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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

substance and insiders, politicking and campaign coverage

In the last 48 hours, I've received a significant amount of criticism for what many see as Cambridge Common's "mainstream" coverage of the UC elections. In other words, while Cambridge Common usually seeks to offer alternative and critical perspectives from the ideological left, I've instead chosen to cover more of the internal day to day of the campaigns, the political dynamics and the media angles instead of offering a more substantive and consistent critique of the process and its general political failings. I thought I would ponder it momentarily here and let you offer your thoughts in the comments.

I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I viewed my role as someone who could reveal to a wider audience a lot of the insider politics that make and break campaigns: the staffing, the Crimson endorsement, publicity battles and the news coverage. My thought was that here we essentially have a strange community performance put on by a hundred or so insiders of the Harvard political class (the people who run the paper, the politicos who populate the UC, Dems, HRC, IOP and those who run powerful student groups like the BSA, BGLTSA, Fuerza, SAA, RUS etc. etc.) in which only the final products (the endorsements, the emails, the debates and eventually the vote totals) are seen. Few students outside of these circles, I believed, really had the context to be able to properly analyze, criticize or understand the final products because there was so little information about what goes into them (sausage metaphor and all that). (more in expanded post)

The fault for this type of non-transparent insider performance lies, I think, in two fundamental places: first and foremost, it is the fault of those of us within this community. Every year we put on this performance and, as the occasional outsider ticket often notes, have little or no interest in including the broader community into the politics if it takes away from our basic power. A perfect example is the Crimson endorsement. As has been widely discussed this year but rarely before, the essential process is that there is a basic core of Ed Board members and Crimson leaders who will necessarily show up, and each campaign does its best to mobilize, as Mr. Schmidt noted at Team Zebra, more "people who comped Photo freshman year" to vote for their candidate. This doesn't necessarily corrupt the process itself (I'm told mobilizations essentially cancelled each other out this year), but it certainly raises questions that, if a wider audience of students asked them, would probably take away some of the voice-of-god power the endorsement seeks to have. The Crimson, of course, denies this fervently to protect its own political sway, as do most of the players in this community when similar questions are asked of them. I don't think people are opaque about the internal politics out of any malevolence or evil scheming, I just think it's what's always been done, and admitting that an endorsement here or there is heavily influenced by friendships or political relationships isn't fun for anyone, even if it isn't nevessarily a bad thing. It was my hope that, by writing about such structures and revealing a lot of the machinations of the campaigns, student would gain a more complex and real understanding of the politics that lead to their leaders.

The second place fault lies for the opaqueness of the campaign process, I believe, is at the Crimson and other campus media. Until this year, little if no serious analysis had been done of the races that would allow students to see through or understand any of this with any sort of sophistication. This, I think, both contributes to student's apathy (the UC appears to just sit around and occasionally pass a bill or two) and helps to perpetuate a divide between people in the know (who don't need the Crimson to have this knowledge because they're friends with or are people involved) and people who aren't in the know (everyone else). If the Crimson believes that it has a responsibility to the campus to figure out and explain its politics (UC or otherwise), it needs to do more than transcribe.

These problems, in essence, were what I was hoping to address with my coverage. Whether or not I was able to, or was able to do so in a substantive way that didn't simply contribute to and heighten politicking and the power of insiders, is certainly an open question that I hope we can address.

On the other hand, however, there are many who are frustrated with me that I didn't take this opportunity to do more substantive issue-based writing. This might have (and may still) include contributing to and pushing the debates on: ROTC, diversity, financial aid and other economic justice issues like free copying and course packs for low-income students, disability rights (an issue that Annie Riley hasn't received enough credit for bringing into the conversation), social space and Final Clubs (which have received some coverage here, but nothing really sharp and/probing) and many other things. Those who offer this thought very correctly note (as two people did to me today) that Cambridge Common is generally a place for this type of issue-based discussion, for arguments about social justice and our community, for insight into our political culture not just our political games. I have been thinking a lot about this since someone first brought it up to me this weekend, and I think that it is, unfortunately, exactly right.

My guess is that the reason that gamesmanship and performance politics are so dominant is the same reason that I chose to cover that and not deal with the substance of the issues: it is easier and more fun. Let's be honest, it's more fun to discuss whether or not Voith/Gadgil tried to bribe their opponents out of the race than it is to talk about the way we struggle with economic diversity on this campus. It's more fun to talk about the internal politics of the Crimson than really dig into structural problems of race and gender in leadership and what that says about us as a community. And you can make it feel more relevant because, when you're in the community doing the performance (as I am), everyone around you is also thinking more about the politics than the policy because for them too, it's more fun. This, it seems to me, is a huge problem.

This race has made me think a lot about the political structures that make up this campus. I think that it's great lesson, in fact, is that this mentality within a political class of defending our power with insider status and emphasizing and enjoying internal politics over substantive issues, is exactly what destroys its credibility with those who have to watch and try to make sense of this, who have to come to terms with this set of people as their leadership. For those of us within the political community, now is the time to not only start thinking about how all of this works and why it is so problematic, but to start reaching out to other people to actually shed some light onto "insiderness" and regain some perspective and substance. Substance is, after all, supposed to be the point.

Now, I don't think that it's smart to be overly dramatic about this (maybe it's too late for me here) and act as if this race is the be all end all of the world and people's inadequacies relevant to it are some sort of great injustice. Certainly, neither of those things is true. But it is true that, on a campus like ours where politics will become a way of life for many and is already a way of life for some, the style and substance of our politics is important. It's also true that, as this is one of the few things that occurs on campus in which a majority of us participate in a common conversation, we should understand the way in which that conversation takes place.


At 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

golis i think you have done an excellent job covering the election stuff on the site and i agree with your eloquent defense here. well done!

At 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

golis i think you have done an excellent job covering the election stuff on the site and i agree with your eloquent defense here. well done!

At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved it. It was much better than "Cats."

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Neeraj "Richie" Banerji said...

Nothing's better than Cats!

At 3:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, nothing's better than cats!

(hint: the joke's in the formatting, tee-hee ::fist bite::)


At 3:41 AM, Blogger andrew golis said...

Maybe I'm dumb, but I don't get it...


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