On the morning of Wed., Nov. 9, the American Studies Undergraduate Registrar sent out an email advertising an event to “students who are wondering what happened yesterday.” I decided to attend, hoping that I might get some answers.
I haven’t fully processed what happened on Tuesday night. I also haven’t fully processed what happened on Wednesday night, at “Truth in the Internet Age,” the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism’s inaugural symposium. The event was like a microcosm of the campaign season: journalists talked over each other; people recalled being targeted online; the audience cheered, snapped, and scoffed. CNN’s Tanzina Vega said she was called a “beaner cunt” on Twitter earlier in the evening, and Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald laughed. Vega paused. “I actually don’t think it’s funny.”
The event description promised a lot of things. “Influential professionals from the news media, social media, and academia” would be brought together “to illuminate how the ongoing revolutions in journalism and social media are threatening the integrity of the democratic process.” One of those professionals, Scott Carpenter, the manager of Jigsaw (previously known as Google Ideas), was one of the only panelists to raise interesting points about technology, but the most salient thing he said was that “this talk is not about the Internet, really.” An understatement, to say the least.
Why didn’t the panels dive into questions about truth and the Internet? Perhaps because no one really had any answers. Instead, the moderator, former Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren, who was thoughtful and judicious for so much of the evening, steered the final student panel, “What Now? Seeking Solutions,” into a lecture on microaggressions. She told the student panel that the world is hard—she said that she didn’t want the panelists, the “leaders of tomorrow,” to be too sensitive. She also repeatedly emphasized that she hoped she was not being ignorant in her lines of questioning. She genuinely wanted to understand, she told us.
After three hours in the Yale Law School auditorium, I felt even more upset and confused than I had before. It wasn’t that the panelists didn’t offer explanations—they did. Some identified themselves as complicit: Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal and Eliana Johnson of The National Review both admitted that they had constructed coherent sentences out of Trump’s unintelligible ramblings, allowing him to be more easily understood. What upset me most was that this was a group of incredibly intelligent people explicitly attempting to engage in civil discourse, and they weren’t failing, but they weren’t succeeding, either. The event was a reminder of how hard it is to generate productive dialogue. The results didn’t seem real to me, but the disconnect between those of us in the room and the rest of the country certainly did.
Sometimes, this disconnect manifested even within the room. During the final audience Q&A, Arturo Pineda, SM ’19, answered a question that Kurt Eichenwald asked without being called on. Eichenwald wanted to know how you convince people who are “struggling day to day” that they need to be “concerned with microaggressions.” Arturo responded: “I come from a working class background,” he said. “Both of my parents are immigrants. I know what it’s like to grow up going from paycheck to paycheck. I think you pose the question as though the two are mutually exclusive. I can care about microaggressions and also struggle in this way.” Not everyone at Yale can speak to this experience. And definitely not all the panelists on Wednesday could.
I left the Law School with no better sense of what happened on Tuesday or what’s going to happen next. And how could I? No one who spoke on Wednesday night saw the election results coming. So many of us at this school had never seriously considered our present reality.
By the time the event drew to a close, three quarters of the audience had already left. Even some of the panelists didn’t wait to hear the closing remarks. Salovey ended the night with a reminder that Yale is an institution built on the understanding that “facts are important.” Reconciling this ideal with our president-elect seems impossible. This event was supposed to be a meditation on political truth, when in reality, I’ve never felt farther from it.