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Student Activism Has Lost Its Spirit

A distracted young left has sacrificed counterculture for callout culture.

By Sahil Handa
Sahil Handa ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies and Philosophy concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

“Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Spoken by Timothy F. Leary at a gathering of over 20,000 hippies in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967, these words were a call for young people across America to take psychedelics, seek divinity within, and reject all that exists without. And in the counterculture of the 1960s, Leary had disciples: The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan; kids at Woodstock, Newport Folk, Monterey Pop. Thousands of youths saw themselves as “part of a greater organism”: turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.

But some of Leary’s friends dropped back in. For young people on the left, psychedelic pandemonium came with resentful rebellion: railing against Cold War brinkmanship, sexual repression, and racial segregation. In North Carolina, teenage sit-ins sparked a countrywide sit-in movement. In Berkeley, thousands of students defied a ban on on-campus political activities. In Chicago, over 200,000 students boycotted classes in protest of ongoing segregation. And at Harvard, scandal erupted when the media found out that undergraduates were taking the separation of procreation and sex into new territory.

Sixties counterculture was by no means perfect. For many, the call to action paved the way for hedonistic utopianism; for others, it meant turning a blind eye to Soviet expansionism. Some exploited the atmosphere to feed their self-indulgent sense of entitlement; others abused and commoditized drugs to the point of death. Every triumph of the decade was accompanied by severe and important losses: reckless debauchery, years of potential research, and overlooked tyrants in Europe and South America.

Yet, despite all its faults, one cannot help but admire the spirit of sixties counterculture. For it is that spirit — that fighting, aspirational spirit — which, in addition to helping launch the welfare state and forcing through the Civil Rights Act, took it beyond national borders. By 1968, young people had become the world’s loudest voice against the Vietnam War: 4,000 outside the US embassy in London; a brave student killed at the University of Puerto Rico; thousands of draft cards burned in Australia and America. The sixties inspired a global leftist movement; it brought together a disparate collection of causes and identity groups for the sake of a greater political purpose. And the results, though flawed, contributed to the end of a disastrous conflict.

No such movement exists today, and that is not because there is nothing for young people to protest. America has a dangerous narcissist in the White House, and every day its democratic system becomes increasingly vulnerable to foreign manipulation. Islamist extremists continue to promote extremist ideology abroad while white supremacists call for the deportation of anyone who arrived in their nation from abroad. From voter suppression and environmental degradation to irresponsible social media companies and ever-increasing inequality, there is plenty for the youth to challenge.

But today, those seeking social justice are more often associated with political correctness than radical impudence; freedom of speech has become a talking point of the right rather than the left. Students would rather find enemies in their insufficiently woke neighbors than form powerful coalitions across political boundaries; they would sooner appear to be fighting false enemies than spend their time addressing real ones. The most popular college protests of the past five years have been over a conservative provocateur’s speaking platform, a Sanders-supporting professor’s rejection of segregation, and an email suggesting that the role of a college faculty should not extend to Halloween costume recommendations.

In all three cases, the students were the prosecutors, not the defendants. In all three cases, the students appealed to a pre-existing authority for their answers. And in all three cases, the students spent significant time arguing amongst themselves. Some might point to the Women’s March as an exception, but its leadership’s blatant anti-Semitism has alienated those who do not subscribe to a stream of illiberal opinions; and the result, despite initial promise, has been to mask unproductive infighting with Instagram icons.

As students have self-segregated into fanatical factions, their enemies have stepped in to take their place. Far-right racists have stolen the revolutionary spirit, claiming to fight on behalf of the people while doing all they can to divide them into hostile groups. Across Europe, nativist and neo-fascist parties are winning elections by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment. In America, neo-Nazis are making a resurgence in the public sphere. A tribalistic president is putting destructive policies into action and former White House Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon has just returned from an expansive European tour — all while our student activists complain about course syllabi and call out Kanye West’s tweets.

Young skins have become thinner, aspirations have grown smaller, and bigots have seized the countercultural mantle. Potential allies have been left politically deserted and students have grown perennially distracted. The notion that members of the free speech movement could have once marched alongside sexual liberators and drug legalizers is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine.

In her 1968 Class Day speech at Harvard, Coretta Scott King called every student of her day a “serious-minded, independent-thinking individual” with an “amazing power to influence the course of societies all over the world.” Her statement was a powerful one that accurately described the spirit of 1960s youth. But now, in an era dominated by virtue signalling and identity politics, its message is needed more than ever.

Progress, as Oscar Wilde put it, has been made through disobedience — anti-fragile revolutionaries confronting flawed arguments wherever they found them. Those revolutionaries have not always had the right answers, but they have always asked the right questions; they have disregarded fruitless battles in order to take part in the real war.

Sahil Handa ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies and Philosophy concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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