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One Cheer for Apathy

By Thomas B. Cotton

Walter Rathenau called the great wave of humanity that is each generation "the vertical invasion of the barbarians." Every 20 years or so, an entire generation arrives on the Earth, uncivil and uneducated. The job of society (that is, of any society that wants to recreate itself) is to tame those barbarians.

The task of taming, civilizing and educating the barbarians typically falls (or should fall) to families. Families need help, however, which friends, churches, and schools provide. The liberal academy has a special role in taming the barbarians. It takes the few outstanding members of each generation and turns them into the men and women who preserve a society's greatest treasures, the collected wisdom of the ages that defines a society at its most essential level.

At least, the liberal academy should play that role. It seems that this liberal academy has failed to tame the barbarians. In fact, a few vocal Harvard students seem to think that their peers remain regenerate barbarians, resisting the most persistent efforts at (re)education.

Campus activists have long decried apathy at Harvard, lamenting that most Harvard students lack concern for some vague notion of social justice. Until recently, however, these concerns only occasionally graced this page. But with two shocking "setbacks," campus activists have gone to DEFCON 2.

To much and deserved surprise, heterodox Harvard students scored political victories last semester. Beth A. Stewart '00, a reported, ahem, conservative students run for the Undergraduate Council presidency often enough, but rarely do they win. And certainly not if they once worked for...Newt Gingrich!

Hard as it might be to top a former Gingrich employee as an object for moralizing and indignation on the part of others, Adam R. Kovacevich '99 deftly accomplished just that. Kovacevich founded The Grape Coalition, which campaigned for the return of California table grapes to the Harvard dining halls. Through a virtually single-handed effort, Kovacevich convinced 54 percent of Harvard students to support the return of table grapes despite an ad hominem and platitudinous misinformation campaign by several activist groups. As his success seemed more likely, Kovacevich became Harvard's equivalent of "The Great Satan" among activists.

One can understand why Raza or the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) might have challenged Kovacevich. United Farm Workers (UFW) purported to speak on behalf of Mexican migrant and immigrant grape workers and for improved labor conditions (never mind that most grape workers chose not to join the UFW). It is less clear what motivated groups like UNITE, Education 4 Action, Phillips Brooks House Association, the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters' Alliance, and Ballet Folkorico de Aztlan. (Those last two seem especially peculiar, but hey, why exclude people from the party?)

Andrew A. Green '98, former managing editor of The Crimson, explains why the monolithic activism industry aligned against The Great Satan: "To have a group challenge the very foundation of the progressive liberal orthodoxy was new and frightening" (The Crimson, 2/3/98). New and frightening! Kovacevich, like Stewart, strikes fear into the hearts of campus activists because their success threatens the "progressive liberal" hegemony on campus.

The threat has led activists to present a united and relentless front. In addition to Green, campus luminaries such as former president of the Undergraduate Council Lamelle D. Rawlins '99 (12/5/97) and current Crimson Editorial Board Chair Geoffrey C. Upton (11/18/97 and 12/16/97) have attacked and bemoaned the rising tide of "anti-progressivism" (Green's term) on this page. Green says that anti-progressivism "disgust[s]" him. Rawlins reports that it is "disingenuous." And Upton wishes the anti-progressives would "let those of us who would rather try to make a difference than not do just that" (11/18/97). (PSLM would have spoken up as well, but they are too busy keeping Starbucks out of Central Square.)

Campus activists want to cut at the roots any semblance of rising anti-progressive sentiment because they know they are in the distinct minority at Harvard. Disregarding the political leanings of Harvard students, which are decidedly leftward, those who only want to get to "medical school or Wall Street" (Green's rough synonym for "ignorant immoralists") easily constitute a majority of students, a decidedly apathetic majority. Lacking numbers, the minority of activists knows they are finished if they lose their supposed moral authority and their (still) overwhelming public prominence.

Despite the sanctimony of activists, most students see, or implicitly accept, apathy about political issues as a virtue. We have a lifetime for political activism, of which many of us will take full advantage. We have only four years of liberal education (except for the few who study for a Ph.D.). With limited time, students must make a choice, and most students prudently choose their education over activism.

It is said that Thomas Jefferson, one of America's great university men, studied fifteen hours a day as an undergraduate. One must wonder if campus activists would label him "apathetic." One need not wonder to know Jefferson would join most Harvard students in giving one cheer for apathy. (We are too apathetic to muster the other two cheers.)

Thomas B. Cotton '98 is a government concentrator residing in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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