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Rafi Martina: For love of self

BY RAFI MARTINA

Published October 24, 2006

Start your engines, folks. Another campaign season approaches. Yes, another vindictive battle for the hearts and minds of our student body - or at least the small fraction of us who actually vote, much less pay attention to the impending campaigns - will begin in the coming days. The massive lists of e-mail addresses are undoubtedly being compiled. The posters will appear, and soon every conceivable space on campus will be defiled with the names and trite slogans of our unscrupulous representatives. Look too for the Facebook groups lionizing specific candidates and their political party machines. You'll know it's really in full swing once your inbox begins piling up with seemingly personalized messages soliciting your vote.

I'm not describing the crookedness of any real political system. Rather, these depredations augur the perennial student government elections, the knockoff campaigns of students taking themselves far too seriously. (For the sake of full disclosure, that's certainly an indictment I've been on the brunt end of, too.) But taking oneself too seriously needn't be an offense in and of itself. Plenty of us take ourselves and our studies seriously. Indeed, at the cusp of full-fledged adulthood, why shouldn't we?

And yet seriousness in demeanor necessarily follows seriousness in deed. With a budget of about $500,000 annually, such seems to be the case with our student government. But then why do so many of us consider it such a joke? Perhaps it follows from the actions of our elected representatives. Never missing a chance to refute the assumption that student government might conduct itself in a principled way, our ambitious peers have taken the rather sober tack of justifying their ends (election) with nearly any means. In that vein, it didn't surprise me to overhear a veteran of student elections instruct an aspiring novice that, "You have to be ruthless. . Do shit that nobody else would do. . I was willing to do anything for a vote. Anything."

Such sang-froid in the face of sacrificing principles for political expediency certainly accords with political movements looking to history to exculpate their perhaps reckless missteps. Thus could Lenin excuse the perhaps excessive policies of a nascent Soviet Union in the hopes of future good. I don't get that same vibe with student government members. They seem willing to abuse their student populace with a zeal bereft of any ideological justification (as, of course, Students 4 Michigan always reminded us of its lack of any singular or overarching ideology). Whether it's flooding our inboxes, littering our sidewalks with leaflets or obscuring our view of the pavement ahead of us with ubiquitous campaign pitches, our leaders appear not to have bothered themselves with our welfare, much less a grander goal to "end history" or what have you. No, it seems they're content with a recurring system - albeit with conspicuously altered party names - of abusing the shit out of us.

And for what? Assuming it's indeed not for a larger ideological scheme, it seems the obvious answer - indeed the answer staring us in the face on every campaign leaflet - is the self-aggrandizement of these ambitious individuals. Sure, it's not a one-party system, though the succession of Students First to S4M to the Michigan Action Party might have us believe otherwise. A choice of parties notwithstanding, the salient feature of these political groups remains the shameless self-promotion of our enterprising peers. When S4M - or MAP - displays a keen interest in representing a plurality of beliefs and groups (some of them mutually exclusive), one shouldn't call it diversity. Call it tokenism. And with it comes the tit-for-tat of numerous narcissists willing to promise the votes of their constituent groups for mutual self-advancement.

Let's face it - your average student cares little for voting. But student groups sure do. When the e-mails flood inboxes and the candidates knock on doors, it often obscures the real legwork behind student elections: the mass mobilization of each student group - frat, political group or ethnic organization - to get its candidate elected. It's more of a whip system than a democracy: The groups that look to benefit most from complicity in this amour-propre machine rely on their members' compliance, spurring them to vote the night of elections.

All of this is not to say that student government is irrelevant (I think its fat budget speaks to its importance) - just unscrupulous. Or at least it's a congress of unprincipled demons one witnesses only in Milton's Paradise Lost. But this isn't pandemonium, it's pan-narcissism: Our representatives worship at no altars of special interest but their own. They're savvy egoists, future Karl Roves (undoubtedly a wet dream for some of them). These are resume padders par exemplar.

Rafi Martina can be reached at rmartina@umich.edu.