The Value of Bringing Speakers to Campus

By Yazan Hanouneh, AU SPA ’20

Something unique to our education at American University is the idea of being academically engaged at all times. When students step out of their classrooms, they know that there are endless educational opportunities at AU and across D.C. There is no end to the knowledge we as AU students can seek, from on- and off-campus events to downtown internships.

What’s even more unique to AU is what our students congregate around and get excited about. The Super Bowl? Just another Sunday. But election night? Students can either attend one of a seemingly infinite number of watch parties on campus or join their entire residence hall floor with their eyes glued to the TV. This trait comes from an inherent desire within AU students to contribute to the world around them, affirming a commitment to public service that has defined American University for over 125 years.

These unique characteristics of AU yield two interesting questions:

  • How can we bring these aspects together to provide students with an educational opportunity that will inspire them to amplify their commitment to public service?
  • How do we have civil and educational conversations on the ideals of this commitment to public service?

One of the most powerful solutions to these questions are speaker engagement events, which provide students with access to some of the most powerful changemakers from across the globe. These events allow students to engage with leaders and ideas they either celebrate or disagree with.

At AU, the majority of these major speaking events are hosted by the Kennedy Political Union (KPU) within the AU Student Government. For 50 years, KPU has served as the student-run, student-funded, and nonpartisan lecture group on AU’s campus, helping to inspire students and initiate difficult conversations by inviting global and local leaders with various political ideologies to speak at AU. You may have attended some of our most recent events with the Parkland Students, Loretta Lynch, Elizabeth Warren, Carly Fiorina, and Malala Yousafzai.

Student takes a selfie with Senator Elizabeth Warren
An excited student takes a photo with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In KPU, we play an important role in promoting civil discourse and discussion on AU’s campus by giving students the opportunity to explore topics further and get excited about inspiring leaders. When Malala Yousafzai came, students waited in line for hours just for a chance to hear her speak on girls’ education. And when the Parkland Students came, we filled up Bender Arena and brought the national discussion on gun control and civic engagement down to AU’s campus.

But beyond the excitement that speakers generate, there is real benefit to bringing them to campus, even the controversial ones. These speakers provide valuable insight and inspiration for students seeking careers in service, even if students have different perspectives about our events. One student may leave saying “I am so inspired by this speaker and I want to be just like them one day,” while another may say “I strongly disagree with what they said and I’m going to commit myself to pursuing the opposite policies that I believe in.”

This is the value in bringing speakers to campus and how KPU answers the questions posed above about our commitment to public service. Students constantly get excited about the events KPU hosts and use them as a means for civil conversation. The power of KPU events is not just what students experience at the lecture, but rather the conversations an event will ignite elsewhere on campus.

Student in audience asks a question to the Parkland students
A student in the audience asks a question to the Parkland students.

One prime example of this was when we hosted the Parkland students on campus. Prior to the event, one student had written an article highlighting why they didn’t think KPU should bring David Hogg to campus. After they posted the article on Facebook, multiple students proceeded to comment on their post respectfully disagreeing. These individuals then continued to engage in respectful debate over this issue and even after the event these conversations continued elsewhere on campus, such as in the lounges of the first-year residence halls.

Since KPU does not take a stance on any of the speakers we bring, this conversation is one of the greatest indicators of a successful event, as it has achieved its purpose of stimulating dialogue on campus.

As the Director of KPU, I work with 19 other passionate students on our team to decide which speakers we invite to our campus. We work our hardest to ensure that students have the opportunity to hear from leaders from a variety of ideological backgrounds and that we use our resources to amplify the voices of marginalized and underrepresented communities. It’s not only a key mission of our work, but a responsibility.

This responsibility to provide a forum for students to engage in civil discourse is especially relevant in our current political climate, where it is often easy to disregard other opinions as invalid. Guest speakers help break down that barrier by establishing a sense of credibility in what is brought to the conversation, even the controversial ones. More importantly, civil conversation is what helps unite us, and it’s important that we continue to take advantage of it during our time at American University.

Yazan Hanouneh is a Junior at American University studying Political Science. He currently serves as the Director of the Kennedy Political Union and as an AUx1 Peer Facilitator. Previously, he served as the President of the AU College Democrats.

A Lot of Things Don’t Translate Well. Civility Does.

Solomon Self headshot
By Solomon Self, AU SIS ’19

I’ve been studying abroad in Thessaloniki, Greece at the American College of Thessaloniki for the past two months. Thessaloniki is situated on the northern coast of the country, and is close to the borders with Turkey, (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania. Over the city’s more than two-thousand-year history, it has been Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and finally modern Greek. Thus, it quite diverse and attracts people from across the rest of Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Eastern Europe. In my classes, it is not uncommon to have people from a variety of backgrounds who speak a variety of languages. With that comes a variety of opinions.

Looking back at my Cross-Cultural Communications class at American, I remember how it seemed like the NatSec boy from the Midwest or the socialist girl from New England were speaking a totally different language when they raised their hand to comment during the discussion. That actually happens here. From inside jokes about some historical figure from their home country to casual asides made in their first language, communication can already be challenging – and we haven’t even gotten to their opinions yet. I knew going abroad to study – especially in a region with no shortage of problems – would require open ears and an open mind, but I didn’t expect it to be put to the test so soon and so constantly.

As an American abroad in classes that deal with politics, there is no avoiding the Trump Question. Aside from asking if I voted for him – for the record, I did not – it became my duty to enlighten the class on his policies and his allure, things I am not necessarily an expert on. It gets even more complicated when non-American students express their support for him. Initially, my gut reaction was to furiously debate them and tell them all the reasons he was the worst thing to happen to American democracy in years. However, I began to realize that for them, maybe he wasn’t. If you’re from a country that fears its much larger and more powerful neighbor, perhaps a more militarized America isn’t a bad thing. If you feel your country is being taken advantage of by Chinese trade, maybe Trump “standing up” to them is admirable. If you’re from a country that has benefitted from both Democrat and Republican administrations, perhaps it doesn’t truly matter who’s calling the shots – liking the US president is simply a given.

The perspectives of my classmates, while sometimes very different than my own, are products of our experiences and upbringings. I, an African-American man from California, will have very different interpretations of things than a woman from the former Soviet Union or a man from Serbia. Though I may passionately disagree with those opinions, fighting them or shouting them down won’t help anything. We can speak different languages, have different customs, and hold different beliefs, but regardless of where we come from, we respect each other and are willing to learn from one another. I have educated some classmates on how Trump has attacked and hurt people in America – particularly communities of color and the LGBT community. I have learned from my classmates that even in domestic policy, America’s actions are not contained to America and that the ripples of what we do are felt across the world, for better or for worse.

Of course, none of these conversations and educational moments would have been possible if we had simply written each other off based on initial impressions, reacted angrily to hearing opinions counter to our own, or felt indignant about comments made from ignorance and a lack of understanding of each other’s home countries. I came abroad to learn about other cultures and see a different part of the world. I’ve done that, and in the process I’ve also learned a bit about myself. I’m no less committed to my political positions and moral values, but I am more willing to debate, discuss, and hopefully educate people on those positions.

The concept of civility, though it takes different forms, is universal. Everyone, regardless of their national origin or political leanings, wants to be respected and wants to have their voice heard. No place is more important than a university like ACT. People come from across the country, the continent, and the globe to learn, grow, and work together, and although there is much that sets us apart, those ideals bind us together.

Solomon Self is a senior majoring in International Studies at American University and is currently studying abroad in Greece. He is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Fraternity and formerly served as Student Government Vice President and an AUx2 Peer Leader. 

AU YAF Response to Tom Lebert’s Post about Dinesh D’Souza Event

AU YAF Facebook profile photo
By Kate Minium, AU SPA ’20
Editor’s Note: Kate Minium represents the American University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and is writing in response to Tom Lebert’s post about YAF’s event with Dinesh D’Souza.

I will begin by addressing Tom Lebert’s accusation that a member of our board used expletives and names and demanded that Lebert leave the event. What Lebert failed to mention was that he accused the individual of being homophobic, to which the individual responded by saying that he “was raised by two gay dads” and asking Lebert to leave. These accusations become a he-said/she-said scenario which we addressed and labelled as largely untrue in our statement released last week. I am confident in saying that our board member is only being put under such scrutiny because he was involved in hosting the Dinesh D’Souza lecture. If anything unjust had occurred, I would not stand for it. However, I have no reason to believe that is the case. Lebert’s credibility in criticizing the event was tarnished when he made his criticisms personal, such as when he claimed that hosting D’Souza was “an insult to [my] intelligence” in a Facebook post the morning it was announced. There is no gain in giving this further attention, as this is not what the lecture was about.

I agree with Lebert that American society does place debate on a high pedestal, claiming that a marketplace of ideas will allow the best ideas to succeed. As conservatives, we love our free markets and debate is no exception. A problem arises when what are considered to be the “best” ideas are, in fact, not ideas based on truth.

While D’Souza is being put under the utmost scrutiny (which I take no issue with), I would argue that rather than D’Souza going out of his way to avoid the use of verifiable facts, the opposition is going out of their way to find faults in his arguments. Again, I take no issue with the latter– it is even encouraged. I am simply arguing that D’Souza did not go out of his way to avoid using evidentiary support.

This event was also not advertised as a debate, but as a lecture with a Q&A session. The event hosted the following night, which no one from the opposition attended, was intended to deepen the discussion. D’Souza has no lack of credibility and his speech was not of malicious intent. His perceived inflammation would not be enough to justify us rescinding our invitation for him to speak without sacrificing our principles.

I am not going to defend D’Souza’s Twitter feed or Dinesh D’Souza himself, as we are not a “Dinesh D’Souza” club. I am going to defend conservatism, because we are a conservative club and D’Souza is a conservative. Based on the content of Lebert’s article and the criticism vocalized at the event, I feel comfortable assuming that the disagreement here is on truth. Is what D’Souza said true? The answer is yes.

To support this, I’ll address one of D’Souza’s primary claims during his speech which seemed to receive the most criticism. D’Souza claimed that fascism is predominantly found on the left. This is not a game of “who is more fascist,” but a response to conservatives being called fascists on a regular basis (a popular one that we get is “Young Americans for Fascism”). D’Souza was saying that if one side of the political spectrum is going to be fascist, it is certainly not going to be the right. The claims of conservatives being fascists are painfully ironic, and I will explain why.

Merriam-Webster defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

Most importantly, the implementation of any of the ideas in that definition requires big government.

The essence of conservatism is it’s focus on the individual, with a very slight, but necessary, attention to their role in society. The individual is what matters. That is in direct contradiction to the definition of fascism. Being a conservative means believing in natural rights. If you ask a conservative where their rights come from, you will get a response along the lines of “a higher power” or “they are ever-existing.” YAF is not a religious organization, but for argument’s sake, government is not God and it doesn’t get to pretend to be. Government should be as small as is possible, safe, and feasible while still fulfilling its duty of protecting its citizens and ensuring their rights can be exercised freely.

In contrast, many individuals do not believe in natural rights. If questioned where their rights come from, they will likely respond along the lines of “they come from the state” or “they are given by the government.” These individuals would fall on the left side of the political spectrum. This is where one of the lines between right and left is actually drawn. If the state is believed to be the endower of rights, this gives them the authority to grant and take away rights as they please. This opens the door to big government.

These are two very different ideas: the state as the ensurer of rights versus the state as the endowed of rights. The concept of big government can only exist when the state has dominion over what is considered to be a right. As conservatives, not only do we believe it to simply be untrue, but we see a huge danger in that. D’Souza was correct when he said that if fascism is going to exist today then it would have to be on the left, as right-of-center ideologies are, by definition, mutually exclusive with the essence of fascism.

It’s time to consider that some mainstream ideas might be illogical, not the ‘best,’ or not based on truth. I used to be on the left and I got to where I am today through questioning myself. On the bright side, it seems evident today that fascism is a movement that nobody at American University wants to be a part of and I think we are all on the right page there.

There are many events on campus that right-of-center students don’t believe promote good conversation or discourse. The D’Souza event is being treated differently purely due to its political alignment. The bottom line is that first and foremost, we are a conservative organization whose primary purpose is to empower and encourage fellow conservatives. Any debate or discussion that arises out of that is a wonderful thing. However, our primary interests do not lie in appeasing or even appealing to the other side.

Kate Minium is a Justice and Law: Counterterrorism and Home major and Computer Science minor at American University. Kate is chair of the American University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.

Debate is Fragile. Dinesh D’Souza Took Advantage of It.

Tom Lebert headshot
By Tom Lebert, AU SPA ’20

American society places debate on a high pedestal, claiming that a marketplace of ideas will allow the best ideas based in truth to succeed. Dinesh D’Souza’s event on American University’s campus proved that debate and discussion are imperfect platforms and can easily be manipulated to serve one side’s ideas over another.

When the conservative commentator and filmmaker spoke this past Wednesday about what he called “fake history,” he challenged students who disagreed with his statements to discuss with him in the Q&A section rather than protesting and disrupting the event.

I attended Wednesday night’s event and considered protesting to oppose D’Souza’s invitation to campus by the student group Young Americans for Freedom and the ideas he spreads. I decided not to protest during the event as others did, but instead planned to ask a question during the Q&A section. The event ended before me and many other students in line could ask questions.

Following the event, I asked an executive board member from Young Americans for Freedom about his denial of members of the LGBTQ+ community being targeted by Nazis during the Holocaust. Another executive board member approached me in an intimidating manner and demanded I leave the event, using expletives and names to make his point clear. I posed my question to him, which he dodged before telling me to ask him if he cared. I asked, and he responded “no” before turning around and walking away.

At an event where the featured speaker calls for attendees to debate him and the group who invited him claims to promote free speech, it is extremely hypocritical for an executive board member to run away from the questioning that they asked for.

D’Souza claimed that the students who protested and disrupted Wednesday’s event were too afraid to debate him and others with his views. After attempting to do so, I would argue that those who protested knew that D’Souza’s lack of credibility and unwillingness to offer an even field for discussion meant that debate would be worthless and ineffective.

D’Souza wasn’t looking to present his view alongside verifiable facts and have a discussion as he claimed at the event. He was looking to turn it into a podium to push falsehoods and ideas not based in reality knowing that he controlled the conversation through the structure of the event.

It’s important to understand that some speech has value and other speech is worthless. Students are often taught early in life that credibility is important when making an argument, whether it be in speech or in writing. Facts that can be verified must be presented to build credibility. D’Souza has presented the opposite, both in the past and in his speech on Wednesday.

From what is essentially partial Holocaust denial to a repeatedly-disproven description of the evolution of political parties in the United States, D’Souza has torn down his own credibility. He has no background in history, and his writings have been panned by numerous historians.

A man who has repeatedly presented falsehoods as fact has no business speaking to a group of students about what is and is not historical fact. Furthermore, D’Souza’s speech was focused on using his version of history to build a political argument. It’s clear that D’Souza took advantage of his ability to receive a platform he called a discussion to twist and even blatantly misrepresent facts to make an argument in bad faith.

This is the problem with the glorification of debate and discussion—such platforms are imperfect and can often be taken advantage of. Discussion and debate can quickly turn into a one-sided advertisement for one side’s view while another side is criticized for not engaging in this uneven playing field. This exact sequence of events unfolded at the D’Souza event.

It is critical to understand the limitations of debate and discussion in order to advocate for it. Heavily regulated debate—including equal speaking time for all parties and fact-checking by neutral arbiters, among numerous other checks—can be beneficial for sharing ideas and understanding another side’s views, but rarely plays out in the real world. D’Souza asked for a discussion, but even in the Q&A section of the event, follow-up questions were left to his discretion, D’Souza spoke for long periods of time with no ability to check his claims, and as a result, discussion was utterly neutered. No value could be derived from such an uneven and unequal exchange.

The Young Americans for Freedom event on Wednesday included no even-sided debate or discussion. Supporting debate and discussion should mean supporting even debate and discussion that requires participants to present actual truth and make reasoned arguments. Young Americans for Freedom, Dinesh D’Souza, and others cannot claim to support these platforms when they take advantage of them to push ideas that cannot be defended when they’re able to be checked.

Tom Lebert is a sophomore at American University majoring in CLEG and minoring in Economics. He currently serves as Chief of Staff of the Residence Hall Association and is the former Treasurer of the AU College Democrats. He also started his high school debate team and served as Vice Chairman of the club for over a year.

A Reflection on “Activism, Discourse, and [Secret] Identity with Amanda Werner”

Amanda Werner dressed as the Monopoly Man at Senate hearing
By Jason Steuerwald, AU SPA
Editor’s Note: Amanda Werner changed their name to Ian Madrigal on November 5th.

You may not recognize them on the street, but if you keep up with the news you are likely familiar with the work of Amanda Werner, also known as the Monopoly Man. Though protesting at hearings for Wells Fargo and Equifax by acting as the Monopoly Man may be their most notable work, Werner has been the architect of a number of innovative and, as they put it, “theatrical,” activist efforts in recent years. On Thursday, November 1st, American University students had a chance to talk to them about the how’s and why’s of creative advocacy.

***

Werner began by explaining their background as a self-described troublemaker, organizing their first protest at the age of 14. While their passion for protest continued to develop, they realized that to create effective change they needed to have tools on the inside of system as well, leading them to earn their JD from UCLA. Though they intended to focus on consumer law, they soon realized that their goals were more suited for the world of policy advocacy.

Werner believes creative activism is “particularly effective in this cultural moment” due to today’s focus on distraction and entertainment. To be effective, activism must mirror the current culture, which means that you must be able to pull attention to yourself and your cause and “force the reporters to cover you.”

Amanda Werner speaking to students
Credit: Alexandra Long

But once you have this attention, what’s the next step? Werner asserts that the key to creative advocacy is combining activism and theatrics in order to inspire hope and make change. The current presidential administration, they claimed, is quite good at the attention part of the process. President Trump is perhaps the most attention-grabbing politician in the recent history; however, there is no clear message in the actions. They compared it to watching a car crash: you can’t turn away, but there’s really no good reason to watch.

They also talked about the need to keep lightness and laughter in activism. Many movements tend to be very focused on anger and sadness, and sometimes that is completely warranted, but we should also use happiness and humor. Without this, they ask, how are we to maintain our humanity? But not all creativity has to look alike. Sometimes humor is the most practical, especially in our current political climate. But other times anger and sadness are more effective. “Disgust can be a compelling emotion,” they explained, and this sentiment is evident in the variety of protests they have organized.

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Of course, Werner discussed their biggest claim to fame, where they protested at the hearings of Wells Fargo and Equifax as the Monopoly Man. In particular, Werner was protesting the practice of “forced arbitration,” which is a contractual clause that essentially has people waive their right to sue, appeal, or participate in a class action suit and instead go to arbiters who tend to favor the companies. Though it’s a pretty technical term, Werner and their colleagues worked to make it more understandable by comparing it to Monopoly’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card and handing out materials on the Hill of the same theme. Werner was then able to enter the hearing and sit in a place where cameras could capture their comical expressions – the twisting of their mustache and the wiping of their sweat with a hundred dollar bill – during the actual hearings.

By “cause-playing” and becoming a real-life meme, they were able to garner significant media attention and use this newfound spotlight to explain in comprehensible terms what forced arbitration was and why it was so important to end it. Because they were prepared and stuck to their points, they were able to effectively bring their message to a much wider audience. I found it particularly interesting that Amanda noted that even though they were in costume, they were actually afforded more privilege because the Monopoly Man is a rich white man and they looked “respectiable” in a twisted way.

Since the Monopoly Man, they noted that it has been hard to replicate the same hype but they have continued their work as a creative advocate. They engaged again in “cause-play” by dressing up as a Russian troll doll at the Mark Zuckerberg testimonies. Due to staging, the absurdity of the event itself (with Senators basically asking how the internet functions), and a more complex costume idea (a troll doll with Russian elements, which was less instantly recognizable than the Monopoly Man), it was more difficult for them to grab the same attention. Because they weren’t able to get into the spotlight at all, they were not able to use the same surprise factor that made the Monopoly Man so effective: being dressed up as an absurd character, but also being able to coherently explain their position.

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Moving on to a different approach, they talked about when they organized a protest of Kirstjen Nielsen eating at a Mexican restaurant in the midst of the family separations at the border. This time the theatrics were quite diferent, as they were fueled more by disgust and anger than humor. And even though this was an incredibly last-minute event, they were able to maintain a clear message and be effective in their efforts because the people involved were members of a Democratic Socialists group and well-versed in the art of protest. Werner discussed that there was a lot that could have gone wrong in this situation. Had one member of the group done something violent or said something in poor taste, the whole protest would have become responsible and the intended message diluted. But the group’s unity allowed them to avoid this, though they did unintentionally spark a larger conversation on what civility is in the political sphere.

The final experience they shared with us was another more serious example of creative activism. At the confirmation hearing for Kathy Kraninger as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Werner revived the Monopoly Man character. After the first half of the hearing, however, they thought the situation warranted a more serious, drastic approach. When the hearing resumed, they played the recently-released audio of children crying in a detention facility.

One of the cardinal rules of protesting in a hearing is that you cannot make noise. As such, Werner was prepared to be removed and even arrested for the cause because, as they explained, this was a situation where it made sense. Perhaps the absurdity of the Monopoly Man getting dragged out of a hearing would be even more effective in getting attention. But there were a number of things that went wrong; Werner discussed how most people didn’t notice what they were doing or didn’t recognize the audio, which was clear when they were neither removed or arrested from the hearing. They also spoke about “how hard it is to get arrested as a white person” and using that privilege effectively. Even though this might not have been as successful as some of their previous works, they still were able to learn more about what works and what doesn’t.

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Werner’s combined use of identity, opportunity, knowledge, and creativity to inspire people and make change was thought-provoking and encouraging. Their culture- and situation-based approach in combination with humor and purpose has made me really rethink my ideas around protest and what it means to be an effective activist. Theatrical advocacy allows us to have our message heard loud and clear while making complicated issues a little less tough and a little more human.

Jason Steuerwald is a second-year Justice and Law student at American University. On campus, he is a part of the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, a member of the executive board of PRIDE, and an overnight library assistant. Outside of school, he is involved in drum corps and got to spend this summer touring the country and competing as a member of the Oregon Crusaders.