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Brandeisian activism and politics

Published: April 4, 2008
Section: Opinions


You know something, reader, this is only my third column, but already, I’m feeling quite a rapport with you. As it turns out, you and I have something in common, something other than a love of soft pretzels and long walks on the beach. As it turns out, we both read the best newspaper on campus.

So you might recall the editorial that appeared in this fine publication two weeks ago, entitled “Activism marches on.” Lest ye have forgotten, the editors argued that “Brandeis… is not the thriving center of activism that it was in the 1960s,” an allegation which they situated in the broader context of “our generation’s apathetic response to pressing world issues.” They highlighted the Iraq war, which had recently been the target of a demonstration on campus, as an example of an issue to which “we have become desensitized” by “five years of headlines and news broadcasts.” They repeated the sordid facts of the involvement of the United States in Iraq, and by our collective educated guess, at Brandeis there are few supporters of the war anyway. The anti-war demonstration, the editors contended, provided students with “a way to incorporate protest and activism into their fast-paced twentieth-century lives.”

I think, however, that in going through the weekly grind of putting together a paper fit for human, or at least student, consumption, the editors might have overlooked a much larger reservoir of activism– indeed, the largest and strongest one on campus. Far be it from me, it goes without saying, to disagree with my editors. Submitting to one’s editors an article that’s critical of their work is a little like sending a plate of food at a restaurant back to the kitchen with a complaint. When published, your article may not be covered with bodily fluids or pieces of deceased kitchen insects, but it might well have more than its share of typographical errors and undesirable alterations, makin the thing uncomprahensabull so, like, u sound reel stupid and all.

My editors are not wrong. They’re just not as right as they usually are. Activism on campus is not rare at all. Neither is activism in American society. It is so completely “incorporate[d]… into… [our] lives” that only a fundamental change in the ordering of society could extirpate it. What’s more, the great bulk of the overlooked activism is united behind a single position on any given issue. It is surely a good deal more influential than even the largest crowd that one could imagine marching around a little hill outside Boston– or even along the National Mall.

Representative democracy allows people to choose leaders who suit them. Except for special circumstances in which the public is afforded a direct choice of policy via referendums and ballot questions, the people remain at one remove from decisions about policy. But their choice of leaders reflects, in some sense, and however imprecisely, a collective choice of policy. Elections allow anyone able to vote– and, more broadly, anyone with an articulate voice (where articulateness can be a function of either words or money or both in support of a position or candidate)– to influence policy choices. If the menu of candidates, and, by extension, policies, seems inadequate, improving the menu is the people’s prerogative. By electing a leader, the public empowers him or her to make choices for it for a limited time, either alone or together with other leaders. During that time, both institutional and noninstitutional means exist by which the public and other leaders elected by it can approve or disapprove of a given leader’s actions. A leader subjected to criticism during his or her term need not necessarily do as the public desires, but for various reasons, public support for a given position will make that position more attractive to a leader. A democratic system of governance, then, generally supplies members of the public with the opportunity to make choices.

Well, almost generally. For there is at least one important choice that democracy precludes members of the public from making. No one can choose not to be responsible. That doesn’t mean that democracy has ever precluded people from running red lights, or getting hammered on the night before an Econ midterm, or shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, or voting for George Bush. What it means is that the choice of leaders and policy which the system offers us is one that we cannot help but influence, even if we adamantly refuse to do things like pay attention or vote or march around the Brandeis campus or write love letters to Ted Kennedy.

Many like to think of themselves as more autonomous: whether it’s a plan to float municipal bonds or a presidential election that is up for discussion and a vote, they imagine that the democratic system leaves this with the option to decide what issues are important to them and to confine their participation in politics to those issues. But participation is automatic. Choosing to expressly support or oppose a particular politician or policy is one way to participate; refusing to pay attention or make one’s voice heard is another. Depending upon how a question is framed, failure to say or do anything to help answer it in fact favors one of the choices posed, and amounts to a choice of that person or policy.

False choices not to participate often appear more attractive to voters than march-down-the-street or pull-a-lever participation. One reason for this is that they appear to those who remain undecided to proceed from disinterest. In a vast polity in which even those who participate in earnest typically do not know enough about the issues at stake, there are many issues about which people will not know enough to understand how the choice of policies affects them. A position suggesting disinterest (“I know, but it’s not my place to decide”) somehow seems more noble and justifiable than a position of lack of interest (“I don’t know, and I don’t care”).

A second attraction to the charade of nonparticipation is the illusory opportunity to avoid moral responsibility for policies that cause harm. But our system of government allows us too many choices, framed in ways that make them inescapable, to allow for such avoidance. It would be nice to have the option of saying, for example, that the Iraq war or the stark and ugly economic inequality that seems more and more to be the defining characteristic of our country are not our responsibility because we don’t participate in the processes that keep in power leaders whose tastes favor an endlessly-extended run for these tragedies. But doing nothing– not voicing concerns, not trying to persuade others, not voting– is neither a politically or morally neutral choice. Making the ship of state turn takes energy that sailing a straight course does not; a lack of active participation amounts to opposition to reform. The interest we take in advocacy of a particular position or candidate is no doubt linked to the intensity of our feelings of support or opposition to them. Failure to demand that policy take a new course when the consequences of existing policy are shameful imparts moral responsibility for the continuation of that policy, no matter what form that failure takes.

What does this have to do with activism? Everything. In a democratic system, activism is not an option, but an inescapable fact. It isn’t voting, or demonstrating, or not showering that defines us as activists. It is the simple fact of our presence and ability to participate in a democratic system of governance. We are all activists whether we choose to believe it or not. What is at issue is whether or not each of us will deploy our activism in support of policies and candidates that we purport to like, or whether we will let others decide what policy will be and lend them our thoughtless, careless support.

The editors didn’t seem to think that there was anything problematic about the idea of demonstrations targeted at the campus, where they agreed that vocal advocacy of progressive causes amounts, in some sense, to “preaching to the choir.” I’m not as sanguine in my perception of people’s attitudes on this campus about the war, so I think the demonstrators should be credited with raising a voice that carried beyond the choir loft to some of the unconverted loitering by the door. But I don’t agree– or, rather, I agree differently with my esteemed editors– that a demonstration’s audience does not affect its utility.

The people who will ultimately decide whether to make progressive changes in policy are not concentrated on the Brandeis campus, or indeed, on any university campus, where most of the many activists are in any event of the kind who don’t vote or care. The real choice lies with people spread out all over the country. And they often have busy lives and tiresome jobs that, frankly, eclipse in burdensomeness anything that Brandeis throws at us. But they aren’t always confronted with heavenly progressive “choirs” belting out hymns of justice. In fact, many of them no doubt look upon campuses like ours as places not of their world: places in which impractical ideas circulate freely and idealism reigns over reality; places which seem unwelcoming and suspicious because of their exclusiveness; self-isolating places that offer them nothing. There are an awful lot of obstacles in the way of anyone who wants to carry a message from the campus to the world beyond it. But in a few short years, we’re all headed off of this little hill outside Boston, and we will have to live in the world that the great mass of people have been choosing for us. It would be an awful shame to leave this campus in a few years and discover that the big, unapproachable public made a bunch of awful decisions that we might have helped to stave off– while simultaneously learning, to our great surprise, that the real world actually gives us less time to devote to useful activism than the “hectic pace of college life.”