By Perlita R. Dicochea
Under the theme “Freedom in America? War, Peace, and Justice,” the University of San Diego’s Social Issues Committee (SIC) organized the 15th annual Social Issues Conference that included a series of workshops and keynote lectures. Several hundred students, faculty and staff, and local community members were in attendance for what SIC co-chair Kyla Lackie, a junior sociology major, considered the 20-year-old organization’s “biggest ever conference.”
While the conference theme was inspired by 9/11, lectures and workshops addressed a trajectory of social issues including the struggle for a living wage, the challenges faced by American Indian studies, war and disarmament, and the quality of life on the U.S.-Mexican Border.
Organized primarily by undergraduates with supporting faculty and staff, the workshops offered inspiration for USD students’ personal, academic and career goals. “I was inspired by the Take Action workshop,” said Le. “It was great to see a USD graduate seven months after graduation with an impacting career in a Catholic-based political action organization.” Le was referring to the presentation by Aisha Taylor, USD Class of ’03, who lobbies and networks for the National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.
Nicole Calantas, a first-year biology major, was moved by visiting scholar Dr. David Abalos of Seton Hall University. “College is supposed to be a time of questioning and (Abalos) made both questioning and change seem like realistic goals,” Calantas said.
Abalos likens each individual’s life journey to a series of acts and scenes. He explained that the keys to transformation are consciousness, which one may begin at any point in one’s life, and a place for individuals to tell their stories. “If you do not tell your story, you will be destroyed,” Abalos stated. According to Abalos, telling your story means facing one’s self as well as being true to others. He added, “The greatest immorality is for you to lose yourself or for one to allow other people lose themselves” particularly in romantic relationships.
USD students also participated as presenters of the workshops. Three USD undergraduates, Erica Lovano, Angelica Castillo, and Roseann Valenzuela, presented on the panel titled “War and Disarmament: And Ethical Discussion,” guided by USD Professor Maria Pilar Aquino. The presenters discussed the ethics of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and land mines.
At one point the room was evenly divided between those who support and those who oppose disarmament. At the heart of the debate for many of those present regarded idealistic versus realistic politics.
Aquino encouraged the audience of 30 to “dream of a different world…No matter what the source of inspiration, we can all contribute to develop theories and strategies aimed at conflict resolution.”
The balance between philosophical idealism and pragmatic politics reappeared as central topics by guest lecturers Nadine Strossen and Sherman Alexie. The lectures by Strossen, law professor and the first woman and youngest person to lead the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Alexie, poet, novelist, screenwriter, and world-renowned Native American scholar, were highlights of the week of events on the USD campus.
Alexie’s evening lecture critiqued the fundamentalism and hypocrisy to which he observes some liberal groups have succumbed while Strossen’s lunch-hour address focused on the misguided spirit of the Patriot Act.
Nadine Strossen and Sherman Alexie on the politics of civil liberties
As the Dr. Judy Rauner Lecturer, who is admired as a visionary on the USD campus and passionate leader in the development of the SIC, Alexie professed with his classic poignant humor, “I’m an agnostic Catholic. I believe in God until I really start thinking about it” and declared, “I’m a liberal because I love it here (in the U.S.) and I want it to keep getting better.” Afterall, he later added, “We live in a superior country. We get to say anything we want!”
Democracy also means the right to publicly announce opposition to liberal politics. As a case in point, Strossen recalled her experience twenty years ago when USD students held signs in her path reading “How dare bring ACLU to a Catholic campus!” Strossen approached the protesting students to find out they were against the ACLU’s support of gay marriage to which Strossen responded, “Would you rather have them live in sin?”
While no such protestors appeared at this year’s conference, for Alexie, gay marriage is the issue in which “all of our hypocrisies can be summed up.” “Homophobia is acceptable,” Alexie furthered, “especially in the brown communities. Gay brown people go to live with the white people!”
For the ACLU, the Patriot Act represents the U.S.’s greatest hypocrisy. Strossen contended that the Patriot Act “demonstrably makes us all less free, not more safe. In fact, (the Patriot Act) undermines our safety.” Strossen furthered that a weakness in analysis of data was the problem in the failure of U.S. intelligence to prevent the horror of 9/11, not an alleged inability to gather critical information.
Strossen stressed to an audience of 200 that the Patriot Act is in effect a tool for the U.S. government to employ “sweeping new surveillance powers.” Such powers are being challenged and in some cases reversed by concerned citizens on both ends of the political spectrum whom represent a diverse segment of American civil society. Librarians in particular adamantly oppose legislation that would violate basic privacy and free speech clauses.
In response to the proposed legislation, Strossen advised, “You have the patriotic duty not to remain silent.” An active public, Strossen concluded, is the key to defeating the Patriot Act.
In scholarly comedic, stand-up style, Alexie, who received a standing ovation, had an audience of 300 singing the Star Spangled Banner and proclaiming “We live in a superior country” among a list of “exercises” for liberals. The message was for liberals to realize that “(liberals) are just as fundamentally righteous” as those they often critique, namely right-wingers. Exercise number 3: protest for an issue other than your own for one solid year.
Regarding protestation of war and the politics of racial profiling after 9/11, “Philosophically, (liberal pacifists) are right. But in reality, the ideas of peace, war, and justice are gray.” He explained that these ideas are gray because we live in a world where democracy is hard to come by and there are real needs for security and punishment.
Moreover, the work of any self-labeled liberal must begin with his/her own self, family and community. “I’m more scared of Indians than white people,” Alexie asserted, “White people won’t hit me. Who has hit you? Who has hurt you? Someone who looks like you, someone who fed you.”
In a similar vein, Alexie explained that liberal groups narrowly focus on defining their oppression while disregarding the privileges enjoyed by those living in the U.S. Alexie drove his point home using himself, a Spokane Native American born and raised on a reservation, as an example of the opportunities many of us would never have in other political regimes. “In the middle east, I would be someone’s footstool,” Alexie admitted, while in the U.S. his success has been founded on his imagination.
The Social Issues Committee was formed in 1984 on the USD campus and sponsors public forums, speakers, theme courses and conferences, and other special events throughout the academic year. For more information visit http://www.sandiego.edu/csl/sic/sic.shtml.