Turn out for what?
The limits and ideological passivity of the “BS” gun rally and Princeton Advocates for Justice| Mar 13, 2018
Many of you, judging from reports and Facebook, will turn out for the Princeton Advocates for Justice “We Call BS” gun control rally today — I personally cannot, since a 12 p.m. rally neatly conflicts with my entire midterm schedule. I’m going to make the assumption that this rally is essentially PAJ’s event. Now, I am aware that other organizations — for example, Students for Prison Education and Reform, College Democrats, Woodrow Wilson Action Committee, and Alumni of Color — have co-sponsored this rally, but I am not discussing these other organizations because I have nothing but respect for them; moreover, PAJ is generally a coordinating entity between various groups, so it makes sense to place them as heading this. In contrast to other groups, PAJ and its methods deserve serious scrutiny. I once asked PAJ’s leader, Nicholas Wu ’18, what exactly PAJ does. “Advocates,” he told me. But for what do they advocate, and using what methods?
Wu is a head opinion editor emeritus for The Daily Princetonian.
PAJ’s website declares that it is “an intersectional student coalition advocating for the protection and advancement of basic human rights.” PAJ has been most visible on campus during large-scale events and rallies, especially last year’s “Day of Action,” last fall’s advocacy for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and now the “We Call BS” gun control rally. PAJ’s program, insofar as I can tell, is split between these events and encouraging Princetonians to call — or otherwise contact — their congressional representatives.
According to an email I have received from a few different listservs, the purpose of the “BS” rally is to join with Parkland students, activists of color, and gun control advocates for “common sense” gun reform, which is defined by PAJ as “universal background checks, banning assault rifles, and keeping guns out of the hands of people with a history of violence.” The email also encourages students to receive scripts from the PAJ’s table in Frist Campus Center in order to contact congressional representatives.
At first blush, given that you agree with the basic scope of PAJ’s platform, you probably don’t see what criticisms I could provide. I felt the same way initially. But on reflection, I hope I will show you that PAJ — and by extension, its leadership — suffers from a practical limit of effectiveness, an affliction of aimlessness, and a passivity of purpose.
To begin, PAJ’s first flaw is an inability to reach the right people and so have the maximum possible effect. Set aside the fact that Princeton’s student body is already fairly liberal — a point to address later. Consider rather the collective lack of political clout of the undergraduate body as a whole. What do I mean by this? Say all 5,232 University undergraduates call their respective congresspeople. Certainly this will have an impact, right? But, of course, that’s not how congressional representation works: 5,232 student activists will be divided among 50 states and who knows how many congressional House districts. The total impact is diffuse instead of being concentrated, the exact opposite of an effective advocacy program.
Even that is a best-case scenario that imagines an even distribution. The reality is much worse. Consider the large number of Princetonians who are not U.S citizens or who come from already liberal blue states. In contrast, there are relatively few Princetonians who live in important purple or red states. Let’s take the Class of 2021’s statistics as representative, and focus on a few key purple states. Compare the 15 students who come from my home state, Michigan, or the 25 from Ohio, or the 57 from Pennsylvania to the 205 that come from blue New Jersey, the 137 from New York, and the 133 from California. Such a comparison demonstrates how many Princetonians are not from politically important areas. Here, state schools have a huge advantage over us, because a large state school like Rutgers, with a significant portion of in-state students — 83% of the class of 2021 — can make a huge difference both in absolute numbers (approximately 50,000 undergraduates) and in geographic concentration (New Jersey).
What is more, PAJ suffers from a “big tent” program. In attempting to address many liberal concerns as they arise, PAJ lacks staying power on any one issue in a constant race to keep up with the big issue of the moment. As Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic notes in a recent article on gun control advocacy, progressives face a consistent problem that “just one thing can trend at once.” PAJ seems to have this problem in spades: Instead of consistent emphasis on an issue until it has been won, PAJ does little more than raise awareness once the news cycle has caught wind of a new development.
In other words, PAJ does little more than react. Consider the “Day of Action” last year in response to Trump’s presidency. Or consider the DACA events earlier this year. Or consider gun control now. The rotating carousel of political hot topics may come when people are expecting them, but that’s part of the problem: How many politically conscious Princetonians are totally unaware of Parkland? Probably close to zero. What is the point, then, of raising awareness about an issue that people are already aware of? Furthermore, in constantly changing focus, PAJ has an aimlessness of program that is not faced by more consistent and specialized advocacy groups, such as Princeton Students for Reproductive Justice, SPEAR, or SpeakOut, to name a few. Moreover, such bombastic stunting as rallies or photo campaigns seems more in line with people aiming to advance their credentials as opposed to real justice.
This speaks to PAJ’s third major problem: PAJ advocates for unambitious, ideologically safe gun control reforms. More important than ideological purity is the simple fact that PAJ’s goals are so moderate that I genuinely struggle to see the impact they could have at Princeton or abroad. Princetonians are, generally speaking, moderately liberal to very liberal. The conservatives we do have are generally center-right. So, why advocate moderate positions to a student body that, more or less, already subscribes to such positions? There is nothing courageous or especially inspiring about preaching to the choir.
But perhaps even worse, PAJ’s moderate platform is simply ineffective. As I argued on Sunday, “common sense” gun reform is insufficient in addressing the problem of gun violence by any reasonable metric, and as I will argue after spring break, DACA, another policy promoted by PAJ, by itself ignores important issues of justice for other non-DACA-affected migrants. By having such moderate local aims — to “restrict assault rifles” — but ambitious global goals — to “advocate for justice” — PAJ puts too much on the table to effectively achieve just outcomes.
By all means, PAJ serves a useful function in pumping up a crowd and giving moderate liberal and progressive goals an outlet on campus, something the University otherwise lacks. I believe there is significant utility in simply having people attend an event and forming a general group consciousness around political issues. There’s also something to be said for having a coordinating organization like PAJ to serve and culminate the interests of the various other justice and advocacy groups on campus. It’s certainly better than nothing. But enthusiasm and ideological unity on center-left issues only go so far in achieving justice. Justice demands more. In my first article for the ‘Prince,’ I wrote that we are the ones who must make the long arc of history bend towards justice. PAJ merely stands where the curve is already bent.
Ryan Born is a philosophy concentrator from Washington Township, Mich. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This is part of a recurring weekly column on politics and pedagogy at Princeton and abroad.