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Shredding civil dialogue: The gotcha journalism of Project Veritas

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By Neal Schindler

The conservative website Campus Reform recently reported that Project Veritas, an equally conservative undercover investigative operation, exposed instances of “[p]olitical correctness and cultural sensitivity run amok” at two liberal arts college campuses. Here’s the gist:

Administrators at Vassar College agreed to personally shred a pocket Constitution after an undercover reporter posing as a student complained that she felt “triggered” by its distribution on campus, while professors at Oberlin College confided that they shared the reporter’s misgivings about the founding document.

The story hit home for me because I earned my bachelor’s degree from Oberlin, and one of the faculty members caught on video engaging in PC behavior “run amok” was Prof. Carol Lasser from whom I took a class called “Oberlin History as American History” in the late ’90s.

The class was very much what the title suggested: By studying hyperlocal history, we gained insight into larger movements and trends in national history. I wrote my final paper on the introduction of coeducational dormitories at Oberlin, a development that Life magazine immortalized via a 1970 cover. A fair number of parents were livid. Some not only protested the integration of men and women in dorm life but also pulled their children from Oberlin altogether.

As you can imagine, sexual chaos didn’t erupt on campus, and life continued apace. The “new normal” of coed dorms spread across the country, and today no one — well, almost no one — bats an eye when men and women share student housing. But this was just one of many times that Oberlin College has solidified its place in American academia as a scandalizer of the easily scandalized and a flouter of social and political norms.

Oberlin is, without a doubt, a very politically progressive place. The notion of providing students from historically oppressed groups with “safe space,” where they don’t have to worry about feeling further oppressed, is a big deal at Oberlin — not a joke, which is what some conservative media outlets seem to consider it.

About Lasser, I can say only that I remember her as a very good teacher who was passionate about history and cared about her students. Here’s what Campus Reform wrote about her:

Carol Lasser, Professor of History and Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Oberlin, likewise concurred that “[t]he Constitution is an oppressive document” because it intentionally makes change a slow process.

“I think birthright citizenship is right,” she whispers. “And you know that if that was up for a vote today we would lose it under the craziness of Trump and his seven dwarves.”

She then observes that “[t]he Constitution is not a sacred document in that sense,” citing the Second Amendment as an example and asking, “[w]hat could be clearer than, I mean at least from my point of view, that the founders never envisioned giving people carte blanche to own assault rifles?”

Yes, Lasser calls the Constitution “oppressive,” but she explains quite clearly what she means: that it was written to prevent rapid sociopolitical progress. Her comments about birthright citizenship, Republican presidential candidates, and gun control fall squarely within mainstream leftist thought. Are the professor’s statements really so outrageous?

As an Oberlin graduate and a liberal, I have obvious biases in relation to this story. However, there’s a bigger issue here that transcends political preference. Was an undercover video the best way to report this story? There’s no method I can think of that typifies “gotcha” journalism more than secretly filming people and then trying to make them look like misguided fools to the American public.

Pundits have spent barrels of ink and billions of bytes meditating on this highly polarized moment in American politics. Executive and judicial overreach is the allegation of many conservatives; congressional obstructionism is a major complaint from the left. Does the Vassar/Oberlin video point us toward a middle way, or does it exacerbate the growing separation we feel from those who think differently from us? Is reconciliation possible between people who see the Constitution as sacred and those who think shredding it is a fine example of free speech, to which the Constitution itself gives us the right?

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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