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Columns

The Conservative Case for Divestment Protest

By Eric Yang, Contributing Opinion Writer
Eric Yang ’22, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

The timeless tension in politics, that liberals think conservatives are evil, and conservatives think liberals are stupid, manifests itself once again in the current debate over divestment and the merits of protest. Between the clamors for climate justice and the complete condemnation of divestment’s goals and methods, I believe it is important to articulate a moderate position that attempts to clarify some of the underlying logic of both sides and work to bridge this disagreement.

To have a contained discussion of divestment protest, here are three assumptions that I take for granted: firstly, that global warming is a serious issue that warrants immediate, thoughtful action; secondly, that divestment is one of many means for the University to address this issue; finally, that there are better means for the University to address this issue.

I omit any discussion of my thoughts on the final assumption, the major source of contention on campus, precisely because it is so over discussed. It is my view that this emphasis on divestment misses a key point about divestment protest, and one of its greatest merits — that it is not just an argument about the merits of divestment, but a clarion call for climate action in general. I am against divestment, but for divestment protest.

The disruption caused by divestment protest is an essential part of this greater argument for action. The disruptive nature of the divestment protest invites comparison to other disruptive protests and debates over their moral equivalency. Why isn’t the divestment protest like the Vietnam protest or the divest South Africa movement? The moral argument implied by disruptive protest is not only the scapegoating of an authority figure, as some might argue, but more importantly, a general indictment of the complicity of the greater community for perpetuating the status quo. The sin of the greater Harvard student community is not the commissioning of funds for investment, but the sin of inaction.

President Bacow’s call for the protesters to utilize the proper and less disruptive channels of influence misses the effectiveness and significance of this moral argument respectively. On the first point, while institutions can effect change in gradual, systematic ways, they also have every ability to thwart change in a gradual, systematic manner. President Bacow can organize any number of proper committee meetings, faculty votes, and community-based discussions that result in the continuation of the status quo.

This capacity for delayed change, however, is not the fault of institutions as a whole, but the very strength of their design. Harvard cannot, and should not, immediately implement the next good idea that comes along, no matter how many undergraduates support it. This is because institutions are not independent, or even democratic, actors that can choose to “do the right thing,” but complex multi-headed systems with defined lines of accountability and express limitations on what they can do. Intractable, “evil” institutions make effecting change more difficult, but reversing it even harder, and thus help to create the ideological consistency necessary for lasting, structural change.

However, it is precisely because of their general tendency towards inaction and the maintenance of the status quo’s rate of progression that on important issues which require immediate action, like global warming, decisive pushing is necessary to reorient institutions towards the correct path. Divestment protest has shifted the discourse in Harvard to center around concerns of global warming; so much so that the president of the Harvard Republican Club has publicly advocated his own solutions to the environmental crisis. The effect of discourse shifting and conscience raising is not an abstract intellectual accomplishment. While President Bacow is right to say that there are other, better ways of saving the planet, his claim indicates that the protesters have successfully asserted the importance of their call for action.

A strong call to action is necessary to effect even the most moderate, reasonable change because as conservatives know, the institutional reluctance to “do the right thing” applies to its calculus of economic cents, common sense, and moral obligation. Despite the obvious appeal and almost universal support among economists for ideas like carbon dividends, Congress has still yet to implement them, in part because none of the respectable economists who endorse carbon dividends will disrupt a presidential address to demonstrate their support for them. The “dumb” liberals, nay the “dumbest” liberals, have often played an instrumental, if underappreciated role in creating the moderate, positive social change that most people desire.

The conservatism that I advocate for — the conservatism that supports divestment protest, but not divestment — is rooted in a deep skepticism of the most intractable institutions as well as the best of intentions. The universe will bend itself towards justice, but it shouldn't bend with the exact curvature and rate that the divestment protestors want it to.

Eric Yang ’22, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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