Friday, February 29, 2008

A Different Approach to Student Activism

There was an excellent article in the GW Patriot this week entitled "STANDing for Nothing". And it finally articulated - in words - a sentiment I have been feeling for quite some time, which is that of disappointment and sometimes even revulsion. 
At what? The so-called trendy activism that seems rampant on college campuses today (and the likelihood of this is magnified at GW being the politically active school that it is, as the article points out). But what is trendy activism? It is activism for the sake of activism, that is, activism without substance, which I think is the worst kind that you get (even worse than activism for a decidedly negative or malevolent cause). 

Patterson, the author of STANDing for nothing, describes it like this:
We're in college, so many feel they have to do the cool thing, and right now it is cool to support refugees and pillaged peoples a million miles away. In fact that has always been cool on college campuses. Holding rallies they will never see, signing petitions they will never read, and having football-field sleepovers in nice warm sleeping bags that they could never afford does nothing to help.
That's right, it does nothing to help despite however shiny and admirable the action may appear. And I do not think the students are aware of this despite their genuine intentions (I'm not of the belief that students don't want to help the world, but I certainly think that they have a skewed view of their own effectiveness). 

I wish that at GW, we would have reached a level of political consciousness that would tell us that in order to truly effect change, we need to learn how to navigate the institutional bureaucracy of the United States let alone the international system rather than hosting makeshift rallies for divestment in the Thurston TV lounge. 

While regrettable, this does not seem likely given the way that trends seem to enjoy such a warm reception at GW. As Patterson attests, the school is one defined by trends:
I realized when I first came here that GW is a school full of trends; Ugg Boots, North Face Jackets, Starbucks (fair-trade) coffee and BlackBerries.
No, but re-read that another time and consider the irony evident in "Starbucks (fair-trade) coffee". Starbucks is the mainstay of the classic GW student who is always sleep-deprived, juggling an internship, classes, a million different student organizations, perhaps independent student activities, maybe Greek life, oh, and of course their image. This student really does not fit the traditional profile of the humanitarian since the humanitarian does not devote time to material impulses and his/her apperance. But this student does appear to favor Starbucks because its coffee is obtained under the pretense of fair trade. But...the student is not really a humanitarian. So how does this behavior work?

By being "falsely active". I hate to say it, but GW is unfortunately full of this person. And a falsely active person it is even more insulting than just a superficial one who does not bother to take the time to cultivate an image of necessarily being politically active. 

I'm sure many students take themselves too seriously, and I probably do many times (I will admit this). I do worry about my professional life way before I will enter the workforce and I admit that I try to "make all the right moves". But I do not approach the world in a totally unrealistic way, as many do, according to Patterson:
There you have the major empty-handed goal of trendy activism. Awareness. It's like these groups care little if you actually do something. All it seems you have to do is buy their wristbands, buy their shirts, sign up for a listsev and spend one night outside and like magic, all the bad things in the world will go away. But alas, you can't dream away the problems of the world.
I have to really express my sincere thanks to the GW Patriot for finally promulgating such a view. It's undeniably true - you can't dream away the problems of the world. I suppose that many students only believe that you can because they view the world in an oversimplified light and don't see reality for what it is, however tragic and depressing it may be. 

But maybe these budding Bonos and Jolies will soon learn that institutions other than the ones that they are trying to craft at GW wield more power over international affairs. And they need not look far. The World Bank, situated on the east end of the GW campus, undoubtedly has more reach than GW STAND. And so when you see this:

You have to ask yourself, "Are they really going to achieve their desired goal? Is this really working?" It certainly doesn't seem so. 

Sorry, but it's true. I just hope that we can acknoledge this reality and then commit to working within the institutional framework that we are dealt rather than attempting to use new organizations that in the end serve no practical purpose other than to allow us to view ourselves as activists when in fact we cannot effect the changes we seek through these channels because they have not yet gained a sufficient amount of legitimacy and credibility for this. 


ian said...

I bet you would love one of those t-shirts that say 'stop bitching and start a revolution'

Anonymous said...

A few things:

No one drinks Starbucks coffee because it is free trade. I think its pretty common knowledge that starbucks isn't free trade coffee, and generally a bad company anyway, and various organizations have been encouraging students to drink coffee elsewhere and providing alternatives. With that said, some causes are more sexy than others (Darfur in particular), in that they draw more attention from more of the general student body (which should explain the uggs, blackberries, and northface jackets). It is up to you to decided whether this is a good or bad thing, but you have to realize that in thay only became sexy recently, and really organizations like the UN petition celebrities (like the angelinas and such) to make their causes more sexy. The "uggs" issue is so much deeper than GW and our student body. I also have to disagree with your description of an activist. You can care about the way you look as much as the next person and still be an activist, activism is about realizing things like how you look shouldn't dictate your life because there are bigger problems. It does not mean that suddenly the worlds problems are so important that you should disregard basic principles of hygiene. In my opinion, if people with uggs and northface's suddenly start attending the meetings to end whatever genocide in whatever war-torn country, at least its getting the a good amount of attention, which is what most causes need to reach their goals anyway.

Andrew B said...

It's nice to see The Patriot getting some respect. I agree with Ford's assertions.

Anonymous said...

Stand for nothing and you will fall for anything.
You don't have to do everything to do something.
Just because an action doesn't change the world, doesn't mean it can't change somebody's world.
Don't discourage people from a cause that's worth believing in, it's quite disheartening. So maybe it won't change everything, but if we all thought like that, then nothing would ever change. And who wants to live in a world like that?

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