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What’s In a Story?

Recently, a co-worker pointed me to a news piece about a dispute between Harvard’s activist circuit and The Crimson after the paper contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment on a story (I won’t get into the lengthy background). After reading up, I have to say, some of what I’ve come across breaks my heart.

In a recent essay from these pages, a student suggests that impartial reporting is a fruitless endeavor because speech is always couched within grander “systems of power” (a numbingly Foucauldian phrase). A recent petition from Harvard College Act on a Dream argued that The Crimson’s decision to request comment from ICE on the recent student protest was tantamount to calling in a tip. In a follow-up statement expressing support, the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign lambasted The Crimson’s commitment to “getting both sides of the story” for ignoring a “severe power discrepancy.”

It’s like Bob Dylan once said, “the times they are a-changin’.” The students of Harvard College are finally conversant in Foucault’s economics of power and are taking it to bat. The civil liberties of old — free speech and a free press chief among them — seem in this instance to be the obstacles to justice rather than the vehicles for it.

Here, I give some credit to Act on a Dream, which clarified its views on the First Amendment after all the confusion. Some of their essay gives reason for cautious optimism. They rightly frame their defense of immigrant students as a stand for the free speech of dissenters, no matter their nationality. They also probe an important conversation in journalistic ethics. How do we protect the identities of our most vulnerable interlocutors?

Still, the tendency of today leans more toward hunting for power imbalances than taking up the time-tested instruments of liberal criticism.

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With that approach, I fear that we forget that past liberals faced similar circumstances to our own. When a garrison of redcoats fired their rifles into the crowd outside the Boston Custom House in 1770, the soldiers responsible received a fair trial with legal defense by John Adams. When the moment care, the court heard their case — never mind the power imbalance between the British army and the American colonists.

One wonders whether such a scene is thinkable today. I pose the question as an opponent of deportation on personal and moral grounds. My own grandparents emigrated from Cuba as young adults, and my mother was routinely ridiculed for it as a child. She became accustomed to the epithet “illegal alien” and would bear the weight of otherness for much of her life. That she was in fact an American citizen tells the whole story: where they said “illegal,” they meant “not white.”

Politically, there are good reasons to be skeptical of deportation. As I’ve suggested before in these pages, it is mostly impossible to assure freedom to citizens without extending it also to non-citizens. I’m thinking here of Abraham Lincoln’s adage, that “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”

Even where an undocumented person is a criminal, deportation is hard to justify. When America sent Los Angeles’s Salvadoran gangs back to their home country in the 1980s, it wreaked havoc on that country’s criminal justice system — so much so, that 30 years later, El Salvador sent tens of thousands of its own back to America as refugees.

One need not support deportation to take pause at the responses of some of its critics. As imperfect as our system is, its press freedoms are unparalleled, and we ought to preserve that in the face of growing global censorship. Not to say we can’t have a conversation on responsible reporting, but we can’t very well ask the reporters to stop seeking comments from all sides. There’s nothing subtle or convincing to a reader about quieting a relevant party.

We too often forget the four-word warning of the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno to the fascists: “venceréis, pero no convenceréis” — “You will win, but you will not persuade.” Unamuno understood that whatever right-wing regime arose from the Spanish Civil War could only last as long as its capacity to repress rational thought — a testament to freedom’s origins in the thinking mind.

I worry that by foreclosing on conventional journalistic wisdom like interviewing all sides in a story, we expose ourselves to a far more pernicious danger than the chance of a one-time snitch or even the brief, suspicious gaze of the state. We concede the theater of public opinion, in which immigration activists have a world to win through the old channels of argument.

If we lose that, we may still win the moment, but we will never persuade.

Henry N. Brooks ’19, a former Crimson columnist, is a graduate of Currier House.

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