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COLUMN

The Story So Far

Andrew C. Thomas

For the first time since May, judging by the letters to the editor we in Opinion have received, debate is raging on this campus. As someone who believes that debate is necessary for this campus to function properly, I couldn’t be happier about it. People are expressing opinions and fighting it out over public issues, and this campus seems to have once again found its soul in verbal brawl.

The flag issue, above all, has raged on for these past few months. The parties involved have seemed incapable of reaching an amicable settlement to the problem, and both sides seem content to fight only from their point of view without compromise. But I find that despite the research and coverage provided by The Tech, there has not yet been a strong timeline and collection of facts to see what has actually transpired, and people are relying on their own perceptions of the issues at hand rather than an analysis of the particulars. I feel that further debate would be unwise without such a recap.

So here we go.

The original complaint regarded an Israeli flag owned by Jonathan Goler and hung from the outside of his window. In early July, a fellow resident of Sidney-Pacific complained to the Housing Office that the flag made them feel unwelcome in the Sidney-Pacific courtyard. Associate Housemaster Keith Hampton conveyed the complaint to Goler, and asked him to bring his flag in from outside of the window.

The reasons cited for moving the flag inside the window were numerous. It was considered a violation of fire and safety codes, as well as Sidney-Pacific’s house regulations. In addition, if Goler’s flag were flammable, it would violate Massachusetts fire laws. Karen A. Nilsson, director of housing operations, has been quoted as saying that the architectural significance of much of the MIT campus is a concern to the administration in general.

Goler’s main rebuttal has been that these rules have been applied selectively to him, and that because some of these rules have not been regularly enforced, he believes he was targeted.

OK, facts over.

As someone observing from a distance, it seems to me that a debate with only a minor political component has been hijacked by idealogues to advance the political debate at the expense of reason. And as a result, by saying that the issue was about the politics of Israel, it became true whether or not the facts supported it. I have faith that all parties involved in this case -- Jonathan Goler, Karen Nilsson, Keith Hampton, and those others who have gained high profile -- are all people of good character who are also strong-willed. I find it a shame that events have portrayed all of these people with undue political and personal bias when the issue never should have revolved around it to begin with.

Since the flag can still be flown on the inside, with or without a backlight, freedom of expression or politics should not be the primary issue, but instead the system through which this dispute can be properly negotiated on its technical merits. That the nature of the original complaint may have been political should have been and still is immaterial. While the complaint may have been insensitive, it is still the duty of those in question to uphold the basic rules. Anything else would be an abuse of power out of personal motivation.

Just because a rule is not enforced rigorously, it is no less valid on those occasions when it is. Rules should not be applied selectively, this is true, but such an example of ignorance should not be remedied by continued ignorance. It should be answered by a renewed commitment to its enforcement. The proper response -- by either the offender or the authority should not be to cry out that one is being mistreated, but to deal with the rule in question and then, through the proper forum, appeal it. If police were to decide to start ticketing jaywalkers, we should deal with the situation in the correct way -- by accepting the ticket and appealing it to a judge, not by slugging the cop in the jaw and running for it.

Given this, I do not find it at all unreasonable that all external decorations are being examined, including long-hanging Israeli flags at Bexley with considerably more visibility. Goler is not being targeted in particular, despite the fact that the complaint against his flag came first. His case should merely serve as a catalyst for the rule to be reviewed. It is certainly within Goler’s power to seek a change to the rule, and within the administration’s to continue to enforce existing ones. Threats given on either side should not have been necessary -- such brinkmanship belongs at sea or on the poker table -- but some actions have been unfortunately perceived as such. I fear that the reputations of those involved in this matter have been unduly smeared for these reasons, though I do not believe that those reasons are any more unusual than those which taint any debate and attempt to forcibly create two sides to the issue.

The appeals process has since begun, as Dean Larry Benedict is forming a committee to oversee the rule of external decorations. I hope that this committee treats flags in the same way as air conditioners, which some people consider to be greater eyesores than flags or posters, and certainly worse for the environment in terms of sound and pollution. Whether the right to clear expression is equivalent to the right to a cool, refreshing climate at the expense of someone’s sensibilities -- or sensitivities -- is a valid issue for debate.

In the grand scheme, we should consider ourselves lucky. I am relieved that no one has, as of yet, attempted to fly the swastika or the stars and bars on this campus, as these symbols have stirred much greater controversy at other schools very recently. It tells me that in general, the people of this community are tolerant and patient enough to attempt to resolve disputes with a minimum of discomfort. We would be very unfortunate to have the situation end otherwise.