Finding the country’s conscience

BY SHAWN GUDE | JANUARY 28, 2011 7:10 AM

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Forget the much-mythologized vanguard party.

We young people have often been the ones at the forefront of political movements, the courageous catalysts for social change. Free of the jaundiced inertia that can accompany old age, students and other youths around the world have repeatedly positioned themselves as the conscience of their respective nations, speaking out against injustice and mobilizing for democratic freedom.

And now?

As Egypt erupts after years of latent indignation (Thursday’s New York Times: “Youth Upend Cairo’s Taming of Opposition”) and Tunisians revolt, our campus — and, for the most part, our age cohort — is largely silent.

Little public outrage over Republican attempts to slash state funding for higher education. A relative absence of opprobrium over an ever-metastasizing national-security state. And no broad-based, multi-ethnic youth alliance pushing for humane immigration reform.

I don’t mean to equate America’s shortcomings with the autocratic dictators and venal institutions that plague such countries as Egypt and Tunisia. Anti-21-only histrionics aside, Iowa City isn’t governed by a tyrannical City Council. And citizens don’t have to bribe crooked officials in order to receive rudimentary services.

But while blind patriots and adherents of American exceptionalism might have you believe otherwise, our country does have its fair share of foibles. We have perfidious politicians, rather than dictatorial rulers; mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, rather than jailing of government dissidents; and Big Business-Big Government collusion, rather than quid pro quo corruption.

In the past, American students have protested such invidiousness.

The 1960s saw the zenith of student activism in the United States. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Students for a Democratic Society protested some of the country’s worst anti-democratic tendencies — white supremacy, militarism, and economic injustice. The nation saw North Carolina A&T students display an astounding amount of sangfroid during the Greensboro sit-ins.

International youths have often done the same.

Sophie Scholl and others in the White Rose resistance group were executed for producing and distributing anti-Nazi literature. In 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese students and other citizens rose up and demanded reform. Twenty-six-year-old Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan became a symbol of resistance after being gunned down following 2009’s fraudulent presidential election.

Throughout the years, numerous youths — Roger Allen LaPorte, Jan Palach, and Romas Kalanta, to name a few — have even set themselves ablaze in protest. Last month, 26-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi joined that list.

I don’t mean to lecture (or suggest students should resort to self-immolation to protest potential tuition hikes). But as young people, we have an obligation — not just to turn out for or against the 21-ordinance, but to hold our elected officials accountable for the policies they support.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, an education philosopher and administrator, put it well: “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.” And with an emasculated democracy, indignities (or, at the very least, ill-conceived policies) are more likely to go unchallenged.

Democratic agency is more than voting every couple years or supporting a charismatic politician. It means mobilizing, protesting, and resisting for the policies and causes we hold dear.

Our nation isn’t incorrigible. Progress, while possible, isn’t inevitable. The rapidity of reform is malleable.

We just have to shake off our lethargy and reclaim our role as the “conscience of the nation.”

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