Conservative voices weigh in during Dion panel discussion

April 12, 2017

With its focus on politically, socially or economically “conservative” voices among the Saint Michael’s community, Tuesday evening’s panel discussion in the Dion Family Student Center Roy Room represented vital values of democracy and community, the opening speakers suggested.

“It’s important for us to create a space for conversations that is not exclusive, but is inclusive,” said Moise St. Louis, associate dean of students/director of multicultural affairs and services, whose initiatives this year have assured ongoing dialogue on issues like privilege, race and power. Earlier sessions this year hewed more to ideas commonly identified with “liberal” values by many Americans, and St. Louis thought it was important to present balance, so he invited the participants and organized the event.

David Mindich, Tuesday’s moderator from the Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts faculty — a supporter in the last presidential election of Bernie Sanders and a self-identified liberal on most issues — said he likely disagreed on most major points with the panelists, yet in his journalism profession, “part of my role is to have people confronted by views they don’t necessarily agree with — democracy depends on views colliding with other views.” He said all the panelists were people he has worked closely with for many years and toward whom he feels great respect and love despite their differences. He said Vermont feels exceptional among states in the way people still find common ground and work together respectfully in politics — perhaps an example for the U.S. of how that can be.

Tuesday’s panel included Edward Mahoney of the religious studies faculty, who explained where he, the pope and U.S. Catholic bishops were coming from on a host of issues; Michael Battig of the computer science faculty, who testified frankly and authentically about his evangelical Protestant life-focus on Jesus Christ, starting in college, since that faith centrally informs his world view; Robert Letovsky of the business & accounting faculty, who championed free markets as the most powerful engine of hope and well-being we know; and Michael New, vice president of human resources, who — like all the others — rejected easy “labels” such as “conservative” and “liberal.”

New described his pre-Saint-Michael’s life in corporate and military venues, traditionally seen as conservative bastions, he acknowledged — but echoing his fellow panelists, he observed that real life for most people is more complex and nuanced, making it an unhelpful mistake to generalize, or assume where others are coming from, or look down on others for holding alternate views. He described his own active community social-work on behalf of the homeless in greater Burlington, and the respect he feels toward old-school, more moderate statesmen-Republicans and conservatives of his younger years – Weicker, Javits, Jeffords – men who to his mind bear little resemblance to popular GOP leaders today. But, New feels that Vermont’s recent Governors Douglas and Scott, who would self-ID as conservative, still fit into that nobler and less extreme mold of yesteryear.

Perhaps 40 people attended the discussion that lasted about 90 minutes, including many students, some faculty and staff, and a group of Edmundites. Other points in initial panelist statements or during questions and answers from the audience after included:

  • Ed Mahoney said it was hard to pin down where he might sit on any measure of left or right given his core Catholic-theology-formed views: For example, more in line with traditional liberal views, he agrees with Pope Francis’s criticism of financial systems, is comfortable with the church and U.S. bishops’ teaching on labor and rights of workers to form unions and have better working conditions; yet he supports the bishops in opposition to gay marriage and to abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and capital punishment, all of which he and Catholic teaching consider to be morally wrong. He feels that too often at Saint Michael’s, the prevailing focus becomes watered-down secular notions of community, social justice and hospitality, without understanding those ideas in the Catholic tradition and spiritual history of the Society of Saint Edmund, which he would like to see in more explicit evidence. Long ago, when he was associate dean, he saw first-hand how difficult it can be to be a conservative student on campus, Mahoney said, noting that many times when students left school, it was over difficulties in “trying to live fairly traditional lives without alcohol or drugs or sexual promiscuity.” To him it is important that the college better support students trying to live by those values, while helping them have their voices heard on campus.
  • Before sharing his personal faith testimony, Mike Battig described how he had lived in states traditionally thought of as among both the “reddest” and bluest’ – Ohio and Mississippi, then Vermont – and came to realize how little such labels mean. “At St. Mike’s I want us to move beyond labels … we need to forebear with each other and accept all sorts of differences,” he said. “Life is messiness,” and things we take exception to often are simply matters of personal preference, said Battig, explaining that his preference is to find purposefulness and consolation through his community of faith. Later, during questions, he emphasized how important he sees it to welcome and learn from international students; he also challenged people “to think of our personal economics” beyond just weighing merits of world economic systems, and realize it’s more blessed to give than receive, as the Bible teaches; yet “when I look at Americans I question sometimes whether anybody really believes that,” Battig said, adding he likes free markets, but primarily so people can make money to give to others and experience the joy of that that action, even though it feels counterintuitive to our natures sometimes.
  • Robert Letovsky said he rejects the label of conservatism since “that means someone who is averse to change and goes with the majority, and that’s what we have on this campus already [everyone being averse to change and going with the left-leaning majority]. So I consider myself to be the real liberal.” He used a world map relating free markets to prosperity and repression to poverty to then dramatize his view that “I’m a free market guy … and believe that’s the greatest source of hope ever devised by mankind.” He also said “where you have socialism you have boat people” and observed that India and China have reduced poverty as they move toward more free market capitalism; and that South Koreans are taller than North Koreans, directly related to the relative freedom of their markets, while Venezuelans under the socialist Chavez beg in the streets for life’s basics. And yet, at colleges, all too consistently and perplexingly in his view, the message that students or faculty get — “if you get a message at all” — is “one of anti-free market socialism.” St. Louis pushed back about free markets during questions, saying “one can’t argue that capitalism is not structured in a way that creates dependency and the oppression in the Third World [and not] directly related to the system imposed on her,” asserting that we ought not obscure that part of the story. Letovsky said colonialism of the turn of the last century was mainly responsible for those unjust structures, and was equivalent to modern “crony capitalism” — and not the ideal model of free markets he was talking about. Asked St. Louis, “How can we maintain this notion that all lives matter when we know for sure that’s not the case, that we prioritize lives by the very way in which we establish our system and make sure some lives won’t matter?”
  • Mindich asked panelists how they felt about initiatives by the present Republican administration and supporters of those initiatives – things that horrify him daily — to gut health care, give tax breaks to the wealthy, reduce transgender kids’ rights, disenfranchise blacks, demonize Muslims and roll back immigrants’ rights. Panelist responses revealed that some either rejected large aspects of those initiatives on personal moral grounds, or at least rejected being painted with such a broad brush of indictment by the question when their and most conservatives’ individual views in reality are more complex and nuanced than the assumptions they felt were being made. Mindich said he made no assumptions, but only wondered about their feelings. All seemed to support the welcoming of immigrants as an engine of healthy capitalism and democracy, citing recent personal or media illustrations of that.
  • Health care was a topic of some discussion – Letovsky wondered who had experienced the Canadian health care system since he as an immigrant from Canada had lived and heard many horror stories in it. Mahoney said years ago he had a good free medical experience in a Belgium hospital that amounted to a socialized system, but didn’t know about Canada. Letovsky explained the economics that made him believe free markets would improve health care and be more humane, using examples of car insurance and life insurance, and how those work so well. “We don’t have a crisis in any of those areas,” he said. Mindich said it was misleading to understand the issue as simply a binary choice, as Letovsky seemed to be presenting, and that many working European systems incorporate elements from both approaches.
  • Battig said we should be aware that college campuses are by definition “a little to the left of the general populace,” which he has seen on the Saint Michael’s campus, as last election season when he observed a female faculty member harassed for refusing to identify with Hillary Clinton – or when some others in the community were harassed for voting for Trump, even though maybe they didn’t. “I’d say, ‘don’t make assumptions – you don’t know — and if they did vote for him, it’s bigoted to feel they are ignoramuses and to start using the f-word — I don’t think that dignifies people as human beings.’”
  • Other issues covered during questions were the Mexican trade agreement and its effects, and the consistent ethic of life notion of Cardinal Bernardin, raised by Fr. Brian Cummings of Campus Ministry from the audience; also, Mahoney qualified that from his Catholic view, free markets may be generally the best, but not for all peoples, and it needs to be guided with just government oversight so that more than only economic principles are in play, but also an eye to justice.

Panelists stayed after the formal program to engage students in earnest discussions.

Mindich summarized some of his key take-aways from the panel: that even with very different views, “we can be collegial and respect each other,” that a successful college has many views, that “respectful disagreement, sometimes angry disagreement is proper for any successful college,” and that “we can grow from and learn from and be astonished by one another and see the humanity in each other – it doesn’t mean we should give up the fight or back down on our traditions, but, with respect and love, see each other’s humanity and then fight for the change we want to see.”

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