Young Americans for Liberty: Too inflammatory to be persuasive

| Staff Columnist

Young Americans for Liberty is a student group on campus that claims to work toward providing a venue where people who hold different beliefs and ideologies can come together, express their opinions and agree to disagree. In the group’s apparent acceptance of such a wide variety of political opinions, however, the organization seems to have no coherent, focused or palpable direction.

The most obvious example of the group’s lack of coherence was the gulag display it constructed before Thanksgiving break. The exhibition was frankly distasteful. It is understandable that Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) aimed to make its audience uncomfortable and thereby question the “socialism” and “communism” that it claims are invading this country, but the display went too far. While it’s great that the group wanted to educate the student body about the horrors of communism in the Soviet Union, the group’s main purpose seems to have been to bring attention to itself, which it effectively did. The fake blood oozing from students’ painted gashes as they stared zombie-like from inside the wired barricades was eye-catching because it was so inappropriate and bizarre, particularly when the conditions were supposed to parallel the state of this country under the current administration.

There is an important distinction that must be noted. All student groups are free to hold and express their own opinions, and YAL is certainly admirable for promoting dissent among its members, as it claims. The trouble, however, lies with the way in which members of YAL have gone about expressing their opinions. Rather than holding educated and well-researched events, YAL’s programming seems mostly inflammatory, aimed to provoke a heated response from the public. Dirk Doebler, the group’s president, states the organization’s main goal is “to win students over while also showing the student body the superiority of capitalism over socialism, liberty over government intervention [and] the importance of preserving our civil rights.” What YAL has most successfully accomplished, however, is a characterization of itself as a reactionary, disgruntled group that grossly skews and hyperbolizes reality.

Although the group claims to pride itself on accepting and even encouraging diverse and conflicting viewpoints, it is quick to criticize those who disagree with what the group does. The Web site for the Washington University chapter of the national organization devotes most of its content to applauding the great “success” of the group’s events and the rest of its space to not-so-subtly criticizing people who do not buy into YAL’s claims, such as members of Students for Fair Trade and the officials from Event Services who shut down the gulag display.

Furthermore, a group member is quoted on their Web site saying, “I guess the students at Washington University were in a gulag all along, and the administration proved it through their stifling of free speech.” This metaphor is absolutely ludicrous. Gulags were penal labor camps used by the Soviet Union where inhabitants were forced to perform harsh physical labor and live in inhumane conditions with minimal food, clothing, housing, health care and sanitation. Anyone who goes to this school should be ashamed to compare him or herself to a victim of such a labor camp: Not only does such a student show complete ingratitude for the blessings we have at such a well-off university, but more importantly, such a comparison belittles the extreme suffering faced by victims of gulags over the 40-year span during which these facilities were in operation.

YAL has a lot of bark, but little bite. The group has made a lot of noise this semester and has drawn a lot of attention to itself, but ultimately its events seem far more inflammatory than thought provoking. If the group truly seeks to “win students over,” it ought to reconsider its tactics.

Sneha is a freshman in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at sthakur@wustl.edu.

  • John Thielking

    I make no bones about the apparent fact that YAL is little more than children of the Tea Party. They are anti-government first (that is the first point in their platform) and seem to have no concept of the need for people currently in struggle to make sacrifices for the good of their society (Re: their claim that Fair Trade destroys jobs so we should support sweatshops) nor the role of govt in advancing freedom (such as specifically legalizing the right to organize unions in the US in the 1930’s or so). _— John Thielking

  • anonymous

    Frankly, the “gulag demonstration” disgusted me. I have grand parents that survived those conditions. Using such horror to make a stupid political point is a mockery. The author of this article is absolutely correct: YAL should be ashamed.

  • http://www.yaliberty.org John M

    “Regardless, John’s assumption that the literary success of 1984 somehow helps him make the case for inflammatory social activism is not the least bit convincing.”

    It’s not the least bit convincing on what grounds? That you could cite an author (Solzhenitsyn) who could probably fit a better analogy? You are only improving my point that it is not uncommon to utilize hyperboles for the purpose of raising public awareness to a current socio-political issue, and that authors and activists in both hemispheres who pursue this route are often celebrated, not chastised.

    “Moreover, his criticism ignores the primary question at play in this article. While certainly an attack on YAL, Thakur’s editorial is also questioning the role of inflammatory demonstrations (shock tactics) in social activism”

    Actually, my criticism includes a defense of the primary question at play, which you unsuccessfully attempted to debunk by citing a Soviet-era author who also fit the hyperbolic prescription, naturally unintentionally strengthening my case.

    “At no point does Thakur attempt to quiet YAL”

    No, she doesn’t. What she does do is criticize YAL for attempting to defend itself against those who DID quiet YAL. Maybe she should reconsider her tactics.

    “it is deeply aggravating to see John M. accuse Thakur of writing incoherently when he writes sentences like this: “The author makes several incoherent factual statements that reveal her inherent biased and distaste for YAL.” Are you claiming that her incoherent statements ARE indeed factual? Are you merely disgruntled by her style? What exactly is an “inherent biased?””

    1) It is that she makes incoherent statements which muddle (and sometimes completely ignore) the facts which reveals her bias.

    2) I’m not disgruntled in the slightest. She is the one accusing YAL of being disgruntled. Her style, however, is weak and unconvincing, employing a multitude of rhetorical flourishes with little regard for substantive argumentation. She tells the reader hyperbolic presentations are bad because she says so, without elaborating as to why she feels they are so inappropriate. FYI: Just saying “shock tactics” are wrong, doesn’t make it so.

    3) An “inherent bias” is a preconceived disposition towards a group regardless of their action. While it could be true that she is against hyperbole whether they are issued from the left or right of the political spectrum, it is clear from her word choice alone that she possess an unfavorable preconceived disposition or “inherent bias” towards YAL the organization, regardless of their tactics.

    4,5,6,7,8,) I used “meaning” in that context as a synonym of “purpose”. I thought it was pretty obvious.

    “You see, “last time I checked…””

    Last time I checked authors defend themselves from their own critics, but with the rare possibility that you aren’t a friend/associate of the author’s, I’d appreciate it if you read my work over more than once before you formulate your rebuttal, which in this case consisted of miscomprehending almost all of my points.

  • anonymous

    Nice job with the article! Sums up most rationale people’s opinions well!

  • Everett

    “Last time I checked…”

    So many great arguments open with that line. Oh wait…

    With all due respect to John M. and his attempt to engage this topic through literature, his commentary on hyperbole is no less dubious than that of Thakur.

    I, too, found myself thinking about dystopian fiction as I read this article, but I think we might be better served by looking at an author like Solzhenitsyn and A Day in the Life instead. This powerful novel, one with more explicit ties to questions of communism and gulags, was not prone to “Orwellian” hyperbole (although referring to 1984 as a “novel-sized hyperbole” demonstrates a rather superficial reading of the text) and arguably offers a much more compelling case against the loss of liberty than 1984. We should also make it clear that hyperbole is a form of overstatement rather than misstatement; not all distortions and fictions are hyperbolic. Some are frankly disturbing. I don’t see why we can’t have a conversation about that without being labeled censors. Regardless, John’s assumption that the literary success of 1984 somehow helps him make the case for inflammatory social activism is not the least bit convincing.

    Moreover, his criticism ignores the primary question at play in this article. While certainly an attack on YAL, Thakur’s editorial is also questioning the role of inflammatory demonstrations (shock tactics) in social activism. At no point does Thakur attempt to quiet YAL, but rather makes it clear in her final paragraph that she believes YAL should reconsider its tactics. For all its flaws, this is an article about the efficacy of the message more than anything else.

    Finally, it is deeply aggravating to see John M. accuse Thakur of writing incoherently when he writes sentences like this: “The author makes several incoherent factual statements that reveal her inherent biased and distaste for YAL.” Are you claiming that her incoherent statements ARE indeed factual? Are you merely disgruntled by her style? What exactly is an “inherent biased?” For that matter, what do you mean by accusing Thakur of not knowing the “true” meaning of hyperbole? Is there some primitive inherent meaning of the term? Does it not have roots in other terms and languages? Does its etymology not show various meanings and usages over time?

    You see, “last time I checked…”

  • Mike

    Yes, what YAL effectively wanted to do was to gain attention for their group. However, their political philosophy is the most sensible one there is – liberty, freedom, the Constitution. I think you can excuse their extreme activism for the great job they are doing in trying to spread their message.

  • Denis B.

    Really glad someone wrote this because I know a lot of people on campus agree with the author but think YAL is too out-there to even bother commenting on them. Most of the campus thought the gulag display was bizarre too, including one of my previous PoliSci professors I talked to. The argument’s sharp and gets to the point.

  • http://www.yaliberty.org John M

    Last time I checked hyperboles and metaphors were great tools to raise awareness for the declining state of affairs in socities. George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984, was a novel-sized hyperbole utilized effectively to warn his audience concerning the loss of freedoms and liberties they were experiencing in their day, and the inevitable result that would transpire if the course of events maintained its oppressive trajectory. For the author(Thakur) to acknowledge that the organizaition (YAL) was demonstrating a hyperbolic representation and then to make such obvious statements as, “this metaphor is absolutely ludicrous”. Either the author is unfamiliar of the true meaning of hyperbole, or she simply disagrees with the message and is content with the current dilapidated state of civil liberties in this country.

    The author makes several incoherent factual statements that reveal her inherent biased and distaste for YAL. One of which is as follows, “[YAL] is quick to criticize those who disagree with what the group does”. So, to defend oneself from criticism is to criticize those who disagree with what a group does? Apparently it is somehow unethical to defend your right to free expression… and the author thought the gulag hyperbole was excessive… Then there is this gem, “criticizing people who do not buy into YAL’s claims, such as members of Students for Fair Trade and the officials from Event Services who shut down the gulag display.” So criticizing those who coercively transgressed the rights of free expression is also unethical and hypocritical? I think the author makes it abundantly clear that she does not respect or value free expression when she strikes against an organization for simply_ attempting to verbally defend_ its right of free expression.

    For some reason I doubt the author truly believes her own words, that “all student groups are free to hold and express their own opinions.” YAL’s demonstration, a hyperbolic representation of the declining state of civil liberties in this country, was denied its freedom to hold and express its opinions. Not only does this seem to satsify the author, but this is not punishment enough for YAL’s hubris in believing they could get away with alarming the student body into awakening to what they believe could be an impending fritghtful reality. The author must make sure through her inflammatory remarks that they are too disgraced to attempt to express themselves via Orwellian hyperboles ever again.

    But in the end I guess I’m just another student showing, “complete ingratitude for the blessings we have at such a well-off university.” Or maybe, just maybe, the entire point of the demonstration was to express their belief that they do not respect the “blessings” and that they feel they deserve better. But no, that couldn’t be the message. That sounds too obvious and rational. YAL is clearly an irrational, “reactionary, disgruntled group. ” They couldn’t possibly have a logical motive for their presentation, after all, they are reactionary! Disgruntled reactionaries never have sound motivations, right? One must be liberal/progressive to have legitimate claims. Perhaps next time YAL displays a mock gulag they will say it is a warning for if society doesn’t do anythng about climate change or all of those in the US without health insurance, then perhaps the author will be more sympathetic to hyperbolic presentations.

    Finally, while I do not agree with what the author has to say, I will fight to the death for her right to say it…and prop up a few mock gulags too if that’s what it takes to keep her freedom to write safe and secure into posterity.

  • Greg

    There are people protesting the rampant abuse of the state. Let’s attack them. Don’t let them advocate for liberty!

    Don’t like the wars overseas? Just be quiet. Don’t like that the State locks up non-violent drug users? Be quiet. Eminent domain abuse? Over-taxation and draconian regulation? Be quiet.

    Trying to demonstrate Friedman’s theory that there is no liberty without economic liberty, as has been demonstrated many times over history? Just sit down. Be quiet. Don’t rock the boat.

    Just sit down and take it.

  • http://www.washuyal.org Dirk Doebler

    The author neglects to mention the Free Trade vs. Fair Trade Coffee Taste Test and Constitution Day event held by Wash U YAL. Also, YAL is bringing in a former citizen of the Soviet Union to speak on the realities of life under socialism. The event will discuss as to why YAL opposes socialism in all its forms.