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At Exeter Assembly

Anti-war activist argues for socialism

Published Feb 14, 2008 8:38 PM

Sara Flounders, co-director of the International Action Center, delivered a 30-minute assembly program on Feb. 8 to the 1,000-person student body of Phillips Exeter Academy, a prominent private high school in New Hampshire. Her talk was divided into four sections: why capitalism requires war and inequality; why capitalism requires racism; the basics of socialism; and the choices that we make that impact society.

Assembly programs are held three times a week at Phillips Exeter and, judging by the buzz Flounders’ talk created on campus, this was the most notable assembly of the year.

At one point during the assembly, Sara Flounders sparked giggles throughout the crowd when she pointed out how people refuse to treat socialism as they’d treat any other area of life, refuse to even “allow room for trial and error.” She asked the crowd if we’d say the same things about scientific pursuits as we do about socialism: “The Wright Brothers. If god wanted us to fly he would have given us wings. It’s a good idea but an ideal that will never work. Would you say that about electricity ... lightning kills? If we were supposed to have light then night wouldn’t be dark.”

On a less humorous note Flounders also mentioned the $660 billion U.S. military budget, compared to the $40 billion required to end poverty in developing nations. Her exposure of U.S. foreign policy raised a few eyebrows and murmurs throughout the crowd. Keep in mind the Phillips Exeter Academy has a $1 billion endowment—that’s over $1 million per student—and that Duponts and Rockefellers attend Exeter, as did former National Security Adviser John Negroponte’s son last year. But now one-third of the students get financial aid, about 20 percent are Asian and 5-10 percent Black.

After the assembly, Flounders continued the discussion in the dining hall with a group of about 10 students. A few students spent a good portion of this smaller discussion making hostile right-wing remarks; however, when Flounders invited the only two females to speak, one of them made the most productive remark. “I think you can see even from this table the ill effects of a still predominantly patriarchal society,” she said, poking fun at the male belligerence around the table.

The student went on to ask Flounders how she maintained her revolutionary enthusiasm, to which Flounders responded that she was motivated by the movements of the 1960s and the gains that have been made from those struggles. Flounders also spoke to three classrooms on different subjects.

The student response to Sara Flounders was mixed on class lines and political lines. The arguments of detractors were the same typical ones often heard during debates at Exeter: socialism won’t work because of human nature. For them, Flounders’ socialist analysis of society was too “simplistic” and “idealistic.” The first argument assumes that people are innately and fundamentally selfish, always have been and always will be, and do not have a capacity to cooperate well enough to establish equality.

As for the second argument, it might appear to be a refutation of ideas in general. Most people who argue it also subscribe to Adam Smith’s peculiar idea that by rapacious and vicious pursuit of their own self-interests, capitalists benefit all of society. At a rich school like Exeter, these stale arguments are inevitably exhaled and inhaled, unaltered, in all seriousness.

More important are the students who said that Flounder’s assembly was the best of the year, the students who were energized and encouraged to action by her speech. That IAC co-director Sara Flounders managed to rile up the whole  campus and spark heated debates attests to the success of her assembly speech.