The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Negotiating the bubble

Sept. 30, 2011, 12:28 a.m.

The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Negotiating the bubbleThink globally. Be open. Be tolerant of other views. Don’t be dismissive; engage with the material and the opinions of others. Freshmen are fed a steady diet of happy cliches during NSO. However, each is as dishonest and fundamentally illiberal as the last. What they entail is not a sponsorship of thought and a formation of substantiated opinions but a shaming of critical judgment of sympathetic positions, one that reserves real ire only for the straw men made up of the beliefs of the ever-absent American conservative.

It is not a bad thing that Stanford is a very liberal place. This is true of most colleges and often signals a healthy amount of empathy and involvement. Perhaps it could even be said that the left-leaning nature of our campus serves to show that we recognize the troubles many face outside of our lovely bubble. What’s bad, though, is letting the absence of another side let introspection, reflection and refinement of one’s own views fall by the wayside.

Faith in liberalism’s moral foundations is bad for the same reason any unquestioned faith is bad, and doubly so in a college environment. Faith does not brook questioning and improvement. Faith does not change with study and does not bend to debate. Absolute faith is antithetical to any serious college’s mission.

But with liberalism, this faith is more insidious, more insistent, because it seems to agree with our upbringings that praise empathy, that value the teary moments of Christmas comedies where the wealthier family gives up its extra presents to the poor because it recognizes the importance of altruism, of minimizing class distinctions and doing whatever possible with one’s excess to minimize the shortfalls of others. We find all of these things to be good. They agree with our sympathies, our most hopeful views of people being fundamentally good and industrious, rarely sidetracked from realizing these traits as anything but social problems for which they cannot be held in the slightest responsible. We feel bad and inhumane for betraying our faith in people, for not ameliorating poor living conditions where they exist. But the fact of the matter is that politics and philosophy have necessities to bend to, and the solutions (and lingering assumptions) of MGM-produced worlds don’t work or hold true.

Nowhere is this more evident than in America’s entitlement spending. Entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) comprise the majority of the federal government’s spending. Mandatory spending on entitlements and the servicing of our debt are forecasted to exceed total government revenue sometime around 2024. If the entire U.S. Military was jettisoned, every federal employee fired and every expenditure on roads, education and culture cut, we would still be running a deficit. Entitlements, arguably the most humane and sympathetic part of government spending, will quite literally cannibalize the United States if they are not addressed. If the federal government increases taxation in step with the necessary increases in entitlement spending, the economy will eventually cease to grow at an adequate pace to keep up. Regardless of whether it feels right, cuts in care and social aid will happen, and our liberal sympathies will be put through the gauntlet of reality. We will be forced to pick and choose who gets what money, confronting fiscal realities and assigning value in our judgments of who deserves funds the most.

While many seek to avoid these questions or shift responsibility for widespread social failings onto the shoulders of the government, I have to ask: is there a point where people and the culture they create are to blame (and the only thing that can create change)? Arguments that hinge on personal responsibility are decried as brutal and misguided, but rarely does any of our campus discourse confront these serious problems with anything more than a slogan for a response. Now it’s come to a head. We can either bankrupt ourselves by blindly continuing on our path or try, in some way, to fix the problems that cause such difficult spending situations. But the standard Stanford path of calling for more funding, more attention and more sympathy has become a dead end.

There are legitimate moral questions that lie at the base of these arguments, and they are not so simple as their caricaturized depictions often suggest. Rarely does the difference in policy amount solely to succumbing to corporate greed or stating, “I’ll keep my money, you keep yours.” Stanford happily accepts such simplistic clichés from its political opposition, but it will give proper and charitable analysis to cultures far removed from our own, even if they propagate views contrary to our most basic moral tenets. It’s time to bring our intelligence into play in the home court instead of letting the emotional pull of our party allegiances, our desire never to contradict our liberal “Christmas spirit” and basic sympathies to prevent serious, rational discussion.

Do you agree that this is a change we can believe in? Email Spencer at dsnelson(at) and let him know your thoughts.

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