You see them tacked on bulletin boards, hidden within stacks of papers, scattered across the dorms or maybe tucked into your bike’s basket. Any way that you can get your hands on the two-sided black and white paper, The Conscientious Objector, is a bit like a game of hide and seek. Similar to their sporadic publications and discrete distribution habits are the people behind the paper: a Goshen College underground newspaper shrouded in mystery. Until now, for the most part.
The Conscientious Objector emerged late in the spring of 2011. The founder of the paper made a surprising discovery when looking at their available print balance. A print balance is given to every Goshen College student and carries over to the following school year. Many students toward the end of their college career accumulate around $100 in print money.
Menno Simons*, the editor-in-chief of The Conscientious Objector, thought back to the moment where it all began. “It was sort of an epiphany,” he said. “I had $100 worth of print money and I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. So I started to think what I could do with what Goshen College has given me. That’s sort of how it got started. We had way too much print money, some free time and we all liked to prank.”
And so an idea was formed. After gathering a staff that has grown to include six other members—including Dirk Willems as the copy editor, Conrad Grebel as the director of public relations, Harold S. Bender as the layout editor and Georg Blaurock, Clayton Kratz and Ulrich Zwingli as contributing writers—the paper has since put out seven issues.
Aside from the general positions of a working newspaper staff, The Conscientious Objector is anything but unbiased truth. Its quotes are usually made up, the issues taken out of context and their photos blatantly Photoshopped. So if it’s taken you this long to realize the C.O. is a satirical newspaper or if you’ve never truly understood the context of the random issues floating around campus, now would be the time to continue reading.
The Conscientious Objector’s role on campus
One of the beginning tasks of Simons and his staff was to decide the purpose of their paper. The C.O. is certainly not the first underground newspaper to trickle onto the GC campus. In 1967, there was Menno Pause, in the early 2000s there was the Conductor and just two years ago there was The Blunder News.
While the Conductor and The Blunder News sent out a few publications without any disruptive side effects, the editors of Menno Pause were expelled from Goshen College after publishing two overtly raunchy papers that, to both the students and administration, had an intent to harm. Not only were they considered to be somewhat anti-Goshen, their mission seemed to stir up trouble in ways that backfired. With those past papers in mind, the C.O. had to decide what path and role it wanted to take.
“The original intent was just to make people laugh,” Simons said. “That was something we tried to figure out as our role on campus, like, do we shed light on things we think are important on campus. But I think we’ve tried to stay far away from doing that. We decided we didn’t want to be ‘The Daily Show;’ we wanted to be The Onion, you know. We just want to make fun of things we think are ridiculous rather than trying to correct it.”
So, as Simons stated, the C.O. is like The Onion, a satirical website. Or, as President Jim Brenneman joked, “It’s a mini Onion. It’s a shallot.”
And in hopes of clearing up their names from the past underground newspapers, the C.O. staff believe they are much different from their forefathers.
“We may not be the first, but we’re definitely the best,” Kratz said, followed by Menno, Grebel and Blaurock who chimed in. “We’re funnier, wittier, sexier, more humble. We’re better looking, we have better distribution techniques and we’re more up to date with technology.”
Their role is to simply make people laugh, which is something Bill Born believes adds a creative element to campus life. “My take on it is that it’s entertaining,” Born said. “That it’s a healthy outlet for fun, to make some laughs for a good college experience.”
Born and Brennemen are often used in the C.O. jokingly, like Brennemen’s head cropped and placed on other photos with captions like, “Brenneman announces political run for district overlord of Goshen” and “President Brenneman raises money for GC by appearing in Japanese TV commercial.”
Brennemen admitted, “The ones I’ve seen, I’ve laughed. At some point, we’re going to be made fun of. It’s a part of the college experience. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’re in pretty bad shape. It’s been well done.”
Although the staff of the C.O. admit that their humor isn’t for everyone, the majority of feedback they’ve heard has been positive.
“Most of the time when I see the C.O. I’m excited to see what they have to say,” said Mike Zehr, a junior. “Dirk Willems is my hero. Their commentary on social and campus happenings is really lively and energetic just like that Menno Simons character.”
Campus issues with a satirical spin
Over the course of seven issues, the C.O. has covered topics ranging from the library closing early on weekends (thus “promoting student partying,”) AVI beginning full-body security checks to limit the amount of stolen fruit and silverware, GC students urging inclusive hiring of Albus Dumbledore, and an election issue after the Republican’s “spooky” ad negatively targeted the Democrats’ GC roots. These articles are not meant to be taken seriously. While the previously mentioned topics do pertain to campus life issues—some big, some small—more often then not, these topics are all worthy of a satirical spin.
“If I notice people talking about something, for example our story about the library,” Grebel continued, “people always complain about the library not being open or the political ad about Goshen College being spooky we immediately thought, ‘we’ve got to mess with this.’ A lot of times we try to make a point about how hilarious the situation actually is.”
The C.O. occasionally makes satirical articles about the more controversial issues on campus but does so without promoting any particular agenda. Their job, rather, is to make people laugh and to tone down the issues at hand. There may not be an edition every month, so the C.O. staff prints new issues when an opportunity presents itself.
“There’s no real method to it,” Simons admitted. “There are no deadlines that we follow. Sometimes there might be something like the PLA weekend. We wanted to make sure we got something out before then to make fun of that. Generally we come up with story ideas and once we have enough we’ll put out an issue.”
The C.O. staff noted Simons’ important role as editor-in-chief and as a litmus test of humor and sensitivity.
“There have been several cases where we started to tread on sensitive issues where the original intent was to be funny but the we started to get divisions in the staff about certain stories,” Simons said. “One example was we were trying to make fun of RAs but it was either mean or way over the top so that people knew we weren’t trying to be serious. That’s kind of my role. I try to tone things down. If I’m offended, I’m assuming other people will be too.”
Behind the subtle Mennonite themes
While Mennonite students might be able to catch the significance behind their aliases, newspaper title or choice of articles, not all students may be able to see the significance.
Dirk Willems, for example, was a famous Mennonite martyr who rescued his pursuer from the icy lake he had fallen into, only to be taken back into custody by that guard. After exiting the window of the prison he was in and making it over the ice-coated lake safely, he could have gotten away, but after hearing the guard’s cries for help, he chose to turn around and help him out of the ice.
The other aliases are also modeled after notable Anabaptist leaders throughout history. Since GC is a Mennonite college with strong Anabaptist roots, the C.O.staff decided to shape their theme around that very idea.
“It allows us these personas,” Kratz said. “By assuming these Mennonite personalities, we can throw in jokes like the Menno Simons editorial claiming, you know, we Mennonites don’t do this,” referring to Simon’s editorial that Mennonite voting is “uncool” and threatened to take away professor of history John D. Roth’s “Mennonite card” since a past C.O. article claimed Roth voted in an election.
While in a sense some say that their use of the Mennonite religion could be unfavorable to those who take their heritage seriously, even Roth finds significance in their theme.
“I think the goal is to both celebrate the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition that has been an important part of the college’s identity, while also skewering it a bit…not allowing some of us who care deeply about that part of our heritage to take it too seriously,” Roth said. “That’s a good thing. I suspect, though, that there is also an element of ‘insider’ humor to the paper that might, ironically, actually reinforce Anabaptist-Mennonite culture.”
A reason for anonymity
Not only does the C.O. staff use Mennonite aliases in order to add to their overall theme, they also hide their true identities for their own sake as well as the pure mystery of those behind the underground newspaper.
“I don’t think there would be harm in (revealing their identities) other than the loss of the unknown,” Brennemen said. “The curiosity would be lost which is part of the fun. So towards that end it would be kind of a bummer if I suddenly knew (who they were.)”
The C.O. staff also believe students would feel the same way.
“I don’t think anyone would take us seriously if they knew who we were,” Simons said. “It’s more fun to think that these fictitious characters are raining knowledge down on campus.”
Although many students may never know the faces behind the C.O., talk of a more diverse staff lingers as the C.O. decides whether it will continue to publish issues next year.
John “Danger” Roth
The C.O. staff often refers to John D. Roth, professor of history, as “John ‘Danger’ Roth.”
“I’m bewildered by it,” Roth said. “I think it’s a statement about how boringly predictable my world must seem to students! But I think there’s a little James Bond lurking in all of us, and if they want to call attention to a part of me that is normally kept well-hidden, that’s just fine! I see it in a long tradition of off-beat, humorous ‘journalism’ that helps all of us not take ourselves too seriously.”
The C.O. staff also explained why particular faculty members are used more than others.
“It’s equal parts they need to be taken down a few notches and equal parts we know them better than others and they can take it,” Simons said.
Blaurock added, “John for example, he is so Mennonite. Everything he talks about is about Mennonite identity, Mennonite history. I jokingly call him the Mennonite Jesus. It’s easy to make fun of him.” Simons chimed in, “Yeah and he’s just so recognizable. He’s the guy that runs through campus holding a book in his hands. He’s always reading.”
“The Record’s” funnies editor, Daniel Penner, has been questioned many times about his role with the C.O. which Blaurock explained, was a pure coincidence that he was connected with their satirical paper.
“I actually slipped one into a stack of papers to be turned into Dean Rhodes,” Blaurock said. The latest copy of the C.O. happened to be wedged between Penner’s stapled papers which led to the start of the allegation.
“[Rhodes] sent an email out to Penner and said, ‘I suspected you might be a part of this organization. Well done!’ Dean also called him a clown, ‘Oye payaso!’ It was a stroke of genius. So many people think Daniel Penner is behind the C.O. Seriously, this is not a joke. Daniel Penner is not involved. The C.O. denounces Daniel Penner.”