It was an unexpected sight, but there they were: pickets in the rain at the new Towson Roundabout, university students protesting depredations by a powerful international corporation upon helpless people in a land far away.
You don't see much of that anymore, not on campus, not anywhere. That kind of political protest is supposed to be out of date. Campus protest these days -- from Western Maryland College to Michigan State University and beyond -- seems driven mainly by booze, without a shred of idealism or ideology.
Some believe complacency has mortified the spirit of the times and drained it of all exuberance. There certainly are reasons for complacency. Since the extinction of the Soviet Union, no force threatens or seriously challenges the United States from without. The global economy turns in our favor. Unemployment drops and drops; as it does, the advantage tips toward workers in the labor marketplace. There's bread and butter aplenty, and all about the circumstances of felicity multiply.
Still, it is not entirely true that young people (and their elders, faculty members in this case) will not take to the streets, inspired by some cause larger than the sum of their own personal concerns. The Towson protest, if it does nothing else, proves they will.
It was organized by David Rubin Snyder, a 21-year-old philosophy major at Goucher College. Its broader target was the global Shell Oil Co. The charges? Environmental degradation of the land of the Eboni people of Nigeria and support for the dictatorship of that country. The more immediate target was the Shell gas station opposite the roundabout.
Snyder says there's a lot of ferment on his campus, that he has little trouble getting people to carry signs. "I think people are very ready for it," he says.
Maybe at Goucher, but not everywhere. At Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, Richard Malish, a junior majoring in East Asian studies, has difficulty gaining the leverage to get his own licks in at Shell. Malish runs a coalition called Divest Now. He wants the university to shrink its investments in Shell to zero. But not enough of his fellow students seem to care about it one way or another. Sign carriers are not plentiful.
But he presses on; the continuing struggle is nothing if not continuing. And though the consensus among people on campuses around the country suggests that students are less concerned about large national or international issues, that is not universally true.
The University of Pennsylvania is known as the most conservative among the Ivy League schools. Yet the administration there hears now and then from the Progressive Activist Network on campus, whose members are determined that Penn rid itself of investments that benefit the dictatorship in Myanmar. Also, Penn students came out last year to protest the visit to the campus by the president of the People's Republic of China.
All this suggests that political dissent is alive, if not robust, in this country. But it certainly doesn't look or sound much the way it used to. Nor are the lines of confrontation as clear as they once were, or appeared to be.
The vocabulary has changed, too, at least on the left. Marxism is no longer the approved text to describe what's wrong with the world. An entire new lexicon has emerged, and not everybody's happy about it. (The vocabulary of the right is still all about God, family values and private property.)
Expressions such as cultural diversity, gay liberation, gender studies, affirmative action and radical feminism have nothing to do with Marx or Lenin, writes William Phillips, editor of Partisan Review. But, he complains, these ideas "are thought of as constituting the essence of the left."
The new left is characterized by specific grievances rather than an articulated dissent based on a broad ideal, a variety of lifestyle issues rather than a life-or-death cause. These have little of the fatal attraction that revolutionary socialism once held for its adherents. Socialism had its mighty heroes and mighty villains, people such as Marx and Stalin. For good or ill they gave the movement historical heft. Could one imagine a Pol Pot of gender studies?
"The issues we are engaged with these days are almost trivial when compared to civil rights and the Vietnam War," says John Entin, who teaches law and political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "They are not the kinds of issues that would suggest major sorts of political or civil transformation."
Except possibly the environment, which has been known to stimulate confrontational protest and even illegal direct action, such as people camping in trees to prevent their being chopped down by loggers, and tree spiking.
But for the most part the dispute over the care or abuse of the physical environment is fought out in courtrooms and congressional committee chambers. Sometimes it is hard to tell how and where the left-right spectrum breaks over this question, or if those terms are even valid as a way of understanding politics these days.
According to Donald Ferree of the University of Connecticut, the clearest dividing line is over the question of what the proper role of the government should be: big and intrusive (left) or small and permissive (right).
But that, too, oversimplifies.
One thing is clear. Dissent in America today is no longer owned by the left as it was for so many decades. It is strong on the right. The political complexion of the current Congress proves that. The most ideologically driven protesters, the most desperate and dangerous dissenters, are on the right. Consider the extremists of the anti-abortion movement; they kill people and blow up clinics. Consider the militia movements, with their chauvinistic rhetoric, and fondness for high explosives.
Not all dissent on the right is violent, of course. But the message from that direction is the one most often heard in America today. Who reads the Nation? How many leftist radio talk shows are there?
"Movements on the right have found organizational and media vehicles for their expression," says Charles Noble, a political scientist at California State University at Long Beach. "The anti-abortion movement, the Christian fundamentalist movement has a well-developed system to get its ideas out."
Many in these movements -- even the violent ones -- are fired by ideals they regard as almost sacred truths. They are in dissent against a majority which, to them, has lost its way. Their aim is to impose their own practices upon that majority. They would desecularize society. They stand against the Constitution as it is interpreted by the Supreme Court.
So dissent is still very much part of life in these United States. It wasn't supposed to be this way here at the dead end of history. Francis Fukuyama, a brainy former State Department official, suggested in his 1989 essay, "The End of History and the Last Man," that the withdrawal of Marxist communism as a challenge to democratic liberal capitalism would usher in an era of diminishing ideological conflict. There would be less to fight over.
Maybe so, but he didn't say there would be nothing to fight over.
Pub Date: 6/05/98