PBHA AND ELECTORAL POLITICS:
SHOULD Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), Harvard's largest public service organization, become "more political?" Or should it stay away from "political issues?"
A more fundamental question: what exactly does "political" mean at PBHA?
Rosa A. Ehrenreich '91, the newly-elected president of PBHA, defended her advocacy of a more politically active PBHA in a recent commentary in the Harvard Independent. "[P]ublic service is inherently and profoundly political," she wrote.
Politics, Ehrenreich says, encompasses more than endorsing candidates for office and supporting ballot initiatives. "Someone working among Southeast Asian refugees will be most successful if he or she has a solid understanding of the particular history and culture of these refugees," she wrote.
But politics, by Ehrenreich's own definition, still involves elections. Although Ehrenreich denied any interest in "[associating] PBHA more closely with any particular candidates or partisan ideologies," she defended the official involvement of PBHA's leadership in a ballot contest in Cambridge this fall. This sort of "politics" is precisely the realm into which PBHA should not venture.
THERE is nothing wrong with promoting awareness and discussion of public policy among PBHA volunteers. But PBHA's leadership has gone beyond political discourse. The cabinet of PBHA recently endorsed an electoral position. And last February, as Ehrenreich wrote in The Independent, the cabinet granted themselves the option to consider endorsing candidates for public office. PBHA should do neither.
Why? For the plain and simple reason that taking partisan stances will inevitably discourage some volunteers.
Even Ehrenreich has acknowledged as much. And discouraging volunteers directly undermines what should be PBHA's fundamental purpose--bringing students into public service to help local residents "gain control over their own lives." Every time a would-be volunteer balks at PBHA's political involvement, a few more disadvantaged citizens will go without a helping hand.
THE PBHA cabinet's recent opposition to Prop 1-2-3, a Cambridge ballot initiative that would weaken the city's system of rent control, is a classic example of the ambiguous political implications of opposing social problems. Ehrenreich defended the move by saying that "the proposition would severely hurt the populations our programs are trying to serve."
But what about those PBHA members who believe that rent control contributes to homelessness? What are they to think when their leaders implicitly accuse them of incorrect thinking?
When PBHA involves itself in electoral battles, it discourages potential volunteers whose political beliefs diverge from the "correct" ones.
And even if electoral endorsements were made only rarely, as Ehrenreich suggests they would be, the threat of turning off potential or current supporters is still very real. The flurry of letters that The Crimson received from irate PBHA supporters in the wake of the Prop 1-2-3 endorsement testifies to that.
Ehrenreich says PBHA will make up for the loss by gaining "respect." Wrong. Respect--and moral authority--are accorded to those humanitarian organizations which remain scrupulously apolitical, such as Amnesty International and the American Red Cross.
Even in the clearest cases, the benefits of PBHA's throwing its weight around in electoral contests are modest and nebulous, while the costs are measurable and indisputable.
EHRENREICH'S argues that PBHA should become more political because "poverty is wrong," and "that is a fundamentally political observation."
Perhaps so. But politicians of all political stripes agree that "poverty is wrong." They simply differ on the best ways to deal with it. No ideology or political party commands a monopoly on moral opposition to social problems.
But Ehrenreich contends that debate over involvement in politics has not been that important at PBHA, anyway. "None of these issues played a large role in the PBHA elections," she wrote.
But according to students who attended the election meeting, this assertion is simply not true. "The most important issue was the view of PBHA and politics," said PBHA steering committee member Charles E. Reece '92. "I think Rosa was able to make some forceful points about PBHA taking stands on certain issues."
The question of political involvement continues to loom in the campus debate surrounding PBHA. Vague definitions of "politics" cannot assuage the fears that PBHA will threaten its valuable public service activities by involving itself in ballot battles.
The cabinet of PBHA should promise to remain neutral in all future electoral contests.