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Taking the politics out of politics at McGill

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In the lead up to the 1921 federal election, The McGill Daily ran an editorial urging all to vote who were eligible, while strenuously declining to endorse a party. The credo of the newspaper was at that time to "remain non-partisan and never to take a side in political affairs."

On March 28, 2011 The McGill Daily published an editorial calling for the university to cut recently established ties with the Hebrew University. The usual stream of lively and angry comments appeared below the article and a week later, McGill's Principal Heather Munroe-Blum wrote an opinion piece in The Daily condemning the editorial.

The shift toward political engagement over the last 90 years is obvious. But despite the paper's now longstanding politicization, this still provokes strong negative reactions. Even The Daily's yearly endorsements of student politicians often receive the most scathing online comments, taking the paper to task for perceived favouritism.

The pressure to find a supposedly neutral centre is strong everywhere, and growing stronger. This is true on McGill's campus, and it's true in the current federal election. This year's crop of candidates for council touted their commitments to "working together," transparency and sustainability -- hardly objectionable ideals, but politically toothless. Cooperation, sustainability and transparency should be taken for granted, not presented as innovative platforms. It's the sort of rhetoric you expect -- and get in abundance -- from the increasingly indistinguishable leaders of the federal parties.

Coming from students, it's even more disheartening -- aren't these supposed to be the young idealists, not yet confined to the narrow realm of professional politics? At universities like Concordia and U of T, the slate system of student elections replicates the bland packaging of federal parties in miniature form. Across the board, it seems that the term "student politics" is fast losing its radical edge.

The overwhelming impulse is to take the politics out of politics. At such a time a paper like The Daily's approach can seem antiquated.

But the desire to transcend politics is neither harmless nor apolitical -- it's one of the most politically motivated and consequential positions out there. It limits what can and can't be said. People who continue to focus on topics outside the boundaries of acceptable political debate are branded either as extremists, members of a radical fringe or pedants needlessly harping on about something that should be buried away and forgotten.

Heather Munroe-Blum's response to the The Daily's editorial is a case in point, following all too common patterns of depoliticization when she writes about "knowledge and discovery that transcends specific political situations, promotes human understanding and advances the civilizing power of knowledge." This is either the naive hope of a political neophyte or a calculated measure to remove a controversial situation -- the role of Hebrew University in Israel's ongoing occupation -- from the realm of what can be addressed in political discourse. Heather Munroe-Blum is no neophyte.

On the contrary, the principal's response is an attempt to limit what's acceptable to say, what opinions are valid and ultimately what role students have in shaping the future of our university. Ultimately, The Daily's editorial and the small group of students concerned about the McGill-Hebrew University program aren't going to have much effect on the outcome, even if Munroe-Blum had never become so vocally involved. Compared with other universities, McGill is a pretty conservative place in its students as well as administration.

But the fact that the principal of a 35,000-student university would take the time to write such a response also points to something else. Munroe-Blum is obviously on the defensive -- accusing your own student of cowardice -- and obviously intent on having as large of an impact as possible, reposting her article on the National Post's website.

The Post unsurprisingly declined to print this response, arguing that "student manifestos against Israel are a dime a dozen." The refusal to allow for an actual debate on the national platform that Munroe-Blum has stepped onto denies the totally political nature of the dispute. It sticks to what she portrays as a valiant attempt to keep academia neutral, to not take into account political connections when forging academic partnerships. But the fact is, no institutional ties are free of politics.

Whether you agree with The Daily's stance or not, it's still vital to question whether the ideal of complete neutrality is possible or ideal. Giving up on politics means abandoning the possibility of change. Agreeing to neutrality means accepting that only those with power can make decisions and shape the future of our institutions, whether they are a university or a country.

Heather Munroe-Blum's charge of cowardice against The Daily follows the same pattern as Stephen Harper's accusations of opportunism against the opposition and claims that this is "an election the economy doesn't need." Both point to a lack of willingness to engage in meaningful debate, and what seems to be a total contempt for anyone who dares to disagree. Maybe, it really means that they're on shakier ground than they'd like you to believe.

Emilio Comay del Junco is the outgoing coordinating editor of The McGill Daily, but the views expressed here are his own.

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