March 7, 2008

Dollars and sense

[img id="80432" align="alignleft"] One of my lasting impressions from this summer occurred when I attended a sneak preview of Michael Moore’s Sicko in New York City. This was the first time the movie had been screened, and Moore himself was in the audience. (One attendee got him to sign a pill bottle.) The lasting image, however, came before the film when activists outside the theater were handing out pamphlets, asking people to sign petitions in order to provide health care as a human right. I can think of no other era in history when the loudest voices for social change were pushing 60.

There are a lot of people who can be blamed for this situation. One could look to Perez Hilton and the unprecedented opportunities in media consumption leading people to choose news about Lindsay Lohan over health care. One could look to Ronald Reagan and his conservative notion that any statement of disgust with an aspect of our society is unpatriotic. One could even look to Michel Foucalt’s brand of postmodernism, whose breakdown of absolute truths into an all-encompassing indoctrination by power structures has been confused as a convenient justification for apathy.

Blaming the three-headed monster of Perez, Reagan, and Foucault (a horrifying monster if there ever was one) may be fun, but it won’t get people health care, it won’t fix the situation in Iraq, and it won’t eliminate torture in U.S. detention centers. If ever there were a way to motivate Americans to break down a broken society, it would be their wallets. That’s why I’m strangely, perhaps sadistically, excited by the possibility of a recession. The more unstable the economy, the more likely citizens are to fight for what’s right.

It’s not that poverty hasn’t been a glaring problem in our society even before the recession—there’s been an enormous disparity in income and opportunity since well before the Bush presidency. What should be more of a concern is the lack of any heavy activism on American campuses. Protesting national health care may seem to be in vain, but only because that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe through historical revisionism. In reality, the source of social change has always been activism on prominent campuses—intellectual hotbeds of radical ideas and subversive political action—whether in 1968 or 1848.

Just last year, the number of people who protested the Common Application here was five times the number of people who protested genocide. And there are very few other generations for which the only noteworthy protests on one of the more intellectually prominent campuses in the country amount to STAND throwing pennies on President Zimmer’s desk and a concern over how prospective students fill in their addresses on their applications. We’re so disillusioned with our potential to change things that we either concern ourselves with small, insular matters (the Uncommon App), or events thousands of miles away (Darfur). The far more reasonable middle ground actually seems harder to dent.

The main reason American campuses haven’t really addressed these claims has been the lack of sufficient motivation. The vast majority of students on this campus and on similar ones are relatively well off, and most belong to the upper-middle or upper class. Every undergraduate has health insurance, and relatively few have siblings in Iraq. But if, say, a student’s parent lost his job, or his mother developed a serious illness and lacked insurance, or a friend from high school lost a limb in Iraq, something tells me he wouldn’t be so likely to scorn these issues and write a Sosc paper instead. Our economy is finally starting to come around to the crisis our country has been in for the last decade, and we can only hope it gives detached college students a stern kick in the rear. Wake up, Chicago.