Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lives of Others Part 2 (a stream-of-consciousness rant including thoughts about student activism and the Danish Riots)

1) If assigned a place on the political spectrum, the East German dissidents portrayed in the film "The Lives of Others"(discussed in yesterday's post) would have to be labeled "rightist" because they opposed a Communist regime. Yet they closely resemble the contemporary counter-culture of western Europe, which is conventionally understood as "left." Both movements were/are dominated by artists, intellectuals and other counter-cultural types. But labels like left and right seem less important than a certain oppositional style.

2) Speaking of that style, it's noteworthy that since some time in the 1970s, university students in the United States have become career-oriented relative to students in Europe---and most of the rest of the world. Despite efforts of groups like Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Academia to portray the American academy as a bastion of politically correct French-accented Godless terrorist-coddlers, American students are largely apolitical, at least by comparison to students around the world. The point is not left/right political. Yes, European and Latin American student movements skew left, but the anti-communist democracy movements in China and in the former Soviet satellites were largely student-led.

3) That's not to say that political activism of students, or more broadly, "youth", is necessarily a good thing. The recent rioting in Denmark by young people who are outraged that the government wants them to stop squatting in one building and start squatting in another testifies to the universal narcissism of the young---the identification of their own desires with some ill-defined conception of justice and entitlement.

4) I won't shed any tears if the Danish riots discredit the cause of young people's right to squat, but it would be a shame if the plainly illegitimate means of protest---the rampant destruction of property and threats to safety of the police and protesters alike---delegitimate the notion of street protests more broadly. As recently as the Ukraine's "orange revolution" of late 2004/early 2005, we saw the power of a peaceful mass protest movement in which students played a leading role.

5) Perhaps the problem with the contemporary student movement in western Europe is that it has adopted an oppositional stance to governments that pursue policies with which they have no major disagreements. Consider, for example, the preposterous overreaction of French students to the horrifying notion that after graduation from university, their first job might not come with tenure. Judged by this standard, American students show good sense in being politically inert.

6) Except, of course, that over here there are real grounds for a vibrant protest movement. The chief candidates are the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's gross recklessness with respect to climate change.