–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

The Issue Might Be Important, But You Aren’t

by | Jun 21, 2024

I first became political in the early 1980’s, when I was a teenager. Reagan’s Contra and “Star Wars” initiatives had inspired me to become a Democrat and to attend Washington Workshops in the Capitol, where at the age of fifteen, I participated in mock congresses and other such things. One of the issues we took up was SDI (the aforementioned “Star Wars”), and my moment of glory came when I concocted our side’s winning “Nerf ball” argument. One of the knocks on SDI was that some of its more exotic elements – like satellite-based particle beam weapons – required such exact positioning that the slightest deviation would render them ineffective. (We depended on a Union of Concerned Scientists report for this line of critique.) So sensitive were the proposed beam weapon platforms, in fact, that something as slight as a tap from a Nerf ball would throw them off. It was juvenile of course, but our opponents were equally juvenile so the “Nerf ball” argument was perceived as a crushing blow, especially since we employed props, bringing an actual Nerf ball and toy spaceship to demonstrate. (One of my friends dangled the toy spaceship from a string, and I chucked the Nerf Ball at it from across the chambers to great dramatic effect.) We had similar moments during mock United Nations sessions, in which one of the central issues we debated was the Nicaraguan revolution and Contra war. We spent most of our allotted time rubbing our opponents’ faces in the wretched hell that was the prior Somoza dictatorship to which they had no reply. It was glorious.

The experience made us feel important among our peers, and when we returned to our respective high schools, we could lord our superior political acumen and cred over our schoolmates who hadn’t attended. I began having one-on-one meetings with other politically interested students in my school, and we would discuss current events as well as my time in the Workshops. My best friend Benji ___, who was a staunch Reaganite, suddenly found himself at a disadvantage when we got into political arguments. And there was this kid, Lee ___, whom I would meet daily during a shared free period and who got so into it that he would come with a briefcase full of newspaper clippings, notes, and other stuff he wanted to discuss that day.

But, this sense of importance never extended beyond the walls of our high school. Sure, I told my parents about my time in Washington and went into some of the details, but I left out a lot, including the Nerf ball argument, which I had been so proud of. I certainly didn’t pose and posture as some political expert outside of school, as I knew that my parents (and other competent adults) knew a hundred times more about the subject than I did, and I’d spent my conscious years seeing the news delivered and analyzed by serious professionals like Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and David Brinkley. (My first political memory is of Nixon on television saying he wasn’t a crook.) I also had a realistic and subtle enough conception of myself that I understood that I could simultaneously be the most important politico in my high school and completely unimportant outside of it; that the issues might be important, but I (or my take on them) was not.

When I arrived at the University of Michigan in 1986, it was a time of heady student politics that manifested itself in all sorts of high-profile stunts. Anti-racism activists built a wood shanty in the middle of the school’s main quad, where everyone would hang out between classes – known as the “Diag” – to protest South African apartheid. This devolved into what can only be called a “shanty war,” as Palestinian activists built their own shanty to protest Israel, and pro-Israel students built a full-sized model of a blown-up bus to protest the Palestinians, all of which collectively rendered the Diag a dump and a bummer to hang out in. The overwhelming majority of students – who were not confused about their importance with respect to international affairs and were at school to earn degrees and have some parentally unsupervised fun – found this annoying, and the activists had to keep up with the daily vandalism visited upon the shanties by their fellow students, who after a few days had enough. We may only have been eighteen or nineteen, but most of us understood that nothing we did on campus would have any effect on goings-on in South Africa or the Middle East or Washington DC and that the whole shantytown thing was nothing more than a performance. As Jonathan Chait (who graduated from Michigan just a few years after me) put it: “It is a sad irony that a newly resurgent left, rather than aiming outward to redress the world’s evils, instead directed its energies almost entirely inward in a misguided attempt to achieve ideological hegemony in a small university enclave.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the recent outbursts of student activism on American campuses during the last weeks of the Spring 2024 semester. Once again, the issue was the Middle East – this time, Israeli military operations in Gaza – and once again, a bunch of students – this time egged on by fawning and genuflecting faculty – decided that what they had to say on the matter was so important, they should disrupt everyone’s lives — in this case, final exams and graduations — in order to make them listen to it. As one would expect, these displays quickly descended into farce, as students found themselves running gauntlets in order to access parts of campus that had been turned by activists into “liberated zones,” for which holding the “correct” views on the Arab/Israeli conflict were the conditions for entry; young people belonging to various “marginalized communities,” who would be imprisoned or put to death in Gaza, flew “_____’s for Gaza!” flags, demonstrating a spectacular case of losing the plot; and one poor, Keffiyeh-draped young lady suggested that feeding her and other activists should be considered “humanitarian aid,” demanding that the administration deliver them food and beverages, while they ruined everyone’s finals week and graduation.

When confronted over this sort of obnoxious public behavior, the answers always seem to be some variation on: “How can you  ______, when people are ______ing in ____?” The original version, as I recall, was “How can you ____, when children are starving in Africa?” but this time it was: “How can you think about finals, when Israel is committing a genocide in Gaza?” and “What’s more important, your graduation or children dying in Gaza?” My favorite answer, however, is one that wraps the whole thing up into a gloriously self-important package: “Protests that didn’t bother anyone or disrupt their lives never made any real difference.” You see, the rightness of the cause justifies and even ennobles our terrible behavior. You say we’re behaving like annoying jerks on campus? We say we’re just like Martin Luther King and the March on Washington. Of course, real civil disobedience involves accepting arrest and even imprisonment, not being delivered food and drinks by the authorities while one blocks a highway or bridge or defaces the Mona Lisa or Stonehenge or whatever, but never mind.

How important is the average student’s (or person’s) opinion on Matters of Great Domestic and Global Concern? If one is a voter, then one’s opinions will inform the way one votes, so they are as important as one’s single vote is, which is not very much. If one is an expert on the subject (as per the criteria by which we commonly deem people experts on such things), one’s opinions are important insofar as they educate the citizenry, who may be called upon to vote on the issue in some way or other. And if one is in a position of power to influence the relevant state of affairs – if one is an elected official or a diplomat or the CEO of a major corporation or the like – then one’s opinions are important because they may affect the outcome.

It’s worth pointing out that even where someone’s opinions are demonstrably important, people are not ordinarily forced to listen to them. When President Biden gives a speech on the situation in Gaza or on military support for Israel, what he has to say is obviously important, yet I’m free not to watch it; even to watch something far less important instead. If I decide to skip the speech, for example, and tune into reruns of the Gong Show, it’s not as if anyone is going to come to my house and make me change the channel or barricade my front and back doors until I watch the speech, or shout at me through a megaphone: “How can you watch Gong Show reruns, when people are being genocided in Gaza?!” 

Of course, the opinions of your average Joe or excitable teenager or college student or even most college professors, who don’t know any more about whatever it is than anyone else does, carry no such significance, and the idea that airing them is so important that large numbers of people should be made captive to their bellowing, garment-rending, and other assorted histrionics is beyond farcical and well into Twilight Zone territory. Vote, if you feel so strongly about it. Talk with your friends, if it’s something you take such great interest in. Send money to whichever organization is going to advance whatever it is you want in Congress or internationally or wherever. Endeavor to change the mind of someone who disagrees with you, if you know enough about whatever it is and have enough self control to do so in a persuasive manner. But if you’re thinking about messing with other people or their plans, get over yourself and remember: the issue might be important, but you aren’t.