Taking Action: Responsibly · 23 March 2006

By Jamie Deal - Duke Chronicle

By Jamie Deal--Duke Chronicle--03/23/06

Duke students don't know how to protest. Though graced with intellectual brilliance, financial resources and national prestige, they have failed to succeed at one of humankind's most fundamental political activities, and it should worry us all.

This failure is not due to a lack of awareness. Supplied with Internet access, newspapers, magazines, fliers and even a daily publication that is tailored specifically to campus issues (The Chronicle), Duke students know perfectly well what is going on.

It is not due to a lack of things to protest, either.

On a national level, those outraged by the policies of President George W. Bush should speak out more, and those who are not should work harder to defend him. After three years of war in Iraq, protests have fallen by the wayside, even while support for it dwindles. This is an understandable trend for the general public, but unacceptable at this university.

As for Duke issues, there are also many reasons to protest. Indeed, I have seen students and faculty do so on many occasions throughout my time here. But unfortunately, most of these efforts have proven to be embarrassing failures.

In 2004, I decided to challenge my beliefs by attending a Kerry/Edwards rally on the West Campus quad. Because it featured Congressman David Price and Senator John Edwards' daughter, I had high expectations for the event. Considering the number of Democrats in the Duke community, however, hardly anyone showed up. In addition, Edwards' daughter nearly cried when some drunken guy walking back from tailgate yelled, "John Kerry sucks!" This extremely rude interruption, when combined with the low turnout, made the event a true disappointment to me.

This year, the Duke Democrats staged a mock filibuster of Justice Samuel Alito. I will admit that it was a unique idea, and I am certain they had fun doing it. But the participants also left themselves open to ridicule, as many passers-by simply laughed at the brave soul standing behind that podium.

In the fall, a group of concerned students situated itself at the West Campus bus stop to protest former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett's now-infamous words. While these students made others aware of the issue, it was actually my fellow columnist Stephen Miller who did more to create discussion among students, faculty and alumni. It is interesting that the protest did less to bring attention to Bennet's words than did a conservative writer supporting him.

As opposed to these others, the movement led by Duke Students Against Sweatshops to ensure a living wage for all Duke-related workers was a great success. Those in the organization put forth a strong effort and, in the end, accomplished an important goal.

However, they erred last March when they interrupted an address by President Brodhead, compelling him to move away from his podium for the remainder of the talk. In contrast to Brodhead, who reacted to the situation with grace and wisdom, the student protesters acted inappropriately given the occasion.

It is this sort of behavior that worries me most. While I applaud those who care enough to protest, too often such people have shown a lack of civility in public demonstration. The obvious example for me is what occurred at David Horowitz's recent lecture in Page Auditorium.

I personally approached Horowitz in the same manner I did Al Gore, George McGovern, David Price, Erwin Chemerinsky and others I have had the pleasure to see in person. I went to Page Auditorium prepared to listen, consider, scrutinize and question. But alas, I was forced to do so over the cacophony of a group that entered the building with a closed mind, their sole purpose to disrupt the event.

I was dismayed but not too surprised to find that three of our own professors took a role in leading the disturbances. To be truthful, I was delighted their actions merely proved Horowitz's point. But I was also deeply saddened by their behavior. It reflected poorly not just on them, but also on the University as a whole and on the more civil, rational people who disagree with Horowitz.

Their protest was just plain rude. Invited speakers, no matter what they say or believe, deserve respect when addressing an audience on this campus. I hope Duke students-and especially professors-never act in this way again.

We need more students to take an active role in campus politics and discussion. We ought to help make this community a city upon a hill when it comes to public demonstrations and discourse.

Many would rather remain in political apathy or continue to behave inappropriately. But we must all become more involved in the free flow of ideas on campus.

Let's do so with respect and decency.

Jamie Deal is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Thursday.