A Strange Society
Investigating campus’s most ideologically diverse club.
By Sagar Castleman
Amidst the smattering of tutoring and soup kitchen tables manned by tired-looking upperclassmen, the John Jay Society’s table at the New Student Orientation Program volunteering fair stood out like a sore thumb. Four enthusiastic young men dressed in formal wear sat behind it. They spoke to different people, amassing a bigger crowd than any of their neighbors. (It was unclear why exactly the Society was at a volunteering fair.) With an awed disbelief, my fellow freshmen asked the club leaders questions like “Are you conservative?” and received replies ranging from “Culturally, but not necessarily politically,” to “We’re the most ideologically diverse club on campus,” (a claim echoed on the Society’s website) to “Yes.”
Just a week prior, we had been in our separate homes, scattered across the globe. Most of us knew only a few people at Columbia, and none very well. College still felt like a short vacation from which we’d soon return to our regular lives. We marched from one mandatory orientation event to the next and ate meals with students who were little more than strangers. Then we stumbled upon the John Jay Society: “Columbia’s premier undergraduate debate organization.” Who were we, next to this whirlwind of enthusiastic intellect?
I chatted with one of the leaders, who seemed delighted to learn that I was a prospective English major with a love for Dostoevsky. Looking back, I’m not sure why I gave him my name and email. I’m certainly not conservative. But there was an appealing air of friendliness and community that surrounded the leadership. Later, I would understand that this aura existed in most clubs. But I was new and had seen no other clubs yet, and the John Jay Society knew that.
A couple hours later, I received an email from “The Right Honorable Chief Whip” of the Society. He invited me to two debates that would happen that week and informed me that the dress code was “a jacket and tie, or the equivalent for ladies.”
On Thursday night, I was just leaving when one of my suitemates—confident, Texan, and very progressive—asked me where I was going. After answering him, he decided to come along. He knew about the Society because all freshmen knew about the Society: their fliers were everywhere.
We arrived at a crowded classroom in Hamilton, where men in suits and women in dresses bustled about, chattering and laughing. I had some flashbacks to high school model UN, but these swiftly dissipated with the appearance of an enormous man with an enormous sword, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in unison, and the distribution of a fancy alcoholic drink accompanied by a speech on its origins and contents.
Eventually the debate began, and a girl started telling us why we shouldn’t judge the past with our present values. She declared that the Founders were “men of their times,” castigated the 1619 project, and quoted a Hillsdale professor. The speech was mostly mainstream Republican rhetoric, and I had to admit it was a little disappointing: the suits, the drinks, the Latin, the sword, all for something that could have been daytime Fox News. My suitemate, though, seemed stunned and started discreetly recording the speech on his phone.
I looked forward to hearing the opposing speaker, who was referred to by all as “the Classicist,” but he began his speech by saying that he mostly agreed with the previous speaker and then belabored the fact that the words “evaluate” and “value” come from the same root. He went on too long; people soon started to exit the space and go to “the back room.” My suitemate and I joined them, learning that this was the place where society members drank and chatted informally. We met a girl from Hungary who extolled Viktor Orban for a few minutes, at which point we decided it was time to leave.
But our way to the elevator was blocked by three of the four friendly leadership members, who suddenly didn’t seem so friendly. They asked my suitemate if he had gotten an invitation. “No,” he said. “I just came along. Not a problem, right?”
“Actually, it is,” replied The Right Honorable Chief Whip, who stood in the middle.
“Ah well, my bad,” responded my suitemate. “It won’t happen again.”
“Well, there’s one other thing,” said one of the other men. “Did you record anything you heard tonight?”
“I did,” said my suitemate, with his typical Texan confidence.
“Then we ask that you delete it immediately,” said the Society member gravely.
My suitemate complied, also deleting it from his Recently Deleted folder. He then elbowed past them, got into the elevator, and left.
The members turned on me. I apologized for bringing someone with me, and The Right Honorable Chief Whip told me that he had no doubt my suitemate was a “bad actor.” I felt like I had wandered into somebody else’s life and so I left, shaken.
As I walked in a daze back to my dorm, I wondered why a society so committed to free speech wanted to keep their own discourse so secret. I wondered what they worried would happen if my suitemate had a recording, and I wondered if they really believed that they were the most ideologically diverse club on campus. Did they recognize how strangely pretentious their practices were? Did they fear being ridiculed?
I never learned the answers to these questions. As soon as upperclassmen arrived on campus, the club disappeared: the fliers were gone, they were no longer recruiting, and they returned to their own. I never got another email from the Society. Sometimes I see members around campus, chattering and laughing just as they had during that debate. I usually smile at them and go on my way, that surreal night from NSOP week permanently etched into my memory.
Illustration by Watson Frank