Bernie Sanders spoke on campus this week as part of the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium’s 2016 lineup, “Facing Fracture.” The speech, co-hosted by the Foreign Affairs Symposium, covered a wide range of topics, including Sanders’ own background living in rural Vermont and his frustration with the current media landscape. Sanders drew much of his speech from his new book, Our Revolution, copies of which were distributed for free to attendees of the live speech in Shriver Hall and viewers of the live stream in overflow rooms across campus. Sanders spoke with his characteristic curmudgeon-ness and enthusiastic hand gestures to a receptive audience that responded with fervor to his speech.
A large portion of his remarks centered on mass media, and especially the ignorance of media towards certain issues. Sanders opened this section of his remarks with a quote from journalist A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those who own one.” Sanders spoke extensively about the deep control a few very powerful companies have over the media we consume. As such, he argued, what these few companies choose to show us is what we as a society value. Sanders brought up the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The residents of Flint still need to use bottled water to wash and cook with every day, but the mainstream media has since moved on from their strife. Sanders also shared his more personal story living in a part of America the media rarely covers. The town of Stannard, Vermont has a population of less than 200, and for some time Senator Sanders and his wife Jane lived there. Sanders described the isolation of the town during the winter when the unpaved roads were impassable, and (much like Flint) the town needed to use plastic water jugs because of frozen pipes. This part of America is one that is often unseen because the media chooses not to cover it, but it is still part of America nonetheless.
Another particularly engaging section of his speech was focused on campaign finance reform and creating a more egalitarian government that works for all Americans. Sanders acknowledged the main private antagonists of campaign finance reform, the Koch brothers, saying, “American democracy means one person, one vote. Not billionaires buying elections.” The lifelong struggle of this nation has been in expanding democracy, from legalizing the vote for African Americans and women, to lowering the voting age to 18 and enfranchising young people. Sanders says that there are many in this nation - including, he says, groups of Republican governors across the country - that are systematically restricting the right to vote. Especially for poor Americans, minority groups, and the elderly, voter ID laws are extremely restrictive and can disenfranchise entire communities.
Where Sanders really enthralled the audience was in his discussion of a “progressive vision.” Progressivism, he noted, differs from liberalism in that progressives deeply value economic equality and the dismantling of the extreme wealth of the very few. “In this country, we are becoming a nation in which both our economy and our political lives are controlled by a small number of extraordinarily wealthy families,” Sanders said. Looking ahead to the next four years, Sanders encouraged activism within the student body and especially with young people nationwide.
Certainly Sanders’ speech was entertaining, and the atmosphere on campus made it all the more so. The live speech in Shriver Hall ran out of tickets in a matter of minutes and the overflow rooms in several lecture halls had lines for hours before the doors opened. This event was the highlight of the fall semester, and it definitely deserved the hubbub it generated. While some may feel that Sanders’ frequent references to his book were somewhat irritating and made for a run-of-the-mill speech, many feel quite honored to hear Sanders’ remarks at Hopkins. Sanders is an immensely powerful speaker, and Larry David jokes aside, his words certainly inspired a significant segment of our Hopkins community and a community of progressives nationwide. In a time of great uncertainty and fear for many in the diverse group of students at Hopkins, Sanders’ speech came at a time for many to find a direction towards getting involved in a more progressive vision for the future of our nation.
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