Despite the entertaining opening to his talk, John Kasich’s lecture at Davidson College peaked after this vignette. Although he pointed out some critical problems facing the United States political landscape, primarily the pitfalls of our polarized two-party system, such indictments felt rather trite. I did not find his acknowledgement of this issue particularly moving, especially because he then called those in the room to substitute their time spent online with activist work. Political change, according to Kasich, comes from this popular involvement. Besides the stereotypical nature of this interaction, in which baby boomer chastises today’s youth for their excessive consumption of social media, such remarks felt abrupt and evasive from such a distinguished political voice. Notwithstanding the failed Presidential campaign to which he repeatedly referred, Kasich has distinguished himself through decades of Congressional experience and a notably rational presence during the aforementioned Presidential election as a hallmark moderate Republican. Consequently, I had higher expectations for his ideas.
While I do not deny the importance of political engagement, the platitudes of the people’s power which Kasich presented evaded crucial issues and the governmental responsibility there in. I do not claim to have a better solution, nor do I fail to recognize the significant hindrances societal polarization places on the functionality of our nation’s governance. However, I do recognize the gaps in Kasich’s argument. His use of Greta Thunberg as an exemplar of activism ignores the lack of policy change following her demonstration. While she mobilized innumerable students to protest and has distinguished herself as a central figure in the climate change discussion, her actions have not affected United States policy. Instead of signing new policy after such large movements, the President merely expressed his discontent about Thunberg on Twitter. Barring discussions of his acrimony and her class, this reality demonstrates that a disconnect exists in Kasich’s model that suggests, if enough people gather or work, change will follow. The hours people put in on the streets have made a limited impact if those on Capitol Hill do not respond by enacting new policies.
Kasich’s model may have functioned very well once. However, the trend towards mass political demonstrations has drastically increased since the 2016 election. From the initial Women’s March following President Trump’s inauguration to the “March for Our Lives” and, of course, Thunberg’s movement, plenty of people have publicly gathered to express their views. Yet, still, no change on these issues occurs. Moreover, much of these protests started specifically in response to the 2016 election, an iconic episode highlighting the inordinate extent of United States polarization. The reality of our political landscape questions the future significance of all mass demonstrations due to the partisan divides that rule governmental action. Given the extent of the pressures to act in accordance with one’s party platform, politicians cannot listen to the national will of the people if it conflicts with their predetermined viewpoints. As such, the activism that Kasich proposes faces a limited potential for success. Although it sounds moving on stage, the applicability of Kasich’s theses outside the Duke Family performance hall remains in question.
If Kasich’s model perpetually held true in the past, the state of the world nonetheless implies that we do not know how change can happen now. However, we do know, as conveyed by this commentary, that his advice in his talk serves his own agenda for his lecture circuit more than it ever could inspire actual change.
Bryan Stevenson’s broad evaluation of the ways in which we live in a “post-genocide society” without proper acknowledgement quickly transitioned into a more focused evaluation of problems in our criminal justice system. Through positing that “slavery just evolved”, Stevenson effectively unpacked many examples of injustice within our society’s theoretical equality before the law. His argument, that, if equality cannot hold in a court on trial for some of the highest crimes, it must not exist at all, challenges us to confront deep biases. For many of us in the audience, so many of these cases remain so far removed from our daily lives, and this privilege has thus far enabled our inaction and passivity towards these big issues.
The individual examples that Stevenson uses to make broader generalizations appeal emotionally to his audience and establish credit necessary to make his point. The example with the failed attempt to rescue someone from death row and his final conversation with Stevenson before execution tugged at everyone’s heartstrings, balanced with the equally humorous ending to the defendant finally getting a chocolate milkshake. Beyond these anecdotes, almost everyone present would likely agree on the almost mesmerizing nature of Stevenson’s presentation, as he demonstrated his ability to perfectly capture the audience’s attention such that the rest of the world almost did not exist. However, he used his engaging demeanor and the credit that he established with it to ask tough questions. Knowing that this alone might not suffice, whenever he said something that could particularly upset the audience and its privilege. The little quips, such as “now I may get in trouble for this”, intentionally appeared as a playful transition from a gifted speaker. However, these phrases inherently suggest an alarming reality about this audience. Even if unfounded, the notion that he felt saying this necessary at all should become highly concerning to the students whom he addressed.
At Davidson College, we claim to prepare ourselves for lives of leadership and service. However, when a speaker comes to campus who has undoubtedly achieved this goal, this speaker feels the need to walk on eggshells whenever saying something potentially radical. This should be alarming. We, as Davidson students, need to welcome these tough statements and challenge ourselves to recognize the problems that still exist around our beautiful campus. Bryan Stevenson’s remarks, of course, do not render negligible the incredible work done by students thus far nor do can it be ignored that Stevenson addressed those other than Davidson students with these remarks. Nonetheless, his words are symptomatic of a larger truth: we must take everything that we learn and consider what it says about ourselves. As we digest new information and become exposed to new ways of thinking, we should simultaneously ponder how we fit into each system of seeing in the world and what assumptions we make with any manner through which we think. Stevenson pointed out our resistance to understanding our privilege through these short quips. However, he also called us to understanding ways in which we can look beyond this privilege and grow. The learning, thus, becomes our directive.