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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

It’s better to burn out than to fade away

Lessons learned from a failed student revolution

Published: October 24, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

We all go through phases in college. For some of us, they take the form of über collegiate athletics like ultimate frisbee or lacrosse. For others, they come as later regretted fashion choices such as the dreadlocks that your Jamaican friend swore would give you Rasta street cred or the male skirt that seemed so groovy at that hippie music festival. Yet there are some students whose phases come to consume their entire lives.
I am such a student. My phase was a revolution.
For those of you remain devoted readers of The Hoot, you might remember our special 20 page issue a month ago (September 26) in which we printed a special section devoted to an organization called Pissed off Youth of America (P.O.Y.A.). I founded that group earlier this year in an effort to bring civil disobedience and peaceful protest back in style.
Unfortunately, an unforeseen medical condition forced me to give up the organization and stay home for the semester. (I’m writing this article from that Park Slope apartment that served as a core symbol of privilege in one of my treatises on American society).
This time at home has given me a sense of perspective and a healthy dose of hindsight, allowing me to understand past mistakes more clearly. So I will humbly enumerate some of the insights I’ve gained over the past few weeks. I hope that listing some of the pitfalls I encountered in my project will help other Brandeis activists plan their own projects.
The first realization I had about the error of my ways came when one of my friends departed from me with the phrase, “Enjoy your revolution.” Not only did the possessive pronoun indicate that she did not feel invested in my ostensibly personal project, the expression threw into sharp relief the whole idea of a revolution.
I soon discovered that I’d done the organization a disservice by trying to contextualize it as part of a revolution. A revolution connotes radical overthrow of a regime or break with the past. My writings seemed to espouse a more modest plan of working within the framework of established society to bring about gradual change. Calling it a “revolution” made the idea seem grandiose and unrealistic. To paraphrase John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski, “Dude, revolution is not the preferred nomenclature.”
When I finally began owning up to the mistakes I’d made, it was not hard to see that the original mission had become clouded with egotism and self-importance. Interestingly, I’ve railed against those two qualities on many occasions when they manifest themselves in pop music.
I recall one occasion in which it seemed like a great idea to turn what was supposed to be a rally about the economy into a personal twenty-minute piece of performance art. Thought-provoking? Maybe. Self-indulgent? Definitely. But I only realized my own foolishness when I thought less in terms of a social movement and more in terms of, say, the third Coldplay album.
Idealists often have a difficult time curbing their ambitions to conform to the normal rhythms of everyday life.
I faced a big reality check when only three other people showed up at the first P.O.Y.A. event, which I initially took as a discredit to our entire generation. Of course, the showing was more of a testament to my limited PR skills than to any failure of my peers. I had only done online advertising on Facebook in addition to a few easily overlooked signs on campus. I should have laughed at myself and gotten a taste of humility, but my narrow thinking kept me from seeing the reality of the situation.
Most importantly, the organization had the wrong emotional underpinnings. It was called “Pissed Off Youth of America,” but I understand now that any real revolution will not take place through anger. Nor will the real revolution take place in mass protests.
I believe that the true revolution will take place within individual human beings. The revolution will take place when a consumer realizes that he or she makes an enormous impact on the community, country, and world simply through his or her lifestyle choices.
The revolution will take place when the taxpayer learns that unless he or she is taking active steps to oppose government tyranny, he or she is culpable for the country’s immoral actions as much as elected officials.
The revolution will take place when parents see the love they bestow upon their children mirrored in those children’s lives instead of the kinds of justified hatred and prejudice that have persisted for too long.
When the true revolution comes, it will have a name that will weave itself seamlessly into the fabric of Brandeis University’s traditions and ideals: the movement of Optimistic Youth—OY!