WHAT WERE 1044 Brown University students trying to say last Friday when they voted that their university should stock cyanide pills to be used in the event of a nuclear war? What were 687 students who voted against the non-binding referendum trying to say?
It is a sign our age, and perhaps a hopeful sign, that these questions are treated with earnest skepticism. Plenty of careful medical and environmental studies have made it clear that suicide may well be an attractive alternative to "living" through a nuclear exchange. And yet something threatened to choke sympathy off at the throat. Were the Brown students 1980s zoot-suiters who had spoiled a serious issue with a publicity stunt, muddying the earnest reputation of Ivy League students? It is difficult not to ask the question.
But it may be irrelevant. These are hard times for popular protest. Hundreds of thousands of people, all carefully organized and cleverly costumed to create media impact, failed in their attempt to prevent the deployment of American missiles on European soil. The anti-nuclear energy movement in this country hasn't spread beyond college students and professional activists, despite the obvious appeal it might have for less-skilled laborers who stand to lose their jobs. Sure, part of this is attributable to the cultural antagonisms of liberal intellectuals and lower class workers. During the Vietnam War, for instance, polls showed that blue-collar Americans disliked both the war and anti-war protesters (The Democratic Party's recent epidemic of flag-waving is a worthwhile attempt to address this problem).
But the explanation isn't that simple. The nuclear freeze--an idea associated in this country with the liberal and the left--is supported by a comfortable majority of Americans. Still, the Pershings are in Germany, nuclear power plants churn away, and the freeze is but an idea, admirable in its simplicity. To what do we owe this impotence of public opinion?
In October of 1945, George Orwell wrote a prescient essay entitled "You and the Atom Bomb" which may hint at an answer. After mentioning that revolutionary activity has usually occurred in periods when the dominant weapon was a simple one, he wrote. "Had [nuclear weapons been cheap and easy to produce] the whole trend of history would have been, bruptly altered. The distinction between great status and small states would have been wiped out, and the power of the State over the individual would have been greatly weakened...Looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has not been towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for a general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity...Few people have yet considered its implications--that is, the kind of world-view, the kinds of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of 'cold war' with its neighbors."
So while technology races ahead, history slows to an incremental crawl. Nuclear weapons may eventually make it possible for history to race ahead--imagine, say, the Palestinian Liberation Organization or the Irish Republican Army secreting nuclear bombs in suitcases. But it is no profundity to note that, for the moment, atom bombs have slowed the possibility of significant world changes to a slug's pace.
The events at Brown last week may be a good example of "the kind of world-view, the kinds of beliefs" which develop in such a world. One of the students at Brown who dreamed up the referendum believed "the idea was to equate nuclear arms with suicide and convince people they shouldn't tolerate either," according to the Boston Globe. There is as little reason to doubt his motives as there is reason to doubt that nuclear weapons will be with us until they end our world. But arguing that society should not tolerate nuclear arms is, in effect, arguing that physics should be uninvented. The fusion bomb is non-returnable.
But that doesn't mean that such utopian protest is futile. The skepticism with which we approach a vote to stock cyanide pills (which the university will not honor, by the way) is part scorn for foolishness, but it is also, I think, the unfortunate result of a belief that such protests achieve nothing. Hardened by the failed excesses of the sixties, our generation shies away from such displays, claiming they are naive, lambasting what we see as token and counterproductive grabs for media attention. But we should remember that nearly twenty-five years ago, when four young black students simply sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and ignited the civil rights movement, the same skeptical eyebrows were raised as to what could be accomplished.
Thinking of Orwell, what the Brown students did seems hopeless and misdirected. But at the same time that these students were "unrealistic," their protest represents a valuable rage against a world which frustrates peaceful change and promises a nuclear firestorm. It is true that an influential article in Scientific American may do more to prevent an anti-ballistic missile system (which will almost certainly make the world less safe) than a cyanide referendum at Brown. But such articles have been published, and the present administration still intends to develop defensive weapons. It is still within the realm of reason that popular protest can lead us out of the present statement, that it can deliver us from beliefs and a world-view dominated by nuclear weapons. The process will be a slow one, perhaps an agonizing one. But amidst foolishness and camp, the Brown students have reminded us of a better world. It may be a world that has passed us by unretrievably.