THERE'S a chic new drug on college campuses. Its prescription name is MDA, but it's more commonly known as XTC (Ecstasy). It is a mixture of a hallucinogen and an amphetamine, and for about $15 you can wallow in its benefits for five or six hours.
It's popular because it's billed as a cheery aphrodisiac--people who have taken it tend to moon about holding hands and professing their oneness with all things ambulatory and the more shapely inanimate objects. Two female acquaintances of mine, while under its spell, came up to me with sparks in their eyes and told me, "I love you." This happens to me a lot, but most people would be taken aback, and would suspect such tenders. However, XTC is a relatively benign drug, and a few hours suffice to fade its apostles back down to our usual condition, where we don't speak of love so easily.
There's another chic new drug on college campuses, one whose street name is on everyone's lips. It's called divestment. XTC acts by temporarily disrupting nerve synapses in the brain: divestment acts by temporarily disrupting the synapses of everydayness, the canalized pathways that carry us to classes, to graduation, and finally into the world of jobs and the business of living.
Outraged divestment users will protest that college, with its elitist irrelevance, its ivory tower seclusion, is the real drug, and that divestment is a much-needed methadone program to take us out of Academics Anonymous and back into the world. Surely the intolerable oppressions of a brutal, racist regime should be more germane to our lives than explicating a Richard Wright poem or memorizing the formula of trinitrotoluene. Well, yes, perhaps South Africa should be more in our thoughts than such dross of academe, but for most of us it isn't.
Thousands of us went to hear Jesse Jackson speak in the Harvard Yard in early April, and were more affected by his angry, cadent rhythms than by his actual words. "Hooray, hooray," we all shouted, basking in the sunshine and the communal glow of self-congratulation. After the speech a few hundred of us, still in the grip of moral ecstasy, stood before President Bok's office and shouted things. An all-night vigil began. It rained, and began to get cold; a few, huddled under umbrellas, stayed the night and then departed the next day. Almost three weeks later, 45 students occupied the 17 Quincy Street headquarters of Harvard's Governing Boards for a full day. Before they left at 5 p.m. as they had promised--some with their fists raised, some not--they vacuumed the building. Then they, like those on the vigil, returned to their poems and their formulas.
This may seem a toweringly cynical analysis of a moral and political protest to which many have devoted considerable time and deeply felt emotion. But aren't most of us just using divestment to make us feel good for a little while? Four years ago I stood at the base of Widener Library's steps listening prayerfully to speeches about El Salvador. After a while all of us in the audience lit our short white candles and marched around the Yard with our arms linked, chanting "One, two, three, four: U.S. out of El Salvador!" Four years later, the chants rhyme 'Bok" and "racist stock," we're still in El Salvador, and I haven't done a damn thing about any of it.
The appeal of drugs, beyond the immediate physical sensation, is that they give one a license to be irresponsible. One is part of a spectacle, and it is permitted to break things, to scream, and to say "I love you" without consequence. When we attend a spectacular divestment rally and applaud the speakers who bash Harvard and Derek Bok the hardest, we aren't being irresponsible, rather the reverse. It is only when we go home and turn to more pressing concerns that we become irresponsible, because we go back to being that very Harvard we were bashing a few hours before.
The implicit models for today's demonstrations are the Vietnam demonstrations of the late 60's and early 70's that shocked college campuses and often, as at Harvard, forced tangible concessions from college officials. It was in one sense easier to demonstrate then, because it was not such a seemingly abstract issue--your friends were being drafted and killed.
But it was also harder, because college officials weren't used to student anger, and they fought back with police truncheons and disciplinary action. Now demonstrations have been accepted; they're almost a part of the system. When the students block his office doorway, Bok works at the Kennedy School until they leave. It is all very decorous--those kids will have their protest, pay them no mind. Kind of ruins the point of the protest, doesn't it? Unless of course, you care more about how the protest feels than what it does.
It is currently fashionable to look down our noses at the late 70's, when students are supposed to have sold out their ideals to the almighty dollar. Time magazine and its attendant sycophantic competitors are fond of telling us that a decade ago students began to march to the drumbeat of the selfishness song, which goes something like: "No more sweaty rallies, no more LSD: Society owes a turbo Porsche to me, me, me." Even if we accept this colossal generalization with its implicit comparison to our generation, we must still wonder whether our immediate forebears weren't more honest than we: at least they didn't make the fitful pretense of social consciousness.
And on this disquieting thought I close, with a salute to those courageous endurers who are committed to destroying apartheid in South Africa, and a question for dilettantes like myself, whose responses to the issue are studiously correct and sterile. If there were no South Africa to engage our ephemeral protest, would we not invent one?