AMA vs. C-SPaM: A Call for Dialogue Between Moderates and Activists at USC


First off, this post is going to piss a lot of people off. I’ll be saying some controversial things. Trigger warning, if that kind of thing bugs you. Also, I’m posting this on my personal blog because I’m basically certain the Daily Trojan won’t run it.

I, Luke Phillips, am a member of the political group No Labels. NL’s basic goal is to get ideologically diverse politicians and politicos to talk with each other, to recognize each other’s humanity, and ultimately to get things done. While their targets are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, I have noticed that here at USC, there is not much need for No Labels, since for the most part the active members of the political organizations on campus do in fact treat each other with respect and tend to stay on friendly terms while disagreeing.

The same cannot be said, however, between the two sides of another debate on campus at USC- the socio-moral debate, between the activist minority and the moderate majority.

Long story short, there’s a split in Undergraduate Student Government that pretty accurately reflects divisions between students on campus, I think. On the one side you have the cultural assemblies- Asian-Pacific American Students Assembly, Queer and Ally Students Assembly, Women’s Student Assembly, etc- which are staffed by activists and tend to support various causes along the lines of ‘the rights and empowerment of oppressed minority groups.’ Let’s call this group the AMA’s- the Aggrieved Minority Activists. (Literally no connection between that acronym and the name of the current director of USC Program Board, a component of USG-the fact that she spells her name the same way is entirely coincidental.)

The AMAs are very well-organized, very vocal, and very passionate about the causes they believe in. Unfortunately for them, the broad majority of USC students will vocalize support for their causes, but not agree with anywhere near the entirety of the minutia they support. Case in point, WSA purports to represent the entire female student body on campus- but, and I haven’t looked at the polling data on this one, I think it’s fair to say that nowhere near the entirety of the female student body on campus feels represented by WSA.

The majority of the student body tends to be equally progressive as the AMAs on social issues- supportive of the rights of all, believing in the necessity of treating everybody equally, and fully believing in the fundamental dignity of the human person and the fundamental role of government and society being to protect the rights of individuals. Yet they are temperamentally far more conservative, in that they don’t view the bullet points that AMAs make a big deal over as being anything more than bullet points,  and in that they don’t see oppressor-oppressed as the fundamental relationship in human society, nor a Manichaean battle of good against evil- light against darkness- as the fundamental moral condition of humanity. The vast majority of the student population sees inequality and injustice as unfortunate realities to be struggled against in daily life, but realities still, and realities that mature temperaments must accept and work around. They ascribe much more power to individuals than to invisible social forces or unconscious prejudice; and they are generally opposed to the tactics of activists out of favor of order and social decency.

The moderates of the student body are not the reactionaries like the Matt Walshes of the world, who go out of their way to pinpoint every last flaw with activist arguments and work to demonize good people simply because they disagree. No, the majority of student body non-activists see and want the good in life for all people, but are unwilling out of principle to view themselves as the bearers of truth to an unfeeling world, as most activists seem to see themselves.

And here we get to the other major faction in the USG split. Across the aisle from the AMAs is what I like to call C-SPaM- the Coalition of Social and Political Moderates. C-SPaM (yes, I know the letters are out of order, but it sounds better that way) is composed of those individuals- be they in the Program Board non-cultural event-planning assemblies, in the Senate, in the Executive Cabinet, or wherever- who subscribe to the general tendencies of the broad majority of USC students on social issues. They do not use their office to promote ‘social justice,’ though they do look upon human affairs with a sympathetic eye to the oppressed. They do not parade their trials in life, nor do they claim to speak for the rights of the oppressed against the heartless majority. They are practical people with a purpose beyond that of narrow group-interest; they look to the whole and attempt to better the conditions of USC students as a whole, rather than in particularistic groups. They leave that task to the AMAs.

And moreover, the C-SPaMmers have next to no formal organization compared to the AMA groups. They might have a few groups here and there on campus, but there is no Moderate Middle-Class Students Assembly (or, as I like to joke, a Privileged White Male Students Assembly) or anything of the like. Like Richard Nixon’s Moral Majority, the majority of these students stay silent and allow the activists to dominate the debate and the policy world, either because they do not care enough to get involved or because they see a thousand other problems more important than mundane social concerns. But they DO have an opinion- a very valid and very powerful opinion- and when prodded enough, they make their voice known.

So there you are- on one side the AMAs, on the other the C-SPaM. And how are relations between these groups?

On the surface, pretty dang good. They communicate as individuals, there are friendships between individuals of widely differing viewpoints, and there’s little to no drama.

Except when there is.

Bubbling beneath the surface, occasionally a C-SPaMmer does something that infuriates an AMA, or an AMA does something that presses the wrong buttons on a C-SPaMmer. Then things get ugly, really quick. Accusations of bigotry from the one side fly against accusations of hypersensitivity from the other, both sides thinking they are unequivocally correct and the other side downright wrong, if not pernicious and oppressive. Factions form, and the divided executive leadership occasionally takes steps to halt the confusion- but not always.

This is all indicative of a deeper tension between AMAs and C-SPaMmers. The AMAs view the C-SPaMmers as oppressive, and the C-SPaMmers view the AMAs as whiny and oversensitive. Both view the other as militant, seeing themselves as the innocent good guys and the other as the trepidating bad guys. (Yup, made up that word too.) In short, it’s not blatant and out in the open; it’s a seething pit of red and black vipers, teamed up against each other, waiting for the barrier between them to smash to bits so each can fall upon the other.

Just two quick examples. First off, bear in mind that this split isn’t confined to active members of USG- it’s across the campus community, including between those who are active in various groups but not necessarily active in USG. And bear in mind that C-SPaM includes groups who are directly opposed to the ideologies of AMAs, but not conservative enough to be considered reactionary.

So, I’ll start off with where the AMAs are wrong, and then get to where the C-SPaMmers are wrong.

The USC Students for Life- an anti-abortion group, I believe based in the Catholic Center- held an event where they had a rape baby come in and talk. (Rape babies are children born of rape, when the mother chooses not to have an abortion.) I later overheard members of the Women’s Student Assembly gossiping in a derogatory fashion about the anti-abortion group, deriding the event as “Anti-Woman” and going so far as to joke about spying on the group to find out what days they had events planned, and booking all the potential venues on campus to prevent the event from being held (a tactic which one might associate with white supremacist groups in the Jim Crow South attempting to prevent black people’s rallies and marches from being held.) I assume- no, I hope to God- that the WSA members in question were joking, because such a power play would otherwise be too despicable to be imagined- an activist group dependent on the public space to get its message across, using all the options in its power to prevent an opposing activist group from getting its opposing message across. What country are we living in?

Now for MY sins.

If it’s not clear yet that I self-identify as a C-SPaMmer- a member of the Coalition of Social and Political Moderates- then you, dear reader, have not been reading this little essay of mine closely enough. I’ve been sympathetic to the C-SPaMmers and more than a little bit crass about the AMAs. Start reading this more closely, I have at least a few important points.

I’m as guilty as anyone, if not more, of playing a very partisan role in the AMA-C-SPaM War. I’ve published a few articles in the Daily Trojan attacking activists for being activists. When the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation occupied the hallway in front of President Nikias’s office in protest of USC’s relationship with some garments company that did work/used low-wage labor in Bangladesh, I published a Letter to the Editor in DT arguing that these well-intentioned young city kids had not the slightest idea of how either international political economy, economic development, or university policymaking worked. Here’s a  particularly rude passage in which I, using flowery elitist rhetoric, accused the activists of both hypocrisy AND ignorance:

“Moreover, if factory deaths are a reason to divest ourselves into cleanliness, what else is drenched in the gore of the innocent? Must we give up, too, our laptops and smart phones, which contain minerals that are brutally fought over in Africa? Should we cease to travel anywhere because the gasoline in our tanks comes from oppressive regimes? How much food do we have to stop buying because the people picking it aren’t paid enough?

Injustice is a natural part of human life, a part that so completely bathes all reality that it is impossible to fight it without partaking in it and revealing one’s own hypocrisy. Great change tends to be caused either by great injustice, or terribly slow evolution. The activist will never find satisfaction, for he or she desires a quick and just solution to a problem too complex to have one. Though they might be noble, their worldview does not fit the reality of this world.

This is not to suggest that we ought to simply accept the world’s imperfection and stay silent in the face of evil. To do so would go against our very nature, as the moral law is written on our hearts. It is to say, however, that the wise and just must acknowledge that there will never be anything like true justice, yet strive forever towards the best possible ends, with the most practical possible means. Justice is worth nothing less.”

When the Michael Brown verdict came out months and months later, I wrote a similar article attacking the activist marchers, and on Facebook I called them ‘zombies.’ I justly received flak for both pieces.

So there. I’m as foul a player in this game as any, and I freely admit to harboring negative stereotypes and ill regard for many of the leading members of the activist community at USC, because of their personal beliefs and because of the tactics they take. I am fully aware that they hold similar views of me and my fellow C-SPaMmers. It’s a war of ideas, and an ugly war at that.


So why have I taken the time to detail the inner workings of USG politics to the world?

Well, I am fully aware that I would be perfectly happy continuing in this conflict for life. I’m pretty sure most of my fellow C-SPaMmers would too, as would our counterparts in the AMA camp. We can go on fighting for our various causes and sliming each other as long as we want, and we’ll never get exhausted. Fighting the good fight is in our blood; it’s literally part of our identities.

Then why trash it? Why not keep fighting?

Well, I did say at the beginning of this piece that I am a card-carrying member of No Labels. Like most of my fellow unlabeled political partisans, I don’t like the partisan rancor that so often characterizes Washington D.C., and I would rather have a sense of common courtesy, human decency, and pragmatic problem solving, than feel that I was unanimously right and therefore purposed with telling everyone else how right I was. In politics at least- and I think a lot of Americans would like that in politics.

So why not have that in other aspects of life as well? Maybe not college football rivalries- cuz that would take out all the fun- but I definitely think that the No Labels ethos of respect and common-ground-seeking is something applicable to most of the great questions of life, up to and including religion, the meaning of life, and the afore-mentioned debate on social issues so prevalent at USC and other campuses around the world.

There could be, like, roundtables or double panels featuring representatives from AMA and C-SPaM, who could talk to each other about their worldviews in a respectful manner, moderated by someone sufficiently disinterested. These wouldn’t be the activist awareness campaigns that AMA people put on, nor the backroom political philosophy discussions in which the C-SPaMmers engage, but something entirely different- a place where the activists weren’t trying to convert the moderates and where the moderates weren’t trying to tame the activists, a place bent not on political action but upon understanding- the understanding by diverse groups of each other as not demons nor oppressors nor rabble-rousers, but as equally-flawed, equally-passionate human beings with different experiences from each other, who could LEARN from each other, who could GROW IN MIND with each other. They would know that neither they nor their opponents knew the wholeness of truth- a beautiful piece of knowledge known only, in my understanding, by God- but they would know that they themselves AND their opponents each had a kernel of it, and could learn more by learning to understand, rather than demonize, the opinions of the others. There’d be less in the way of rancor and more in the way of civilized understanding. And realizing that no human being can begin to comprehend the fullness of truth, the sentiments of all would be swayed towards what (in part at least) truly makes a person human- the internalization and activation of one’s deepest capacities for respect for others, regardless of beliefs, regardless of desires, regardless of prejudice. This respect in debate is the only thing that can be truly known to be good; and therefore ought to be the defining aspect of the humanity of all who attain it, rather than whatever else they can bring to the table.

Is this a realistic thing to ask for? I doubt it- it’s a very tall order. It’s basically having two tall, blindfolded men with knives drawn, and asking each in turn to put down his knife and approach and embrace the other, without having full trust that the other had placed down his knife. It’s asking people to be incredibly vulnerable and expose their dignities and beliefs, asking them to be humble beyond belief. It’s almost too much to ask for.

Personally, I don’t think this will ever be done; the activists will be too proud and the moderates will be too apathetic; moreover, neither side will trust the other to lay down their knives and come with open arms. I don’t even know that I would be trusting enough to do this en masse. I definitely could with individuals- I have dear friends within the AMA community- but I don’t think it’s feasible that I could be a delegate going with other C-SPaMmer delegates to meet with AMA delegates to work out our differences.

Perhaps Thucydides was indeed correct, and war is indeed a natural component of the breast of society. Perhaps there never will be an end to conflict, and man must forever clobber fellow man in the never-ending war of ideas. In just looking at this thought exercise in ideological conflict on a college campus, and seeking unlikely modes of its resolution, is it any wonder that conflict still boils across the Middle East, Africa, Northern Europe, East Asia, Central Asia, the Hindu Kush, and a thousand other locales? Would anyone be surprised if Thucydides were proved correct by something even firmer than experience?

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