April 6, 2007

STAND shows a genuine moral courage

Things did not look good for Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND) in the April 3 edition of the Chicago Maroon. In a front-page article by Adrian R. Florido, the organization is portrayed as hypocritical, unscrupulously applying for funding from the University it apparently opposes. Then, in a typically snide and counterproductive op-ed by Barney Keller, STAND is painted as weak-spirited, undedicated, and insincere for not being arrested during a protest last quarter. I see no contradiction in STAND’s request for funding, and I am alarmed by Florido’s coverage, which is a far cry from the objective reporting toward which all serious journalists should strive. I will leave it to the members of STAND, however, to defend what was not a controversial action on their part. It is Keller’s criticism with which I concern myself here.

Throughout his column “What is STAND Really Standing for?” (4/03/07) Keller is “Right as Usual,” but is correct, perhaps for the first time in his career as a Maroon columnist, when he states that consideration of a change in the University’s investment practices is “something we can all agree on.” He then goes on, however, to mock the participants in STAND’s March 7 protest for their unwillingness, at that moment, to be arrested. If Keller had any experience with political action of this kind, he would know that a mass arrest is never something to be taken lightly or entered into spontaneously. And if he had attended the event, or spoken with anyone who had, he would know that its participants were never in any danger of being arrested in the first place. When STAND co-chair Michael Pareles announced that “we’re not ready to get arrested yet,” it was as much to announce a future escalation as to defuse a very tense situation.

Here Keller fundamentally misunderstands the field of political action and its history. The arrests he points to were all parts of broader strategies that included legal tactics which did not involve arrests. Furthermore, they were not arrests for their own sake. To be arrested without regard for its efficacy, or to be arrested simply for the sake of being arrested, would be the height of political stupidity. It would become, as Keller would have it, a mere story for us to “tell [our] grandkids.”

Keller bemoans the fact that “they just don’t make protesters the way they used to,” but the hypocrisy here is too much. It is not difficult to imagine the article he would have written had the event’s participants been arrested, in which he would mock the self-congratulatory “liberal” protesters who went out of their way to get themselves arrested in pursuit of a lost cause. He asks his readers to excuse his cynicism, but I will not. Nor will I accept the criticisms of an apolitical hack who lacks the courage and moral substance to do anything but take withering pot-shots at an organization struggling for a cause that he himself considers “worthwhile.”

Finally, in all conservative mockery of this sort of movement, there is the undeniable presence of a barely submerged envy which is politically paralyzing. In Keller’s case, the move is from an initial sympathy, perhaps sincere but probably disingenuous, to an absurd paternalism by way of conclusion. Perhaps Keller wishes he could resolve his own doubts, have the courage to take a stand on an issue like the genocide in Darfur, and then follow it through with real political activity. He urges the members of STAND to “push [themselves],” in order that they might “learn what [they’re] capable of,” but I’m left wondering when was the last time Keller pushed himself politically, because for the moment all he seems capable of is making cynical and ultimately worthless criticisms in the guise of sympathy and genuine concern. Keller wonders “Is this really all the moral outrage they’re capable of?” The question he should have asked is “Why is this all the moral outrage I’m capable of?” The real question here is not “Why were the protesters not arrested on March 7?” but rather “On March 7, why were you not with them?” The answer is a sad commentary on the state of student politics at this University.