A few weeks ago, I was plugging away at my JP in the Mendel Music Library when I heard the unusual sound of shouting and pounding feet. I looked out the window and saw a small, male redhead running past Prospect House naked, yelling into a bullhorn. (For the record, it was NOT Rob Buerki.) He was accompanied by a mob of fellow nudes, also screaming, all apparently members of the brand new Varsity Streaking Team. I turned to my fellow library-goers and wondered aloud, “When did Princeton become Brown?”
In my two and three-quarter years at Princeton, I had grown entirely unused to any exuberant expressions of the liberal spirit. Until a week or so ago, the only acts of political flamboyance came from the conservatives: Evan Baehr’s bid for a seat on the Borough Council, John Andrews’ roaming the aisles of McCosh 50 in a Burger King crown, handing out hamburgers in honor of Eric Schlosser’s visit to campus. The liberals were the silent, apathetic majority.
Indeed, it was difficult even to distinguish the right from the left, since most Princeton students look like Republicans in training, if they aren’t already part of the GOP. As Jay Saxon, then the President of the College Democrats, said in an interview in September, “At Princeton, even liberals dress conservatively. We’re less far out. At Brown, we may as well be far right.”
For the past week, a group of Princeton students has been trying to prove what the now defunct Streaking Team’s romp through campus suggested: that progressives—not the Polo-shirt-wearing types, but the wildeyed, unkempt, “far out” ones—do exist on this campus. Since 11 am last Tuesday, students, professors, community activists, and the occasional elected official, have taken turns reading aloud in front of Frist Campus Center to protest Senator Bill Frist’s push to ban filibustering as a way of blocking President Bush’s judicial nominees.
Asheesh Siddique, Editor-in-Chief of the Progressive Review and one of the protest’s organizers, looks like a true liberal. When I met with him on Tuesday morning, his mop of dark wavy hair had not seen a comb for days, which might have something to do with the five hours of sleep per night he had averaged since the start of the protest. He wore a windbreaker bearing the name of Sidwell Friends, the Washington, D.C. Quaker school that helped shape his progressive views.
Siddique sees the Frist filibuster as more than a clever way to protest Senator Frist’s initiative. To Siddique, the ongoing presence of the filibuster verifies the strength of the progressive movement on campus.
“Even if the whole thing collapsed in two minutes, I think it would still be a success because it created political debate on this campus,” he says. “It showed that progressives when they get their act together are very, very capable—assuming they’re organized—of showing that they really are a very, very strong voice here at Princeton and that there’s a strong progressive movement here.”
And indeed, there is something impressive and mesmerizing about the filibuster’s persistence. Each day, the protest looks a bit more legitimate, as the organizers add a webcam, a real microphone with speakers, and finally, this weekend, a barricade to prevent passersby from walking in front of the speakers on the way to the Street or class. I find myself going to the filibuster site (princeton.edu/~petehill/filibuster or FilibusterFrist.com) almost as often as I check my e-mail. I want to know which national news source has featured the protest today, what elected official will be visiting campus to show support for the filibuster. The novelty of political activism at Princeton is intoxicating.
It remains to be seen whether the filibuster is a harbinger of a substantive progressive campus movement or a mere publicity stunt, akin to the Streaking Team’s “meets”. Siddique is a dynamic, well-informed leader with big plans for increasing the visibility of progressives on campus.
“Look, we’ve pulled this thing off,” Siddique points out, referring to the filibuster. “It’s been a week, and already we’ve outdone the conservatives. It’s made up for a lot of what we haven’t done.”
Yet the Frist filibuster shows that heightened awareness of campus progressives does not necessarily lead to a richer on-campus political debate. Indeed, while news of the filibuster has appeared on the front page of the Prince for several days since the start of the protest, there has been very little talk of the two main issues at hand: Bush’s judicial nominees and the possible alteration of Senate tradition. Even Monday’s editorial criticizing Senator Frist’s role in attempting to end the Senatorial filibuster spent only a paragraph discussing the filibuster itself. The rest of the article was devoted decrying the other decisions Senator Frist has made to “tarnish” Princeton’s reputation. For 171 hours (and counting) of talking, not a whole lot has been said.
The campus conservatives are quick to point out the lackluster debate that the filibuster has inspired.
Ira Leeds, publisher of the Tory, is hopeful that the quality of the discussion will improve. “The event has indeed sparked public debate in the pages of the Daily Princetonian,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Although almost all of this debate is completely one-sided and rarely backed up with any ideological basis, it is at least a step in the right direction. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll actually get an intellectual discussion of the merits of the filibuster sooner or later.”
Evan Baehr, former Editor-in-Chief of the Tory and outgoing President of the College Republicans, is less optimistic. Never one to mince words, he labeled the protesters “a handful of liberal students” who “set up a shack in front of the campus center.” He added, “These are fringe students at a fringe campus in a fringe state pulling a stunt to gain national attention.”