Nov

20

Strikers on the record

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The day the strike ended, a motley group of students put together a list of questions for the strike team to answer. Avi Alpert, CC ’06, and Bryan Mercer, CC ’07, have now done so, posted below unedited by Bwog. Alpert, responding to questions posed earlier by Nina Bell, emphasizes that while he was not a hunger striker and does not speak for them, he supported their efforts. Mercer was a striker from the start. Get comfy, kids, it’s a long one.

posterFrom Alpert:

1) (On whether the strikers have general support from the student body) To answer the question honestly, we do not believe that any such data exists, or could be compiled accurately and scientifically by undergraduate students without advanced training in statistics. (Certainly the numbers of a Facebook group do not constitute such a study.) More importantly, however, we are not sure that this is in fact the real question at the heart of the matter. It is not clear, within the confines of the university, that Centers for the study of gender, African-American studies or human rights would have been created based on majority student interest. Quite frankly, it’s not clear that less popular majors (such as statistics, Slavic languages or dance) would exist either if this were the sole criterion. Columbia, as a self-proclaimed “global university,” supports research not just because of universal student demand, but also because of an intellectual responsibility to the expansion of knowledge. Thus, in making these demands, the students speak not only to their personal experiences and desires, but, equally, to the demands that scholarship be accountable to an ever expanding and complicated world.

We might also answer this question historically, noting that movements for marginalized groups (Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, etc.), are, by definition, unpopular at first, and must be fought for without majority influence. The question of general support should no more be put to these students in asking for their demands than it should have been put to blacks in the South. (Of course, rapacious bloggers, these are vastly different situations, but the analogy of a group on the margins remains the same.)

This is, in turn, an answer to another part of the question regarding the right of these protestors to “impose” their views. We will not say simply that they have a right to free speech, but, more forcefully, that they have a duty to bring these issues to light. Issues discussed in ethnic studies, from colonialism to race to gender, are fundamental to how we live. These issues do not disappear when we ignore them. There is a lack of knowledge for students to address questions of race and colonialism. The angered reactions that the strikers have faced prove their very point: Columbia is failing to train students who understand the complex political issues of the modern world. Suffice it to say that there are extreme gaps in your knowledge of the modern world that a course in “contemporary civilization” should have put on all our radar screen’s. We should know, at the very least, that racism is not only epithets and actions, but is also symbolic and often unconscious.  The hunger strikers have been working with this knowledge to combat racism across the spheres of its appearance in society.

Finally, it must be remembered that these demands are a response. As Malcolm X said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.” This hunger strike began most directly because a noose was placed on the door of a black professor. The fact that some people do not understand how pervasive lynching was in the twentieth-century and do not comprehend how traumatic and disgusting such an act is, is again reason for a required course in race alone. This brings us to question 2.

striker kids2) (On the addition to the Core Curriculum) These are crucial and important questions which would have to be discussed with faculty and students. There are a variety of models available which one could consider. One might argue, for example, that questions about race, gender and colonialism are direct outgrowths of the core. Feminist philosophers like Judith Butler, for example, engage closely with works by Hegel, Freud and Foucault. African-American philosophers like DuBois also speak directly to Hegel, and Cornel West’s first book was on Marx. There are also important ways that these questions are always present within the current core texts themselves. Aristotle, for example wrote about the place of slaves and women in politics, and Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke wrote at length on colonialism. There is, further, an important question about why we speak of a distinct “Western tradition” when there is ample historical evidence to suggest constant intellectual commerce with Northern Africa, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. Egypt had a profound influence on Ancient Greece, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were written in the Middle East, and German philosophers from the 17th century on were fascinated by Buddhist and Hindu texts in translation. All of these issues, on the cutting edge of scholarship, are ignored in the core and render it intellectually insufficient. To truly understand the development of sovereignty, the institution of democracy, and so forth, a global perspective must be taken. This is increasingly recognized by scholars the world over and the Core ought to be responsive to this new and developing understanding of global history.

Other institutions have added a general race requirement to their Core Curriculum. Every student at Temple University in Philadelphia, for example, is required to take a course on “Studies in Race.” The Temple Bulletin notes, “The knowledge and the communication skills gained in these courses help students better understand a critical aspect of their society and their own experience. Such understanding is essential for living and working in our racially-diverse world.” Besides changes to the Core, Columbia could consider the importance of such a course. More than a Major Cultures course, this would force students to critically reflect on their attitudes and beliefs about those of other ethnicities, genders and so forth. The comments on this discussion board lead me to believe such a course would be greatly beneficial.

word wallOf course, just as importantly, other models and other courses considered. Nina’s are important questions in thinking about how to form new courses and why such courses are central to a vibrant academic community.

2.5) One important thing is for the course to address general questions of how power relationships form and structure our lives. What, unconsciously, do we think about others, and what autonomy do we have in forming our beliefs? Core graduates should notice that I am referencing here Foucault, Freud, and Kant, to once again affirm how central these issues are to the expansion of the intellectual development begun in the core. In this way the course does not speak to any specific issue, so much as enables the critical thinking that should be developed in the core curriculum to spread to other realms of knowledge. In this sense, we would not yet begin to advocate specific texts, so much as general points to take into consideration.



The following responses are written by Bryan Mercer, one of the hunger strikers. Any invocation of ‘we’ instead of “I” on my part is because I would find it impossible talk about the organizing around the demands responding to institutional racism at Columbia, or the hunger strike for those demands as if they were my doing alone. With that note, these thoughts do not speak for the whole of those who participated in last week’s actions and shaping these demands, they are my own views that I offer up for this conversation.

Also I would challenge the conception of discussion and debate presented in the introductory remarks to your questions. The reason being, the form of discussion you purpose is an attempt at an ‘accountability’ which I see as impractical and a hindrance to your own concerns for it relinquishes your own power to those you who question the legitimacy of. I participate however, in an attempt to meet you half way. Even still I hold the position that dialogue (and a collective working out of a position) is a more productive process than debate, and am always open to face to face conversation to that end.

5. Do you have evidence that your views are representative of the entire student body?

6. If not, why do you feel that you have the right to impose your vision of Columbia onto those who may not agree with it?

7. What gives you the right to negotiate with the administration on issues that will affect, at the very least, the entirety of Columbia College, if you are not certain that you have majority support?

8. In your statement, you say that you “strike to re-imagine the university as a more democratic place….where students have a deciding say in this university.” If you have not taken steps to make sure that you are representing the opinion of the majority of students, this appears to be contradictory. How is your vision a democratic one if it is not representative? How do you respond to this apparent contradiction?

9. Do you not think that your demands should be channeled through a student organization that is democratically elected?

light(To the questions on democracy.) I do not believe my views, or the views of my fellow organizers represent the student body. In order to represent, and to claim participation there must first exist a relationship between people and structures of that participation. If we look at the participation of the Columbia College student body in the election of Columbia College Student Council reps or the nature of appointments for deciding council positions in the Engineering Student Council we see even these ‘democratic’ body are not based in the full or in the case of ESC even partial participation of the student body. Also, let us look at the governance structure of the university itself: there is a board of trustees, who appoint a president for executive affairs and a provost for academic affairs to serve at their wish, below them is a clearly demarcated hierarchy that does not even venture to include structures of faculty governance (see the Faculty Action Committee Letter). Once again we see the classic university structure follows a corporate model rather than a democratic one. There is the university Senate, the only body of students that have policy-making ability within the university, yet the Senate can only make policy for the whole of the University, and it too is limited in its purview and seemingly addressing fewer crucial issues as student involvement wanes and administrative direction dominates.

Democratic structures must be built rather than assumed to be pre-existing in the university. Bwog comments or facebook joins aren’t adequate tools to be the deciding factor in determining the direction of the university or the activism of students. Recognizing, however, that the democracy you speak of is not a question of democratic structures, but instead a question of whether small groups of students can speak on behalf of all students, it is important to make clear I share your concern. The university positions “student leaders” as representatives of entire communities as a semblance of participation, meanwhile most students are left out of the conversation. Why are there so few ways for students to participate directly in the shaping of their education and university life?

Your criticism however clearly lies with ‘us’, that ‘small’ group of students that would take such ‘extremist’ acts to push an alienating agenda. I would not like to draw such an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction, but I would be amiss of the post-colonial critique that surrounds the greatest academics of this institution to forget that the question of the self and the other are always present. It is important then to mention this, what ‘we’ purpose is not our own agenda, but a space. And we believe this space would be beneficial for the whole of the student body to participate in. We purpose a space for students to participate in the shaping of the Core and Major Cultures, a space for the communities of West Harlem to participate in the development of West Harlem. I claim no representative voice other than recognizing a need, a need which I hope the actions I was a part of brought to the floor, and created between students and administrators ways to recognize and address these needs.

In short, each of the proposals that were a part of this hunger strike was an attempt at the very things that concerns you, transparency, participation and representation. We did not force upon you a Major Cultures class, we assured a space for your participation. We have spoken on these things for some time and considering the blue ribbon oversight committee (a collection of faculty and students given the responsibility of monitoring the progress on the points of agreement) for the on campus/ academic victories you and I have won, for the next 5 years students can engage these concerns how they see fit.

As a side note, I would question the ideal of the liberal individual (in the enlightenment sense). While I agree with your questions of representation I think there is some falsehood to the notion of a fully autonomous individual with ‘one vote and one voice.’ We are social beings, and as such though we may find it easy to invoke personal experience and some of us have the privileges in different situations to ensure this personal experience is recognized and validated, we may also speak as part of a group or from collective experiences even outside of our intentions to do so. Foucault has an important “Critique of the Liberal Individual,” and this is the very question presented in studying social formations and race within most ethnic studies frameworks – how is the singular subject positioned in a social context permeated by collective categories of difference? To make that concrete, there are things outside of us, like our families, where we grew up, and our friends that frame the decisions we make all the time, and it is helpful to ask where what we think comes from.

10. Have you created an atmosphere where all students can participate in discussion of your demands, equally and without fear? Why or why not?

11. Have you marginalized students who may support some or all of your arguments but question your legitimacy and methods?

12. If so, what actions have you taken to reconcile your methods with those mutually-shared opinions, if any?

(To the questions on discussion, atmosphere and marginalization) The idea of discussion and dialogue and how students participate in building community with each other has been a central issue to this debate. The question of the ‘atmosphere’, to participate in conversation with the strikers/supporters, and how our ideas may ‘marginalize’ is an attempt to address the very foundation of how that dialogue and community building takes place. I appreciate the question, and think it is important to first address the ‘atmosphere’ and ‘marginalization’ you point to. My own questions for you would be how are we all part of creating an atmosphere and what ‘center’ are we all in relationship to?

candlesIt seems to me your questions around the ‘atmosphere’ created by the action of a hunger strike for demands to address institutionalized marginalization comes from a concern for the comfort of students to carry out their normal life. This atmosphere made many people uncomfortable – perhaps from the visceral reaction of knowing others are abstaining from food, or that the demands probe at racism in the structures of Columbia, or that there were tents on south lawn proving to be very visible – the atmosphere was one where hard to talk about subjects like race and class and student activism/apathy were brought up. Your discomfort may also refer the to nightly vigils of dozens of supporters, the solidarity statements from student groups, the letters of support from faculty, the well timed coincidence of the Faculty Action Committee letter, the discussions of the Core or university displacement of West Harlem residents that may have come up in your classes. Perhaps even this atmosphere is about the snarky bwog articles, the consistently snarkier and less informed bwog comments, or the 30 people gathering only a half hour before our vigil to reaffirm their unwillingness to have a conversation. Whatever atmosphere you are bringing up it does not seem to me an atmosphere of fear, nooses in front of professor’s doors and displacement plans create an atmosphere of fear. It may be an atmosphere in which you feel discomfort, but discomfort can teach us something.

Even considering the critiques of the tactic of a hunger strike, I think the strike and these demands created an atmosphere of engagement when that discomfort was recognized, people at the very least had to deal with their gut reaction to hearing there was a hunger strike. People may have gone far enough to ask why students would go on a fast. Some students saw this and turned around to take their own actions on these four concerns of the Core, administrative response, Ethnic Studies and expansion – even if that action was not in support. I think the forming of a facebook group where 700 people would join to state they did not support the hunger strike is one of the most important things about this atmosphere. Not because it says: Columbia must be a racist place because so many students would stand against anti-racist ideals. I think it is important because it says that 700 people at least engaged, looking to find discussions about these things in their classroom, or on the front page of the campus paper. I also think for a lot of those people simple clarification of some of our demands, their history, and what lead up to this point would have swayed them in other directions, but that aside, the most important part of this atmosphere may be people realizing they are a part of it. But then again, most critics seem to take issue with the tactics and not the issues or demands.

Now is this atmosphere marginalizing? I think you should tell me; I wouldn’t want to displace your own experience of marginalization with my own opinion. I would push this question though – what is marginalization? As I see it the margin implies a center, and neither the margin nor the center is outside of power, just in different positions within a relationships of power. For the Bwog to easily represent your own views in its articles, or the Spectator to ignore the statements of students to take the ‘official’ position of the university speaks to some of the centers of power in any given situation on this campus. From my perspective, it is the institution, dominant ideals of either ‘love Columbia or go to another school,’ and a public opinion that legislates ‘legitimate protest,’ which are at the center in this situation, all things I think you could easily find yourself on the margins of.

But you also imply with your question that the strikers and supporters have created a marginalizing atmosphere by creating some new center to the university, a center defined in creativity, collective and decentralized action, solidarity and critical discussion. What’s worse (as your questions imply) is through creating that center, creating an ‘other’ form of power on Butler lawn, we pushed the general feeling of apathy on campus to the margins. On that issue you would be hard pressed to find me arguing that social justice, anti-racism, critical thought and dialogue are bad ideals to place at the center of a university, but to resist sounding self-righteous, I do not think these things have become the center of the university from a 10 day hunger strike, and I doubt you feel this way either. Truth be told, this is a mission students have been fighting for within this university from its inception, and will continue to fight for.



protest13. Prior to the hunger strike, had you exhausted all other options for furthering your demands? If so, provide concrete evidence and demonstrate what attempts you made to engage the greater student body in these efforts. Did you make clear that non-participation would result in a hunger strike?

A timeline is the best way to answer the first half of this question. At every step of the way in this timeline, including the events of this past semester there were meetings with administrators where the same concerns presented through this hunger strike were raised.

APRIL 1, 1996 — Four students pitch a tent in the center of campus and begin a hunger strike, demanding that Columbia University establish a department of Ethnic Studies and reorganize its Western-oriented core curriculum. These protest led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, housing programs in Asian American, Latino, more funding for African American studies and the list C Major Cultures option.

SPRING 2004 — A comic strip, “Blacky Fun Whitey” released in the Fed during Black Heritage Month sparks a week of protest against racism on campus. The Columbia Concerned Students of Color demand what becomes the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

SPRING 2006 — A student returned to her dorm in Ruggles to anti-homophobic, racist and anti-semitic graffiti. Students organized a response under the adhoc group Stop Hate on Columbia’s Campus, with demands for the university’s response to hate crimes, funding for intercultural programming, and university advisors for the queer community.

April 15 2007: After 12 years spent advocating for resources and autonomy for Ethnic Studies, a student-written report on state of Ethnic Studies at Columbia finds that CSER, & IRAAS at Columbia along with Africana studies at Barnard do not match up to programs at our peer institutions. Report calls for more faculty and hiring power.

Fall 2007:

Sept 24 – The visit of President Ahmedinijad, and President Bollinger’s remarks

Sept 27 -Islamophobic and racist graffiti in SIPA

Oct 1 – Students Mobilize around the Jena Six

Oct 9 – Noose on professor’s doors at Teacher’s College.

Oct 11 – Swastika found in bathroom in Lewisohn Hall

Oct 31 – Swastika found on professor’s door at Teacher’s College

Nov 7 – Five students begin a hunger strike promoting increased support for Ethnic Studies, an update to Major Cultures, responsible expansion, and increased administrative support around hate crimes and multicultural affairs.

These events lead to a number of discussions, town halls and events in support of marginalized communities on campus, and the demands articulated by the hunger strikers grew out of these discussions.

Fall 2007 Campus Discussions Leading Up to the Hunger Strike:

    * ROOTEd discussion on President of Iran, safety and exclusion in our community (50 people) – Sept 24

    * Black Student Organization calls emergency meeting following SIPA graffiti (150 people) – Sept 27

    * USCC Town Hall on campus climate (100 people) – Oct 5

    * Concerned students call emergency town hall after a noose is found on a black professors door at TC (150 people) – Oct 9

    * Eid-ul-Fitr Dinner of the MSA where over 20 student groups read statements of solidarity with the MSA in light of the upcoming “Islamo-fascism Awareness Week” (200 people) – Oct 21

    * SGA Town Hall on campus climate– “Is Our Community Broken?” (100 people) – Oct. 23

    *

      USCC Town Hall on Demands and Actions (100 people) – Oct 24

The hunger strike was not organized as a threat against the student body. It was an act of pressuring the administration and creating visibility and space for student organizing. Thank you for your own organizing. It has helped bring forward the discussion of the issue, even if at times uninformed, misdirected or hostile.



vigil14. At which meeting was the decision made to go on a hunger strike? How many were present and how did the debate over appropriate action reach this final result?

(On the decision to strike) It was not a decision made by a student group, or representatives of a student group. The decision was made amongst friends who had been a part of these conversations, and presented to larger groups of people, some in campus organizations, some personally. I do apologize for not being able to notify everyone before hand, but direct actions are in part about the element of surprise. Your exclusion from the decision is only because to have posted flyers or emailed list serves about it would have meant the administration knowing before hand. Participating in these very conversations that are listed above may put you closer to what people are planning, but more importantly in spaces to develop your own actions around these issues in ways that you care about.



15. If concerned members of the Women’s Studies Department or the Human Rights Program went on a hunger strike demanding the reallocation of the $50 million set aside for a Major Cultures Seminar to their respective under-funded causes, would you support them? Why or why not?

(On solidarities with Women’s studies and Human Rights) bell hooks is famous for often using the phrase “white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy” in her writings. What she implies is a fundamental connection to so called ‘women’s issues’ and so called ‘people of color issues’ and the political economic organization as the fabric of our society. In that same vein to talk about Ethnic Studies is to not close ourselves to all other forms of difference and give primacy to race. It is to put forms of difference in conversation with each other. I have not taken a single Ethnic Studies class in which gender and sexuality were not important forms of difference in their own right or in intersection with race. The same stands for Human Rights. I hope that the new major cultures class uses a gender, sex and human rights framework in its study of cultures other than European cultures. In short yes, I support the struggles of Women’s studies and Human Rights as academic disciplines and practical intellectual standpoints in our world. Further I do not believe there should be a need to choose between Major Cultures, Women and Gender studies, Human Rights or any other program in the Arts and Sciences in a university that is currently fund raising for a campus that will cost $7 billion over the next 25 years.

Note: there has long been in the academy a conversation between feminism and ethnic studies/anti-racism. Patricia Hill Collins’ collection Black Feminist Thought is a classic representation of that, also Gloria Anzaldua, et al in This Bridge Called My Back is another classic example.

Another Note: The Center for the Study of Human Rights and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender are both programs, not departments. They face the same difficulties as Ethnic Studies in hiring and retaining faculty. IRWAG is often mentioned in our literature and we have received concessions on resources to strengthen the relationship between IRWAG, CSER and IRAAS. Human Rights is not far from that relationship, and with the work of the faculty and students their already existing ties can be strengthened.

16. Returning to your commitment to “a more democratic place” for students, if your demand to allow more student voices on the Core Curriculum is implemented, and the majority of students still do not share your visions for the Core, what will you do?

17. In a similar vein, you make the following demand: “Interested Ethnic Studies majors collectively, shown through a vote, must be given 1 or 2 votes (depending on committee size) which will be delivered by the current student positions on all hiring committees for junior and senior faculty to increase student presence and determination of CSER’s direction.” Is there any precedent for this in any other Columbia departments?

18. Should this be something that is enacted across the board, or just in the Ethnic studies area? Why or why not?

picture 3There is no precedent for student representation in the hiring process in any Columbia department. And there still stands no precedent for this in any Columbia department. Ethnic Studies is not a department. It is a program, and has remained such since its inception, though students organize for a department. As such Ethnic Studies is always dependent on other departments in bringing in faculty, and the departments shape its direction, but this is another conversation. What is relevant to your question is that part of the victory for Ethnic Studies in 1996 was student presence in the hiring process. To reflect back on the struggle for Ethnic Studies then and the position of Ethnic Studies now it is crucial that students have this voice because of the many and often competing interest in shaping the direction of scholarship in the field. Students have a vote in Ethnic Studies because pedagogically Ethnic Studies is accountable to students.

If you notice, with the Committee on the Core we ask that the positions be better publicized, and we will advocate for the Committee on the Core to hold its meetings in public. If student representatives on the Committee on the Core do not represent student views, transparency would make it more possible to hold them accountable. Participation should not fall to giving over your rights to representatives who do not have to ‘lead by obeying’ their constituency, but rather an engaged process of ensuring that representation.

To your question about applying this across the board for other departments it is important to point out an enigma of the university, the departmental review process – where by the teaching and research missions of departments are reviewed as the basis of allocating additional and future resources. These reviews can and should be more inclusive of students and our learning experience. In the hiring process that is another story, and depends on the teaching commitments of faculty and the pedagogical commitments of a discipline and the sensibility for such involvement for students and faculty alike.



19. What kind of a precedent does a hunger strike set for those who have attempted to deal with these or similar issues in other ways?

I would hope an inspiration, or perhaps a counter universalism, or even a re-centering of power. More concretely, that a hunger strike can create a space for other action and organizing and spark campus dialogue about issues that before the strike this past semester have only reached us as so called ‘incidents of bias.’

Photos by Lydia DePillis and David Zhou

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36 Comments

  1. Dear Bryan  

    I supported most of the issues on your agenda. I genuinely believed that these were issues worth tackling, worth fixing.

    Your methods, your constant bullshit your disingenuous response here, just made me disgusted. I really don't give a fuck about these issues any more. Had you approached me in the spirit of cooperation, in the spirit of inclusion, and in the spirit of education, I would probably have supported each of your individual demands. Instead, you have served to alienate members of the community from supporting morally sound issues. You have now created a situation where dozens of students, who really don't know what the fuck "Ethnic Studies" is all about, will lobby hard to make sure your negotiations fail. You represent the worst in activism, and I hope genuinely good activism at Columbia doesn't suffer because of your lack of tact.

  2. ugh  

    i can't read all this stuff. so, i concede already, i didn't. i went to question 19, the concluding question, because summaries or take-away messages often appear in conclusions. and i read this sentence: "I would hope an inspiration, or perhaps a counter universalism, or even a re-centering of power." What the hell language is that? how many postermodern anthro classes does something have to sit through before they're qualified to write such mumbojumbo? note that i do not ask how many classes are required before one can understand such mumbojumbo--because the point of such drivel is to obscure understanding. this is the language of avoiding honesty--obfuscation instead of forthrightness. having not read most of this, i really hope answer 19 isn't indicative of the rest, although i fear it is.

  3. To Bryan Mercer  

    GET A JOB!

  4. well  

    i think we know what lynching is, and how it's a terrible thing. don't condescend. i think what we don't know is how your starvation does anything for or against the facts of history. this is meaningless noise

  5. Bob  

    "There is a lack of knowledge for students to address questions of race and colonialism. The angered reactions that the strikers have faced prove their very point: Columbia is failing to train students who understand the complex political issues of the modern world. Suffice it to say that there are extreme gaps in your knowledge of the modern world that a course in "contemporary civilization" should have put on all our radar screen's. We should know, at the very least, that racism is not only epithets and actions, but is also symbolic and often unconscious. The hunger strikers have been working with this knowledge to combat racism across the spheres of its appearance in society."

    You say that people don't know that racism is "also symbolic and often unconscious". This seems very dubious. I think basically any Columbia student could recognize racist symbols (e.g. a noose, swastika, etc.). Moreover, I think most are aware that racist or sexist actions can be somewhat unconscious.

    The idea that Ethnic Studies students have some special, deep and unappreciated insight into how the world works is highly unconvincing. It is important to study interpersonal power relations, oppression, and related topics, but I don't see why one would want to do so via Ethnic Studies. These issues are more rigorously and carefully studied in psychology, history, and philosophy. These disciplines are much more focused on analytic methods than ES. The quality of arguments is judged by their cogency and not by how well they fit a politically fashionable prototype. Moreover, these disciplines situated questions about race and gender within a broader framework.

    "Finally, it must be remembered that these demands are a response. As Malcolm X said, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us." This hunger strike began most directly because a noose was placed on the door of a black professor. The fact that some people do not understand how pervasive lynching was in the twentieth-century and do not comprehend how traumatic and disgusting such an act is, is again reason for a required course in race alone. This brings us to question 2."

    If so, then the demands are a bizarre response. I see no reason why any of the demands (Ethnic Studies, OMA, M'Ville, Core) will eradicate horrific events like the placing of the noose. I don't think that having a seminar on race and colonialism will prevent the tiny minority of racist people around campus from committing these crimes. If you have any evidence that introducing such seminars leads to a reduction in these crimes, then please provide it.

    • DMJ  

      "The idea that Ethnic Studies students have some special, deep and unappreciated insight into how the world works is highly unconvincing. It is important to study interpersonal power relations, oppression, and related topics, but I don't see why one would want to do so via Ethnic Studies. These issues are more rigorously and carefully studied in psychology, history, and philosophy. These disciplines are much more focused on analytic methods than ES. The quality of arguments is judged by their cogency and not by how well they fit a politically fashionable prototype. Moreover, these disciplines situated questions about race and gender within a broader framework."


      While it is true that Ethnic Studies involves itself with "interpersonal power relations, oppression, and related topics", the very ambiguities of using the phrase "related topics" are precisely why such discourse in other disciplines is made difficult. The nature of Ethnic Studies is and always has been interdisciplinary. Thus, if a scholar was seeking to research precesses of racialization in a particular area, according to Ethnic Studies, they would have to use history, philosophy, psychology, musicology, anthropology, sociology, and on and on. BECAUSE of the highly specialized nature and demand for cogency (as uniquely described by each discipline's methodology), such scholarship that forms its grounding in multiple areas is seen as "weak" by each of the departments that separately assess its merit, and rightly so. An ethnic studies paper largely does not fall within the framework of a traditional piece of historical scholarship, or sociological, etc. It is under the jurisdiction of ethnic studies and similar interdisciplinary areas that such scholarship can find earned acceptance and a place to thrive and proliferate. Nearly all Ethnic Studies scholars are highly competent and accomplished in more "established" disciplines such as history, philosophy, etc; since Ethnic Studies is still largely unaccepted by more conservative-minded members of the academy, most scholars have had to prove themselves capable (usually much more than capable) in these other fields, and only then can they progress past such parameters, not unlike the concept of the "black tax". In order to encourage such comprehensive, interdisciplinary critical study of race formations, power structures, and social formations, a strong, well-founded Ethnic Studies department is crucial.

      I don't mean to give a "pretentious" or "self-righteous" vibe here; I merely wanted to match intellectual concerns with an intellectual criticism.

    • I don't like

      the comparisons to the civil rights movement on the basis that this is a minority of people who are in the right. The civil rights movement was against an unconstitutional limiting of rights in the public sphere. These issues are about what is not being offered at a private University. Moreover, no reasonable black person could possibly have disagreed with the need for more civil rights, but not all minorities on this campus see the need for an ES department and more core time, etc. Moreover moreover, within the civil rights movements there were different leaders, and the most successful was MLK jr who gathered support peacefully, and through expressing his desire for a free and equal society, not by throwing out demands, and trying to rip up the fabric of society.

      Bwog posts and facebook groups may not be everything, but just these responses are a lot of evidence to indicate this is not a movement that has received the support of the community.

  6. rcw  

    I find few things as depressing as leftists with strong ideas but zero sense of how to win public support. Granted, that's not what Bryan and the others are aiming for, but maybe this whole process would be a lot less adversarial if they did.

  7. Sprinkles

    "The angered reactions that the strikers have faced prove their very point: Columbia is failing to train students who understand the complex political issues of the modern world."

    So disagreeing with the strikers makes me ignorant? Typical arrogance from these self-important children.

  8. campus racist  

    As a racist, all I can say is that stuff like this only fuels my racism.

  9. sigh  

    pretentious responses to important questions. how predictable.

  10. neutral observer  

    reading all these comments made me realize what defeat really sounds like.

    give it up, guys. you totally lost by commenting on the answers without first intellectually challenging all of them. you can't just pick at the parts you want; you got to address all of them.

    losers losers losers.

    • non-neutral observer  

      I hope you're being sarcastic. It took Bryan a good week to write out this response; you can't expect the immediate reaction to be as thoroughly obfuscatory - that takes time!

  11. still waiting  

    meaningless drivel. His answer to #15 sums it up really. He doesn't answer the actual question at all. Instead he produces something, which may very well be right, but is completely irrelevant to the question he was asked.

    read it if you want an example of his obfuscation and attempt to avoid facing dissent.

    Anyway, on representation. Sure, a hunger strike doesn't have to be democratic to be legitimate. So I could go on hunger strike unilaterally demanding a hunger strike studies department with 13 news hires a year?

    NO, *some* undemocratic hunger strikes are legitimate.

    Still waiting bryan, for an actual answer, as to why THIS undemocratic hunger strike is legitimate. I hope there is a seriously good reason for it, when as CB9 chairman himself noted there were other, better ways of protest. Were your human rights being denied you so you had to protest like this? I don't have a problem with your demands but, Byran, I am still waiting to hear why they in particular are so pressingly urgent, so intrinsically valuable, that you should be excused of the responsibility of going through normal channels of engagement with the university.

    also, you didnt force on us a major cultures class????? what did you do then?

    Come on bryan, that is exactly what you did. YOU and anyone in this university who wanted to always had the *option* of taking a major cultures class in seminar format. Thus for YOU, your demand that MC become a seminar is not a demand that your own preferences bet met (becuase they already are), but that your preferences be institutionalized for ALL students. If that is not imposing a major cultures class on the rest of the students here, i don't know what is. That demand changes nothing for you and a lot for the rest of us.

    Anyway, even if you somehow agree with the pretentious nonsense posted above, you have to admit that this response has come far, far too late. That is so overdue was one of the main reasons the hunger strike failed to win over much student support. What arrogance: we don't have to answer your questions! we don't have to engage in open dialogue with students! if they don't like us they must be racists, so no need to take them seriously!

    I think the current slippery response furthers that image of this hunger strike being an act of selfish, hubristic self-aggrandizement.

    to end, a quote (well, not exactly, but as best i can remember it) from armin rosen in the spec:

    "the hunger strike was a ten day act of political theater that shamelessly co-opted the language of other infinitely more genuine movements of social liberation."

  12. non-neutral observer  

    I might also point out that those of us who were already involved in discussions about the Core find it pretty annoying that the self-aggrandizing protestors have claimed credit for a lot of "concessions" that were in place or initiated already.

    "We have spoken on these things for some time and considering the blue ribbon oversight committee (a collection of faculty and students given the responsibility of monitoring the progress on the points of agreement) for the on campus/ academic victories you and I have won, for the next 5 years students can engage these concerns how they see fit."

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't see anything new here except an explicit acknowledgement of the already-established fact that students will be able to participate in the decisions of the Committee on the Core, Ethnic Studies department, etc. Actually, the main "concession" that deserves mention is the fact that, unlike other departments, institutes, and centers, Ethnic Studies, to its detriment, will for some reason allow student involvement in its hiring processes. I can't imagine why anyone thought that was a good idea, but I can see why administrators would be glad to allow it if it satisfies the "demanders".

    The "blue ribbon oversight" of projects again already in place is a pacifier, and I for one thank the administration for having the diplomatic tact so lacking in the hunger strikers to recognize the ways in which they could explain, through examples so inappropriately termed "concessions", how students might appropriately engage in campus discourse. That is, not through hunger striking, but by volunteering to participate in the many curricular discussions well under way.

  13. Jeeeeeeeeeezus

    "The angered reactions that the strikers have faced prove their very point: Columbia is failing to train students who understand the complex political issues of the modern world."

    So our opposition means we're stupid, and furthermore, our stupidity is the university's fault. Thank your for revealing us all to be ignorant schlubs, and for identifying Columbia as the cause of this!

  14. They don't  

    want an open forum for discussion of race. They want a forum where minority students will be free to bitch about their supposed oppression, while the white students sit in silence "agreeing" with everything being said -- because not agreeing == racism. No rational person can believe that we will ever create a forum where a white person will be able to call bullshit on a minority's claims (no matter how ridiculous they are), without being called a racist. I, for one, am glad to be graduating from here before such a fuckfest is forced upon me or my colleagues.
    To Bryan, and so many others who choose to utilize obscure, meaningless language as a means of avoiding answering direct questions: anyone with half a brain sees right through you. Your bullshit only goes to further convince us that even YOU, a legendary hunger striker, cannot come up with a reasonable, objective defense of your demands or actions. I can't blame you for it though -- such demands and actions really are indefensible by rational argument. I applaud you for having paid so much attention in classes where most of us would be sleeping, and for being able to regurgitate the terminology you learned there so accurately and elegantly, even if it has proven completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

  15. feh

    Guard at Guantánamo Bay: Oh, the prisoners are hunger-striking. Who do they think they are? Students at an Ivy League University protesting the lack of even more ethnocentricity in their general education courses? Feh!

    Prisoner at Guantánamo Bay: But, but, but...this is all I have left...my last mode of refusal...my only means of retaining power over myself and protesting the conditions of my imprisonment.

    Guard at Guantánamo Bay: Bullshit. You're just like those damn Ivy League kids.


    Prisoner at Guantánamo Bay: No, really. You've denied me all due process...you keep me in a cage with a hot, leather hood over my face for days on end...if my hands were free, I would probably kill myself but they are not, so I starve as my only means of resistance.


    Guard at Guantánamo Bay: I'm still not convinced. How does this explain those kids resorting to the same action? This hunger strike crap is just a gimmick.

    Prisoner at Guantánamo Bay: No, I really will probably die of hunger out here in the heat if I don't choke on my own bile first.


    Guard at Guantánamo Bay: Sure, sure.

  16. wow

    "Perhaps even this atmosphere is about the snarky bwog articles, the consistently snarkier and less informed bwog comments, or the 30 people gathering only a half hour before our vigil to reaffirm their unwillingness to have a conversation."

    Oh, come on. How are you ever going to be halfway convincing when you're using numbers and incidents that have already been deemed inaccurate? Don't pretend that you were the respectful ones who tried to engage in dialogue while dissenters screwed up your plans. The anti-strikers were nothing but respectful to you, and they deserve the same respect in your answers.

    And, by the way, the reason people felt uncomfortable and marginalized had nothing to do with issues of racism. I have discussions about race pretty often (strangely enough), and they're always interesting, intellectual, and rewarding if they're conducted between mature people. What you guys did was the opposite. You managed to point fingers at everyone who might slightly disagree with you (white caucasians and minority students alike) and call them bigots and racists until they felt vilified enough to think about actually becoming racist. Does that sound productive? I think not.

    PS. Rather than shoving requirements into the core and having them met with even more resistance and skepticism, you might think about investing those $50m into minority recruitment or international students aid. That might actually be a productive way to make everyone happy.

  17. Nietzshe responds  

    "Suffice it to say that there are extreme gaps in your knowledge of the modern world that a course in "contemporary civilization" should have put on all our radar screen's."

    Yes Brian, you are so knowledgeble, preach to me please....

    "Your exclusion from the decision is only because to have posted flyers or emailed list serves about it would have meant the administration knowing before hand."

    UMMM THIS IS THE POINT OF A HUNGER STRIKE!!!! That it is the last available option and is pre-established as such. Take a policy-sci class and learn about how coercion works, you can't effectively lobby unless it is outlined what the consequences would be.

    "with the Committee on the Core we ask that the positions be better publicized, "

    You mean like an annual email that goes out to every student telling them how to apply? O wait, done that already.

    Also, I would ask if Brian has read any Nietzsche? I recommend you check out the Gay Science, some good stuff on how arrogant you are. Nietzsche states that in destroying we create, and formulate the very institutions that Foucault analyzes, further distancing ourselves from the real issues at hand and formulating a new mechanism of power relations. Secondly, maybe it would be interesting for you to study the idea of ressentimentto live in ressentiment is to take a victim's stance, and
    use that as a basis for morality against that which the man of ressentiment fears - often that fear is of things unknown, out of control, of perceived difference, even jilted love. instead of moving
    on, becoming a "yes-sayer" to all that comes or even utilizing existing structures, the man of ressentiment feels the need to establish and force structures upon others to conform to what is essentially a wounded ego.

    You are essentially a wounded ego Brian, and we all (Nietzshe included) recognize that.

  18. weak!  

    All of the responses to Nina's questions were weak.

    Rebuttals:

    True, you do not need a majority of people to support a major, because otherwise we would not have such a wide variety of majors in the first place. This, in my opinion, is legitimate reasoning. However, I seriously doubt that a handful of people went on a hunger strike and made a spectacle out of themselves and this university just so that they can become dance majors.

    Another point is that not all minority causes are necessarily just. The KKK, Neo-Nazis, and terrorists are also minority groups with unpopular opinions. Are they worth fighting for? Where do we draw the line on what the majority believes is right vs. what activists themselves believe about their own causes? (Of course, pretentious strikers, these are vastly different situations, but the analogy of a group on the margins remains the same.)

    In the rest of Avi's responses, I got a little confused. I had read the strikers' demands awhile ago, and I was initially under the impression that they wanted Major Cultures reform. But in Avi's response, I get the idea that the strikers want CC more globalized. Then I was further confused by the next paragraph, in which Avi describes the addition of another course altogether to the Core. Which is it? You still did not propose which books from CC you would prefer to have removed to make room for the books you propose be added. And is it really fair to add another course to the Core, when there are some people who can barely fulfill their major without taking 6 classes a semester, let alone take electives or pursue a concentration? Why is what people WANT to learn less important than what YOU think they SHOULD learn?

    I will not even deign to rufute any of Bryan's responses because I do not feel that they are actual RESPONSES to the questions as much as they are emotional reactions to dissent, condescending lines of reasoning, and big words. You want to be a martyr? Then take a page out of a real hero's book, MLK. To advance a cause and gain legitimacy and respect from oppressors, you must act with grace and dignity. Making accusatory statements and putting people on the defensive from the start are NOT the way to get the majority to see your side of things. You cannot demand respect, you must earn it. And you have certainly not earned mine.

    • Nina

      A brief clarification:

      'In the rest of Avi's responses, I got a little confused. I had read the strikers' demands awhile ago, and I was initially under the impression that they wanted Major Cultures reform. But in Avi's response, I get the idea that the strikers want CC more globalized'

      my question about CC and adding another text to it, which Avi addresses, came not from the strikers' demands but from a private conversation I had with one of the negotiators. A large amount of this conversation was about how he thought CC needed to include more texts about racism/colonialism. I asked him many questions and his answers didn't satisfy me, so the reason that I included that question was that I hoped one of the other people involved in the strike may be able to give a better response. It was never meant to imply that all the strikers believed this, or that it was one of the demands that they were striking for. Just a personal curiosity.

      • #21

        I see now. But still, this whole "mandatory class on race" is confusing to me because many a pro-striker has said on Bwog that the strikers are only calling for MC reform and specifically NOT an extra class added to the Core. Of course, rumors are flying everywhere and I don't think anyone is truly informed on what is actually going on, but these inconsistencies just are not sitting well with me.

        BTW I loved your questions. I just hated how they were answered. But I guess insufficiently answering questions is the way of doing things in politics, even if it is the pseudo-politics of self-appointed "leaders" at a university.

  19. vshow  

    Columbia administrators invite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to chair new Ethnic Studies department. During an anti-oppression training, Mahmoud and PrezBo do a song like the one from SNL. The next day, homophobic graffiti about the star-crossed lovers appears across campus. Angry students revolt by refusing to eat Pinkberry and Chipotle, thereby indisputably proving their solidarity with Gandhi and every disadvantaged person ever.

  20. Student

    These were eloquent, respectful, and caring responses from Bryan... unlike those from the bwog commenters.

  21. Ding Ding Ding

    I was wondering when the "oh, you ruffians" distraction would be pulled out by a pro-striker. Actually, at this point I think it's even supplanted "you're racist" in the hierarchy of judgmental non-answers and general poo-pooery.

  22. Anyone

    notice how this was conveniently issued to coincide with the thanksgiving break? i.e. when no one is on campus + Bwog readership is minimal? Four days ago, this thread would have 10x the comments it has now, 90% of them calling this asshole's bullshit.

  23. good answers

    just my 2c.
    i feel (though i'm not saying for sure), that no response the strikers could give in response to the 19 questions would satisfy people. the questions were asked in a tone that implied: these are 19 ways we think you are wrong--will you admit it? hence any answer that does not say, "we were wrong, now we realize how much we suck" will appear to "not be answering the question."

    i do not mean that the questions did/do not have merit. they do. i also do not mean i think the strikers are in everything right. this is only my perspective on the situation at hand.

    bryan's answers, if esoteric at times, nevertheless are thorough, and i think people should appreciate that. avi's answers (to different questions, it must be kept in mind) are extremely eloquent and on point.

    people should keep discussing, whatever place you're coming from. and don't jump down your friends' throat, just because they take a different position.

    happy thanksgiving

  24. haha

    Columbia Interstudent 'Dialogue' 101: Cite Foucault as often as possible.

  25. disgusted.

    these sniveling responses are thick with (misused) jargon to cover the fact that they are intellectually facile and they are even thicker with the lingo of neo-liberal ethics which they fail to see is directly contradictory with the thought of many of the anti-humanists whom they quote. to be quite frank, I find the intellectual sophistication of these responses to be embarrassing.
    the hunger strikers lost all credibility when they abandoned their strike after the administration threatened to put them on forced academic leave. clearly drunk on their super-badass radical protestor success, the hunger-strikers seem to have forgotten the most important issue in this debate: manhattanville, and the forced displacement of over 5,000 residents living there.
    manhattanville was perhaps the only clear issue of social injustice in response to which a hunger strike may have been appropriate, but once they were faced with minor illness and bamboozled by columbia's concessions they quickly forgot it. Despite their talk about “the other” and “the marginalized,” and despite the fact that they seem to think that they are super-informed about how super-bad current “power-structures” are, ultimately the strikers proved to be deeply selfish, yet another band of undergraduates who found college to be a convenient place to express dissent before it got in the way of their careers.
    Strikers: you concession was shameful and undermines anything else you may think you achieved.

  26. Avi

    I agree with the many who responded that it is important to be able to speak across ideological lines, and so I want to reiterate that these responses are intended as part of an unfolding dialogue and not closed and absolute. I am certainly willing to concede that not everything I wrote was conducive to opening dialogue. Some of the previous blog postings were so hateful that I found it difficult to produce an entirely hospitable response. That was my mistake. I am sorry to see, however, that those elements in my reply which might have been conducive to such a debate, at an intellectual level, have gone largely unremarked.

    To answer the students who did pose some legitimate questions: a) Is a group like the KKK "on the margins"? That really depends on how you define margin. If you mean a minority, then, yes, sure. But if you mean a group that has not historically been in power or used that power to disenfranchise others, then absolutely not. So I don't think the analogy holds. b) What changes do I want to see to the Core? Let me reiterate that I am not proposing specific changes, but merely pointing out that the Core is out of date with current scholarship and suggesting ways that it might be brought in line. Proposals for how specifically to address that should be, and will be, discussed by faculty and students.

    To another who wrote, "I don't think that having a seminar on race and colonialism will prevent the tiny minority of racist people around campus from committing these crimes. If you have any evidence that introducing such seminars leads to a reduction in these crimes, then please provide it." When I wrote that racism was "symbolic and unconscious" I didn't just mean in how it appears, but also that it can be combatted on a symbolic and unconscious level - that having requirements or creating an atmosphere in which these questions are addressed is part of fighting racism in all its forms. I don't believe it is an empirical question, so much as a general way of changing how we, all of us, think about race in our society. These seem to me to be small but important steps. As to the claim that work in ethnic studies is judged "by how well they fit a politically fashionable prototype," I'd have to say that, of course, sure, there is some weak scholarship in ethnic studies, just as there is in history, pscyhology, philosophy, etc. But ethnic studies as a whole is designed to tackle questions not historically addressed in these disciplines and can make an important contribution in that regard.

    To the "disgusted" student who claims that both Bryan and I produced intellectually weak responses, I'd need to see more of a discussion of how we supposedly have conflated neo-liberal ethics and anti-humanist discourse. That sounds like a fashionable and textually unsupported critique to me. Moreover, I have never claimed, nor do I think Bryan would, to be either humanists or anti-humanists. While we support a certain critique of the white male straight subject as the definition of the human, we are certainly not opposed to the questions of subjectivity and collective humanity that have informed so much work in feminism, race studies, and human rights. Our responses are more about expanding our understandings of humanity than any critique or affirmation of a particular discourse per se. As to the legitimate call for the importance of restructuring Columbia's expansion, I appreciate your desire, but I think it is important to remember what CB9 themselves had to say: "We have supported the advocacy efforts of the students on their other important demands for a democratic and inclusive education and those talks have been concluded...Coalition members are extremely concerned for the well-being of the students. Having dealt with the Columbia administration for four years on its proposed expansion plans, the CPC is fully aware of Low Library's intransigence, deceitfulness, and cold-blooded ruthlessness. Accordingly, the CPC calls upon the students to withdraw their demand regarding Columbia's 197C application." They of course, however, hope for students to remain critical of the expansion, as this poster already is.

    As to the question of why the hunger strike, why something else could not be done, I cannot speak for the strikers, but I can say that hunger striking has never, historically, been reduced to only the absolute worst conditions. Rather, it has been employed as an activist repetoire when a critical juncture was reached. I think the strikers have tried very hard to explain how such a point came to pass, and I can only add here this point about the historical dimension - that as anyone familiar with the history of nonviolent political action can tell you, it is not out of the blue or over-the-top. It is a method, and one that in this case got results. It would be an unfortunate side effect of these results if people aligned with the causes of the strikers abandoned those causes out of frustration with the decision to strike. This seems to me like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    I hope this dialogue continues in classrooms and among students concerned with creating a more just Columbia community and society at large. As a graduated student I think there is little more I can do or say, but I hope these responses can at least help to keep the conversation rational and on the issues as it moves forth.

    - Avi Alpert

    • number 31

      Avi, what I’m saying is that you’re rhetoric indicates a misunderstanding of some of the authors whom you quote. You simply can’t quote Foucault claim to endorse his interrogation of the subject while also adopting the theo-humanist ethic of responsibility to other if you wish to remain intellectually consistent. It seems that you have gotten confused and begun to assume that protest is some kind of right. In your initial statement you say: “We will not say simply that they have a right to free speech, but, more forcefully, that they have a duty to bring these issues to light.” Avi, with all due respect, this is a silly thing to say. From whom do you receive these rights to free speech? The university? The phantom objectivity of your rights was revealed when the university threatened to put the hunger strikers on academic leave if they continued protesting. Butler and here contemporaries, whom you seem so ready to quote, have shown how declarations of human rights are essentially subjectifying procedures, so I find it intensely ironic that you would call on them as you mandate for striking. And what is this duty you refer to? To whom to you owe this duty? Please think very carefully if you choose to answer with “the Other.”
      I also find it problematic that you seem to think that your protest lies outside of any particular discourse. To be more specific, I find it incoherent to level very specific criticism at the content of the core curriculum (criticisms which I on certain levels agree with) while not proposing specific texts to replace that core. Brian’s discussion of protest as a re-centering of power was refreshing, but I think your position would be much stronger if you ceased trying to identify yourselves as some sort of objective god of enlightened truth.
      Also, if you choose to respond I would like a much more thorough explanation of your idea of “symbolic and often unconscious” racism. I am confused by it, and I am worried by your statements that the noose incident is reason enough for a required course in race. Frankly, this seems like an attempt to root out all though crimes against multiculturalism rather than an actual dedication to improved scholarship. It seems to me that classes about racial history run the risk of being hijacked by reactionaries and reifying race as essential to identity.

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