Throngs of college students joined the masses heading to Washington, D.C. in planes, trains, and Zipcars for Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” two Saturdays ago. The rally’s concept was to provide a breath of fresh air amid a political discourse that is increasingly combative and vitriolic, something that was especially true in the run-up to the midterm elections. Send me your mellow, your hipsters, your huddled masses yearning to speak calmly, Stewart seemed to be asking. There were to be no Hitler comparisons, no cataclysmic rhetoric at this rally, merely a resolute call for the return of reason. It is a message that all of America needs to hear. Some friends and I were planning to make the trek down to DC, but we couldn’t quite summon the energy to break away from our lives here for two days. I find my own complacency here pathetic; however, I am certainly not alone in my inertia on this campus. Even though much of the rest of the country could benefit from turning down the rhetorical intensity about political issues, Harvard students should heed just the opposite call.
Political apathy runs amok in Harvard Yard. Surely most students, if pressed, are informed and have opinions on current events and issues. Gone, however, are the days of the protests, the sit-ins, and the political activism that are so associated with idealistic college students. Where’s the passion? Where’s the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore attitude of the 1960s that challenged the status quo and put pressure on our leaders? When I was visiting Harvard as a high school senior last year, I sat in on the final lecture of Louis Menand’s “Art and Thought in the Cold War.” In it, he screened footage of a protest in Harvard Yard that he himself had recorded as an adolescent during the 60s. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates surely must be relieved that he has not drawn the same collegiate ire as his predecessor, Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War who incited several on-campus demonstrations. Except to turn in study cards, when’s the last time since that era that students have occupied University Hall?
That’s not to say that there is a total vacuum of political activism on campus. Students came out in full force to condemn the Social Studies department’s honoring of the serially politically incorrect Marty Peretz. There are myriad political groups and publications, ranging from the nonpartisan to the hyper-ideological. A few of my fellow Thayerites even organized a “Protest Against Protests” in front of the Science Center a month ago, sort of a prelude to Saturday’s rally on the National Mall. The Institute of Politics organizes voter registration drives and public discussions among other things, but all of it just seems so—civil.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think some zealotry and fervor does a political system good. Too much tranquility in our political discourse, and we might just doze off during a governmental travesty. While the Tea Party’s irrational and frenzied manner provides no benefit to the public debate, nor does artificial and monetized cable news punditry, they are taking full advantage of their First Amendment rights. As college students, we can do the same thing, though perhaps with a little more rationality in our passion.
Consider all the issues that are relevant to college students today. Major legislation was recently passed fully reforming the way student loans are handled. The economy is still languishing, jobs are as scarce as ever, and graduation draws nearer, daily, for all of us. Since we have access to University Health Services, health care reform is not as personally relevant: But, how will Wall Street reform affect the big chunk of each graduating class that trades in their Harvard backpacks for Goldman Sachs briefcases? We’re still at war, and even though we aren’t in immediate danger of being drafted, that should still mean something.
Stewart and his supporters call for an end to the name-calling and overreactions that dominate the popular political narrative, and should be commended. But this can be a turning point in the political conversation, and we students should see it as a call to rise up and take back our places as demonstrators-in-chief.
Sam N. Adams ’14, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Thayer Hall.