The Wall of Hate

Published: The Good Men Project (March 29, 2016)

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the Wall of Hate.

It may not look like much, but it was enough to grab my attention as I walked home from the Fairchild-Martindale Library at Lehigh University. Various students were standing in front of it with markers, scribbling words that I could not as of yet discern, and several more were present to hand out pamphlets and talk to curious passersby. I asked one such student, Aleksandra Popova, and she agreed to email me more details about the movement (which she co-founded with Brishty Khossein, Arnie Diamond, and Sydney Bagley). Her response deserves to be republished in full:

We hope that our event fosters conversations among Lehigh students on the topics of diversity and inclusion, highlighting the impact that individual words and actions have on our campus culture. Going forward we hope our event helps acclimate Lehigh students to having difficult conversations on sensitive topics.

Global Citizenship is a four-year interdisciplinary certificate program that emphasizes the various dimensions of a student’s educational development. The program incorporates academic courses, travel experiences and extracurricular activities to encourage global-mindedness in multiple areas of a student’s life. As a senior in the Global Citizenship Program you are required to conduct a Capstone project that reflects on their personal concept of global citizenship as it relates to a specific topic in their individual disciplines.

As a Global Citizenship Capstone group we want our project to be an outlet for students to vocalize their concerns about the campus climate. We believe that open dialogue and facilitated conversation about controversial topics will be an effective method of addressing and reflecting on community concerns, and we want to instill confidence within students that change can come from within the community. We would like to see community members feel comfortable opening up about their experiences at Lehigh in a public forum, and mobilize students to take action in instilling changes that they’d like to see in the community rather than remaining passive. Ultimately, a few days of open dialogue cannot create sustainable change – the conversations must continue into the future.

It’s become popular these days to ridicule the concept of “microaggressions,” but the Wall of Hate amply demonstrates why this term is still relevant. Even though individuals who say things like “Tell all of your people they should vote” and “You’re pretty for a black girl” and “That’s so gay” (all of which I found on the wall) may not view their words as particularly hateful, they carry enough weight that those who hear them can feel belittled and marginalized long after they were first uttered. While I’d agree that it’s dangerous for the PC left to shame unintentional transgressors (and everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding their intent, at least until it can be demonstrably proved otherwise), the Wall of Hate isn’t about humiliating those who harbor prejudice. The goal here (at least from my vantage point) is to draw attention to comments that, though perhaps made innocuously, really aren’t so harmless. That’s why students throughout the campus could be found congregating around the Wall of Hate, writing about their own experiences with prejudice so that others could learn from them.

As I walked away from the Wall of Hate, I found myself oddly inspired by what I had seen. At a time when prejudices continue to divide the nation and could even produce our next president (looking at you, Donald Trump), it’s encouraging to see so many young people taking a stand against these hatreds. Even better, they have found a way to speak out that is creative and provocative, encouraging others to participate and share their stories. This is what campus protest should look like – and I, for one, would love to see more of it.

Campus protests can go viral in no time–so can the backlash

Published: The Daily Dot (November 27, 2015)

It’s hard to follow the recent flurry of college protests without being reminded of President Harry S. Truman, who famously said that “there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

As the media continues to fete attention on high-profile student demonstrations at Yale, Wesleyan, Princeton, and the University of Missouri, one could be forgiven for thinking there is something novel about the state of American universities today.

While this assumption isn’t entirely wrong, it’s important to identify what exactly has changed and why. As history shows, and my personal experiences confirm, college campuses have always been hotbeds for radical student activism. The difference today is that, because so many students use social media to gather news and shape their political philosophies, collegiate conflagrations that would have died out on their own in the past can instead blaze on indefinitely and spread more widely thanks to the Internet.

To illustrate my point, a brief look at my own past as an undergraduate at Bard College (which I attended from 2003 until 2006, when I graduated after completing my coursework in three years) can be particularly instructive.

The year was 2004. George W. Bush had just been re-elected and I, like the dozens of other Bard students who had campaigned for Democrat John Kerry, was devastated. Because early exit polls had predicted a Kerry victory but the candidate himself had already conceded defeat, many of us decided that a march on the local town of Red Hook, New York, would tell the world that our voices would be heard. I wrote about the protest for the Bard Observer, the main campus newspaper, roughly two weeks later:

“[A]s the incendiary rhetoric and actions of the radical students became more prominent, the more reasoned individuals – myself included – began to disassociate ourselves from the main proceedings. By the time the sit-in had started in the town of Red Hook, the initial group of 250 protesters had dwindled to what locals approximate was a band of three or four dozen highly determined activists, who found themselves sitting in the primary [four-way] intersection of Red Hook.”

Inevitably, the police were called out to handle the demonstration, and what followed was a seemingly endless dialogue between the protest leaders and law enforcement officials. Although the students were eventually persuaded to end the traffic jam they had started, several of them began tossing pebbles and other small objects at the officers as they walked back to campus. Arrests swiftly followed, leaving the bulk of the student body in an uproar.

Because the prevailing impression among students who hadn’t participated was that the cops had arbitrarily “gone bezerk,” and I had personally witnessed the students provoking the cops, I felt compelled to use my column in the Bard Observer to offer a counterpoint to the consensus story. Unfortunately, after showing the draft of my op-ed to one of the protest leaders, the editorial was leaked throughout the campus. “Matthew Rosza [sic] is trying to print an editorial about what happened on weds,” one widely circulated email declared, “please feel free to write to him what you think of the article in order to help his poor disillusioned soul!”

What followed were two of the most intensely unpleasant weeks of my life.

As I went about my day-to-day business on the campus, I was frequently berated by total strangers–as well as more than a handful of casual acquaintances–who would accuse me of everything from fascism to plain old conservatism. In one bizarre twist, some even declared they were going to “boycott” me–not theObserver, mind you, which would have at least made sense, but me as a human being–a nomenclature faux pas that baffles me to this day (to be fair, I was guilty of a rhetorical imprecision of my own, referring to the Red Hook altercation as a “riot” in my article). The good news, though, is that as time wore on the students’ interest in this particular kerfuffle faded away. By the time I was telling this story to my extended family on Thanksgiving, I was already referring to it in the past tense.

If these same events had occurred today, I suspect the outcome would have been very different.

“What is unique about these issues is how social media has changed the way protests take place on college campuses,” explained Tyrone Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “A protest goes viral in no time flat. With Instagram and Twitter, you’re in an immediate news cycle. This was not how it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Professor Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University made a similar point in a recent editorial for The Washington Post, remarking that “as a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students. The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.”

Certainly there is no arguing that social media has transformed how millennials perceive and participate in our political process. As a survey by the Pew Research Center discovered in June, “when it comes to where younger Americans get news about politics and government, social media look to be the local TV of the millennial generation,” with 61 percent reporting getting their political news from Facebook in a given week. A separate survey also taken this year by the American Press Institute yielded similar results, finding that 57 percent of millennials get news from Facebook at least once a day, with others mentioning social media (or potential social media) sites like YouTube (29 percent), Instagram (26 percent), Twitter (13 percent), Pinterest (10 percent), Reddit (8 percent), and Tumblr (7 percent).

Because so many young people are engaging with politics through social media, the medium itself has shaped how they respond to current events. “Social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered,” observedNicholas Carr in a Politico article about the popularity of fringe presidential candidacies on social media platforms. “It also prizes emotionalism over reason. The more visceral the message, the more quickly it circulates and the longer it holds the darting public eye.”

In many ways, this creates a perfect storm of conditions for student protests to be blown out of proportion by both participants and third parties alike. The students provide the first ingredient by using social media to express and/or mobilize a demonstration regarding an intensely emotional position (legitimate or otherwise) that they hold on a touchstone political or social issue. If their rhetoric and/or protest activities are sensational enough to go viral, the media catches on and begins feverishly reporting it, with the subsequent heightened attention exacerbating the pre-existing histrionic climate and further fueling the cycle.While social media was already beginning to take off during my undergraduate days in the mid-2000s, it was nowhere near as pervasive as it is today, and in terms of my personal experience that may have made all the difference. Had the same events occurred 11 years later, it is hard to imagine that either the Red Hook protest or the subsequent backlash against me would have been mere footnotes in the national news.

Certainly the fact that Bard College has consistently been ranked as one of the most left-wing schools in America (then and now) would have featured prominently in the news coverage, along with the fact that I was an active member of the campus Democratic Club and could by no means be considered conservative. The odds are also strong that, as we’ve seen with high profile student protests today, each side would have seen its mistakes mercilessly nitpicked by critics: Cell phone videos taken of the protests would have been analyzed to confirm or contradict both our versions of events, our rhetorical excesses would have been dutifully chronicled, and the emotions that might have otherwise subsided over a couple weeks would have instead intensified and metastasized. For all I know, they would have ultimately defined my entire college experience–or brought it to a premature close.

The point here is not that student protests should be discouraged or condemned. Many important issues have been brought to the fore of our national debate because of these activities, from the anti-Vietnam War and pro-civil rights movements that swept campuses in the 1960s to the concerns about on racial and gender inequality that motivate students today. Although my personal experience has taught me to be critical of student protesters when they attempt to punish or silence dissenting views, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to play a role–however small–in the vibrant political debate that is the lifeblood of American democracy.

That said, as social media continues to transform our world, it is important that we make sure not to unwittingly amplify words and deeds that could conceivably cool off on their own. In the end, this type of excess means that we have allowed our technological tools to manipulate us instead of the other way around–and when that happens, everyone loses.

Campus PCness and the Price of Free Speech

Published: The Huffington Post (November 11, 2015), The Good Men Project (November 10, 2015)

This is an editorial for my fellow liberals.

Because progressive ideas on political and social issues often challenge conventional assumptions, liberalism as an ideology depends on freedom of speech for survival. It isn’t enough that the state be prohibited from suppressing dissenting political opinions; on a cultural level, left-wingers need the public sphere to accept dialogue on every conceivable subject. Survey the landscape of history and you will see that major civil rights movements – fighting for racial, gender, religious, economic, and other forms of social justice – moved forward because controversial ideas were allowed to flourish. People may have been angered by these concepts, but because they had logical and moral merit, the fact that they had a free space meant they could take root.

Free speech, however, does come at a price. If you want it to be secure for yourself, you must respect it for others.

A recent poll found that, while 93 percent of college students believe it is “very” or “somewhat” important to “protect free speech on campus,” only 74 percent believe that “diversity of opinion, including hearing the conservative perspective, enhances undergraduate education” (these numbers plummet when it comes to issues like flying the Confederate flag). The underlying theme seems to be that if words and symbols can be connected to the collective trauma experienced by a historically oppressed or marginalized group of people, they “constitute an act of violence” (an opinion shared by 53 percent of the surveyed college students). This logic was evident in the rhetoric used during the recent protests at Yale, Wesleyan, and the University of Missouri, each of which involved the airing of un-politically correct views in formats ranging from newspaper editorials and offensive slurs to Halloween costumes.

In terms of why this is happening right now, I think the explanation is rather simple. As Daniel W. Drezner put it in a recent Washington Post editorial, “As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students. The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.”  Not only have they shaped our history (just remember the Sixties), but I personally recall experiences from my own undergraduate years at Bard College (2003-2006) that would have made national headlines if they had happened today – Michael Bloomberg being asked to serve as a commencement speaker and the subsequent brouhaha, an ugly altercation with police in Red Hook, NY after George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, a protest in the cafeteria with chants of “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech” (whose origins frankly elude me at the moment). If these incidents had occurred in 2015, the ensuing social media – and thus, eventually, regular media – circus would have ramped everything up even further and empowered the student body through its capacity to embarrass the school.

In short, students have always done these things, but as social media continues to connect the world in unprecedented ways, the emotions – and consequences – are getting magnified. The main way this seems to be done is through catastrophizing, in which offensive but somewhat common events are blown out of proportion. In that psychological climate, it becomes easier to justify various forms of culturally or even institutionally imposed censorship. All you have to do is draw a connection (however tenuous) between a certain type of speech and serious potential harm that could (or in some abstract way has) been inflicted, and by virtue of the fact that the harm being caused is inherently intolerable,  the perpetrator must either publicly retract and atone or face some form of punishment.

This is what we saw at Wesleyan, in which a student newspaper lost funding due to its decision (for which it later apologized) to run an article criticizing the #BlackLivesMatter protests. It’s evident in the fact that administrators and faculty members have resigned or had their resignations demanded for criticizing or permitting criticisms of the basic assumptions of contemporary political correctness – namely, that the mere act of having a conversation on certain subjects is off limits. It is hear it all the time in arguments that the term “political correctness” itself ought to be banned or that media coverage of student protests violates their “safe space,” both of which weaponize allegations of catastrophization as a way of stifling real or potential criticism.

The tragedy here is that the cause of political correctness is valid. As America becomes more diverse, it’s cultural and social attitudes by necessity will need to be more pluralistic. It is not only healthy but encouraging that so many young people are passionately invested in spreading sensitivity toward traditionally marginalized groups, even if doing so challenges orthodox thinking and makes people uncomfortable. This is why this trend of catastrophization is so dangerous – instead of spreading awareness of racial, gender, and economic inequality, it shifts the focus toward policing speech and shaming perceived transgressors.

What we, as liberals, need to remember is that this behavior violates two fundamental assumptions of our ideology — namely, that we should exhibit compassion as well as reason in how we function as a society, and that we must permit others to speak their minds so that we may be granted the right to speak our own. The former is a moral imperative, the latter a moral and strategic one, but both are inviolable. If social media has been used to light this fire, it can be used to pour water on it too. All that’s needed is a lot of principle and a little bit of common sense.

When College Liberalism Is Wrong

Published: The Good Men Project (September 24, 2015)

Once upon a time, I was a Republican.

It was only a few years after the September 11th terrorist attacks and, despite my reservations about the war in Iraq, I believed that maintaining a strong national security apparatus was America’s foremost priority. Because I bought the Bush administration’s line of bull that Democrats were isolationist and anti-military, I registered as a Republican on my 18th birthday. It wasn’t until I had a series of thought-provoking conversations with various professors and students at Bard College (my alma mater) – as well as conducted research that was both class-assigned and independent – that I gradually changed my tune.

This brings me to the problem with the liberal activists at Wesleyan University.

After a staff editor at the college’s main newspaper wrote a piece criticizing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a petition has circulated to strip the journal of its school funding. The activists have also pledged to boycott the newspaper, demanded that its staff become diverse, and begun chucking copies of the paper into trash cans whenever it’s distributed throughout the campus. When school president Michael S. Roth published a statement pointed out that “debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable,” a protester at a student assembly meeting denounced his position as “disgusting.”

Since plenty of media outlets have talked about the vital importance of free speech to both our democratic society and our education system, I’m going to set those arguments aside and instead make an equally important point that often gets overlooked: If you want to persuade people, you must do so by listening to and engaging with them.

When I was a Republican at Bard College (which the Princeton Review had labeled as one of the most left-wing schools in the country), there were plenty of students who harassed me for my beliefs. Usually I just ignored them, but when they did get to me, my reaction was never to think, “Well, if this many people hate me, I must be wrong.” Instead my emotional instinct was to go on the defensive – to double-down on my opinions, regardless of the facts behind them, if for no other reason than to spite the people who were making my life so hellish. If anything, their viciousness made me more certain that I was correct, not less so. Nothing fortifies certainty like a strong sense of martyrdom.

Since plenty of media outlets have talked about the vital importance of free speech to both our democratic society and our education system, I’m going to set those arguments aside and instead make an equally important point that often gets overlooked: If you want to persuade people, you must do so by listening to and engaging with them.

This didn’t mean my opinions were correct, of course. Similarly, if you take the time to read “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think” (the Wesleyan op-ed that started it all), prepare to be bombarded by some of the most insultingly flawed logic and inaccurate information you’ll ever see in a respected college newspaper. It starts off with a ridiculous analogy (comparing a rare act of violence by a #BlackLivesMatter activist with the regular violence inflicted by police officers against racial minorities), accuses social justice advocates of “creat[ing] the conditions for these individuals [rioters and looters] to exploit for their own personal gain,” and claims liberals want to lump good cops in with the bad ones.

This isn’t a comprehensive deconstruction of everything wrong with that article (that would require an entire op-ed of its own), but you probably get the gist of it here. Its author, Bryan Stascavage, may or may not be a racist, but he has no qualms about over-simplifying the views of racial minorities. His argument is loathsome, through and through.

It doesn’t directly threaten anyone, however, and when it comes to questions of censorship, that’s really the only point that matters. Yes, his reasoning is flawed and offensive, but insisting that having objectionable opinions violates the “safe space” needed for other students is just plain asinine. No matter where you go in life, you will inevitably encounter people whose views not only differ from your own, but make your blood boil in rage. If that reality makes you feel “unsafe,” then your best bet is to avoid any kind of discussion on controversial subjects.

On the other hand, if you want to effectively combat offensive views, you need to do so by presenting a calm and reasonable counterargument of your own. Even though you may not change the perspective of the initial perpetrators (Stascavage, for example, does not seem like someone open to persuasion), you can influence and enlighten others who may have been leaning in one direction on a certain issue but will now be more inclined to feel another way. In my case, even though I was turned off by the rude and confrontational behavior of some of Bard’s more vociferous liberal activists, I was intrigued by the logic found in many of my course readings, classroom discussions, and talks with other students. They convinced me to become more liberal on foreign policy (my big reason for being conservative in the first place), and because I’d always held left-wing views on economic and social topics, that proved to be enough.

This is no doubt a main reason why the director of the Student Press Law Center, Frank LoMonte, observed to U.S News & World Report, “It is worrisome when you see students wanting to silence disagreeable opinions.” By attempting to shut down debate and punish dissenters, they undermine their ability to change minds instead of enhancing it. In the process they not only embarrass themselves, but betray the very values that they ostensibly wish to advance. If their goal is to advance the cause of liberalism, they will have no qualms about allowing noxious ideas to enter the public sphere and then combating them with human decency and common sense. By instead trying to purge their campus of any objectionable content, they not only give the bad ideas a moral high ground that they frankly don’t deserve, but diminish their chances of convincing others of seeing reason.

Their cause, and our campuses, deserve better.

Hillary Clinton, unpaid internships, and the culture of exploiting young workers

Published: Daily Dot (July 9, 2015)

Although Hillary Clinton has proposed a series of programs for reducing youth unemployment, she has also come under fire on the Internet for staffing her presidential campaign with unpaid interns. In response, Clinton announced on Tuesday that she was hiring 20 paid staffers in Iowa (the first state to hold a presidential primary or caucus next year). But, as Joanna Rothkopf of Jezebel noted, “the new hires don’t do anything to interrupt the trend of forcing even high-ranking staffers to work as unpaid ‘volunteers’ before being officially hired.”

How fast can Hillary Clinton’s unpaid interns photoshop a red white and blue soccer ball onto a bumper sticker let’s find out
— Matthew (@sixgunguerilla) July 6, 2015

While it’s valid to criticize Clinton for professing concern about youth unemployment while refusing to pay many of the young people who work for her, there is a deeper problem at play here—namely, the fact that unpaid internships have become an all-too-common way of economically exploiting young people.

“Prior to the 1990s, formal internships were rare. They functioned as apprenticeships in credentialed professional programs such as health care or accounting,” explained economist Neil Howe in a Forbes editorial last year. “But starting with late-wave Xers, this formality began to fade. College credit started to replace pay as more high-prestige companies offered unpaid positions, which continued to attract plenty of well-qualified applicants willing to compete for free.”

Because millennials have been taught that unpaid internships will help them build their resumes and develop valuable professional connections, they continue to seek them out—often without realizing that, as the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported in 2013, only 37 percent of college graduates with experience as unpaid interns received at least one job offer as a result. This is only marginally higher than the success rate of graduates who never interned (35 percent) and significantly lower than that for those who held paid internships (63 percent).

Unpaid internships have become an all-too-common way of economically exploiting young people.

However, thanks to the problem of high youth unemployment (the latest data from the Department of Labor places the number at more than 12 percent), an increasing number of ambitious college graduates are left with no choice but to work for free if they want to get their foot in the door within their chosen fields. “No one keeps statistics on the number of college graduates taking unpaid internships, but there is widespread agreement that the number has significantly increased,” reported the New York Times in 2012.

By last year, the practice had become so widespread that the same newspaper described it as the creation of a “permanent intern underclass: educated members of the millennial generation who are locked out of the traditional career ladder and are having to settle for two, three and sometimes more internships after graduating college, all with no end in sight.”

College graduates aren’t the only ones victimized by this institution. “Unpaid internships contribute to recessions as well as are triggered by them,” writes Dr. Nicolas Pologeorgis—an expert in business, economics, and finance—in Investopedia.

Along with misleading hopeful millennials into thinking they can obtain full-time work, Dr. Pologeorgis notes that “an increased supply of free labor tends to displace full-time workers and increase unemployment,” as well as “close off opportunities for minority applicants or people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds since high-quality and prestigious internships tend to favor the students/interns who come from affluent or relatively wealthy families and can afford to work for free.”

Technically unpaid internships that exist outside of the nonprofit sector and aren’t being used for college credit are only legal if they meet six criteria established by the Department of Labor, including that the internship must be “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment,” that the interns not “displace regular employees,” and that the employer “derives no immediate advantages from the activities of the intern.”

Unfortunately, some of the criteria contradict each other, in spirit if not precisely literally; for example, even though one stipulation requires unpaid internships to be “for the benefit of the intern,” another states that the intern isn’t “entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship,” a detail that is frequently downplayed by employers as it would remove one of the main incentives that drives unpaid internships in the first place.

Even worse, although the Economist noted that “most unpaid internships in the private sector in America look decidedly iffy” when it comes to both the aforementioned labor regulations and minimum wage laws, it has been notoriously difficult to actually hold the employers accountable in court, despite more than 30 cases being filed on behalf of unpaid interns in the past four years.

If there is any silver lining to all this, it’s the fact that more attention is being paid to the unfairness of the existing system.

Indeed, one particularly prominent case made Internet headlines last week: In Glatt v. Fox Searchlight, two unpaid interns who worked on the movie Black Swan from 2009 to 2010 sued to be compensated for labor that included “copying documents, maintaining takeout menus, assembling furniture, taking out trash and, in one case, procuring a nonallergenic pillow for the movie’s director, Darren Aronofsky.”

Although a Federal District Court ruled in 2013 that the working conditions did not meet federal standards and the plaintiffs should have thus been classified as employees, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed that decision. They argued that companies had the right to disregard the Department of Labor’s guidelines if it can be determined that the intern rather than the employer “is the primary beneficiary of the relationship” (even though an intern can be viewed as the primary beneficiary by simple virtue of having gained “experience”).

Since the opinion by Judge John R. Walker, Jr. also argued that courts should be flexible when “[examining] the economic reality as it exists between the intern and the employer,” employers have basically been given a carte blanche to pick which federal guidelines they choose to follow when using unpaid interns, then rely on appeals courts to bail them out if they lose an earlier legal case when accused of labor exploitation.

If there is any silver lining to all this, it’s the fact that more attention is being paid to the unfairness of the existing system. Celebrities like Charlie Rose and Lena Dunham have already been taken to task on Twitter for their use of unpaid labor (the former settled for $250,000 and the latter voluntarily agreed to start paying her performers). Although Clinton is still using plenty of unpaid interns for her campaign, her decision to pay 20 of her Iowa staffers reveals that she is at least aware of the controversy surrounding this issue.

That said, at a time when publications like the Washington Post have started referring to millennials as “the lost generation” because of their bad luck in inheriting a post-Great Recession job market, these paltry steps forward simply aren’t enough. If we want America to be a land of opportunity in practice as well as theory, we need to do away with unpaid internships altogether.

7 times Bernie Sanders broke the Internet

Published: Daily Dot (May 19, 2015), Salon (May 23, 2015)

Say what you will about the presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), but if nothing else, it has certainly introduced some interesting ideas into America’s political debate. Considering that the most recent polls show Hillary Clinton with a nearly five-to-one lead over her nearest rival, this can only be viewed as a positive thing.

As Reddit’s favorite politician, Bernie Sanders has enormous influence on our political discourse, and his recent policies have been making huge headlines on the Internet. Here are seven ways in which our national discussion on a wide range of issues could be transformed by the Sanders campaign.

1) Guaranteeing free college

In a press conference on Monday, Sanders advocated that the government fund tuition at four-year public colleges and universities through a so-called Robin Hood tax on Wall Street, one that would set a 50 cent tax on every $100 of stock trades on stock sales, as well as lesser amounts on other financial transactions.

While Sanders’ critics are expected to denounce the plan as socialistic, the Vermont Senator is quick to point out that similar proposals are already in effect and successful elsewhere. “Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people,” Sanders points out. “They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

Although Obama promised free community college for students who qualify, Bernie Sanders’ proposed policy shows that with America’s burgeoning debt crisis, we need to go even further.

2) Addressing income inequality

In an interview with the Associated Press confirming his presidential run, Sanders cited America’s growing income inequality as one of the chief motivators behind his campaign, a well-timed stance given the recent #FightFor15 on Twitter.

“What we have seen is that while the average person is working longer hours for lower wages, we have seen a huge increase in income and wealth inequality, which is now reaching obscene levels,” Sanders argued. “This is a rigged economy, which works for the rich and the powerful, and is not working for ordinary Americans.”

Sanders has proposed a number of reforms to solve this problem, from legislation that would close corporate tax loopholes to raising the minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, a rate Sanders describes as a “starvation wage.” For the working poor, getting by continues to be a daily struggle, and Sanders is fighting to change that.

3) Regulating Wall Street

If you think Sanders’ free college plan has Wall Street concerned, you can only imagine how they feel about Sanders’ proposed bill for breaking up banks that are considered “too big to fail.” In fact, polls show 58 percent of likely voters agree with his basic argument that “if an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist,” indicating that merely denouncing Sanders as a radical won’t necessarily work for this measure.

What’s more, banking lobbyists are concerned that anti-bank sentiment within the Democratic grassroots could push Clinton to the left on this issue. “The prospects of it becoming law are nil,” reported one banking lobbyist to the Hill. “But we care about whether this impacts Hillary and whether she’ll try to pander to the far left.”

But for the millions who continue to be affected by the 2008 crash and the effects of the American banking bubble on our Great Recession, it’s not just about pushing Hillary to the left. It’s about pushing America forward.

4) Legalizing marijuana

Although Sanders told Time magazine that he doesn’t consider marijuana legalization to be “one of the major issues facing this country,” his sympathies on the subject are pretty clear.

“If you are a Wall Street executive who engaged in reckless and illegal behavior which helped crash the economy leading to massive unemployment and human suffering, your bank may have to pay a fine but nothing happens to you,” he explained in an AMA session on Reddit. “If you’re a kid smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine, you may end up in jail for years.”

He also supports increased use of medical marijuana and takes pride in the fact that no one was arrested for marijuana possession or use when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt. Given the negative impact of three decades of the War on Drugs on incarcerating urban residents at disproportionate rates, particularly black men, this is a policy that is long overdue.

Although Hillary has vowed to fight the prison-industrial complex, Sanders shows he’s already ready to take the first steps.

5) Fighting free trade

There is another issue in which Bernie Sanders may push Clinton to the left: free trade.

Although hardly a trending topic, Sanders is a longstanding opponent of international trade agreements like NAFTA that he believes work against the interests of average American laborers. His current target is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being pushed by the Obama administration despite the fact that its provisions have not been made public.

“It is incomprehensible to me that the leaders of major corporate interests who stand to gain enormous financial benefits from this agreement are actively involved in the writing of the TPP,” Sanders wrote in a letter to the Obama White House, “while, at the same time, the elected officials of this country, representing the American people, have little or no knowledge as to what is in it.”

6) Confronting climate change

Sanders’ has made no secret of his contempt for global warming deniers. To embarrass anti-science Republicans, he introduced a “sense of Congress” resolution in January that simply acknowledged man-made climate change was real and needed to be addressed. By voting in favor of the measure, Congress would do little more than place itself “in agreement with the opinion of virtually the entire worldwide scientific community.”

Although the amendment was tabled by a mostly party-line vote of 56-42, Sanders’ reputation as an unwavering advocate of pro-environmental policies when dealing with climate change hasn’t gone unnoticed. Climate Hawks Vote, a super PAC dedicated to addressing global warming, ranked Sanders as the number-one climate leader in the Senate.

7) Criticizing Israel

If elected in 2016, Sanders would be America’s first Jewish president, and that makes his willingness to criticize Israel all the more significant. During a town hall event last year, Sanders got into a shouting match with constituents who were angered by his statement that Israel “overreacted” in its military campaign against Hamas and was “terribly, terribly wrong” for bombing UN facilities.

His stance on Israel could hardly be described as blindly pro-Palestinian, however. In the same town hall meeting, he acknowledged that Israel was in a tricky situation because Hamas was firing rockets from populated areas, but he has no love for Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, distinguishing himself as the first Senator to openly refuse to attend Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

Regardless of whether one agrees with Sanders’ views on these issues, the odds are still far greater than not that he won’t receive the Democratic nomination next year. In addition to being on the far left in his own party, Sanders is a septuagenarian from a minority background who hails from one of America’s smallest states.

At the same time, he is still giving voice to a series of positions that deserve a more prominent place in our political debate. When all is said and done, this can only be a good thing.

5 ways to fix America’s crippling student debt problem

Published: Daily Dot (April 28, 2015)

Back in 2011, Occupy Wall Street swept America due in large part to its members’ savvy use of social media (one professor of journalism even referred to the movement as a “hashtag revolt”). While no catchy Twitter slogan has yet been created for the student loan reform movement, the Internet is warming up to the cause in a similar fashion.

“The federal student loan system has become predatory due to the Congressional removal of standard consumer protections and congressionally sanctioned collection powers that are stronger than those for all other loan instruments in our nation’s history,” argues StudentLoanJustice.org, a popular site founded by activist Alan Collinge (who OnlineCollege.org determined was the third most powerful leader of the student loan reform movement, following only President Obama and one of his advisers).

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) has also rallied behind the banner of reform, tapping into its grassroots base to try to pressure likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton into supporting debt-free public college. Former members of Occupy Wall Street banded together to create a similarly populist offshoot, OccupyColleges, while more radical online campaigns have encouraged students to refuse to pay back their loans as an act of protest.

If nothing else, more reform is long overdue. More than 40 million Americans now have student debt—roughly one out of eight people in this country—which has resulted in a cumulative student debt of $1.2 trillion nationwide, surpassing credit card and auto loan debt totals. That constitutes an 84 percent jump since the start of the Great Recession, with the average student debt falling just shy of $30,000 per individual. “Student debt loads are a problem and a serious one,” explains John T. Harvey of Forbes. “Not only do they create a significant drag on short-term economic activity, but they will stunt our long-term growth as well.”

Dale Stephens, the founder of UnCollege.org, argues that students can “hack their education” simply by dropping out of the collegiate system. However, at a time when college degrees are absolutely essential for socioeconomic mobility in this country, it is downright elitist to argue that the solution is for people without the means to simply skip out on college. What policies, then, exist to solve this problem?

1) The Emergency Loan Refinancing Act

We can start with the measures recently proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). “The legislation would allow those with outstanding student loan debt to refinance at the interest rates that were approved last year for new borrowers,” as a press release on Senator Warren’s website put it. “A previous version of the bill was voted on in the 113th Congress, and every Senate Democrat and three Senate Republicans voted to move the bill forward, falling just short of breaking a Republican filibuster.”

While this would certainly alleviate the woes of students currently enrolled in college, the Warren-Courtney proposal would only make a dent in the larger crisis. Fortunately, there are other alternatives that exist as well.

2) The Restore Fairness in Student Lending Act

In 2005, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced a bill that would eliminate the “undue hardship” requirement that currently forbids borrowers from dismissing student loans when they fall into bankruptcy. Before this standard was passed into law in 1998, borrowers could eliminate all of their student loans if they had been in repayment for at least seven years.

By removing this protection, the Republican-controlled Congress guaranteed that creditors could hold college graduates in debt for as long as they pleased, which goes a long way toward explaining the situation today.

3) The Student Loan Forgiveness Act

Another option was put forth by Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.): the Student Loan Forgiveness Act. While the only borrowers eligible for loan-forgiveness programs today are those who are currently up-to-date on their payments, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act would forgive federal student loans after 10 years of repayments (five years for those in public service careers).

In addition, Clarke’s bill would keep all federal student loan rates indefinitely at 3.4 percent and prohibit forcing borrowers to pay more than 10 percent of their discretionary income.

4) Increasing Pell Grants

We could also increase Pell Grants. As a report by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and think tank Demos explains, Pell Grants—a federal form of financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back and are typically awarded to families that make less than $40,000 a year—have shrunk considerably over the years. Pell Grants have dwindled from a maximum of 76 percent for public universities and 35 percent for private colleges from 1979 to 1980 to 30 percent for public universities and 14 percent for private colleges from 2014 to 2015.

This has made it exponentially more difficult for working class Americans to afford college education without accumulating considerable debt. Increasing the maximum amount of Pell Grant coverage to pre-1980 levels would do a great deal to close that income gap.

5) President Obama’s recent proposals

The final two solutions come courtesy of President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address. Although millions of American families saw their incomes stagnate or decline over the past half decade, the average college tuition rate has increased by 33 percent. This is blatant price gouging, which is why Obama suggested cutting back federal aid and other financial perks to universities that refuse to control tuition increases.

More ambitiously, Obama also suggested that Americans strive to provide free community college for students who maintain a C+ average, are enrolled in school at least half-time, and are working consistently toward obtaining their degrees. Although community college tuition rates are much lower than those of other universities, students at these schools are the most likely to default on their loans, which adds a special urgency to easing their hardships.

When all is said and done, the student loan crisis is more than a mere financial issue. It’s also a profoundly moral one, as it’s becoming excruciatingly difficult for Americans born outside of the upper class to have a realistic chance of meaningful socioeconomic mobility without having a college degree.

By requiring lower income and middle class families to acquire massive piles of debt in order to obtain their degrees, the current post-secondary education system has constructed very real limitations on the opportunities available to the working class. This, in turn, poses a grave threat to the American dream, which makes it all the more worth safeguarding.

As it turns out, policies exist that could make this possible. It’s time we start pursuing them.

The University of Oklahoma shouldn’t have shut down its racist frat

Published: Daily Dot (March 16, 2015)
co-author Tillie Adelson

To understand why the University of Oklahoma was wrong to expel the students responsible for singing a racist chant (as well as disband the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter on their campus), it is first important to understand the legal arguments in favor and against the college’s decision, and only then can you fully realize why both positions entirely miss the deeper point. While the civil liberties of the Oklahoma students are important, they pale in significance to our society’s deeper need to find ways of educating our youth about the importance of racial tolerance, not imposing brutal punishments when they slip up.

For what it’s worth, the law isn’t cut-and-dried when it comes to how the university administration should handle this situation. Institutions of higher learning need to “grapple with how to meet dueling obligations under the First Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial harassment,” explains Olabisi Okubadejo, a lawyer who specializes in higher education issues and was interviewed by the Washington Post. “To constitute harassment, when viewed from the perspective of a reasonable person, the speech must be sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in the school’s educational program.”

On the one hand, a strong case could be made that the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant that “there will never be a n***er in SAE” is a clear-cut case of that type of harassment. “Just as a professor, I have a right to say whatever I want in my personal and private life, but if I got on the Huffington Post and said, ‘I think all white people are stupid and they need to go to hell,’ I would have to pay for that remark,” argued San Francisco State professor Dave Cook on HuffPost Live. Legal analyst Adam Banner echoed this line of reasoning, pointing out that “OU’s best bet is going to be to try and rely on their code of conduct and use one of the prohibited acts that’s listed in that code of conduct instead of relying on a constitutional issue.”

At the same time, many constitutional experts agree that the expulsions and disbandment of the fraternity are blatant violations of the students’ First Amendment rights. “Any sanction imposed on students for their speech must therefore be consistent with the First Amendment and not merely a punishment for vile and reprehensible speech,” declared the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in an official statement. “Courts have consistently and rightly ruled as such. Absent information that is not at our disposal, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which a court would side with the university on this matter.”

As Howard M. Wasserman of Florida International University College of Law succinctly summed it up to JURIST: “The First Amendment, Justice Holmes wrote in U.S. v. Schwimmer, protects ‘not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.'”

According to Reddit, University of Oklahoma isn’t the only school that has an SAE chapter that sings this chant during their events or meetings. It just so happens that the brothers of Oklahoma’s chapter sang this chant on a recent fraternity outing, and as social media runs today’s world, it went viral; enormous pressure then prompted the fraternity chapter to be shut down, and the two young men leading the chant in the video to be expelled.

At its core, this was a reactionary response, based primarily on the administrators’ desire to protect their public image. These young men were singing a song with hateful lyrics, but does that mean they were being deliberately racist, as opposed to just juvenile? This was a fraternity song that has potentially been taught to brothers for decades; it is hard to argue, beyond a reasonable doubt, that these words posed a hostile environment to the university. What they did present, on the other hand, was an outstanding opportunity for a teachable moment.

A better response (and certainly a less reactionary one) would have been to talk about why this song was sung so that the students could understand the ramifications that a chant with those hateful lyrics could have on their peers—and ultimately themselves. There is ample scholarship on the history of racial slurs like the “N-word,” to say nothing of widel -acclaimed works of popular history which explain how America has long used a system of racial privilege to disadvantage non-whites and, in particular, the black community.

By expelling these students and disbanding the fraternity, all that the University of Oklahoma did was send a message of fear, drive racism back underground, and allow racists themselves to believe (rightly or wrongly) that they are being persecuted. If the focus had instead been on requiring them to take courses understanding the historical context of their actions, it could have transformed an ugly outburst of hate speech into an opportunity to educate—which is, ostensibly, the ultimate function of a college in the first place.

A recent incident at UCLA comes to mind, one in which a young woman’s application to be on a student board was called into question because she was Jewish. Instead of reprimanding the students involved, the school supported the Undergraduate Students Association Council to issue “A Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism.” As one of the resolution’s authors explained: “This resolution is not aimed at denying the right of UCLA students to criticize the Israeli government. Almost an entire page of the five-page resolution is devoted to that right, by aiming to create a structure for respectful disagreement on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the most important part of the resolution aims to reconstruct an environment in which the identities of Jews are no longer politicized because of this international conflict.”

Instead of trying to censor anti-Semites who use criticism of Israel as a cover for bigotry, this statement made a good-faith effort to help college students differentiate between the two. In short, it fought prejudice with education instead of authoritarian (and potentially unconstitutional) force.

At the University of Oklahoma, by contrast, the president decided to take the weight of the school’s reputation into his own hands, showing that he and the school he helms are not racist and won’t tolerate this kind of behavior. Actions and responses like that do very little to pull a community together or strengthen it, much less actively rectify the misconceptions that fuel prejudice. The school’s actions may have been a great way to save face on the Internet, but they show far less concern with actually healing the racial wounds that continue to divide our country.

Oklahoma may have shut down one racist frat, but is the school doing anything to stop others from taking its place?