Monday, July 9, 2007

This Ain't Your Parents' Student Movement

I just found out about a seemingly-awesome evening class on student activism to be hosted tonight by the Institute for Policy Studies' SALSA program for organizers. I don't think I have time tonight, but I'll certainly keep my eyes (and schedule, inasmuch as I can) for upcoming events and courses. Invigorating student movements is certainly a project I sympathize with, if only because I see it as a crucial part of the success of so many other social justice projects. And part of my motivation is, admittedly, a little cross-generational peer pressure. Every so often I hear today's youth movements compared (unfavorably) to the heroic rebels who marched against imperialism in the era of Vietnam. Where are our marches? Where's our rage? Our unity? Our impatience for peace? Speaking as a proud student activist at the Brown of the Midwest, whose academic adviser spent the sixties at Berkeley, I've often wished that my fellow classmates would put down their books and beer cans long enough to make some noise with me.

But thinking a little harder, its pretty difficult for me to feel bad about my generation. We're politically progressive and almost casually multicultural. This isn't to say that injustice and difference are behind us, just that we're dealing with them head on. In my opinion, the politics of student activism have changed.

One major shift has been the emergence of identity politics. Many powerful and effective student groups have taken to advocating against material and cultural inequalities as they effect specific sub-sections of the population. Queer students organize against discrimination, black students for inner-city revitalization, Latinas and Latinos for immigration reform, women for reproductive freedom, and multicultural alliances of many types for the acknowledgment and reversal of the institutionalized privilege enjoyed by wealthy white heterosexual men. There are also environmentalists, students concerned with local poverty and homelessness, students fighting for humanitarianism in Darfur. These movements are certainly large, but don't have the built-in constituency of identitarian movements. With so many options, students are presented with a hyper-market of causes to choose from, reflecting the consumption patterns we learned from Ebay, shopping malls, and

I am skeptical of my activist elders who advise modern student activists to turn away from identity politics and produce a truly united front. Typically, people who take this tact tend to tout a "real issue", and state that the solution to "real issue" will bring with it the answer to all of the (ostensibly, comparatively minor) issues that distract us from the "real issue". For some, the "real issue" is class, for others, the war. I refuse to believe that there is any comprehensible way to compare the saliency of a foreign genocide, an institutionally racist legal and economic system, and a broken and often inhumane immigration policy. I do believe that the perceived saliency of each issue is inseparable from a given activists experience, privilege and identity, and would be very skeptical of, say, a white environmentalist telling black students to ignore inner-city poverty and focus on the "real issue" of global warming. Which is not to say that calls for united action must come from people blind to institutional inequalities. No less a champion of human dignity against institutions that rob poor people and minorities of life-chances than Jonathan Kozol once expressed his frustration with the "intellectual promiscuity of the Left", which he saw as frustrating the idealistic energies of activist youth.

I do think that those who ask us to depart from identity politics as though it were easy (or even possible) forget that student anti-war activism in the days of Vietnam was a form of identity politics for many. Students and young people were the one's being asked to risk their lives for America's quixotic venture. And they responded together, "Hell no, we won't go!" They saw their own faces on the bodies of young men and women returning lifeless to American shores. In short, they knew that the looming threat of Vietnam was most acute for them, that of all Americans they would disproportionately bear the cost.

Examples of broad-based, mass-mobilization student movements can still be found today. Very recently, student activists in Chile have marched against the General Law of Education, a policy that, in its current incarnation, provides public funds for exclusive schools with selection processes that are not transparent. Student activists have called this a publicly-funded private school system, one which guarantees that asks for public money to provide an education for the most privileged Chileans, while leaving many (predominantly poor and minority students) out. Here the student movement is clearly centered around an issue that effects students-qua-students, or at least young-people-qua-young-people, much in the way that Vietnam did.

So should student activists rally around student issues in the United States? Perhaps. There have been successful organizing efforts at Carleton to restore need-blind admissions in the interest of a more class-egalitarian admissions process. Such movements show, at the very least, students privileged enough to be at school with consciousness enough to challenge the structures that they are, in many cases, benefiting from. I would not be disappointed to see (or hesitant to join in) a concerted push for strong affirmative action policies. But affirmative action is still incredibly divisive. Overwhelmingly popular with people of color (70% of blacks favor it, 63% of Hispanics) but supported by a minority of whites (49%), the issue would not have universal appeal. The relative homogeneity of Vietnam-era campuses may have facilitated mobilization that students did not have the experience in coalition-building to address, but any student pushing for a broad-based movement today must have the ability to address student difference as well as wax eloquent about student unity.

In the end, I would hesitate to say students are apathetic merely because they don't protest as loud as frequently as their heritage might suggest they should. Today's students activists work internships, network online, distribute their own media through Web 2.0. They attend conferences with like-minded students. They lobby, door-knock, fund raise, and organize events for others to do the same. They educate, by blogging and mailing and postering. For many students, activism is a full-time commitment. Rather than making history with marches, they dedicate themselves to long campaigns of education, research, constituency-building, and concerted political pressure. In these types of campaigns, mass mobilization is but one weapon in the arsenal, a sometimes-snack for the media when the movement needs exposure (or for the activists themselves when they need a big event to generate energy within). It is too their credit that they do not fetishize the unruly, sign-waving mass of demonstrators, but instead pursue innovative ways of making change.

This might sound too optimistic, so I'll note in closing that I'm not perfectly content with the state of student activism. I would like to see more unity between student activists, but I don't think that end is reached by finding a code-issue or getting a whole lot of people to show up at a single event. What I would like to see, in terms of unity, is the solidarity of students willing to appreciate and contribute to the struggles of others. Networks between anti-war students, anti-racists, anti-capitalists, anti-sexists, and all others working against the varied forms of domination that define the social field would have rich benefits for the strategies and souls of young organizers. But this must be done within a context that respects the heterogeneity of student causes, not within a context in which students see the struggles of others as obstacles to be overcome in achieving their own critical revolutionary mass. Today's student movement is decentralized but increasingly networked, intellectually heterogeneous but observing a progressive consensus. At its best it promises to produce a conscious class of people across disciplines and professions animated by a love of justice, thousands of covert agents working diligently against structures that perpetuate human misery and inequality, integrated throughout the social fabric rather than acting as separatist evangelists for a distinctive counterculture. If their potential can be actualized they will promise something truly revolutionary: to bring social justice into the mainstream.

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