashed mutiny and disdain, no less. It was not a mere inference, but a stated party platform to methodically refuse to cooperate with the president. The rules of internal politics among the Republicans mandated an incessant reification of bitter, condescending, and subversive opposition and this is still the case. The Democrats struggled to glean some sort of demonstrable ideological integrity, searching for avenues to “reach across the aisle” in order to appear open-minded, yet they failed miserably in trying to make friends with the frenzied chimpanzee of the Republican Party. Especially due to the extremist sensationalism stirred by the corporately funded Tea Party movement, a Republican in Congress would be extremely liable to suffer a blow to his reputation, and to his prospects for reelection, if he were to reciprocate cooperative insinuations. Yet, despite overt rejection of the premise by the other side, The Democratic Party behaves as though they are Learned Helplessness victims, so accustomed to ritual abuse that they began at some point to take for granted their lack of agency. This apparently resulted in a persistent and regular pattern of failure to respond to clear opportunities to change the situation. Or, perhaps, the reality was a more complex one than that of the poor old Democrats wandering around scratching their heads in sincere search of change, as easy as it is to imagine Harry Reid collapsed, weeping in a corner with face in hands. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans still are uninformed about the healthcare bill, and more specifically about which of the aspects of the bill stem from leftist ideology and which are the results of Republican sabotage initiatives. As far as most are concerned, this is Obama’s bill, and it’s inadequate. So, apart from having received nothing in the area of bipartisan support, the obscene extent to which the law has been watered down serves further to delegitimize the president, and more pertinently, the ideology of the left. Very rarely does a conversation in critique of Obama go unabated by the notion of “the lesser of two evils.” The consequence of this construction clearly is to undermine the degree of negativity emphasized in whatever criticism endures it as a rebuttal. This is not to say necessarily that the motivations behind the employment of this device are ideologically consistent with its consequences. Rather, there is a variety of variables having to do with pervasive narratives and even the social context of discourse that fosters the disclaimer. Although, when one is trying to solve problems, one should not pit relativities between two wholly unsatisfactory options. In the period of time since President Bush exited the White House, what we have continued to see includes a crumbling infrastructure, and a corporate-dominant civil services structure, still unabashedly operating by prioritization of the profit of the aristocracy over the delivery of lifesustaining services to the masses. It’s undeniable that the pointing out of the lesser of two evils in situations like this deemphasizes exactly how bad the lesser evil is. Since 2008 we’ve seen further imperialistic deployments of troops into the Middle East and a jarring, unprecedented number of extralegal drone strikes killing civilians. We’ve seen Guantanamo stay open, and the Cuban blockade celebrate its 53rd year of endured deprivation of food, oil, and pharmaceutical supplies, among other basic necessities. We’ve seen expansions upon the Patriot Act, promptly doing away with the Fifth Amendment, to then quickly enjoy the cheery company of the National Defense Authorization Act, and the distribution of wealth upward has only accelerated since Obama has taken office. We’ve seen Israeli apartheid, settlement expansion, and ethnic cleansing continue unabated, rationalized, and with very large contributions by our taxpayer dollars. We’ve seen exacerbations of domestic human rights abuse with a gravely accelerated drug war, prison industrial complex, and draconian immigration policy. At what point will liberals cease to rationalize Obama’s track record as his being “unable,” “stunted,” “incompetent” or “unsuccessful?” At what point of consistency with adversarial ideologies could one consider him complicit? I ask at what point would it finally be warranted to assert this, because it seems that there aren’t too many notches left on the scale.

NATIONAL & FOREIGN AFFAIRS

“The redundant betrayals of already watered-down principles test the patience of even the mildly informed liberals in this country.”
Perhaps something beyond incompetence is at work in the minds of our extensively educated politicians, particularly in regard to the utter neglect of power dynamics, of the adversary’s visible incentive structures, of track records and patterns of adversary behavior and of publically projected inflammatory comments in reference to the self by said adversary. We saw from the very beginning of Obama’s first term quite an ominous foreshadowing of what was to come with the health care debate. The doctrine of compromise bore sinister undertones from its very inception. Today, the prospect for improvement in the near future is dismal. Despite deep and growing dissatisfaction with the health care bill, the ability to assert that “some progress was made” is more than enough to deteriorate ambition for further change. The crippling of the American Left is due largely to a conceptual framework that venerates marginal successes, in the presence still of an enormous and persistent problem, at the expense of true progress. We celebrate the unwrapping of band-aids for severed arteries and then close the medicine cabinet, patting ourselves on the back for “starting to solve the problem.” Those who were worked up enough about the worst practices of corporate exploitation of United States citizens have been appeased; they’ve been given enough to warrant the term “progress,” while the underlying structure remains identical, and now once again has become free from the legitimate threat of subversion.

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

PAGE 9

Student Experiences Power Dynamics of Israel-Palestine Conflict
Melanie Rackis Contributor

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Before studying abroad in Jordan, I knew that the experience would cause my political views on the IsraelPalestine conflict to change. Jordan shares deep historical and cultural connections with Palestine; currently, over 2,000,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants reside in Jordan, which has a population of just under 6,000,000. Therefore, immersing myself in Jordanian culture meant that I would have to better understand Palestine and the controversy surrounding this region. Halfway through the semester, I decided to travel to Palestine to see parts of it for myself. The city of Hebron, located in the West Bank, is home to both Palestinian and Israeli settlers. This cohabitation is not, however, the product of peaceful and mutually-beneficial interaction. Palestinians live segregated from Israelis and all live under the order of the Israeli army. This unique situation is a product of Hebron’s proximity to a hallowed biblical site — The Cave of the Patriarchs — believed to be the burial spot of many of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In 1929, a group of Palestinians murdered 67 of Hebron’s Jewish residents near the Cave during a series of anti-Jewish riots. The history of Hebron does not merely consist

During her JYA in Jordan, Melanie Rackis visited Palestine and was exposed to the extensive political and religious schisms plaguing the area.

violated agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that disallowed Israeli entry into cities in the West Bank, the Israeli settlers

Barbed wire and fences split the city of Hebron, home to numerous conflicts between its Israeli and Palestinian residents.

of violence, as 435 Jewish residents were protected and welcomed into Palestinian homes during the attacks. Following the massacre, many of the Jewish residents of Hebron left the city. Israeli settlers reoccupied Hebron after Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. Although this reoccupation

received recognition from the Israeli government within weeks. The Israeli government also established several settlement cities on the outskirts of Hebron. During the month of Ramadan in 1994, an American-born Israeli, Baruch Goldstein, entered the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron during their Friday morning prayers and murdered 29 male worshippers. Riots ensued, leaving

both Palestinians and Israelis dead. In response, the Israeli government decided to tighten restrictions on Palestinian movement within the city. What used to be the bustling downtown area, shops, markets, and streets closed, effectively shutting down the heart of the city. Currently, Palestinian settlers in Hebron live under the strict regulatory regime of the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Regulation by the IDF is meant to make Israeli citizens feel “secure” against the threat of Palestinian violence, but this concern for security disrupts the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike. In the inhabited portion of Hebron, boardedup buildings — stores, businesses, and homes — lined deserted, empty streets. Soldiers are perched on top of houses, hidden by camouflage netting and pointing their rifles towards the street. Blockades at either end ensured that no Palestinian adults passed down the street. The guards, however, let a group of children through, and they used the barren streets to play pick-up soccer. The proximity of Palestinian and Israeli settlers in Hebron causes tension, and, sometimes, violence. One shopkeeper told me that he once greeted a group of people with, “Shabbat shalom,” — Hebrew for “Peaceful Sabbath”. They responded by beating him up and holding a gun to his head. After the assailants left, he approached IDF soldiers about pressing charges. They asked him if he could identify the aggressors. When he said he could

not, they informed him that there was nothing they could do. This tension is also manifest in the architecture of Hebron. Our guide brought our attention to the chain-link fences that were suspended across the streets in the area around Hebron’s contested mosque/synagogue. He told us that these barriers were put up by Palestinians in order to prevent trash thrown by settlers from ending up in the street. This sense of imprisonment is punctuated by army outposts sprinkled throughout the city. Barbedwire fences protect turnstiles in narrow corridors, which allow Israeli soldiers to regulate who may enter or leave different sections of the city. I visited both the Jewish and the Muslim sides of the Cave of the Patriarchs, walking through a metal detector and up a staircase on the side of the building to enter the twelfthcentury Ibrahimi Mosque. Floor-toceiling metal dividers slice through the structure. Israeli security cameras line the periphery of the prayer room and bulletproof glass splits the room of Abraham’s tomb in two, ostensibly to ensure safety from either viewing point (both the Jewish and the Muslim side have windows looking into the tomb room). To enter the Jewish side, I simply walked through a road block after assuring the security guards that I was a foreigner. A tower clearly marked with an Israeli flag motif, coupled with watch posts disguised as palm trees, looked over beautifully-manicured

Continued on Page 11

PAGE 10

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

Israel-Palestine Conflict Requires Reflection, History
Continued from Page 10

FOREIGN AFFAIRS

grounds that gave way to a wideentrance staircase leading up to the building. Once inside the building, tourists — many of whom will never see the Muslim side of the site — can read propaganda brochures. These brochures recount the Palestinian terrorist attacks on settlers of the 1920s, but they fail to mention the massacre of innocent Muslim worshipers in 1994. The segregated entrances and ubiquitous surveillance cameras embody the repressive nature of Israel’s apartheid state. The occupation of Palestine cannot, however, be adequately described in symbolic terms. The occupation is an experience lived by millions; only by being there can one begin to grasp its implications. It’s one thing to read about these issues while sitting in a dorm room or to debate them while on campus, and a completely different situation to talk to people who live these conflicts daily and actually experience a small part of them for oneself. The point I am trying to convey is the importance of thinking for oneself — do not let our more-often-than-not biased Western media, or what others tell you over dinner, completely form your opinions on controversial issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict. My experience abroad taught me to be open to new perspectives about the world around me. It is not easy — my opinions shift frequently, but I have a much more solid idea of where my beliefs lie because of the time that I spent trying to understand what I saw, heard, and questioned while abroad. Amman — Jordan’s capital — is a huge city and taxis are the main source

of transportation. Instead of simply sitting in the backseat and looking out the window, I would attempt to engage the driver in conversation and found that many of them were Palestinian. Their families were from Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, or Hebron. I would tell them how I found Palestine beautiful and that I loved Ramallah (it has way more cafes than Amman!). They would then tell me that they had never been to Palestine and they probably never would unless progress towards a two-state solution was made between Israel and Palestine. What can one say to that? About half way through my time abroad, I started saying ‫ هللا ءاش نا‬, or “Insha’allah” (literal translation: God willing; my practical translation: hopefully) about as liberally as the people in Jordan do. One of the most frequent uses of this word is in the context of Palestine. Taxi drivers who spoke about their Palestinian identity would use Insha’allah to convey their hope for a peaceful future — one in which they would be able to visit their family’s homeland. Being abroad helped me to see the conflict for myself and draw my own conclusions. It isn’t enough to take someone else’s opinion and repeat it. Question what you know and what you are told — go see it for yourself. -Melanie Rackis, ‘14, studied abroad with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE): Language and Culture program. Her travels took her across the Middle East. Melanie is a Science, Technology, and Society major with a correlate in History.

The Israeli Defense Force employs surveillance technologies and architectural methods of control to ensure their continued political control of Hebron.

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PAGE 11

NATIONAL AFFAIRS
Geogrpahic Privilege Influences Perceptions of Queer Identity
Gideon Thompson-Aue Contributor

M

y queerness doesn’t, and probably won’t ever, manifest itself as genderbending public performance art or at a drag show; I’ve always felt more comfortable navigating the rows of tattered pink and aqua blue in the women’s section of a dilapidating thrift store. I grew up with rows of flatbed pickup trucks — the world of heavy traffic thick with sedans and taxi cabs still feels alien. When gay rights made the news, it was all DayGlo shorts and neon flags underneath concrete skyscrapers. The internet taught me words like “butch” and “LGBTQIA” and introduced Elton John as someone who, I guess, I should have resonated with. If that’s what queerness is, I thought, then I’m not queer. What if I was off the grid in more ways than one? I had always found something comforting about the place I grew up — the clear mountain air, the dry summers, the subtle sagebrush perfume — a place that’s as tangled up in my DNA as surely as heterosexuality isn’t. I’m from southern Idaho, from the

state that gave birth to Ezra Pound and shot Ernest Hemingway in the head. I’m weirdly proud of it, but a lot of people on the East Coast can’t even locate it on a map — “It’s in the Midwest, right?” — but, after about the twentieth time, it was no longer endearing. As a kid, I looked at New York City and fantasized about living there, wondering if kids from Manhattan fantasized about living in Idaho (they probably didn’t). According to my own personal standards, whether someplace is good to live or not depends mostly on rock star concentration, so it’s not hard to comprehend why so many people would choose to spend their whole lives in one place if that place is a city. Cities are where things happen. They are the “real world.” Ironically, but not surprisingly, when you live hundreds or thousands of miles from the “real world,” your vision of the world is a lot bigger. Question: what do Footloose, Brokeback Mountain, and Twin Peaks have in common? Answer: they’re all set in rural environments, they all deal with small-town sexuality — queer or otherwise, implicitly or explicitly — but they also serve as starting points for conceptualizing the tendency of urban

storytellers to shape Smallville into a utopian or dystopian metaphor and to categorize the rural narrative as a prelapsarian “enlightenment” myth wherein moral progress, personified as a Metropolitan White Guy, upsets the fragile equilibrium of the local oligarchy. They represent a perspective not much larger than an airplane window. Why the reductionism? Why the sexualization of countryfolk (cowboy porn, anyone)? And why the assumption that they’re sexually repressed? I’m not trying to suggest that rural youth are never crushed or violated by systemic homoantagonism. Obviously, they sometimes are. But to imply that this problem is an exclusively, even mostly, rural phenomenon is hypocritical and naive. Queerphobia is encoded within language and cultural memes everywhere; just because it isn’t patently obvious in urban environments doesn’t mean it hasn’t found a way to camouflage itself. Physical and verbal violence as a product of queer-hate can occur whether you live in suburban San Francisco or agricultural Nebraska — whether you go to Vassar or BYU. Calling out homophobia is a good habit and should be encouraged, but doing it by leveling cheap humor at “rednecks” and “hicks” or by overgeneralizing the religious and political trends of the rural working class should not be — it is condescending and elitist. Geographic privilege is inextricably linked with socioeconomic privilege, which does very little to alleviate the problem of rural queer underrepresentation in media, both nonfictional and otherwise. The 100 poorest counties in the United States are rural and overwhelmingly concentrated in the so-called “flyover states” of the Intermountain West, Midwest, and Deep South. Furthermore, rural areas have a dramatically tinier variance of race and class, which erodes any context by which citizens of small towns can assess their own racial or class identity; although most are statistically part of the working class, they are prone to locate themselves in the middle class by virtue of not being especially richer or poorer than their neighbors. The relationships of power that are so crucial to defining class and race are byproducts of an environment where diversity is a fact of life: the Big City. Raw numbers, of course, can be misleading — the issue of spatial segregation within cities shouldn’t go overlooked. Different races and classes cluster in certain neighborhoods and encounter resistance when they try gaining access to others. When conflicting groups live in close proximity, the result is, more often than not, hostility rather than tolerance.

Nothing about diversity, except for strength in numbers, is intrinsically beneficial to a marginalized community — there is no guarantee of peaceful coexistence. Liberal multiculturalism, in its failure to “otherize” the dominant identities responsible for this harrowing antagonism, runs the risk of paving a road to hell with good intentions. It favors a way of thinking that treats less powerful identities like Pokémon cards to be collected — different qualitatively, but not substantively. This is what Rainbow Theory represents, and it’s also a component of why rural voices are so thoroughly excluded from the mainstream discourse on social justice — “everyone” operates under a tacit geopolitical advantage. Resistance strategies, such as protests, and, to a degree, strikes, are predicated on urbancentrism, capitalize on the infrastructure of a city, and don’t universally apply to the rural landscape. It could be argued that contemporary activism falls into a similar category as art or journalism — it claims a far-reaching impact but is nonetheless an urban middle-class profession whose repercussions mainly affect the urban middle-class sphere. The working class doesn’t always have time for activism because it’s too busy, well, working. If it wants a place in the conversation, it must gain access to a middle-class space, such as a college campus. Vassar is criticized for being a “bubble,” but as a well-endowed and financiallygenerous institution of higher education, its role for working-class students is more of a cocoon — a transformative agent of socioeconomic class and one of a (shrinking) number of bridges from bluecollar to white-collar. A college education is often the only way for a general laborer to strategically work their way into a better-paying desk job, though there are indications that even this approach is less effective than it once was — a symptom of ever-diminishing social mobility. The metamorphosis is not solely a financial one. Rural students, in particular, are prone to encounter a jolting and awkward friction arising from a stigmatization they haven’t previously experienced — an expectation to dress, act, and speak in a certain way. Upward social mobility is absentmindedly categorized as positive, but for working-class youth and rural youth, specifically queer rural youth, it can entail a fundamental reshaping of one’s identity and both a physical and psychological displacement from one’s origins. Moving forward, it is critical to foster spatial awareness and include geographical context as more than a peripheral, if not outright invisible, aspect of difference and social consciousness. You can start by dialing back the classist humor. – Gideon Thompson-Aue ’16 is a student at Vassar College.

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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

News, Social Media Corrupt Criminal Justice
Chris Brown Contributor

NATIONAL AFFAIRS

few months ago, the Trayvon Martin case was everywhere. Ever since George Zimmerman was declared “not guilty” on the charges of Second Degree Murder and Manslaughter, issues of race and class have been on the forefront. Yet, as I consumed all the media surrounding the case while it was broadcast, I found that the actual facts of the case were rarely discussed. Yes, there were the major points harped on again and again — he followed an unarmed teen when he was advised not to — and the occasional fact thrown in there, but the media focus was never the “proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The American Judicial system was founded on the idea that it is better to find 100 guilty men innocent than to find one innocent man guilty. That is why it can take weeks to come to a verdict in any given case. Attorneys and judges spend precious time handselecting a jury that they find will be fair and objective — a jury that will look at each piece of evidence with the utmost scrutiny and carefully comb over each statement made in the courtroom, from the judge’s initial instructions to the defense’s closing statement. A jury is secluded — their deliberations are held from the public in order to create the fairest atmosphere possible. Yet, there is something to be said about the current state of affairs when it comes to the media’s involvement in the judicial system. In Martin’s case, one moment, in particular, stood out to me as emblematic of problematic televised portrayal. In the middle of a Court-TV recap of the case — reminiscent of a post-game review on ESPN — all of the on-screen reporters discussed “juror statistics.” All of the jurors were female. One was Latina while the other five were white. One was a mom; one was a professed “pet lover.” The absurd and semi-annoying facts flashed across my screen while I seemed to obtain very little information about the expertwitness testimony on the wound pattern

A

ABC

and autopsy. I was confused. Even more astounding was the response from the public. Twitter and other social media sites exploded, with some claiming the unfair nature of having a majoritywhite jury while others began to predict the probability of a guilt or innocence decision from each juror based on these details. News media is the soup kitchen that feeds a population hungry for pointless trivia, employing tabloids and exposés. The repetition by every newsroom in the country of cases like Trayvon Martin’s obfuscates the true purpose of the judicial system. The media grabs a hard-hitting moment, often out of context, and blows it up for the world to see. Social media allows an immediate reaction from the public. Misinformed citizens form rash opinions and perpetuate the process, voicing their views to as many people that will listen. Essentially, the media instigates a trickle-down vigilantism. This does not help, and almost certainly harms, the capability of the judicial system to give a fair trial. When the news broke that the jury declared Zimmerman not guilty, the tweets went flying. Celebrities used their social cache to force their opinions

onto their large numbers of followers. Tweets, such as one from Former South Carolina GOP executive director Todd Kincannon, which stated, “I appreciate you! I agree that Trayvon Martin was a dangerous thug who needed to be put down like a rabid dog,” were ubiquitous. Millions of people saw tweets just like this from celebrities and politicians. They then retweeted them and spread the viral ignorance. Many of the tweets had little-to-nothing to do with the content of the trial. While many celebrities tried to come off as informed citizens who intently watched each and every moment of the trial, despite demonstrating a superficial understanding of the facts, their immense hold over the population allowed them to use outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to “inform” citizens — continuously manipulating the population towards whichever ideology to which they wanted them to subscribe. Now, some may argue that there is no way to have a perfectly fair trial — every jury will naturally be biased. Environment and culture definitely have an effect on how people formulate their opinions on justice, yet the Internet and television only express to people the

information that makes a great story. This creates a mob-mentality that will almost always guarantee polarized opinions among the public. It is actually astounding, and a bit frightening, to think about how much power the media has. Whether or not a jury of 12 can make what, in the universe’s eyes is a “fair” decision, is not relevant; the media corrupted the system set in place by this country long ago. If the United States has a corrupted judicial system, then the idea of a fair trial goes out the window. I, personally, have to believe that jurors have the ability to set aside any biases and judge the case objectively and based only on the evidence at hand. Does that mean I agree with the Trayvon Martin verdict? Not in the slightest. But what I really disagree with is the corruption of the judicial system by the big corporations that feed Americans their information. I still believe that the American judicial system is the best in the world, but if we keep moving on the track that we are on, our country is not far from creating a new Bravo reality show featuring a jury of 12 deliberating about the life of a defendant. It would probably be a ratings smash.

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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013 PAGE 13

Prof. Kiese Laymon Explores Catharsis of Writing
OFFIce HOURS wITH PROFeSSOR KIeSe LAYMON
Hannah Matsunaga Debate & Discourse Editor

DEBATE & DISCOURSE

n this installment of Office Hours, Debate & Discourse Editor Hannah Matsunaga ’16 interviews Kiese Laymon, Associate Professor of English and Co-Director of Africana Studies here at Vassar. Professor Laymon is the author of the novel, “Long Division,” and a book of essays called, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” as well as a contributor to Gawker, ESPN. com, Esquire.com, Longman’s Hip Hop Reader, the journal “Politics and Culture,” and Mythium. “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” is a short collection of autobiographical essays chronicling Laymon’s life from Ms. Bockman’s seventh-grade class to being published by Agate Bolden this year. When consolidated, the essays paint a bittersweet portrait of navigating adolescence and manhood in America as a black man, with candid discussion of race, music, misogyny, home, family, and most importantly, love. Hannah Matsunaga ’16: What would you say this book is about? Kiese Laymon: I think the book is about, loosely, coming of age in Mississippi between the ages of, probably, 11 and 20, and then there’s a few essays that have to do with Vassar, loosely. But I think, ultimately, coming of age is what it’s about. I think what I’m trying to explore and convey is, I’m asking myself: can community actually help us out of this national funk we, particularly African Americans, are in—a national and cultural funk that we’re in? Can communal and personal reckoning help us? I was going through a really bad time in my life and I was just trying to be a decent person. And that’s when I wrote those essays. HM: In both the Authors’ Note and in [the essay] “You Are the Second Person,” you describe writing the sentence, “I’ve been slowly killing myself and others close to me.” What did writing that do for you? KL: It made me stop. It made me stop

I

treating the people close to me the way I should have. I wasn’t treating my family right, and, most importantly, I wasn’t treating myself right. I wasn’t hearing other people close to me when they were like, “You need to stop.” So, sentences. I wrote this other book called Long Division and sometimes I think sentences, when you read certain sentences, when I do, at least, as a writer and as an English professor, certain sentences you can’t run away from, and that’s one of the only sentences that

KL: Yeah. HM: Is the process different when you write about your own life? Do you feel that there’s a difference between writing a story about somebody else and writing stories about yourself? It’s a very personal book. KL: Oh, absolutely. The novel, you know, I’m very rested in this idea of, “what if?” So, what if there are all these kids in a hole, and there’s a lot of time travel, all this other kind of stuff, you know, what if? So, the writing of that

“In our country, those people don’t live past 30, especially if you’re a black man and you’re fearless and you’re reckless and you’re mad ambitious and you’re dealing in that realm—not just hip-hop, but entertainment.

The Rumpus/Kima Jones.

Associate Professor of English Kiese Laymon is pictured in front of the Cornaro Window in Vassar’s Thompson Memorial Library. Laymon’s most recent book, How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, is a series of essays on race relations in the United States.

doing exactly that. I couldn’t run away anymore from the fact that I wasn’t

I had written at that point in my life where I was like, “Damn, that’s true.” You know? And so if you are killing yourself, if you’re killing other people slowly, whether that’s figuratively or literally, once you admit it, you’re kind of obligated to stop. HM: Long Division is a novel, right?

is the exploration of what doesn’t exist. I’m trying to use history and historical happenings as an echo for these “what ifs,” but with this, it’s just like I’m trying to remember — I’m trying to reckon with that memory — and also, I’m trying to get different voices in. I was trying to get my aunt’s voice, my friends’ voices, my

grandmother’s voice and my mother’s voice. So, it’s a completely different process, but I think the books are really about the same thing. HM: In the book, you write about everything from family to hip-hop to Barack Obama. Do you consider it a political piece? KL: Yeah, I think it’s a political piece with a lowercase-p. It’s a book about trying to explore love. It’s a love story; it’s a love book about coming to terms with and reckoning with how I think the nation encourages a lot of us to not love each other and not love ourselves. I was trying to come to terms with my movement through that, but love is at the center. Politics is there, especially lowercase-p politics, but love is central. HM: Do you have a favorite essay? KL: Man, that’s a good question. That’s a really good question. Nobody ever asks me that. I have a favorite essay. I was at this reading last night in New York City, and I was going to read from the novel. And then somebody said, “We only have ten minutes,” so I decided to read from the essay book instead. And people who had read the title essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” were, like, clamoring for it. They wanted me to read it and that was the first time that that’s ever happened, so, today, I’d be like, that’s my favorite essay because it felt really nice and generous that there were people who wanted to hear that read. That’s the essay that has resonated with the most people. Before yesterday, I was so tired of that essay. I would have told you that my favorite essay was probably the second person one because there’s not a lot like that out there, but, right now, I think the title essay is my favorite. HM: Was there one that was hardest to write? KL: Oh, that was the hardest to write — the title essay. The book was initially, like, 240 pages. There were eight more essays, and then the novel came out, and, you know, the novel is metafiction and it’s kind of hard to read, and so we wanted this book to be a quick read — something where you could take it all in at one session if you wanted to — so we cut, like, six or seven essays from it, but then, the editor was like, “What’s going on? There’s a time between [ages] 17 and 20 that you haven’t really talked about at all.” I was like, “I haven’t talked about it because it’s something I don’t want to revisit — that part of my college life.” That was the hardest essay to bring myself to write. Once I actually started, once I got into the writing of it, I let myself go and I told myself I was just going to try to remember. It was kind of hard for me to think of how to make sections flow with the other sections. There’s a repetition of age and a repetition of the sentence, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” In revision, I decided I wanted to use those as refrains
Continued on Page 15

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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

DEBATE & DISCOURSE Laymon on Race and Entertainment in U. S.
Continued from Page 14

in the piece, but before, those sentences and that structure wasn’t really there, so it was hard, but once I started it, it wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want to write it. I didn’t want to go there. But, thankfully, I did. If I didn’t go there, nobody would have read the book. HM: Speaking of age, there’s a part where you talk about Tupac Shakur, how if he were alive today, he’d be in his 40s. You say you can’t imagine a space for a 40-something-year-old Tupac. Why is that? Is it just that America is a hostile place for young and ambitious black men, or is there another reason? KL: I think it’s that, when I look at my life, I don’t know if we have a pop figure who was as committed to a particular kind of truth-telling as fearlessly and as — I mean this in the most generous way — recklessly. I don’t think we have people; I don’t think I know anyone like that. In our country, those people don’t live past 30, especially if you’re a black man and you’re fearless and you’re reckless and you’re mad ambitious and you’re dealing in that realm — not just hip-hop, but entertainment. So, all these eyes are on you and the impetus to perform is even higher. It’s just not a good recipe. I had a few friends who say Tupac could have made that turn. Who knows, he could have been a super conservative guy now, but I don’t think that could have happened. I think that’s the sad part about that story: what happened was what was going to happen. His murder, I remember, all of us, we knew. We knew it was going to happen and it did. The ambition is definitely part of it. The nation just doesn’t do well with truth-tellers who are reckless and just not really strategic. You know what I’m saying? He wasn’t really strategic in

done more than 100 people put together in terms of affecting the nation, which is crazy. He did it all in like six years. HM: You also talk a little about Kanye West and [West’s 2010 album] My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in the book. What do you think of [his latest album] Yeezus? Does it change any of

“We should push our nation to be better on a local scale, a national scale, but also, individually, we have to be unafraid to see what happens if we love. If we unabashedly love ourselves and other people in our communities and share those things that often, we really don’t want to share. Let’s just see what would happen. For me, for this part of my life, that’s part of what helped me get to where I am — to make it to this interview, actually. I don’t do therapy; I just write.”

the way he went about truth-telling, but he did a lot. That’s the main thing I’m trying to say in that essay. By 25, he’d

what you said about the way West treats women? KL: I think I’m right about his problem with women — his inability to not use women as a conduit to anger or masculinity or a kind of weird black nationalism. He definitely does that and I still believe that he’s smarter than that. He’s more compassionate than that, but I think Yeezus just … Yeezus broke my heart. I just didn’t think he was capable of an album that lacked any compassion. Do you know what I’m saying? That Yeezus album, there’s just no love in it. He’s angry, and a lot of my friends are like, “You need to respect his anger.” And I get it, but what is he angry at women for? What are you mad at women for? This is a question he needs to talk about. I really want to be like, if I was his friend, I would be like, “Kanye, what are you so mad at women for? What are you mad at black women for? Really, what did they do to you?” Because, if a white artist was rhyming like that about black men, he would be the first one to say that’s crazy — that that person needs to be dealt with. HM: True. KL: You know the thing that was most disappointing? It’s Kanye, right, so you know you’re going to get something that you haven’t heard before, and, sonically, I think he did that. I heard things I hadn’t heard before in terms of sound, but the sentiment was just recycled “mad-at-women” and “madat-whatever” bullshit. And I’m like, why are you doing this? I believe everything I said in there, but now I believe it more. Obviously, now I can’t be like, “You’re

better than this — don’t do it again,” because he just made a whole album affirming what I thought he shouldn’t have done. HM: In the Author’s Note, you say you think of your essays like tracks, and then, later on in the book, you talk about how successful emcees are able to “boast, confess, and critique.” Do you feel like you did that with this book? KL: The hardest part for literary writers is the boast part. There’s plenty of confessional and there’s plenty of critique in that book. And there’s boast in the, “Hip-Hop Stole my Southern Black Boy” piece — there’s a geographic boast — but I don’t know that there’s much more explicit boast other than the implicit structural boast. I think these essays are all really different. They’re all really different forms, and, in some ways, that could be seen as an implicit boast, like, “Oh, I did all these different forms of essays,” while trying to get you with the sentiment. It’s hard to boast — it’s hard to write an essay that’s just about how dope you are. You can do that in music—in hip-hop. I tried to write one, but it didn’t fit. It just threw off the tone. HM: There’s a lot, specifically in “Echo,” about redemption: freedom, living, self-love, the love of others, and healing. If you had to write a book entitled, “How to Slowly Save Yourself and Others in America,” what do you think you would want to say? KL: I’d want to say exactly what I said in there. I think the title means a number of things. It’s trying to isolate a moment in my life when I realized that I was living destructively, but the book is also about how I never just drowned in those moments. In the title essay, I think about my grandmother to pull me out of those moments. In “Echo,” literally, the structure is that I’m saying we need to talk to each other about those hard truths in order to pull ourselves out. In “You Are the Second Person,” it’s like you need to will yourself sometimes to push yourself away from that thing you think you’ve always wanted because it’s unhealthy. My book deal with Penguin was unhealthy. In “Hip-Hop Stole my Southern Black Boy,” you need to accept the beauty of your region and not look at it as less than compared to somewhere else, so even though the book is called “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” on one hand, it’s saying, this is how I was killing myself, but on the other hand, it’s saying you can kill that destructive part of yourself too. For me, it’s a how-to book. It’s a how to live book, a how to love book, without being too corny. I do think it’s a pretty corny book. It is! Whatever, it’s my first essay book. I’m working on a new one and it’s going to be a lot better. You know, people like it, but it’s real corny. I don’t know. I think ultimately what I’m trying to say is that we should push our nation

to be better on a local scale, a national scale, but also, individually, we have to be unafraid to see what happens if we love. If we unabashedly love ourselves and other people in our communities

“With students, administrators, and teachers, I think there’s a fear to open ourselves to a place where we’re actually seen. I think we are masters of deception and I think we all kind of encourage that with the way we talk to one another.”
and share those things that often, we really don’t want to share. Let’s just see what would happen. For me, for this part of my life, that’s part of what helped me get to where I am — to make it to this interview, actually. I don’t do therapy; I just write. HM: Alright, last question: what do you think of the Vassar Bubble?  KL: It’s really interesting when freshmen first get here because they haven’t learned from other people here that you’re not supposed to [leave the Bubble]. They haven’t learned that, so they treat this community as if it’s a community. They walk, they go places, and what’s sad is that invariably they’ll be taught, or something will happen, whatever, and then they’ll stop. What I’m interested in is thinking not just about, you know, how fear stops people from walking, but even within this bubble, how fear dictates the way we communicate. You know what I mean? Our ability to talk to each other. What don’t we talk about? In my class, I used to talk about the importance of the word, “like,” here. You know, kids always say, “like, like,” and everything is “like” something, but what is? What actually is what we care about? What do we care about? And they’ll be like, “well, like-” I don’t want to know what it’s like. I want to know what it actually is. So I think in a lot of ways, there’s a fear of going out, there’s a fear of getting hurt, there’s a fear of all of that within the college. With students, administrators, and teachers, I think there’s a fear to open ourselves to a place where we’re actually seen. I think we are masters of deception and I think we all kind of encourage that with the way we talk to one another. Honestly, I wouldn’t care if there was a bubble if we were pushing ourselves within this bubble to actually reckon with the things that we don’t want to reckon with. I think they’re related—our inability to go out there is tied to our inability to go deep within here. 

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

PAGE 15

DEBATE & DISCOURSE
Notion of Virginity Limits Sexual Autonomy, Discourse
Christa Guild Senior Editor

W

e often engage in an economy that is unspoken. It is a means of determining the relations of power in society and it is at the root of nearly every judgment about sexual behavior. It is an implicit, socially-perceived economy of which the currency is the very bodies of the people who engage in it. This economy, derived from the idea of an inherent need to protect oneself and one’s kin, thrives upon the commodification of the human body and has magnified the potency of sexual sanctity. People gain or lose social capital in their community depending on how they maneuver sex, both through the language they use to discuss sex and their own sexual activities. That a nude body cannot be seen without attributing sex to it indicates that, in this economy, the function of the body — being separate from that of the mind — is sex and reproduction. The commodification of the body culminates in the valuation of sex and, perhaps even more so, the lack of sex. The construct of virginity acts as a marker of worth and encourages an unhealthy relationship with sex that perpetuates stereotypes and damages the people who are trapped within them. The idea of virginity compelled the protection of families. If social norms discouraged promiscuity, the number of births of children with unknown fathers and inadequate familial support would, in theory, be minimized. The encouragement to form monogamous relationships hinged on the placement of value on abstinence, to the point where, eventually, the very idea of “having” a virgin became enticing. The victims of this framework of commodification, namely, women, lose their voice and humanity. The objectification of persons means, in a capitalist context, that they are subject to purchase and exchange as goods to then be used by a consumer. Our culture conditions us to think about things in terms of their worth. The idea that some object does not have a clear, identifiable value goes against our assumptions of how the system should function. Instead of being subjective to every person, virginity becomes an objective norm that we apply to individuals identified merely by bodies. Virginity became increasingly dependent upon one’s sex by the 18th century, demarcating the very identities of women; females were “virgins” until they had sex — only afterward could they be considered “women.” It is telling that discourse did not apply the concept of virginity to men; after all, when paternity could not be proven, women were responsible for births out of wedlock. Though the idea of male virginity came to exist in modern society, female virginity is still considered to be far more sacred. The maintenance of virginity acquired a reverence. Eventually, discouraging women to have sex transformed into a cultural refusal to even discuss sex. In

the modern age, people are quick to joke about sex, but doing so often requires one to relinquish one’s education and knowledge of truth in favor of immaturity and an unwillingness to be honest. Even the linguistic aspects of the expression, “Losing one’s virginity,” indicate that virginity is a commodity that should be protected. It implies that the addition of sex in one’s life is not a gain — it is a forfeiture of a valuable part of the self.

considered not guilty. Females grow up endlessly concerned about how, when, where, and with whom they will lose their virginity, as if by choosing the wrong person or time, they could be forever ruined. The trope of rose petals, candles, and romance dominates so many “first times” portrayed in pop culture that a girl is taught to feel that her first time has to be perfect. If it isn’t, she either wasn’t good enough for perfection or she wasted her “gift” on the wrong

Her Campus

Money can’t buy you love, but virginity can buy you social acceptance.

The loss of virginity is generally perceived as the first time someone in a heterosexual couple has intercourse and is accompanied by culturally-embedded misconceptions of the human body, particularly those of females. There is a fallacy that sex actually physically changes the body; the phrase, “Popping her cherry,” in particular, implies that something must physically break or become altered. In reality, the bleeding and pain associated with “losing virginity” is often just people doing it wrong. While the hymen can tear during sex, many women find that it merely stretches, and, sometimes, the first time engaging in vaginal intercourse for a woman doesn’t involve pain. The idea of pain from the first time is, rather, something of a scare tactic. The concept of “virginity” exacerbates unhealthy relationships with sex, creating a deep sense of fear for one’s first time. Men who do not lose their virginity soon enough appear to lack the masculine capital to afford the commodity of sex, while men who do have sex are perceived to be able to assert their control over a woman. Although a man also “loses his virginity,” his main role in the act is the taking of the woman’s virginity. The man gains dominance and control in what popular culture often displays as a violent act. This system inscribes on the consciousness of women that it is their responsibility to subdue such violence by offsetting it with love and romance. In debates regarding rape, for example, the excuse that, “boys will be boys,” is often deemed sufficient to warrant their being

circumstances. Overvaluing virginity also yields horrible consequences for people trying to recover from rape. Under this framework, since the virginity of a woman, in particular, is so sacrosanct, it becomes her duty to keep it safe until the perfect moment. Without her virginity, the moment that defines her life is taken from her and her very identity suffers. Women are perceived as responsible for virginity, so one who fails to display adequate resistance to maintaining her virginity is seen as being guilty of undervaluing her own body, and the victim-blaming begins. The woman without support then often feels like her body is worth less than it was before; suddenly she is “used goods” and may not even feel worthy of healthy sexual relationships. There are accounts from the Victorian Era wherein women were raped and their families, finding these women useless, disinherited them. Without support, many women were forced into prostitution and destined for unemotional and abusive sexual relationships. Today, it is not unusual for rape victims to refuse to report the crime that was committed against them because they fear the shame that will accompany it. The fact that virginity has misogynistic undertones is undeniable, even without considering the placement of responsibility for rape upon the victims. As a result of the commodification of virginity, people have created a cultural resistance to the idea of female agency

in sexual behavior. The idea of women acting as sexual beings before losing their virginity counters societal norms. It resists the phallocentric assumption that women need men and that having sex for the first time substantively changes a woman. In contrast to male masturbation, female masturbation is much more taboo — a woman who is able to give herself pleasure without the help of a man undermines the value of the male body. The construct of virginity necessitates a man, making women believe that the highest and most legitimate form of sex is heterosexual intercourse. Most striking is the narrowness of the term “virginity,” since, to lose one’s virginity, one must have penetrative sex with a member of the opposite sex. Virginity is a heteronormative concept. The construction of virginity crumbles when the different standards for losing virginity across different pairings are considered. In heterosexual relationships, virginity lasts until the first time the pair engages in vaginal intercourse. In male-male pairings, however, anal sex is now considered sufficient, though it, too, relies upon the presence of a penis. Women who only have sexual relationships with other women, then, would presumably never lose their virginity, no matter how much sex they think they have. This dominant conceptualization of virginity may explain why so many gay people fear that their behaviors are wrong. Their actions go against a cultural norm, so they are, in effect, working outside of the body economy. Their divergence from what society considers to be “normal sexual actions” thus detracts from their worth, causing them to be considered of less value in comparison to straight people. While the use of the word, “virginity,” certainly does not indicate a discrimination against sexual orientations, it nonetheless contributes directly to cultural inclinations towards heteronormativity. Personally, I am tired of people on campus joking about losing their vCards, especially because it then separates people into those who already have and who anticipate it. I’m tired of people bragging nonchalantly about having sex while other people openly judge them and wish that they could trade places. I’m tired of people feeling like there is something wrong with them because they haven’t had sex. These interactions are damaging because they attempt to regulate sex. We can’t keep pretending that there is a right way to go about having or not having sex and we can’t keep trying to live up to the expectations of those who are not directly involved in our personal lives. The perceived economy of the body cheapens the sexual autonomy of the individual. Removing the word “virginity” from our lexicon entirely is imperative. Without the constraints of a society that values virginity at the expense of its people, discussions about sex could be open, honest, and nonjudgmental, just as they should be.

PAGE 16

CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

DEBATE & DISCOURSE
“Golden
Grace Sparapani Contributor

Dick

Syndrome”

Plagues

Vassar

Campus

W

hen I got into Vassar, one of the most popular claims I heard was that I would have trouble finding a guy—a huge letdown for me as a potential Women’s Studies major who was secretly just looking to get an MRS. Moreover, Vassar was once America’s premier Ivy League Whorehouse—the idea that there might be no good men here was a terrifying prospect to me before I arrived on campus. Apparently, the rest of my peers had heard, and were just as concerned about, this scarcity of hunky and hetero husband material as well. Mid-summer, during the frenzy of getting ready to leave home and make roots in a new place, one student posted in Vassar’s 2016 Admitted Students Facebook group that he was a little worried about being one of only “20” straight males at Vassar, but others were quick to assure him, writing that they too were straight, that he would be fine, or even that this only meant that he would have even more girls to choose from. Finally, one girl wrote that she was glad to hear that his heterocentric fears had turned her into a commodity. When I got to school, I found that the lack of straight men was, in fact, a myth, but the feeling of being a commodity persisted. On this campus, there is a misperception about the number and availability of straight men, probably stemming from Vassar’s history as a women’s college and the misogyny that comes with the thought that no man would ever want to go to a women’s college. The result of this misperception is the commodification of both straight men and women—though in markedly different ways—which economizes heterosexual relationships and damages their potential. Of course, bisexual and pansexual men and women, as well as genderqueer people, also can interact sexually and romantically with straight men and women, as well as with each other. But the pervasive myth that there are no straight men at Vassar and the supplyand-demand economic system it invokes seem to affect straight men and women more than any other groups, as they seem to feel more bound by the sizes of their communities. Misperception may seem to be a problem in itself, but it is actually just a symptom of a much deeper and more troubling issue. Heteronormativity is

not just an inside joke Vassar students use to be cute, and normativity does not only exist in the hetero variety—it exists about the queer community as well. As was pointed out in the discussions following the Westboro Baptist Church block party, gay men are the assumed face of the LGBTQ community. Thus, when people hear that VC has a large LGBTQ community or is very LGBTQ friendly, they conflate this statement with VC having a large number of gay men. While queer-friendly spaces often attract gay men and encourage closeted men to come out, “G” is only one letter of the queer alphabet, so using gay men as the image of an entire community ignores a whole host of other letters, many of which are not even in the traditional acronym. This creates a whole host of problems. As heteronormativity erases the homosexual community from the sight of the general public, normativity about the LGBTQ community erases those individuals who do not fit the poster image of a gay, often white, always cisgendered male. The effects of this erasure are that the types of oppression unique to the people who do not fit that image are forgotten, the oppression is therefore re-enforced, and gay males are looked to as the most appropriate figures to lead LGBTQ activism and speak on the community’s behalf. As a result, the people who are marginalized not only for identifying as queer but also for being trans*, black, brown, female, disabled, or of any other category whose members are denied privilege in some respects, are oppressed even more. Those forced to the margins of a community asking for acceptance become oppressed both outside and inside this community and are caught in a position of very little agency. At Vassar the previously mentioned misogyny, the social idea that gay men are the de facto face of the LGBTQ community, and the liberal environment with fewer stigmas on male affection than most places in America all work together to create the myth that there are very few straight men at Vassar. This false image of the number of straight men on campus changes the way both straight men and women view themselves. Both groups become commodities—subject to economic principles, as the idiom of being “on the market” becomes literal. Straight men, in perceived short supply, find themselves in high demand. And as the

doctrine of traditional economics says, as demand goes up, quality can go down while still retaining marketability. This problem is not unique to Vassar—friends at Sarah Lawrence have informed me that over there they call it “Golden Dick Syndrome.” In sharp contrast to straight men, straight women find themselves in a perceived high supply. Having been forced to play the role of commodity, and knowing the purpose of a commodity is to sell, women at Vassar often feel they have to play to the market. The result is a skewed standard in how the two groups of people relate to each other both romantically and sexually. Men, feeling themselves to be in high demand, come to expect ease in finding a partner and thus end up surprised if they are rejected when they project their feelings of sexual attraction onto women. I have heard many women at

“Heteronormativity is not just an inside joke Vassar students use to be cute, and normativity does not only exist in the hetero variety— it exists about the queer community as well.”
this school talk about “putting up with” male arrogance and otherwise offputting behavior because they feel they have no other choice. Of course, I am not denying that women, as well as people of any gender identity and sexuality can be arrogant, selfish, and generally awful, nor do I want to deny that there are straight men here at Vassar who treat their partners with respect, dignity, and no hint of assumption. I would also like to acknowledge that the trends at VC related to commodification and supply and demand also reflect broader patriarchal systems, but I am not trying to create a profile or generalization of all men at Vassar. I am trying to point out a pervasive and disturbing trend in the campus culture that I have noticed in my time here. For example, a man at Vassar who already had a budding relationship with one of my friends asked her for my number so he could ask me to “hang out.” When I ignored him, he deleted my number only to ask another friend, months later, for it again to text me to “hang out.” Even the way in which people propose trysts to people they

hardly know is presumptuous. To do it in this way makes it even more so and shows the casualness and carelessness with which straight men here treat women, in terms of their emotions and experiences. I know this can be written off as the experience of only one woman upset about the actions of one man, and furthermore, only anecdotal, but sometimes anecdotal evidence is very valuable as it gives both figurative body and literal faces to the theories. Besides, the stories like this that I have heard are numerous—men who will walk back to campus with women only to be verbally surprised when they do not also want to go home with them, men who will try to set up sexual encounters with women with whom they do not have a previous relationship as early as breakfast, and others who simply refuse to be open about what they want and are trying to achieve. When considering that our relations have been economized in a capitalist economy that tells us never to settle when we can have more, it is no wonder that I hear so many people say relationships at Vassar seem impossible. While there is nothing wrong with having multiple partners or preferring casual flings over serious relationships, it is a problem when people feel that they cannot explore monogamy or multiple longer-term relationships because they feel that they are missing out on the alternative or doing something wrong. A large part of my disillusionment with this culture on campus is that I expected more from Vassar and its students. The men I see treating women poorly because of commodification are probably all enrolled in classes taught by bright, engaging, female professors. These men are all smart and welleducated, and in any classroom setting, would be quick to point out the issues associated with imposing a capitalist system on interpersonal relationships. To their credit, away from the arena of the romantic and the sexual, most are pretty good guys. Sadly, I do not see a probable solution for this culture as long as normativity about the LGBTQ community still exists, but the first step is mindfulness about both this normativity and its effects. Mindfulness is especially important when such external structures stand to damage the ways we relate to each other inside this campus, and as a member of this campus community, I think we deserve better.

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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

PAGE 17

DEBATE & DISCOURSE
Ought the U. S. Intervene to Stop Human Rights Abuse?
Hannah Matsunaga, Debate & Discourse Editor Sterling Higa, Contributor

n this Debate of the Month, Debate & Discourse Editor Hannah Matsunaga ’16 and contributor Sterling Higa discuss the following question: Is the United States justified in intervening in the internal political processes of other countries in an attempt to stop human rights abuses? Hannah Matsunaga ’16: If Bruce Springsteen is to be believed, the United States is the greatest country in the world. We have the power to export pop culture, set global agendas, and intervene in the political processes of other countries to stop mass death and dehumanization from occurring. Because of this unique power, the United States has a burden to protect those who suffer; we cannot stand idle while atrocities occur. Intervention refers to taking measures proportional to the scale of abuse occurring, with use of military force only after diplomatic options have been exhausted. Human rights abuses include torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, and mass killing. For example, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQM) has taken over Northern Mali and imposed violent Sharia Law. AQM uses rape as a weapon against both men and women and beheads those who resist their authority. If the United States has the power to prevent large-scale rape and mutilation by intervening, it ought to do so. Moreover, having this power and making the choice to not intervene should be considered violence in and of itself. Sterling Higa: Human rights abuses cannot be solved by abusing other human rights. Political activist Noam Chomsky once noted that the amount of U.S. military assistance to a particular country is, as a general rule, directly proportional to the number of human rights violations committed by that country’s military. Furthermore, the United States is terrible at intervening in internal political processes. In 1915, Marines entered Haiti for humanitarian causes. They attempted to build a democracy by rigging elections, censoring the press, dissolving the Haitian Senate, changing the constitution, and violently repressing the opposition. Haitians were banned from high offices, which were filled with Americans. In 1955 in South Vietnam, the U.S. rigged an election to install pro-American leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem received over 600,000 votes from a pool of 450,000 registered voters. He then put 100,000 civilians into prison camps, including journalists, intellectuals, and children. The U.S. protected Diem in return for his crackdown on communism. In 1963, we supported Diem’s assassination. Two years later, America officially entered the Vietnam War, resulting in nearly 6 million deaths, including the deaths of 50,000 Americans. When we intervene, we make things worse. HM: If not us, then who? The United States has the most powerful and farreaching military presence in the entire world. As a result of the strength of our military, we have the ability more than

I

any other potential actor in this situation to intervene efficiently while minimizing collateral damage. Although U.S. policy has not always been perfect, we are uniquely suited in that we have the economic means to assist with humanitarian issues without hurting our own ability to maintain democratic order in our own country. In addition to this, use of United States’ forces is a strong deterrent against future abuses because the use of force shows the consequences of massive disregard for human rights. SH: “Altruistic” imperialism is still imperialism. When the United States intervenes in the internal political processes of other countries, it violates their sovereignty and continues our rich history of imperialism. The condescending rhetoric of this intervention actually has a negative effect on long-term change because U.S. intervention either stifles or co-opts existing political dissent within a country. When we de-legitimize organic political movements by associating ourselves with them, as we did in Iran where Iranian groups that received money from the United States were perceived as puppets of the U.S, we hurt the chances of those groups succeeding on their own. Organic political movements are necessarily more sustainable than intervention because they do not represent the imposition of foreign force on a country but rather that country’s people rising up to protect themselves. Recently, the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo analyzed a large number of military interventions between 1960 and 1996. They found that military interventions often initially resulted in the democratization of the target countries, but these countries later tended to deteriorate into unstable semi-democracies. If intervention causes military defeat, the successor regime is markedly less likely to survive because major military interventions are so politically destabilizing that they counteract the democratic process. HM: Even if the United States doesn’t have the best record when it comes to intervention, for those living under regimes that abuse their rights, the dehumanization they face daily is worse than all other possible alternatives. Anything the United States does is an improvement in the lives of those oppressed by their own governments; even a poorly-handled intervention is better than dehumanization. Humanitarian intervention stops dehumanization from occurring and saves lives. Saving lives is more important than the potential for organic movements. Stopping people from being tortured is more important than a group of rebels being perceived the wrong way by their countrymen. In 1994, the United States was reluctant to get involved in Rwanda. As a result of the conflict there, nearly 1,000,000 people died. President Clinton later admitted that if he had sent as few as 5,000 U.S. peacekeepers into Rwanda during the conflict, more than 500,000 lives could have been saved. Also, if we had acted, we may have even prevented the First and Second Congo Wars and saved another 6,000,000 lives.

For the opposition to have any ground in this debate, he must believe that the lofty rhetoric of respecting sovereignty is more important than the tangible difference the United States can make in the lives of millions of people. Moreover, states violate their right to self-government when they violate the rights of their people. Our responsibility to protect the lives of victims of large-scale abuse goes beyond something as capricious as the perceived right of oppressive states to self-govern and kill their own people. SH: This debate is not about saving lives or not saving lives, it’s about intervention in internal political processes; empirically, intervention is not a good, or even justifiable, way to save lives. It is not even a guarantee that fewer lives will be lost. The United States cited human rights abuses as motive for military intervention in Iraq. While human rights abuses did occur under the rule of Saddam Hussein, we also must accept the consequences of our intervention that included over 150,000 dead: 5,000 U.S. soldiers, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, and over 100,000 civilian deaths. The eight-year military campaign severely strained our national resources and increased our national debt by trillions of dollars. Intervention does not neatly solve anything. Given that, multilateral solutions are a much better alternative. The United States should not interfere in the political affairs of other countries because the U.S. doesn’t have a sufficient understanding of cultural and indigenous politics. Through a multilateral approach, regional actors can assist with culturallysensitive issues surrounding the problem. In addition, regional solutions lead to genuine support because all stakeholders are involved and solutions are not imposed by a hegemonic force. Even if the United States was completely culturally-sensitive, had a superior moral compass, and always intervened for the right reasons, because we are placing our own citizens on the line, the United States should refrain from intervention unless our own national security is threatened. HM: United States intervention does not mean the U.S. against the rest of the world. Moreover, the United States is getting better at intervention. Take, for example, the Arab Spring. In 2010, democratic protests in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring. Success in removing Tunisian dictator Ben Ali inspired similar protests in Egypt and Libya. When Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi responded by rolling tanks into protesting villages, posed snipers on rooftops to shoot those who left their houses, and using rape as a form of coercion. If the U.S. had let Gaddafi stay in power, we would have sent a message to dictators all over the world that they were free to abuse their own people — sent a message to oppressed peoples all over the world that we did not care about their struggle. In his speech on Libya, President Obama explained that, “We were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to

join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.” Our approach, which later became known as the Obama Doctrine, was successful. By intervening in internal political processes, we saved lives and prevented torture. SH: But what about Syria? The people of the United States are war-weary and do not support intervention in Syria. This matters, above all else, because a government’s primary responsibility is to its people; the American people have learned that when we shoot, others shoot back. We’ve learned that regime-change in the Middle East means occupying a foreign country for a decade in a strange, new imperialism, and to support whom? None of the rebel groups in Syria are strong enough to rule a country in Assad’s absence and some are allied with al-Qaeda. The enormous sums of money that military intervention would require would feed the beast of our military-industrial complex while starving everyday Americans who want their government to focus on issues at home, not abroad. The military consumes an obscene portion of our budget, while a mere sliver is allotted to our own civil services. Secretary of State John Kerry’s bargain with Russia, allowing us to pursue diplomacy with the United Nations on our side, is the best thing that could have happened. Given the reality of the Syrian conflict and the United States’ long history of bungled, imperialistic intervention, there is no way to justify intervention in Syria or anywhere else. HM: Conflict in Syria has been escalating for the past two years and current estimates put the death toll at over 100,000, with millions of people displaced. President Assad has been using sarin gas on his own people, which is an undisputed war crime, and has been stockpiling other chemical weapons. As I have maintained throughout this debate, the response of the United States — silence or intervention — sends a powerful message to the international community. Military intervention is a far better option than diplomacy because diplomatic efforts could be effective only if Assad, a dictator who murders his own people, were to stay in power. Choosing to negotiate instead of intervening legitimizes his gross abuses of power without any guarantee that the situation will improve for the Syrian people. Diplomacy, also, is dependent upon the ridiculous assumption that Assad will keep his promises, contrary to the reality of his having spent the past couple of months stockpiling and hiding weapons so the West cannot find them. Even if Assad wanted to find and destroy all of his chemical weapons, it might not even be possible to do so. In 1997, the United States promised to destroy its own chemical stockpile by 2007. The deadline has since been pushed back to 2023. Intervention is the only definitive way to stop not only the human rights abuses currently specific to Syria, but human rights abuses all over the world. Obama’s doctrine, the idea that we ought to intervene to “stop violence on a horrific scale,” undoubtedly holds true.

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CHRONIcLE, OCToBER 2013

ChronFeed
3 Reasons
Zack Struver ChronFeed Editor-in-Chief

BuzzFeed

is

Just

Plain

Awful

To see more reasons why BuzzFeed sucks, visit The Vassar Chronicle's website at vassarchronicle.com

1. NONE of their content is original.

3. Buzzfeed masks advertising as content using an innovative four-step social media strategy:
Step 1: Include prominent social media buttons on everything.

If the medium is the message, then Buzzfeed’s is “Sutor, ne ultra crepidam.” That’s Latin for “Look it up on Google,” because that’s all Buzzfeed contributors seem to know how to do (actually, they use advanced techniques to find animated gifs and write witless captions in less than two minutes).

2. And the content that isn’t outright stolen …

I think I’ll email a copy of this picture to everyone I know. Step 2: Use Buzzfeed Article Writing Formula™ to produce the stupidest possible articles.

I hear they have exclusive photos of Weiner dressed in nothing but sunglasses and cuticle tattoos. Step 3: ????

Even Anthony Weiner is bored by Buzzfeed’s banal coverage of politics.

… had

better, more informative, and more intelligent coverage in the NY Post.

This is big advertising, readers. Step 4: PROFIT!!!

As we wished to emulate BuzzFeed's style and content, The Vassar Chronicle decided to forgo standard journalistic practice on this page. We apologize if we have offended any readers.

Freefall (n.) - The state of mind for a visitor and/or contributor to Buzzfeed.

The “Money Feed” isn’t one that Buzzfeed likes to remind its readers about.

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