“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
In the twentieth century, communism killed nearly 100 million human beings.
The Black Book of Communism attributes 20 million deaths to the actualization of Marxist ideals in the Soviet Union. In China, political persecution and mass starvation resulted in 65 million fatalities. Add in two million deaths in Cambodia, two million in North Korea, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, one million in the Eastern Bloc—and the list goes on—and you’re looking at the deadliest intellectual source of human misery perhaps in all of history. Even today in socialist Venezuela, which sits on the most plentiful oil reserves in the world, toilet paper has become a luxury good and starving Venezuelans scavenge for edible garbage. Yet somehow, not an insignificant portion of the Columbia student body and faculty—ostensibly the brightest minds in the world—continues to profess the abysmal failure that has been Marxism. (To be fair, I imagine most communists will dispute the above statistics, or at least the significance I derive from them. But whatever the case, the point is that I am able to simultaneously believe these figures—even if I am wrong in doing so—as well as the fact that communists are not inherently malicious. And, of course, no system is perfect; bad people will always remain to abuse the order of society, market economies included.)
Still, I would not pin Columbia communists, some of whom I call close friends and suitemates, as wannabe totalitarians. I know that most have the best of intentions. All I ask is that those on the left grant those of us on the right the same courtesy. I speak for myself and conservative friends of mine when I say that we all share the same end goal of universal happiness; the left and the right only disagree as to the means, however fundamentally different our visions may look.
Indeed, if we are to have any sort of productive debate, it is imperative that each side assumes the best on the part of their ideological opponents.
Of course, there are trolls. There are ignoramuses. There are demagogues and conspiracy theorists. I do not deny that such figures exist on the right, and it is a shame that these types have had a disproportionate presence on Columbia’s campus, and, in recent years, throughout the country as President Trump and his worldview have gained traction and altered the public’s perception of conservative thought. Indeed, their existence probably troubles me and “thoughtful conservatives,” if you will, as much as it troubles people on the left. But—and I wish I did not feel it necessary to say this—the right also has scholars, statesmen, and great communicators; these are dignified thinkers like Milton Friedman, Calvin Coolidge, and William F. Buckley, Jr., who inspire me personally. Critics of conservatism would be more effective if they could first distinguish between journalists like Tomi Lahren and, say, Tom Wolfe, and then critique the best arguments that the right has to offer.
Unfortunately, accusations of bad character, often informed by perceptions of the basest conservative pundits but aimed at conservative ideas at large, abound at Columbia. Fellow Spectator contributor Heven Haile, pointing to Tomi Lahren and Milo Yiannopoulos, recently leveled blanket accusations of racism, misogyny, and classism against anyone holding conservative viewpoints. Columnist Liberty Martin ascribed her peer Christian Gonzalez’s “adoration of the Core” to “indoctrination into white supremacy” which she saw “clearly working.” At a recent Columbia Political Union debate on immigration, a speaker ascribed all opposition to immigration to xenophobia, plain and simple. These accusations do not merely target Donald Trump or Columbia University College Republicans—they target all 36 percent of Americans who identify as conservative (25 percent identify as liberal, for comparison).
The various Columbia liberals as quoted above infer malice where many of their opponents have made no indication of acting from racial, gender, or class prejudice at all. Opposition to censorship, unionization, amnesty for those who immigrated illegally—even as conservatives (and sometimes even liberals) explain how they hold these positions in good faith—is seen by the left as bigotry (or the tolerance thereof). But the thing about internal motivation is that it can only ever be known by the person who holds it. Specific accusations of ill intent among undergraduates therefore boil down to amateur psychoanalytic speculation.
To be clear, I absolutely acknowledge the importance of recognizing and censuring prejudice where it is empirically obvious. People like David Duke, who assert the genetic superiority of white people, or Woodrow Wilson, who resegregated the federal government, leave no question as to their beliefs on race and how these beliefs motivate their actions. Neither are discussions of disparate impact fruitless—it is certainly useful to point out negative consequences that the proponent of a certain policy may not have foreseen or adequately considered.
Further, if conservative opinions can only be explained by various prejudices and ulterior motives, it takes some truly remarkable mental gymnastics to rationalize black, female, or gay conservatives; however much they may be in the minority, they are not altogether anomalies.
But even if you are dead sure your debater is evil, what does name-calling achieve, exactly? How many of those accused of concealed bigotry have thrown up their hands, admitting, “You got me—I only believe X because I’m really just racist”? Not only are such speculative accusations often useless, but they also harm our discourse. CUCR has resorted to its current tactics due in part to members’ belief that the left will call them “Nazis” no matter whom CUCR invites, as explicitly expressed by leadership in a public forum CUCR hosted earlier this semester (I would at least try not to make it any easier to be called a Nazi). Whether this prediction would be realized or not, the left ought to consider why its opponents feel the way they do, and the destruction that occurs when the right finds good-willed debate so futile that it has all but given up on trying to seriously engage the left.
The various debates that comprise our discourse provide the opportunity for each side to persuade the other as to the best course of action for universities, governments, and society. But if one side dismisses the other as simply evil, there is no longer any reason to argue at all, further militating any potential for compromise and, therefore, improvement.
Joseph Siegel is a Columbia College sophomore studying philosophy. Right to the Core runs alternate Mondays.
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