When I trudged out of my house yesterday morning, I had a mission: to stake out a front-row seat for “National Sovereignty Day,” a Young Americans for Freedom rally protesting the United Nations. Expecting right-wing rhetoric and Bill O’Reilly talking points – the event’s flyers mentioned “UN commUNists” – I was sorely disappointed: Not only was the rally virtually nonexistent, but the eight YAF members present were in no mood to be the loud, obnoxious Sean Hannity clones I was hoping to discredit in this column. Indeed, rather than watching heart-thumping, red-blooded patriotic Americans denounce the “commUNist United Nations,” I spent a half hour having a serious conversation with YAF chair Jon Boguth and fellow YAF members about problems at the United Nations over Japanese Pan Noodles and Pasta Fresca.
Instead of the expected “Will we let them screw us over again?” rhetoric, I heard YAF activists raising questions that all global citizens – liberal, libertarian and conservative – have an interest in raising and answering. Instead of prefabricated talking points, YAF leaders presented serious concerns about the structure, role and effectiveness of the United Nations.
Of specific relevance to Americans: Should the U.N. flag be flown in American cities? If so, at what level in relation to state and national flags? While not of the utmost importance, these questions are deeply symbolic – and profoundly relevant to the overarching question of national sovereignty. Of incredible importance to the developing world: Has the United Nations been effective at distributing aid? Does food aid, which could potentially undermine markets by flooding them with cheap goods, harm long-term prospects for economic self-determination? Of special relevance following the Iraqi “oil for food” scandal: Does the structure of the United Nations open up the organization to scandal and corruption? Because large sums of money are allocated by individuals isolated from electoral pressures, does U.N. aid spending go to the people who need it, or to privileged individuals and connected causes?
These questions are wide open to debate and, barring some form of divine revelation, it will be higher-level thinking and investigation that uncover acceptable solutions. For example, while I believe unilateral food aid is crucial because it enables individuals to – and this is not hyperbole – survive, the YAF critique raises a legitimate issue: If farmers in developing countries deliberately choose to stop farming because foreign food aid has depressed domestic market prices to the level at which farmers cannot sell food at a profit, can such a nation ever wean itself from international charity? Both sides of this debate offer valid arguments, but unless partisans on each side continue to examine the issue at a level beyond talking points, nobody will develop what everyone wants: a better way to help the world’s poor.
It is reassuring to see college students thinking about issues at a theoretical and intellectual level – a casual observation of campus obscures the existence of any such groups. All too often, campus politics are characterized by slogans, chalking and rallies; the desire to defeat opposing ideas overrides the desire to formulate better ones. Indeed, when I first arrived at the University, I immediately signed on to Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s gubernatorial campaign. I flyered, chalked and manned information tables – but never really had the opportunity to discuss ideas outside the context of Granholm’s platform. The goal of the organization was to sell an ideology, not to critically examine its merits and flaws. Fortunately, to now see students, liberal and conservative, discussing issues within groups and on the pages of opinion magazines (The Michigan Review and newly-launched The Michigan Independent) is a subtle sign that intellectualism may be alive and well.
However, mere discourse between like-minded individuals is not adequate. As leaders and thinkers all over the spectrum nurture ideas, they must also make sure that their ideas are exchanged and debated, not merely bounced around in an echo chamber. Case-in-point: One YAFer suggested that if U.S. citizens no longer supported U.N. aid operations through federal taxes, Americans would make up the lost aid by donating more generously to international nongovernmental organizations. While this idea has gained remarkable traction within conservative and libertarian communities, it has little support outside the anti-tax establishment; no American will consciously provide additional support for NGOs simply because he is paying a few dollars less in federal taxes. This highlights the danger of isolated intellectualism: absent a serious and aggressive competition of ideas, stronger ideas will not discredit and replace weaker ones.
Given the concentration of intelligence on this campus, it is disheartening that many students sell themselves short and become cheap election-year labor. While selling ideologies is undoubtedly important, this is a college campus