Divestment Movement: R.I.P.
LET US bow our heads for a moment in silent prayer to mark the passing of a once-popular political cause--Harvard's divestment movement. Let us not hesitate to shed a few tears--but just a few--to show our sympathy for a movement whose self-righteous style could not generate enough popularity among students to achieve success or insure its survival.
The coroners place the moment of death sometime this past spring, when the divestment movement failed to conduct a single rally, plebicite, building takeover or successful blockade.
Such tactics are not unique to the recent past; generations of Harvard students have fallen victim to "spring fever," tending to engaging in activism as the slush disappears and the weather warms. In the spring of 1952, students rioted to demonstrate their support for Pogo--a popular cartoon character--for President. In 1961, thousands of undergraduates marched on President Pusey's house to protest the College's decision to write diplomas in English.
The divestment movement had capitalized on this spring fever for many years. In 1985, activists were able to assemble over 5000 students in Tercentenary Theatre to hear Jesse Jackson and other pro-divestment speakers. In 1986, the South African Solidarity Committee (SASC) mobilized a group of students and assembled a small town of shanties in front of University Hall, seemingly indicating the vitality of the divestment movement. In reality, however, the movement's days were numbered.
THE FIRST glimpses of terminal disease appeared two years ago when the Institute of Politics polled students before the 1984 presidential election. To no one's surprise, Mondale won handily. But alas, a larger minority of the freshmen (now juniors) than upperclassmen opted for Reagan.
The College was becoming more conservative, showing that even cloistered Harvard cannot avoid nationwide trends. Students no longer looked back longingly to the radicalism of the sixties; instead, they looked forward to their first BMWs.
Thus the disease which plagued the divestment movement was insipient well before this year. But it was this spring--when the only move that activists could make was a failed blockade of a South African diplomat--that its poor health became apparent. SASC leaders, however, attempted to disguise their failure, calling their effort a "symbolic blockade" that wasn't really meant to work.
My fellow mourners, I will leave it to the historians to debate exactly what "symbolic" means. What is not debatable is that a political movement that can only generate "symbolic" protests that weren't meant to succeed is a dead movement.
Future autopsies will probably reveal that the senior class contained that only hard core divestment activists left at Harvard. The freshmen which had voted for Reagan were now juniors who refused to replace the seniors now preoccupied with theses and getting jobs at Arthur D. Little.
BUT LET US not portray the divestment movement merely as a victim of national trends. Yes, time was working against the movement, but with the proper strategies and medication, the cause could have lingered on a few more years.
Instead activists quickened the death of their cause by carrying its self-righteousness to new extremes. Unlike past years when SASC offered teach-ins to educate less-informed fellow students, the only lessons activists offered this spring were ones in doubletalk and cowardliness.
Unlike past protesters who proudly accepted and even demanded responsibility for their actions, this spring's blockaders claimed they were guilty of nothing. And those protesters who had somehow escaped disciplinary action decided not to turn themselves in.
The debate resulting from the failed blockade swirled not around the pros and cons of divestment and not around the legitimacy of what the diplomat had said but on whether the form of protest had been legitimate. SASC itself became the focus of attention, not divestment.
Gary Hart said he knew his campaign was finished when the candidate became more important than the issues. Just so, SASC has now become too controversial an organization to be trusted by a majority of students in the near future.
So let us offer up a prayer for this now-defunct cause which showed a suicidal tendency. Knowing that its time was short, the divestment movement hastened its own end.