Category Archives: Campus News

Featured Organization: Students for Syria

By: Chris Gaarder and Derek Ko

Seventy thousand dead. Untold hundreds of thousands wounded. Millions displaced. These are the numbers behind the two-year old Syrian crisis. Though the figures are but sanitized stand-ins for real-world horrors, they have understandably concerned a great number of people. Among those moved by the crisis are Melissa Carlson CMC ‘13 and Sara Birkenthal CMC ’13 who, on the suggestion of CMC International Relations Professor Ed Haley, founded Students for Syria in February 2013. The group has two primary goals. First, Students for Syria hopes to, as Carlson said in an interview with the CI, make a “more human connection” between the Syrian conflict and 5C students. Second, as stated in their petition, they hope to put pressure on “President Obama and the United States Congress to stop the killing and help Syrians attain self-determination.

In pursuit of their first goal, Students for Syria is launching a 5C campaign that includes a Facebook page, an upcoming poster campaign, an informational video and various campus events. The students’ campus campaign is meant to, as Carlson put it, “make noise” so people are compelled to confront the serious consequences of inaction on the part of the international community.

For their second objective, Students for Syria plans a multi-pronged effort to, again, “make noise” and build enough domestic pressure on Washington to make the President and Congress act. To that end, the Students for Syria has launched a petition on that currently has over 200 signatures (which notably constitutes only about a third the number that the “Claremont McKenna College Administration: Take Action to Protect CMC Social Culture” petition has garnered). Still, the student leaders of the organization have big plans for the future, including expanding to other universities in California. Carlson also mentioned a Students for Syria delegation to Washington D.C. as a possibility in the more distant future. There, they would hope to meet with leaders of nonprofit organizations, congressional leaders and representatives from the Obama Administration to make the case for Washington to give greater weight to the Syrian crisis.

However, the fledgling student organization has already run into a few roadblocks. Budgetary constraints aside, they were recently forced to change a line in their petition calling for “military force if necessary” because of the controversy and complexity U.S. intervention would entail. American war-wariness is understandable, especially following long and drawn-out interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq that have not yielded clear-cut victories in the eyes of the American public. Students for Syria felt that the backlash from specifying armed intervention as an option would only distract from their objective of ending the Syrian crisis. The organization now makes it quite clear they are simply calling for international action to end the bloodshed and not taking a specific position on what type of support should be given. Putting the issue of armed intervention (or lack thereof) aside, there still remains a serious division in foreign policy circles over the best long-term strategy in addressing the Syrian crisis.

For expert opinions on the subject, we interviewed Professor Haley and fellow CMC International Relations Professor Jennifer Taw. Although they both agreed that breaking the Assad regime and producing a negotiated settlement was imperative, they had very different perspectives on how the U.S. should approach the situation.

Haley specifically advocates for U.S. aid to Syrian rebel groups that best represent Western interests and could be trusted most to bring Syria through a democratic transition without initiating a mass-scale retaliation against the ruling minority. He points out that the Iran and Russia are already propping up the Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are sending aid to various groups in the opposition. Britain and France appear likely to send aid to their favorite rebel groups in short order. Meanwhile, the U.S. has largely kept out of the crisis. If the U.S. does not sponsor a rebel faction, Haley does not think it will have the “persuasive voice” that other international actors would have gained by the time the regime crumbles or is brought to the table to begin negotiations.

In addition to the importance of enhancing the influence of America among rebel groups through aid, Haley emphasizes that time is a crucial consideration. Unfortunately, according to Haley, “the longer it goes on, the worse it becomes for U.S. interests.”  The longer the crisis continues, the more who will be killed, wounded, displaced, or otherwise harmed. A longer crisis will only develop deeper divides within Syrian society, and more fixed hostilities. Moreover, the victory of either of the Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia or the current regime backed by Iran and Russia would not serve U.S. interests or humanitarian concerns particularly well.

Taw agrees that a negotiated agreement between all involved parties is ultimately the preferable solution to the crisis, but is careful to note that if not done properly, bringing a quick end to the current conflict could simply set the stage for  “a new, and prolonged second act in which blood continues to flow, jihadists rise to the fore, and the region as a whole splits as it splits within Syria.

For Taw, even the idea that the U.S. could force the international community to act is doubtful. Already, “The U.S. can’t even prevent other countries from arming and otherwise supporting the regime,” and if a U.S. proxy were to succeed in the short term by way of force, “such an effort would undoubtedly be followed by a set of ongoing insurgencies similar to Iraq’s.” Taw is also skeptical about the notion that there are rebel groups that the U.S. can in fact trust in the long term. In other words, Taw views the U.S. capacity to influence the conflict in a positive direction as fundamentally limited.

The situation in Syria is by all accounts a tragedy. There are no easy solutions or clear historical blueprints to follow. In the post-Cold War era, we have seen successful cases of international intervention (Bosnia), cases where many argue we should have had international intervention but did nothing (Rwanda) and cases where the West did intervene, with at best, mixed results (Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq). Will the U.S. take action beyond providing humanitarian aid? That remains to be seen. Can we, successfully? That remains an open question.

However, one thing is certain: whether U.S. intervention would be a soaring success, a complete disaster, or some murky mix of the two, time is rapidly running out for the Syrian people. It is about time that American policy-makers and students alike begin serious, public discussion on about the crisis.  Whether one is a supporter of U.S. action or a staunch non-interventionist, Students for Syria is a force worthy of attention.

Zimbardo at the Athenaeum

“All evil starts with 15 volts.” If there was one point that the audience was supposed to remember from Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s Athenaeum speech, it was this. With this one line, Dr. Zimbardo succinctly highlighted his explanation for why people perform evil actions while also tying together a lineage of research that spans decades and regions, and includes some of psychology’s most famous and notorious experiments.

The line itself refers to a series of experiments carried out in the early 1960s by Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale. These studies, which were designed to study how ordinary individuals responded to authority, involved the subjects shocking a fictional person for answering questions incorrectly. The fictional “victim” would respond with pre-recorded sounds of pain that would escalate as the shocks increased, until the last 10 levels, where the victim would fall silent and remain that way through the conclusion of the experiment. Milgram polled both senior undergraduates and fellow psychologists, and both groups predicted around one percent of the subjects would administer the maximum shock. The results revealed that both groups were extremely incorrect. Nearly 65 percent of the participants administered the maximum shock, and nearly all were clearly uncomfortable in doing so, yet did so anyway with prodding from the experimenter.

The experiment shocked the world and lent some insight into how ordinary people can come to commit massive atrocities. Dr. Zimbardo noted that it was perhaps the most notorious and controversial experiment in psychology until he conducted his own experiment, referred to now as the Stanford Prison Experiment, approximately a decade later. In Zimbardo’s study, ordinary students were arbitrarily assigned to “prisoner” or “guard” roles in a jail located in the basement of Stanford’s psychology department. The two-week experiment lasted only six days as the guards quickly embraced their role and became more and more authoritarian, ultimately to the point where they were psychologically abusing the prisoners. These results, like the results of the Milgram studies earlier, were shocking. Dr. Zimbardo explicitly pointed out, that these students were chosen because they were considered to be stable and healthy. In addition, Dr. Zimbardo also stated that while the actions of the “guards” became so extreme as to raise ethical and safety concerns, the students, both eventual “guards” and “prisoners,” had indicated a preference for the “prisoner” role. None of these men, he argued, were initially inclined towards the authoritarian role. This study provided substantial support for what he has termed “the Lucifer effect,” which is the notion that over time, ordinary people can transform into evil individuals capable of terrible deeds, given certain circumstances.

Dr. Zimbardo went on to apply these lessons from his study to the case of the guards at Abu Ghraib prison, in which he testified as an expert witness. In this case, guards were accused of abusing prisoners after being left in positions of authority with morally ambiguously instruction and limited oversight. In this case, but in general as well, Zimbardo noted an inclination to blame bad behavior on an individual perpetrator’s disposition, to blame the problem on a few so-called “bad apples.” Dr. Zimbardo went on to explain that this viewpoint contradicts what the research and the facts of the case indicate, which is that the situation, the “apple barrel,” was the problem, and essentially drove ordinary people to become evil and commit atrocities. Zimbardo concluded that while people are still responsible for their actions, preventing future cruelty requires actually addressing the situation or the system that caused the behavioral transformation, as well as the individuals and organizations responsible for creating the system.

Dr. Zimbardo finished his speech by speaking on the topic of heroes. While ordinary people can become evil, Zimbardo argued they also could become heroes in the right circumstances. He stated that most heroes are just ordinary people in dire situations that respond courageously. There is a need in our society to honor and elevate people who do truly heroic things, and to de-emphasize cultural heroes like athletes and celebrities. To ultimately improve society, Dr. Zimbardo prescribed holding ourselves to a higher moral standard in all aspects of society. If we want to shift the balance to good from evil, we need to honor true heroes, pass moral laws, elect moral leaders and make a conscious effort to conduct our daily lives justly. Then perhaps the scales will shift, but not before we take responsibility and act.

Sandra Fluke surprises

As someone who not only opposes public funding for birth control, but also believes in axing public funding for a wide range of government programs, I was quick to pass judgment on Sandra Fluke following her speech at the Democratic National Convention. To me, her words were painfully unoriginal, re-telling the tired feminist narrative portraying conservative men as a patriarchal oppressor class trying to “control women’s bodies” in an age when contraception was more accessible than ever. As for Ms. Fluke herself, she was the figure around which the Democratic Party opportunistically built its “War on Women” narrative following a few abhorrent comments made by figures on the fringe of the GOP. She was not, in my mind, a gender egalitarian or even an advocate for the oppressed. She was simply a feminist icon, the latest front woman for the women’s lobby which has favored gender-based affirmative action over meritocracy and kangaroo courts over due process for handling sexual assault cases on college campuses.

It was as I began writing my preconceptions down on paper that I realized that I had fallen into the trap of my own prejudice. Despite my constant criticism of the way libertarians are mischaracterized and misunderstood by the left and in the media, I myself was guilty of drawing a radical caricature of Sandra Fluke which could be easily judged and discredited. Meeting Ms. Fluke at the Athenaeum gave me a much-needed reminder that good people often have the same goals albeit radically different ideas on how to achieve them.

The topic of Ms. Fluke’s speech was a pleasant surprise. Putting her advocacy for universal birth control funding and reproductive rights aside, she took the time to speak on a topic near and dear to her heart: America’s LGBT population. She described how though there are several million LGBT employees in the private sector, only 21 states and Washington D.C. currently prohibit work discrimination against gays and lesbians by law. Fluke then shifted the attention of the attendees to the “T” in LGBT, explaining that even in many of the states where discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited, there are no protections in place for gender identity. Ms. Fluke later spoke of her support for the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which would replace the “patchwork” of laws addressing discrimination against the LGBT community with comprehensive federal protection. Her message of equality for all in society and her special emphasis on refusing to leave transgendered Americans behind proved noncontroversial to the audience.

Even during the question and answer period in which she tackled thornier issues, Ms. Fluke answered questions in a straight-forward manner and showed herself to be a pragmatic and moderate advocate. When asked about the lack of attention and help given to male domestic violence victims or the gendered language of legislation regarding human trafficking, she vehemently asserted that all victims, regardless of gender, deserve help. When questioned on the conflict between the provision of birth control and the question of religious liberty, she answered from the center, asserting that there needed to be a balance between the two. She went on to list categories of religiously-affiliated organizations which were exempt from the birth control mandate, and stated her firm commitment to the liberties of all religious communities including her own.

What I admired most about Sandra Fluke, however, was her emphasis on free expression and the necessity of dialogue. Her anecdote about an ACLU lawyer who protested a speaker on a university campus, but stood up against fellow demonstrators when they started blocking access to the talk, showed that strongly held beliefs and a respect for open dialogue are not mutually exclusive. I personally believe that it is exactly this kind of dialogue that needs to take place more often between those on opposing ends of the political spectrum. Because Ms. Fluke dedicated over half her time to the question and answer period, this open dialogue is exactly what I and many other students present received. The talk became one of a few at the Athenaeum where few hands were left raised and few questions left unanswered.

I still oppose the regulatory and bureaucratic nightmare of Obamacare (which does not currently contain a single provision on much needed tort reform). Though I believe strongly in reproductive freedom, I remain allergic to the idea of the government paying for any man or woman’s personal choices. However, I have found that in many ways, liberals can be friends of the Liberty Movement and more importantly, advocates for the rights of all people. When it comes to causes like equality for LGBT members of society, prevention of human trafficking, and the upholding of First Amendment rights, I am proud and very glad to have allies on the left like Sandra Fluke.

Computing Differently

In 2009, iPad was iPod spelled incorrectly, we only endured one Hangover, the Motorola Droid was the archaeohipster’s solution to the iPhone, and a fair number from the senior class bought their first laptops, many of which are still in use today.

While the cell phone industry pushes a 2-year lifecycle  for smartphones, the demarcation for laptops is blurrier. As the summer approaches, and a quarter of our classmates prepare to write a new chapter in  their lives, many are bound to think: “Should I write it  in a literally cutting-edge  computer, like the Air or an Ultrabook? Should I get a traditional laptop? Is  there another solution?”

My answer: it depends.

For users with medium-to-heavy computer usage, I am not going to offer a recommendation in this column. For the more casual user, for whom money is a concern, however, a more radical departure from the computing norm makes sense. As the technology evolved, a new option emerged in 2012, one with increased versatility, decreased cost, and improved functionality: the Tablet-Chromebook combo.

What is a Chromebook? Think of the Chromebook as a descendant of the netbook. A Chromebook is a trimmed down laptop that runs Google’s Chrome OS (a Linux-based operating system, basically an advanced Google Chrome browser). It centers around web-based applications and on- or offline document creation using Google Drive. Drive is a service that allows users to create and store documents, spreadsheets, presentations and forms. Files can be stored on the Chromebook, but Google is promoting data storage on “the Cloud,” with 100 GB of space on Google Drive included. For heavy duty typing, web browsing, and presentation-creating duties, a $249 Samsung Chromebook (Amazon) fits the average user’s needs. (Also a great gift for Grandma!)

Americans who own tablets

For media consumption, light and low-cost gaming, portability, and especially for reading and marking up documents, a tablet – namely the iPad, because of its ubiquity – easily fills the rest of your computing needs. The ability to mark up documents, in a world where free printing is not the norm, is my favorite feature. Using the Notability app, I have avoided printing roughly 4,000 pages worth of homework PDFs and other documents in the last year alone (4,000 pages x $0.04 per page = $160). In addition to the iPad, the Surface from Microsoft is also worth taking a look at among larger tablets. The iPad Mini and Google Nexus 7 are nice entrants in the mid-size category. So, what’s so great about tablets? They are not absurdly expensive, considering all the functions they fill – $329 for the Mini, $399 for an iPad 2, $499 for the New New iPad (4th Edition) or Microsoft Surface RT. Add a Chromebook, to their prices, and they run $578, $648, and $748, respectively.

Looking at Amazon’s top laptops (as we go to print), after the Chromebook is the $1,129.98 MacBook Pro 13.3-inch, more than twice the cost of the first two options. The MacBook Air 128 GB version is $1,035.99. Ok, so let’s assume Apple is overpriced. Dell’s Inspiron i15R (heavily discounted) is selling for $469.99. For an Ultrabook, the Lenovo U410 14-inch is selling for $599.99. The Tablet-Chromebook option may not be the cheapest upfront, but factoring in savings over time – printing far less, buying cheap game apps rather than expensive traditional videogames, cheap or free books with Kindle for iPad, the convenience of receiving a discounted newspaper or magazine directly on the machine, and a decent camera on the new iPad to boot, switching to this combo is a relatively cost-efficient, versatile, and green (in all senses of the word) option for the average consumer.

Beyond Dean-O-Mite: Chodosh on free speech & more

On December 7th, 2012, the Editors-in-Chief of student publications the Forum, the Claremont
Port Side, and the Claremont Independent had the opportunity to interview Claremont McKenna College’s new President-elect Hiram Chodosh.

The Claremont Independent had asked Chodosh some questions near and dear to our publication’s heart.

We asked Chodosh if he saw himself continuing CMC’s tradition of being a politically balanced campus. He replied that much of that tradition is ingrained in participating in the Athenaeum, saying that a number of campuses are not as politically balanced as they should be. Chodosh pointed out that a large part of education can take place among peers and that, if engaged, diversity of opinion is an advantage. The Athenaeum, Chodosh said, creates that forum for discourse and has a tremendous impact on campus engagement.

We also asked President-elect Chodosh about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s recent change in CMC’s speech code rating from Red to Yellow—whether this change is something that he believes is important, and what steps he plans to take to change the free speech rating as it stands. Chodosh responded that while he was new to the particular context, he believes that it is “very important that there be a strong free speech regime on college campuses.” But, he noted, it is important that the freedom of one person’s speech cannot impede another’s. Chodosh emphasized the need to create a learning environment through the promotion of free speech. Creating a learning moment from offensive speech, entails getting together to talk about the controversies in a way that can produce a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. “It is important that each of us learn our way through these controversies.”

It’s a promising start for our President-elect, but we can only wait to see whether he will properly address the issues of political balance and free speech during his term.