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COLUMN

A Belgian Painter and the Flag Debate

James P. Skelley

Between psets and cluster romances, most students don’t have much time for discussions of MIT’s administrative philosophy. Likewise, the administration is often too busy procuring funds for the psets and cluster romances to spend time comprehending the machinations of the average student. Usually, so long as the psets and cluster romances continue, this is not really a problem. However, a friend of mine has brought it to my attention that several -- shall we say, radical -- students have been considering staging a demonstration in response to the recent conflict between Ms. Nilsson, Jonathon Goler, and a particularly troublesome fire code. I’m certainly not opposed to students voicing their opinion -- nor is it my hope to influence your opinion through this article. As you are a student or faculty member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we should all hope that you are perfectly capable of forming your own opinion. Rather, by the end of this article I hope both faculty and students will act on their opinions with even more sincerity and conviction.

And to do that, I will require a Belgian.

Rene Magritte was a surrealist Belgian painter. If you ever have the chance, you can alienate/impress your friends at frat/cocktail parties by Googling his 1926 painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” It’s pretty simple -- no nudity, no subtle undertones, no dark artistic angst -- it’s just a picture of a pipe. The title “This is not a pipe”, however, is why Rene ups his Google Page Rank. It’s not a pipe. It’s lines and swirls and some oil, which your mind has put together into the representation of a pipe. The symbol is not the thing -- a symbol is a symbol.

Now, the strands of cotton or polyester hanging outside Jon Goler’s window obviously mean more than their chemical content. They are a symbol for an intangible concept. Ms. Nilsson’s actions are also symbolic. Her attempts to bring the flag inside the window indicate MIT’s larger concern for maintaining administrative policy.

The tricky part of this business is to be sure you’re fighting for your pipe and not for the oil and swirls.

If you are truly concerned about the concepts symbolized by the flag, or if you are truly concerned about upholding the standards of MIT then you must take care to direct your efforts toward your values and not toward the mere representation of those values.

Before you take action -- be it in ordering an eviction, or in demonstrating your concern publicly -- ask yourself what exactly it is you hope to achieve. Supposing you are successful -- will this bring you closer to your goal? Could you take action without alienating the other side -- leaving yourself to pursue your motives in peace?

If you feel passionately about something, there’s probably a good reason behind it -- take time to find out what that reason is. In a world where people strap electrodes to their abs in delusions of sexual sublimity, and two-hundred channels of television are funded almost entirely by commercials, the first person you should take time to understand is yourself.

If there is absolutely no alternative, then perhaps you should take action to completely alienate yourself from the opposing side. There’s no point in reasoning with the unreasonable.

On the other hand, we are both here for the psets and cluster romances, aren’t we?

James P. Skelley is a member of the Class of 2004.