This page is part of Benton Foundation's online archive. We've kept some old stuff around for historical purposes.OneWorld US Special Report
Demographics and Values
The Impact of Seattle
Bringing Globalization Home
Scanning the Terrain
Anti-Sweats and Ethical Consumption
Different Approaches to Global Education
Youth Activism and Global Engagement-Part IV
The Fairness Revolution: Closing the Gap between Institutions and Ideals
"What is this protest all about?" law school graduate Melvin Levine asked the alumni, faculty, parents, and fellow students gathered together for Harvard’s 1969 Commencement ceremony. A wave of political activism was sweeping across college campuses and Levine, delivering the English Oration, wanted to explain the reasons why. Our protest, he said, is not an effort to ‘challenge values that have been affirmed for centuries. We are not conspiring to destroy America. We are attempting to do precisely the reverse; we are affirming the values which you instilled in us and which you have taught us to respect. You taught us that authority should be guided by reason and tempered by fairness. And we have taken you seriously. You have given us your visions and then asked us to curb them. You made us idealists then asked us to go slowly. All we ask is that you allow us to realize the very values which you held forth.’ (Huntington, 1983)
Though the tone is pleading, the oration constitutes an extended defense and an implicit challenge. With our sit-ins, civil rights marches, and anti-war organizing, it is we who have lived the word, served as custodians of the Old Truths, put principle into practice. It is you who have broken faith with America’s promise, who are the subversive, who become deracinated from the moral traditions that define our national identity.
Alluding to a group of placard-carrying students demonstrating against commencement speaker Madeleine Albright, UC-Berkeley valedictorian Fadia Rafeedie told the graduating class of 2000:
I think what the protestors did was not to embarrass our university. I think they dignified it. Because secretary Albright didn’t even mention Iraq, and not mentioning things can actually be lying about them…We are about five thousand here today, and that’s just a fraction of people who are going to die in Iraq because of the sanctions. This is what House Minority Whip David Bonior calls ‘infanticide masquerading as policy.’You might hear that it’s all because of Saddam Hussein. He’s a brutal dictator--I agree with her, and I agree with many of you. But we need to see who’s responsible for how strong Saddam has gotten. When he was gassing the Kurds, he was gassing them with chemical weapons manufactured in Rochester, New York. And the depleted uranium, which Native Americans in the US are mining and getting sick from, is going from the U.S. to Iraq and it’s devastating people there…I want to end my speech with a proverb that hangs over my bed in Arabic. Translated, it says, ‘Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it.’ I think our future is going to be the future of truth, and we’re going to walk that path, and we’re going to fill it with travelers. (quoted in DTI forum, July 2, 2000)
The address represents an indictment of U.S. foreign policy. But as a call to conscience to resist that policy, it also presumes and pays homage to a specific cultural context in which such appeals have resonance. This cultural context is described by a set of values and beliefs that has been referred to as "the American Creed," an ethos defined by commitment to democratic egalitarianism, mistrust of concentrated power, and a belief that politics can and must serve moral ends. The creed ebbs and flows. The Revolutionary, Jacksonian, and Progressive era and the protest years of the 1960s and early 1970s represent high-water marks, periods of passion that saw broad-based, value-laden campaigns against prevailing authority, an upsurge of civic participation and social organizing, and the emergence of new forms of media that enhanced the ability of reformers to spread the word and expose the failure of institutions to practice what they preached.
This creed continues to find its most willing acolytes among the young. How it is absorbed, adapted, and expressed varies widely, depending on a range of factors, including family background, community context, and the degree to which ideological cohesion prevails or is unraveling within society as a whole. But transcending circumstance is an almost genetic predisposition to inquire, experiment, take risks, and find a distinct and autonomous voice. In the United States, such tendencies have always found fertile soil, nurtured by a legacy of militant reformism and a faith that each succeeding generation will renew a pledge to close what Huntington refers to as the "IvI gap"¾ the contradiction between institutional behavior and national ideals.
The Cold War provided a rationale for tolerating the IvI gap, whether at home or abroad. The crusade against an aggressive and implacable ideological foe required constant vigilance, discipline, and self-sacrifice--even at the cost of deferring domestic reforms and countenancing alliances with foreign dictators. However some might question its underlying premises and operational practices, anti-communism represented the North Star by which the U.S. steered its course in the world. But with victory, this reference point disappeared, leaving America "not knowing where the journey is taking us, or even ought to take us." (Hobsbawm, 1999) The Crusader State was suddenly deprived of its redemptive mission, with no rival faith to test or discipline its own, no battle of ideas to fight.
Over the last decade, free-market fundamentalism has been enshrined as natural law, even as the IvI gap has become internationalized; disparities in income, life expectancy, and access to education have grown so huge that a 1999 UNDP report calls them "grotesque." Where in the 1950s and ‘60s it might have been excused as morally wrenching but strategically necessary, the deepening divide between haves and have-nots now stands stripped bare of any normative mantle of justification. While defenders of corporate-run global trade argue that the best that can be hoped for is to compensate the victims and humanize the inevitable, youth, especially the most serious and well educated, bridle at the doctrine of the one true way. It smacks of authoritarian fatalism; it robs young people of agency, treating them as spectators to a performance whose script is already written; and it signals a retreat from America’s largeness of vision and historical commitment to democratic egalitarianism and experimentation.
Youth activism was spawned during a period of deep uncertainty and uneasiness about America’s role in the world. The triumphalism that followed in the wake of communism’s collapse proved short-lived. The Washington consensus has broken apart and apostasy among policy élites grown commonplace. From George Soros’s indictment of financial institutions for falling prey to the same kind of doctrinal self-hypnosis that spellbound Marxist regimes, to Joseph Stiglitz’s scathing rebuke of the World Bank, where he served as chief economist:
"Smart people are more likely to do stupid things when they close themselves off from outside criticism and advice. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in government, it’s that openness is most essential to those realms where experience seems to matter most. If the IMF and Treasury had invited greater scrutiny, their folly might have become much clearer, much earlier" (New Republic, December 1999).
From veteran syndicated columnist William Pfaff’s evisceration of what he calls "new capitalism," whose demands for "the subordination of workers, customers, public, and social interests¾ even patriotism¾ to profit" have brought about "gross distortions of the democratic balance of interests" so "politically intolerable" that they have triggered a "movement to restore balance" (Boston Globe, Nov 3, 1999), to criticisms from Amnesty International leveled against the conduct of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, or from Human Rights Watch against the U.S. for its disregard of labor rights. From all of these diverse sources, evidence grows of a cascading crisis of legitimacy, in which insider voices are being raised to challenge both the strategic competence and the animating vision of established financial and governmental regimes.
Such adult support has helped create a more hospitable climate for young people to take risks and "speak truth to power." Thirty years ago teamsters beat anti-war demonstrators; in Seattle, union members marched arm-in-arm with young protestors. Youth today have easier access to a deep and diverse reservoir of traditions and skills. This inheritance draws from labor and community organizing, from environmentalism, from consumer protection, from civil rights, and from struggles against apartheid, nuclear weapons, and military intervention in Central America. Intergenerational alliances are growing in strength and frequency today, although much still needs to be done to deepen and sustain these informal coalitions and convergences of interest.
Periods of ideological unraveling encourage young activists to believe that the future is up for grabs and what they do can make a difference, that their aspirations and intuitions are credible rather than eccentric and utopian, and that structures of power, honey-combed with internal contradictions rather than solidly monolithic, can be pressured and swayed. How to exert pressures and towards what precise ends are not at all clear to youth activist groups. If they have begun to coalesce, it is less around a theory of change than feelings of alienation and discontent. The growing "conscience community" is drawn together from a shared repugnance at inequality, both at home and abroad, a resistance to what are seen as dangerously unaccountable political and economic institutions that throttle democratic voice, and a rejection of aggressive centralism in favor of vernacular diversity. "Most young people know that something is wrong," a Brown University student explained. "It has to do with corporations, with a capital-driven system that looks out only for the bottom line. It has to do with globalization. It has to do with the fact that we as citizens and people are losing our voice for the sake of profits. The problem now, and the barrier to be overcome, is how to put all this together. How to articulate a clear message and agenda?"