A Grand Old Problem

College Republicans’ boorish activism provokes little more than eye-rolling

“The goal here is to get people talking,” explained Sarah L. Chambers, the President of the New York University College Republicans.

Such was the seemingly innocent rationale behind the NYU College Republicans’ latest piece of political activism: a hunt through Washington Square Park for a student posing as an illegal immigrant. The student-actor bore a name tag identifying his undocumented status, while his pursuers sported badges emblazoned with “INS,” standing for the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Indeed, people started talking. The event provoked an energetic reaction from students and locals, who manifested their displeasure in a 300-strong public protest.

Angry immigrants-rights advocates waved placards, chanted slogans, and mouthed the predictable anti-Republican epithets. The demonstration boasted a variety of NYU student organizations among its ranks, including the College Democrats and the explicitly-intentioned Students Creating Radical Change.

Like most politically-correct agitations, the protest bordered on the comical. For example, the Washington Square News—NYU’s student newspaper—photographed a particularly incensed protester enthusiastically extending a sign declaring “Immigrant values are family values.”

Confronted by this melee, only nine NYU students actually showed up to participate in the hunt. Unsurprisingly, nobody won.

The ensuing “conversation,” much to the chagrin of these collegiate partisans, has not provided any deeper insight into the issues.

NYU’s “Find the Illegal Immigrant” publicity stunt is the newest in a line of recent controversial events staged by College Republicans (CRs) and like-minded organizations craving the slightest semblance of relevance.

Just last November, the Boston University CRs endured a barrage of criticism for sponsoring a “Whites-only” scholarship, ostensibly to lament race-based academic preferences. A month later, Tuft University’s conservative journal, The Primary Source, generated a hullabaloo over an unfortunately irreverent mock-Christmas carol, “O Come All Ye Black Folk,” written in opposition to diversity-minded admissions decisions.

Affirmative action, race-based quotas, and illegal immigration are certainly all important and salient political issues, worthy of a full and frank debate unimpeded by a pedantic political correctness.

Yet these CRs’ actions, which defiantly disregard conventional albeit hypersensitive standards of decency, contribute little if anything to the conversation. Even those who would otherwise sympathize with their political perspective must inevitably shudder at the utter tastelessness. The tactics employed in such campy events undoubtedly fail to engage any observers who aren’t already of similar opinion—and those who don’t share their apparently puerile taste for practical jokes.

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer ’71, who had delivered a speech at NYU just the previous evening, condemned the CRs’ event as “obnoxious.” Many Republicans, too, assuredly share this Democrat’s irritation.

College Republican activism like this, that channels the absurd and outrageous merely to push the envelope, commits a tremendous disservice to the very cause they attempt to promote.

Outlandish statements—especially about cultural taboos such as race—should not be uttered without a clear and justifiable raison d’etre. When such advice goes unheeded, one risks appearing inconsiderate, ignorant, and just plain impolite.

But College Republicans also represent the national party in microcosm—indeed, they represent the party of the future. And if the frequency of these misguided activist endeavors is any indication, the future does not look particularly bright.

These stunts furthermore perpetuate a terribly inaccurate stereotype about the Republican Party. Detractors can now giddily point to “Find the Illegal Immigrant” or the “Whites-only” scholarship as proof positive of GOP mindlessness. If their Democratic counterparts neglect the meaningful issues, CRs exceed their lethargy by making senseless and pointless games out of them.

And, with fewer than 10 participants, the games don’t even seem that fun.

Conservative intellectuals have done much in the postwar years to resuscitate the movement’s image in America. Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, and Phyllis Schlafly never shied away from controversy, yet provided the considerate and intelligent commentary necessary for the important issues of the day. The Republican Party should feel deeply indebted to these personalities and others who helped supply a platform that spoke persuasively to enough voters to purchase five of the last seven presidential terms, and six of the last seven Congresses.

In a society whose political health demands the responsible and reflective engagement of all of its citizens, we simply cannot afford politics to be reduced to the level of these sophomoric episodes on college campuses. For democracy to function optimally, our leaders and our parties must appeal to our higher principles—those of duty, community, and respect—and not our basest urges, like our inclination for momentary and mindless entertainment.

Conservatism, as Russell Kirk defined it, is “negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” With antics that emphasize shock value over substance and mindless partisanship over thoughtful consideration, these CRs reject the fundamental tenets of civil conservative thought.

CRs content to continue such tricks vindicate nothing more than their boorish manners, slavish sense of humor, and insufferable ideas.

For as long as the Republican Party bears popular association with right-leaning politics, these CRs will besmirch the name of conservatism. Indeed, they deny the first rule of any conservative deserving of the title—the code of civility, that of the gentleman.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.