21-ordinance activism

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 24, 2010 7:30 AM

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I hate the 21-ordinance.

It’s not that I find the proposed measure especially egregious (I tepidly oppose it but also see its merits). It’s the student apathy the ordinance underscores that I find repugnant.

I’m a junior. Since I’ve been on campus, we’ve seen the surge of one war and the continuation of another. We’ve witnessed the continued underfunding of the state’s public university system and the seemingly inexorable warming of our planet. In May 2008, federal agents raided Postville in the biggest immigration raid in the state’s history, breaking up families and letting some officious employers off the hook.

And yet many of us have remained silent in those cases, rising up only against the 21-ordinance for selfish, shortsighted reasons.

Sure, there have been sporadic protests. Last year, graduate students rallied against budget cuts and steep administrator salaries. Students, Iowa City residents, and other activists picketed Karl Rove’s visit to the University of Iowa in 2008. And student and community members’ jubilant celebration on the Pentacrest last April after the pro-marriage equality Supreme Court ruling was heartening.

Those are the most noteworthy of aberrations that come to mind. The norm has been one of inaction, with students unaware of (or at least unmoved by) pressing local, national, and international issues. Then, when the 21-ordinance pops up, students turn out in droves at the ballot box — as in 2007 — or angrily decry city councilors.

The UI wasn’t always this way. Like other colleges around the country, the campus reached its activist apex in the 1960s and ’70s. In that turbulent era, morally justifiable protests sometimes turned unjustifiably violent. Protesters decried the Vietnam War and called for the societal inclusion of oppressed and disenfranchised groups.

“It was a time of something going on all the time,” said UI College of Law Professor Willard “Sandy” Boyd, who was president of the UI from 1969 to 1981 and interim president from 2002 to 2003.

And now? Student activism centers on solipsistically safeguarding drinking habits rather than the most important issues of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I welcome student action on the 21-ordinance. And I’m not romantically calling for a return to the days of the Weather Underground and window smashing.

But it’s discouraging when the only issue students care enough to mobilize against is the 21-ordinance. Boyd agreed, calling it “pretty appalling.”

Critics may argue students are politically active only on salient issues. The 21-ordinance, after all, would affect a wide swath of the student population.

But what does it say about us as a student body when all we get riled up about is restricting access to bars? Should we, as thinking, intelligent citizens, hedonistically limit our activism to the 21-ordinance, to the obvious detriment of more consequential issues?

The reasons for student indifference are both multifaceted and elusive. Our consumerist society — bolstered by impetuous antigovernment sentiments — certainly has something to do with it, though.

Buying an iPhone is more important to many than acquiring the knowledge necessary to develop an informed opinion on a contentious political issue. Placated by material pursuits, we’ve perverted the idea of democracy. We’ve become a nation — and, more locally, a student body — of insipid citizens.

I don’t mean to implicate all students. UI students and former City Council candidates Dan Tallon and Jeff Shipley clearly run counter to the paralysis paradigm. Other student groups, including the University Democrats and College Republicans, remain relatively active as well. And some have deeply held ideological aversions to the 21-ordinance that supersede more selfish reasons.

But on the whole, UI students have failed to mobilize on paramount local, national, and international issues. Too often, we’ve settled for complacency.

That needs to change.

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