Friday, February 20, 2009

Activism as a Package Deal

I can't improve on the hilarious coverage of the NYU cafeteria takeover on Gawker (e.g., here), so I'll begin with a simple recap: A group of students calling themselves Take Back NYU barricaded themselves inside the Kimmel Center and issued demands; the university threatened to suspend the students; and thus the takeover just about ended. The demands were a very odd hodge-podge, including:

1) Amnesty for protesters (okay, CYA, but really, should that be your FIRST demand?);

3) and 4) Full public disclosure of NYU's finances;

9) Annual scholarships for 13 Palestinians (why 13??);

10) "That the university donate all excess supplies and materials in an effort to rebuild the University of Gaza" (or as Gawker put it, "overhead projectors for Gaza");


13) NYU library access for the general public.

What to make of all this? One earnest student over at HuffPo thinks the pathos of this little drama is emblematic of deeper failures of his generation, although I think that's somewhat unfair. It's tempting to see in this episode the periodic repetition of history as farce, or as Gawker put it:
Sure, you could say that this entire fiasco was a big failure marked by muddled thinking and incoherent goals, and completed with a total lack of any progress towards the laughably unrealistic set of "demands" the protesters set forth. And we said that. But then again, if you can't occupy a building while you're in college, when else are you gonna get the chance? Take over a building when you're 20 and it's Animal House; try it when you're 30 and it's Dog Day Afternoon. We hope you guys had fun, sincerely.
Still, I'd like to suggest that the incoherence of the Take Back NYU demands was not a result of any special muddle-headedness on the part of the student organizers (some of whom, apparently were not NYU students at all). Rather, for as long as I can recall, conflation of causes has been a characteristic of left-leaning activism. We're only so conditioned to hearing such slogans as "sex, drugs and rock and roll" that we forget that there's no more of a logical relationship among these matters than there is among alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives.

Some of this is actually a matter of deliberate conspiracy: Studying the history of revolution, leftists learned that mainstream progressive rallies were good opportunities to co-opt public support, and while that hasn't been very effective in the U.S., it has sometimes worked elsewhere. Indeed, the method is hardly limited to the left: The Iranian revolution had disparate elements but was eventually co-opted by religious fundamentalists. That these fundamentalists now sometimes ally themselves with left-wing leaders like Chavez does not change their basically reactionary character.

But I digress. My main point is that the muddle one sees among activists on the American left is not principally a result of a large organized effort. Rather, it reflects a kind of parochialism that assumes that people who share some of your concerns share all of them. An example: At a January rally in San Francisco organized by ANSWER in protest of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, some protesters were simultaneously demanding full equal rights for LGBT Americans and expressing solidarity with not just civilian Gazans (fair enough) but with Hamas, a fundamentalist movement that would and does oppress people for what it regards as perversion.

That's just one of many examples I could give. As a vegan, a progressive, and a civil libertarian, I often encounter people who share my generally liberal/left views on some issues and therefore assume that I must also share their views on everything. This assumption is off-base even for people who share basic values and the same socio-economic-educational background, so of course it's wildly off-base across larger divides.

I've talked about the left here because I'm much more familiar with generally left/liberal causes but the same phenomenon no doubt exists on the right: Go to a sufficiently large NRA rally and you'll no doubt find people assuming you're anti-abortion and want to withdraw from the UN too.

Posted by Mike Dorf