Community works toward unity at town hall event
The campus needs unity, reflection and action in light of the recent election, a panel of professors and administrators said last Tuesday at a town hall-style discussion.
“‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal,’” Provost Lisa Lynch said, quoting author Toni Morrison.
University President Ronald Liebowitz underlined the importance of the democratic tradition and civil society that have laid the foundation for American politics but acknowledged the unprecedented and destabilizing nature of the situation. He cited a conversation with his ten-year-old son during which he talked about checks and balances that would limit a Trump presidency.
Liebowitz continued, “And to that, he said, ‘Well, the Supreme Court — there may be four appointees coming, and Congress is dominated by the same party, so what are you talking about, checks and balances?’” Liebowitz said. “As the days went on and I began to process this, my stomach began to churn, mostly because of the uncertainty and because of what’s been unleashed.”
Prof. Faith Lois Smith (ENG) noted that this uncertainty and fear “is a very raw form” of what many marginalized groups have long experienced. Because of this, she said, society needs to examine how that kind of violence is used to benefit other people. She continued: “Violence to the other is not just about figuring out how to stand beside that person, but also how to figure out how that violence relates to [our] prosperity.”
Prof. Chad Williams (AAAS) was firm: “I am not interested in any type of performance of unity if it’s not going to entail a cold, hard reckoning with this country’s history and how we got to this point here today.”
After citing the controversy of Trump urging the current President Obama to release his birth certificate, Williams critiqued the claims that people need to move on. The future, he said, calls for Americans to not forget the past.
Prof. Chandler Rosenberger (SOC) called for “cultural empathy,” arguing that while people cannot and should not do away with moral judgments, they should still try to understand what is going through other people’s heads. This is especially true for those who reluctantly voted for Trump out of economic desperation, he said.
He also cited an interview he had held with Radovan Karadžić, a former politician recently indicted for war crimes during the Bosnian War. Rosenberger said he encountered “a kind of self-pitying ethnic nationalism that takes difficult circumstances … and then latches onto the kind of conspiracy theory that justifies their own viciousness.” In other words, he argued, ethnic nationalists attach themselves to those theories that make their cause and actions appear just.
Rosenberger regretted to say that that brand of nationalism has found its way into American politics.
The inevitable question soon arose: did race play a defining part in this election? Liebowitz hesitated to label all of those who voted for Trump as racist. In contrast, Prof. Daniel Bergstresser (FIN) argued that the “relentless search for the truth,” a core principle of the University since its founding, “involves calling things by their true names.”
“There is now a white nationalist in the White House,” agreed Williams. “That says something about the role and function of race and whiteness in this country. The unspoken power and privilege of whiteness. And the fact that there were many voters who were more content to align with their whiteness over other interests is telling.”
He added, “Fear cannot simply rest on the shoulders of the vulnerable.”
Echoing Liebowitz’s earlier sentiments, one attendee argued against painting all who voted for Trump with the broad brush of racism. When people use the word too frequently to produce “moral horror,” he argued, they “destroy the horror of racism.” A student in the audience pushed back against this notion, saying that it is necessary to acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism if one intends to solve it as a problem.
The hot-button question of sanctuary campuses also came up. Someone in the audience recommended that Brandeis become a sanctuary for undocumented students who could face deportation under a Trump presidency. Incoming Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas responded that while other campuses have done that, the decision is risky. He asked the audience to consider whether undocumented students want their status to be highlighted as the University pushes itself into the spotlight. He also asked the audience to consider the legal intricacies of sanctuary campus status.