The first thing that came to my mind when I heard about the members of Solidarity’s hunger strike was a quotation by Edmund Burke: “It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.” Burke lived in a tumultuous time, caught between the French Revolution and the reform of government in England. He was the first major thinker of his day to come out against the French Revolution and to decry the radicalism that characterized it. Instead, he advocated modest, achievable reform, an approach that I believe the hunger strikers would do well to consider.
In their manifesto, “Why We Strike,” Solidarity states: “There has been tremendous unrest on this campus this semester, these past few years, this decade. And people feel psychologically hurt by Columbia’s indifference to our heartache, to our struggle, to our rumbling need for a better university.” Although these words are poetic, I feel they are indicative of the misguided tactics of the hunger strikers, who have (pardon the pun) bitten off more than they can chew.
The first point that Solidarity should have considered is that they are facing an uphill battle, not only with regard to the administration, but also with regard to the hearts and minds of the student body. Because of programs such as the Core Curriculum, Columbia is in many respects a self-selecting institution. This fact, combined with our low acceptance rate, leads to a student body that is generally appreciative and happy to be here. Thus, to write, “We strike against a university that seems not to care for the well-being of its students or of its community” is not a very effective means of convincing a student body that for the most part believes the contrary.
Although the plurality of students on this campus are (as one would hope) “pro-Columbia,” the hunger strikers could have given themselves a better chance of succeeding if they had not made one crucial tactical error by broadening their demands too far and by villainizing the Columbia administration rather than the bigots who set in motion this chain of events.
In the aftermath of the five bias incidents that occurred in the past month, many students have become disheartened with the University’s policies toward racism, and would have gladly pushed for change. However, some students chose not to confine their discourse to the actual racist acts themselves, but instead utilized them as a springboard in order to further an activist political agenda. The Core Curriculum and the Manhattanville expansion—while important issues—did not cause a noose to be hung on a professor’s door, nor did they lead to neo-Nazi graffiti. Moreover, by blaming Columbia for acts of bigotry, these students are demeaning the importance of the incidents themselves by partially exempting the actual perpetrators from the blame they so thoroughly deserve.
With these points in mind, it is clear that this hunger strike is truly a missed opportunity. By taking their demands beyond the immediate scope of racism, Solidarity has in effect robbed themselves of their own political capital. If they had presented a few specific concerns—such as demanding that public safety announce bias incidents when they occur—they probably would have had a fair chance of accomplishing them. Not only would the student body have supported such a measure, but it is likely that President Bollinger, a reasonable man, would have conceded as well. But by adding to their grievances issues such as Manhattanville, the protesters have only succeeded in alienating themselves from the administration. These issues are critical, but I suspect that Bollinger would be more willing to listen to the student governing bodies—which actually do represent the student body—rather than a handful of activists.
Ultimately, I think that we need to look the 18th century and the lessons that it taught us about activism. Burke wrote, “Patience will achieve more than force,” and I feel that those words still ring true today. Just as England accomplished more by slow, steady, and focused discourse, so too could Solidarity achieve a “reimagined” Columbia by keeping their efforts focused on the events that actually gave rise to their grievances. By shifting the scope of their advocacy away from winning issues to broader, long-standing battles, Solidarity has in effect scuttled their own cause. This strategic miscalculation shows that, when it comes to affecting substantive change at Columbia, the hunger strikers are simply out to lunch.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.