Section: Opinion

Want a political education? Listen.

By Abe Nelson

I got into a familiar argument again today. In a van in Puno, Peru, seated next to an Irish woman, I cringed as she said “I can’t wait to go to Cuba while it’s still unique.” Here goes.

I believe Cuba’s uniqueness is defined by rampant poverty and maintained by a vicious regime. That is why the Coast Guard pulls nearly 1,000 desperate Cubans on their way to Florida out of the Caribbean Sea each year. Thankfully, President Obama is modifying anachronistic policies so that, through trade and increased exposure, Cuba’s people will finally begin to receive more dignity. Usually after this point, the other individual (typically a European) admits misspeaking. It feels good, like Tyrion slapping Joffrey.

This time, I was talking to someone with 10 years of experience working in international development. “Cuba may become more outwardly open, but you assume that globalization is benign,” she said, “that it will improve the lot of the average Cuban, rather than just change dragons.”

Dammit. That is a good point. In my mind, there was a Sorkin-esque response. In reality, I was saved by the van arriving and by my muttering “safe travels.” then stumbling off. This is far from my first stumping, but it is the first one since graduation. I spent the rest of the night replaying the exchange.

There is a response, but the lesson is not about Cuba. It is about us. Arriving at Kenyon, our inexperience becomes clear in light of the experts around us. Obviously, these include professors and, perhaps even more, guest speakers. As a first year, it is hard to see what issues we will feel passionately about. Guest speakers have the benefit of sweeping in from outside our cozy community and jolting our preconceived beliefs. For me, it was events like the 2012 Center for the Study of American Democracy conference — titled “Should America Spread Democracy Abroad?” — that helped me form genuine ideas.

Since Kenyon, I have appreciated the benefit of staying up and scratching my head over something. Beliefs only fully form after our preconceived ideas are bombarded. In my year working and traveling in South America, seeing the human face of a half-century of missteps of U.S. policy and despicable regimes, my beliefs have been shelled constantly.

This sounds obvious. But I want to stress the importance of charting unfamiliar waters. Go on the RealClearPolitics site and click the Fox News or MSNBC links. Ask around if natural gas is a good step, or another environmental disaster. Consider whether religious exemption laws really are about religious tolerance, or whether they are a new mask for Jim Crow. Or is trying to find equivalency here an effect of moral relativism, and debating the two sides like comparing baseball bats and drywall screws?

Particularly, the importance of knowledgeable people bombarding our set beliefs cannot be overstated. That is why it breaks my heart that Rutgers disinvited Condoleezza Rice, and that Brown University students booed Ray Kelly, former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, off stage. I encourage Kenyon to keep inviting controversial speakers like Stephen Moore, Zalmay Khalilzad, Charles Murray and, most extreme, Steven Salaita, to campus. Listening to these people, rather than pretending you already know everything, is vital to understanding what you really believe. I hope Kenyon never avoids remarkable speakers like those it’s had in the past, some of whom I deeply disagree with because they have some questionable ideas. (It is worth noting that there is a strong case for blocking hate speech — a charge leveled against Salaita, and a good subject for another piece.)

In closing, be sure to follow up in office hours and with late-night discussions. Do not get stumped at 12,500 feet.

Abraham Nelson ’14 was a political science major from Concord, NH. Please direct any questions or comments for the author to the Collegian at collegian@kenyon.edu.

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