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The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Conservative, n. A statesman enamored of existing evils, as opposed to a Liberal, who wants to replace them with others.

– Ambrose Bierce

If I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time. The super genius of all time. If you’re a conservative Republican, you’ve got to fight for your life. It’s really an amazing thing.

– Donald J. Trump

If you spent any time at DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus in March, you may have noticed a miniature drama unfolding alongside bulletin boards and flyer-splattered columns. Or maybe a comedy, depending on your politics.

On a Tuesday afternoon, for instance, a student was walking by one of the boards when she stopped mid-stride. Squinting to read one poster’s smallish text, she gasped before ripping it down and then in half. Even from across the room, Nicole Been could see the disgust on the student’s face as she shoved her way out of the building through the revolving doors. Nicole grinned.

With the perpetrator out of sight, Nicole jaunted back to the board with an identical flyer in one hand and unhinged stapler in the other. After a thwack, her organization’s poster was restored.  She took a moment to admire her handiwork: a rainbow flag behind the iconic “Don’t Tread on Me” snake that invited DePaul’s “closet conservatives” to find a safe, understanding home with College Republicans.

She shrugged. “DePaul approved them,” she said, somehow hinting at a wicked sense of destruction. It might have seemed more appropriate coming from the mouth of an anarchist than it did from the 20-something blonde-haired college student standing in front of me, dressed by Vineyard Vines with a healthy dollop of pearls.

Nicole Been, a junior, doesn’t really know why she chose DePaul University. She isn’t sure she’d choose it again if she had the chance; Chicago isn’t particularly fertile ground for conservative castaways.

She’s no Dorothy – plucked out of Kansas and hurled into Oz – even if it feels that way sometimes. She goes out, she has friends, favorite teachers, stories that don’t (entirely) hinge on her political belief. Her favorite bar is the Houndstooth in Wrigleyville, although regulars will tell you it’s more of a saloon than anything else. She can get a taste of the life she might have had here, one she’d like to get a hold of in the future. It’s the honky-tonk music, bits of Alabama football everywhere she looks, and the bartenders that call her “hun” – a pocket of warmth in an otherwise desolate, liberal wasteland.

Watching someone rip down your posters should probably piss you off. Nicole lives for the moments like this – moments where she gets to bask in the righteous heat of progressive indignation, cranking out her message with the windows rolled down.

“I crave making the liberals at DePaul angry,” she said to me at one point. Again, she shrugged. “I think it’s fun.”

Nicole Been prepares for a February dodgeball game between DePaul College Republicans and College Democrats. Photos by Brendan Pedersen.

It wasn’t until winter quarter of freshman year that I got sick of my dorm room and walked into an extracurricular meeting. I decided I wanted prestige and A-list social recognition. I joined the congressional debate team. After the meeting was over, I texted a friend back home some good news:  “found a conservative punching bag lol.”

I walked into that room, saw a Republican caricature, and was ecstatic. Nicole looked the part at least, decked in a white sweater, pearls (always pearls), boat shoes, and a tan that was at least mildly suspicious for January in Chicago.

Now, to be clear, “punching bag” wasn’t an expression of malice; it was genuine excitement, even respect. In every classroom-style debate or discussion I’d had in high school, opinions that stepped outside the norm would always be lofted within the tepid frames of “well, let’s say that…” or “suppose…” or, worst of all, “I’m going to play the devil’s advocate for just a second here.” Half-formed, half-believed speculations of someone else’s truth felt empty. It was like sparring with the air.

But then you’ve got a punching bag hooked up and hanging from the ceiling; a 150 pound bulk of leather, ripped-up mattress, and tire rubber asking what you’re going to do about it. If you’ve been throwing punches at the wind for the past 20 years, that first swing is probably going to sting.

I’ve known Nicole for about a year now. I’m not sure if she’d call me a friend, but we’ve always been friendly. She left the debate team after a quarter of fighting with the club’s president – he was her political opposite, save the magnitude of their shared self-righteousness – and has since lead DePaul’s College Republicans. As an infrequent DePaulia contributor, I come to her whenever I need a dash of adversity. She’s always more than happy to oblige.

There are people at DePaul University who despise Nicole Been. In a post on the Class of 2019’s Facebook page last month, she invited “those of you who don’t get offended” to visit College Republicans on Monday nights. The reception was less than friendly. One comment referred to “all those rightwingers [sic] that think that their freedom of speech is under attack because they can’t say the n word.” Another extended the invitation to anyone who wanted to “throw around some misguided bullshit.” The closing line, dated Feb. 7 , 2016 at 11:57 p.m., reads “wow you support trump why am i [sic] even talking to you,” and was posted by someone who had commented in the thread 28 times.

I’ll admit the average Facebook interaction is not humanity at its best – it wouldn’t be fair to presume much about the spirit of campus politics from a single post. But even offline you can feel it; this pervasive, background sense of vitriol. People’s faces would contort when I told them about the profile I was writing: a deep blink of disbelief and arched eyebrows, followed by a compulsively blurted “why?!” That’s a hell of a reaction for someone who isn’t exactly a public figure.

Talking to members of College Democrats, though, there’s an unmistakable hum of admiration when they talk about Nicole – even if they’re in the middle of condemning her. Nassir Faulkner, president of CD, described her diplomatically as “very passionate about what she believes in, and I admire that about her because she doesn’t always believe in what’s popular.” Kyla Patterson, the Democrats’ director of membership, said she “respected the fact that she’s so secure in her views.”

“She’s a diehard Republican at a very liberal school in a very liberal city,” Kyla said. “She’s unapologetic about it. She owns it, and I think that’s really cool. Do I agree with her? No.”

 

 

It’s February of last year, and Nicole is manning an informational table for College Republicans. It’s one of her favorite ways of finding new recruits, especially on the days that high school students visit with their families.  Walking by, parents from the suburbs would always give their kid a quick elbow and a nod towards Nicole’s eager footsoldiers, telling them they’d “better join that one.”

This time, she’s tabling at the Student Center solo. Waiting patiently for innocent passersby to get caught staring, her body suggests she’s behind enemy lines; open and friendly enough to invite fellow dissidents aboard while also intense and lightly rigid, as if she would cut you if you tried something. It also happens to be Ash Wednesday, and the black smudge on her forehead has a vague kinship with the face on her Chicago Blackhawks jersey. She’s twisting at her strand of pearls.

It has been a slow day. A girl with short dark curls walks up to the table. She asks a few questions. Nicole answers and hesitantly offers some literature. The girl is a feminist, she says, and a lesbian, and her parents (Catholic) had kicked her out for it. Nicole realizes her smudge has become a billboard. She apologizes, but doesn’t come across as incredibly sympathetic. Questions jerkily turn into accusations, hurled across the plastic banquet table that didn’t ask for any of this. Nicole is standing now, engaged, irritated, on the defensive, but also just kind of confused. Critiques of capitalism and abortion are vocalized loudly, and insults (“apparently my roots were too long”) quickly follow, flying back and forth for what seems like an eternity.  By the time it’s over, Nicole is sitting down, her adrenaline fading, mind reeling. The anger is still there, although what’s left is mostly just frustration. As the girl gets dragged away by a friend, one thought spins through Nicole’s mind; she had a class with this person twice a week, and that was probably going to be uncomfortable. Her name was Sarah.

I’ve heard Nicole tell this story three times over the last year. In retrospect, what strikes me is the consistency to her narrative; she remembers the same moments, lines, and insults every time. She doesn’t seem to forget. The version she told me a year later was identical to the old tellings in all but one way; how she remembers feeling, what she thought directly after the encounter. A year ago, she was mostly just pissed off. But as time passed, she must have thought about it, gone back to the moments, about what she saw, or wondered what could have been going through Sarah’s mind.

Nicole called her unstable, but I don’t think she intended that as an insult. There was a flash of sympathy there, masked between a balance of fear and feigned indifference. She remembered the way Sarah had laughed and cried at the same time, and had been frightened she was going to walk away and kill herself.

“I guess now I see less of ‘they’re angry’ and more ‘they just don’t know the other side of it,’” she said.  “So looking back, I’m sure they are angry, and I’m sure they have a lot of things built up inside them that they can’t fix, and that’s frustrating to them.

“I get it,” she said after a little while.

 

 

“I feel like a Democrat would feel a lot more comfortable at our meetings than we would at theirs,” Nicole said, “even if they disagree with everything we say.”

Having been to a DePaul College Republicans meeting, I respectfully disagree.

In the pursuit of fairness and equal representation, I went to meetings for both College Republicans and Democrats on back-to-back nights one week.

fiction

There’s something electric to the College Republicans. Even from the din of pre-meeting conversation, it’s impossible to ignore the quiet intensity that simmers below every reference to Hillary, DePaul, the Dems, ad nauseam. The Democrats feel sterile by comparison, with their raised hands and talking points.

Nicole knows how to work a room without working the room; she lets the Republicans be angry. She puts on her reprimanding teacher voice now and again – I witnessed one half-hearted attempt to save a visiting Student Government Association senator who did not know how to work a room – but she’s not there to be a babysitter or a referee. She’s a conductor.

Nicole’s own politics are specific. Abortion is murder, unless the mother’s life is in danger. Contraceptives are immoral, unless you’re paying for your own (“I’m not one of these super conservatives,” she said). She has referred to Bernie Sanders as the literal Antichrist and posted pictures of her actual tears on Snapchat when Rick Santorum dropped out of the 2016 presidential race – she has not only been a staunch supporter of his since 2012, but met and prayed with his family before one of the televised “happy hour” debates. Did Rick Santorum ever have more than a single percentage point in a national poll this year? Did it matter?

For a while, Rick was the only candidate that she felt she could support without sacrificing one value or another; Trump wasn’t really religious enough, Bush and Rubio were tainted by immigration reform, Kasich expanded Medicaid in his state. But the faith that she and Rick shared was key.

“I don’t want to say that I use my religion as a backing for my arguments,” she said to me at one point. “It forces me – because I know what I believe, even if non-religious people won’t accept that as a reason – it forces me to come up with different reasons that abortion and gay marriage are wrong.”

But despite her commitment to “stick with Rick,” things are a changin’. Jeb Bush, the one-time heir apparent to the GOP nomination, dropped out of the race after only three state primaries. Scott Walker suspended his run so long ago, you can barely make out the smoke on the horizon. Christie’s out. Huckabee’s out. Jindal, Fiorina, Paul, Carson, Graham, Perry, Rubio, Santorum (R.I.P.), even Kasich and Cruz, out out out out out out aaaaand out.

So when the eight-month GOP front runner knocks on your door in February and asks you to be the national northern director for “Students for Trump,” who are you to say no?

She’d had her doubts – “you’ve got to deal with liberals and establishment Republicans” – but “he’s winning,” she said. “So, yeah.”

 

 

It’s March of last year, and the room is too small. A cynic would have said it was by design (and I’d agree), but the fact remained; it didn’t take much for the fishbowl conference room inside the Office of Student Involvement to become standing room only. Usually it was fine, but not tonight. Tonight it’s too small.

It’s a Thursday night, cold and dry – the kind of cold that smacks you around right before spring hits, just for good measure. DePaul’s Student Government Association meets on Thursday nights, and usually the room works fine; it has just enough chairs for the senators wearing their usual blue (I believe the motto goes something like “on Thursdays we wear blue or face death by firing squad”). What the room lacks in space, it makes up for in overbreathed air.

Nicole had skipped both her classes today. She isn’t happy about it, but she had to be ready for this. Her mind is an anxious, steady maelstrom as her nails click against the table, sitting with her fellow senators and waiting for the agenda item that appeared to have filled the room past fire code regulations. She knew she was probably going to lose.

The item on everyone’s mind is a “resolution to voice student concerns” on sexual health policy. The university was being asked to consider (in non-binding terms) some changes. Among them was a request to reconsider distributing condoms to the student body, as well as an addition to the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness to make room for a new sexual health advisor.

The push had made waves. The peanut gallery wraps around the room and has players from the most powerful political organizations on campus present, Democrats, Republicans, and Feminists among them.

Moxie is one of my favorite words. It’s not one you hear tossed around a whole lot anymore, but it calls to mind a certain picture of dynamic audacity, of boldness. Ernest Hemingway had moxie. Theodore Roosevelt had moxie. Angela Merkel has moxie. Say what you will about differing motives, time, and place, but when Nicole stood up in front of the most sex-crazed demographic on the planet to tell them they couldn’t have free condoms, she had moxie.

DePaul University was a Catholic institution, she said. If the Vatican said no, the answer was no – student and donor dollars couldn’t be used to encourage what was technically “mortal” sin. That’s another way of saying hell-worthy, for all you heathens out there.

But she didn’t stop at Catholicism. After a series of contentious back and forth speeches, she gave another of her own – this time, about sexual assault. Condoms would increase the amount of rape at DePaul, she said. A vote for this bill was a vote towards giving frat boys easier access to birth control, which could embolden them to have drunken sex that they otherwise might not have been able to.

It is a precarious argument. It’s entirely based on conjecture and assumptions about the male psyche, and Nicole didn’t have the data at the time to back herself up. When I asked her about it a year in retrospect, she didn’t exactly sell me on the logic. I wasn’t sure that she herself was sold on it.

“Is there proof and data that shows that?” Nicole had asked. “I don’t know! But for me, the logic of a teenage boy – ‘Oh look! Free condoms! Oh look! Alcohol! Oh look! Hot girl!’”

Luke Kula, another senator at the March 4 meeting, described the three hour ordeal as “enlightening.” He and Nicole had run on the same ticket for SGA the year prior, despite his Democratic affiliation and her Republican one. He has not retained many warm fuzzies with regard to their partnership.

“She has often been so out of touch with reality and so fervent in defending her opinions that it bordered on narcissism,” he said of her politics. “What other word is there to describe it?”

“Just because a person has the right to their own opinion doesn’t change the fact that their opinion, based on the overwhelming weight of scientific and moral evidence, is wrong,” he said. In this case, the burden of proof was on Nicole.

Nicole rejected Luke’s definition of narcissism. She asked, “Why would I put myself on a crucifix at DePaul to stand up for my values? To be hated by most people?”

Even so, the measure failed. It didn’t have enough answers to certain logistical questions, like where the money for all the changes was supposed to come from. Nicole won – she just didn’t make many friends in the process.

 

 

Why do Nicole’s politics matter? Why should anyone care? Everyone has some notion of how the world works; how we could solve this problem with this solution, and how that solution would definitely destroy life as we know it. We all have these different ideas of virtue, moral clarity, the way justice and equality are supposed to play out around us. Everyone has some idea as to what is going on and everyone is probably wrong.

But the existence of genuine conservatives at DePaul is striking, as they exist as the exception to not only one but two rules: supposedly, that higher education makes the impressionable youth more liberal, and that living in a city tends to shove people to the left as well. To be fair, Chicago is an island of deep blue in a convincingly red state. For the first time in almost 15 years, the city government has to contend with a Republican in the governor’s mansion. It’s not insane to expect DePaul to have some degree of conservative presence, even if they are by no means the norm.

Conservatives in this town face a singular dilemma; their political philosophy aims at maintaining a nationwide status quo, but, at DePaul, it’s in the hands of a minority. Surrounded by a dull roar of accusations – their privilege, bigotry, racism, delusions – it’s as if they have no choice but to dig in and be twice as loud.

Sofia Fernandez is the leader of Young Americans for Freedom’s DePaul chapter, a conservative activist organization that’s closely partnered with Nicole’s College Republicans. Similarly, she’s been no stranger to a less-than-warm reception by the student body for her beliefs.

“Sometimes you have to take a step back and say, ‘they’re just attacking your views,’” Sofia said. “But sometimes it’s not just your views; it’s your person.”

There have been two official debates this year between the College Republicans and Democrats, the most recent of which was on March 1: Super Tuesday. The crowd has never been particularly kind to the Republicans, but most people who participated or watched considered it to be a civil enough affair. Usually. When a Republican freshman articulated the rationale behind a southern border wall last October, snickers rippled through the audience. Five months later, when Nicole declared it was time for the wall, she was drowned out by boos.

Joseph Mello, an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University, facilitated both of this year’s debates. He said that he didn’t think it was an illusion that the school’s Republicans were a minority, and didn’t rule out that they were a socially persecuted one. But it was also possible, he said, that it was an identity that they created for themselves.

College Republicans with their backs against the wall.

“It’s empowering to feel like you’re the one that’s courageous and standing up to oppression,” he said. “No one wants to feel like the sort of recalcitrant majority holding down someone else. You want to be oppressed!”

John Minster, a freshman in College Republicans, agreed in part with the logic, but pushed back on the idea that conservatives at DePaul encouraged enmity.

“It’s not something that we want,” Minster said. “Being a part of a group that’s looked down upon by the university is kind of empowering – it’s cool, like you’re a rebel. But it’s a reality. It’s something we deal with every day.”

“You’ve just got to deal with the hand you’re dealt,” he said.

At a political science faculty meeting last spring, Mello recalled that the issue of DePaul’s institutional liberalism came up, raised by donors. Some instructors had been deeply troubled and eager to address the problem. Others believed they should be telling their students “what’s right.”

Mello chuckled and sighed. “Reality has a liberal bias, right?”

 

It’s a little known fact among heathens that basic Christian theology is reflected in the design of church pews; comfort is not a priority. Nicole Been is sitting in the belly of the St. Vincent de Paul Church, her back high and straight against wood that would have been considered well-worn 30 years ago. Her eyes are trained on the ceiling.

There’s a weight to everything about this place – a heaviness laced with incense that makes you breathe more deliberately. Following the arc of the cathedral’s red and gold buttresses as they reach up towards the heavens, the ceiling is miles away.

Sound is heavier here. Every word – spoken and sung – hangs in the space. The choir is going now, and their melody seems to swell from everywhere at once, as if the stones themselves are humming along.

Nicole’s gaze eventually lazes to the side of the room, where the choir is performing. A moment passes, and she has to blink. She blinks again.

After the service is over, she makes herself wait in the pew. She has to make sure. As the congregation begins to filter out, a girl with bobbed, curly brown hair makes her way out of the church with a music binder held across her chest. She was still a few aisles away, but Nicole saw she had been right; it was Sarah, the girl who had cursed Nicole for the ashes on her forehead just a few weeks earlier.

She didn’t know what to make of it – whether she should feel happy or sad for Sarah, or maybe even be angry with her. Was it some kind of a stupid joke? Post-ironic performance art?

Nicole took a moment to breathe. She picked up her purse, jacket, and walked out through the double doors into the Sunday night air. It was warm. She decided to let it be.

Header illustration by Nick Anderson

Photos by Brendan Pedersen from top to bottom: Nicole Been and the DePaul College Republicans prepare for a dodgeball game against the College Democrats; College Republicans with their backs against the wall


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