For the past year, I served as the Political Action Committee co-Chair of the Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS) at the University of Illinois, and through this group I’ve seen good activism. Really good activism. I’ve seen activism that not only pushes our community to change, but enriches it in the process. Activism that opens people’s eyes and makes them question what they once saw as natural. This is good activism.
I’ve also seen bad activism. Activism designed to do nothing but anger, aggravate, offend, and outrage. This activism cheapens our community’s public sphere, and it has no regard for truth or fairness.
Unfortunately, the latter is the brand of choice for UIUC’s Illini Republicans.
In all fairness, not everything the Illini Republicans do is harmful — some of it is quite beautiful. Their 9/11 Memorials are beloved by many students, and the “Ask a Republican” events are effective ways to introduce students to a belief system that is in the minority on campus. However, their more famous activism takes a different tack.
A bit of brief backstory:
On October 7, 2016, the Washington Post published what was then considered fateful footage of presidential candidate Donald Trump boorishly boasting about past sexual assaults he had committed. At the time, many believed this to be one thing from which no candidate — even Donald Trump — could recover. But 2016 was a simpler time.
In weeks after the event, Republicans across the country found themselves in a predicament — would they stand with their party? Or would they call out the real estate developer for being the serial harasser he so proudly proclaimed to be?
The Illini Republicans hit the issue head-on, although they quickly found themselves divided. One faction argued that any denunciation of Donald Trump would hand the election to Hillary Clinton. The other faction desperately tried to make the case that sexual assault is not okay, regardless of political affiliation. As the group grappled with the perplexing proposal of whether genital-grabbing is an endorsable characteristic in a President, the bonds of their solidarity strained. Tension peaked on October 18th, 2016, when the group finally succumbed to a coup d’etat, resulting in the forced resignation of their President and Vice President. saying on Facebook:
In short, the Illini Republicans suffered an in-party insurgency, with the crass, chaotic Tea Party-esque contingency conquering a more couth, establishment Republicanism. Seeing this as a microcosm of the national Republican Party is not difficult.
Ever since the coup, the Illini Republicans have been a different group. The first sign of this was when they hosted the now infamous “Affirmative Action Bake Sale,” a tactic much like one used by Turning Point USA, a national campus based group known for their far-right views and racially charged practices. The sale charged different prices to customers based on their race or gender. It was a protest, misguided at best, against the UIUC Admissions Office using affirmative action principles in their admission choices.
In their conduct, we saw an organization abdicating their responsibility to upholding a healthy public sphere, and instead deciding that a good public sphere was one where they occupied a starring role — for better or for worse. But this was just the beginning.
Fast forward to Earth Week of this year.
The Illini Republicans planned a “Free Meat Monday/People Eating Tasty Animals” event on the Quad. Amazingly, the abomination of a title is the least concerning thing about this event. Conceived in protest of the “Meatless Monday” event co-hosted by SECS and the Student Government, the event quickly gained the attention of activists around campus. A cursory glance through the discussion forum attached to the event page reveals that the event was not designed to further public discussion or to better pursue objective truths about dietary choices. The event description was riddled with inaccuracies, and any attempt to alert the group to this, no matter how cool-headed, was simply ignored. In fact, I, as a third-year dietetics student, offered to pass on the contact information of UIUC nutrition professors who could lend a degree of clarity to the facts of the matter. I was, as expected, turned down. Facts were irrelevant.
Quickly, it became clear that the event wasn’t about meat. It wasn’t even about a protest. It was about one thing: offending liberals and framing them as delicate “snowflakes” who can’t handle the real world.
In a strange twist of irony, the event was never actually held due to the presence of actual snowflakes (it was canceled due to mildly chilly weather). When I asked, they said they would not be rescheduling.
For the most recent event, we fast forward to April 18, 2018. According to Illini Union RSO office records (and the Illini Republicans Facebook Page), the Illini Republicans reserved space on the Quad for a pro-life group called “Created Equal.” Under the guise of a deceptively innocent name, the group tours college campuses across the country, displaying graphic images of what they call “abortion victims.” The display they erected at UIUC was so inappropriate that even a pro-life student group, the Illini chapter of “WeDignify” (formerly Illini for Life) denounced the event saying...
“We interact with others by building common ground, listening to them, and always upholding and affirming their dignity. However, there are some well-intentioned individuals and groups in the pro-life movement who take a different approach. They use shock tactics, graphic images, and alienating language. We disagree with these tactics and think they are harmful to building a culture where all lives are dignified.”
Credit for this statement goes to WeDignify’s President, Ted Lataif. Mr. Lataif, if you are reading this, thank you for standing up for civility in the public sphere. It is recognized and appreciated.
Unfortunately, for as measured and considerate as WeDignify was in their statement, I cannot say the same for how the Illini Republicans responded to it.
When I brought the statement to the attention of the Illini Republicans, they told me they are unfamiliar with WeDignify, adding that “maybe WeDignify would be better known if they tried different tactics.” This stunned me. This was a quote given to me on the record by a student conservative group, insulting another conservative student group that they had self-admittedly never heard of until minutes ago. Somehow, the group managed to take their own ignorance and spin it into an entirely baseless insult that would accomplish nothing of value for anyone — least of all the conservative movement on campus. The lack of logic stunned me.
The group hasn’t always been like this. Republicanism hasn’t always been like this. Formerly, the Illini Republicans were simply a group of kids inviting candidates to speak to them, calling for term limits to remove Mike Madigan from office, and promoting pragmatic, bipartisan statewide legislation that gave at least some voice to the Republican legislative minority. But now, all motive for compromise is gone. The goal of today’s brand of Republicanism is not an improvement in our society, it’s not the promotion of free market economics, and it’s not reduced government intervention. The goal is simply to anger the opposition — which apparently includes anyone even slightly opposed to their methods — through whatever means necessary.
The ends justify the meanness — not just on our campus, but nationwide. An entire party’s identity has been stolen by the demagogic kakistocracy of President Donald Trump.
If there is any consolation for those that mourn the loss of a cool-headed conservative voice in our public sphere, it’s that the Illini Republicans have largely failed in their activism. These reckless tactics don’t work.
The Affirmative Action Bake Sale event functioned mostly to increase press for an opposing fundraiser that profited considerably. And when the Free Meat on the Quad event caught the attention of activists across campus, the original Meatless Monday event found itself entertaining a far larger guest list than had been expected.
In the eyes of many activists across campus that crossed paths with them, the group reaped what they sowed. Abdicating honesty and class in the name of political activism is certainly appealing, but the simple truth of activism is, in order to advance a cause, bridges must be built.
Hopefully, they will learn their lessons. Hopefully, next year we will see fresh strategies and a renewed appreciation of truth and honor. Hopefully.
We need strong, civic-minded discussion on campus. We need debate. We need disagreement. We need dissent. But right now, the Illini Republicans are not providing it.
Top graphic is a previous Facebook cover for the Illini Republicans.