The Key to a Constructive Contra

Editor-at-Large Scott Brasesco ’22 critiques certain aspects of Amherst’s newest opinion publication, The Contra.

The Amherst Contra appeared, without much warning, alongside The Amherst Student in bins at the entrance of Valentine Dining Hall about a month ago. Printed on a single sheet, the new publication explained its goals and introduced its editor on one side, and shared an article calling for a technocratic abandonment of democracy on the other. Since its arrival, the Contra has provided the Amherst community with three more pieces; the first argued that Palestinians should give up on Palestine, the second made the not-so-new argument that Amherst should end athletic recruitment, and the third lambasted the idea of the college itself.

At its core, the Contra aims to “start interesting discussions” by publishing things the editor doesn’t believe most students would agree with. While this isn’t a poor goal in and of itself, execution is essential in making the publication meet its targets — and right now, it is failing.

All of its articles have been anonymous and, due to the publication’s limited size, response has been limited to brief letters to the editor rather than fully fledged rebuttals. The best response to any of the articles thus far was an article Tylar Matsuo ’24 published in response to the Contra’s first article on democracy. Matsuo deftly responded to each argument within the article, case by case, point by point, and made a compelling case against the technocratic vision the author had laid out. Matsuo’s response, while average in length for an opinion article, was over four times the maximum length the Contra allows responses to be.

Again, due in part to its format, the Contra’s articles have often been short on evidence or seemed ignorant of possible rebuttals, reading more like armchair treatises than op-eds. The single sheet provides no way for authors to cite sources, so readers are left to take them at their word — something that seems especially unlikely for readers of a publication that aims at disrupting mainstream ideas. And things that should be important for consideration of the serious topics they discuss — like the well-documented poor treatment of Palestinians in neighboring Arab countries and Arab immigrants more generally in the U.S. or NESCAC rules on athletes’ academic performance — have gone unaddressed. Without more earnestly engaging with counterpoints and counterevidence to their claims, these articles stand little chance of making the groundbreaking impact they seek to make on mainstream opinion.

These flaws do not mean the Contra is doomed to fail, but they do point to serious needs for a revision of the Contra’s execution.

One major change would simply be bringing on more editors. One student alone cannot correct all or even the majority of the flaws in another’s writing or argument. Even professional academics go through several stages of editorial and peer review before publishing research that they have often spent years working on. It takes a concerted group effort to produce and polish content that, when published, will capture the public imagination in the way the Contra hopes to.

But to make the Contra viable long-term, it needs to enable a greater system of accountability for the articles that are written — even if that falls short of requiring authors to publicly back their own work. Authors should cite each and every source they use in crafting their articles, giving readers the ability to check how accurately they’re representing source material and whether their evidence is credible at all. The current word limit on responses is also far too short to provide cogent rebuttals to the articles that the Contra publishes, and authors seem to know this, hand-waving and downplaying some issues in their arguments in order to focus on areas they have a stronger foundation on. Finally, the Contra’s single-page format creates a tacit limit on the number of responses an article can receive. If the goal is to inspire new conversations, it's highly likely that there are more than two or three 250-word alternative ideas that are worth considering and sharing with readers.

Some of the Contra’s flaws can be solved by changes in pre-publication planning — more editors or sterner edits would go a long way to improving the quality of argument that the Contra provides — but most require a real change in its form. A single-page publication is simply not a viable form for the type of discussions and topics that the Contra aims to address. Extending the Contra by several pages, to allow for a multitude of long-form responses and perhaps the inclusion of endnotes containing source materials used in the arguments, would improve the publication immeasurably. In the end, however, it may prove that the Contra simply needs a web presence in order to deliver on its goals.

I believe that the Contra can become a valuable part of the intellectual discussions and debates we have here at the college, but until it makes the changes I’ve laid out above, those conversations will never have a chance to begin.