Re: Activism
Sun, 19 Apr 1998 12:47:43 -0400

From: Anne Marie Ellison <>

I think that there is activism -- and that there *will* be more
in, say, the younger siblings of "GenXers". Among my age group, though,
(graduating from college this spring), I think activism has taken on a
different lilt than in my parents' generation.

"Activism" has moved closer to "volunteerism" these days and you
have folks from the Points of Light Foundation on C-SPAN talking about
what good people we all are for doing what we should do, as citizens. I
think anything much beyond that, and people are afraid.

I've been the chair of the Student Rights Commission on my campus
for the past three years, and it's been awfully difficult to mobilize
people. When I was first getting involved, we had a protest regarding the
student conduct code and we really had to scramble to get three hundred
people there. In the process of that organizing, my father told me that
he pretty much figured that to get people moving there'd have to be
summary executions on the Diag (the main central open space on campus)

I think there are several reasons for that, not the least of which
is a lack of a central mobilization issue (like Vietnam). I think the
economy has something to do with it too: the Baby Boomers grew up in
relative affluence and, for the most part, when they were done with their
days of activism, went on to have children who lived pretty well too.
(Often, I think because people coming out of, say, the New Left,
realized what a viable profession teaching was for them. In many ways,
they were able to continue doing much of what they loved about being a
student, only they got to have an impact on the way their students
conceptualized history, or political science, or city planning, or
whatever their discipline was.) Only now we have the sense that it's
going to be harder for us to find jobs, that our grades and scores matter
more, etc. etc. Having come out of the generation that matured during
the 60s, our parents were more inclined to be permissive, so we
had much less to rebel against. I also think that, in a strange way, AIDS
(and other social phenomena that feel "dangerous" to us but that had never
really been conceived of a generation ago -- date rape is the first thing
that comes to mind, though I'm sure that could be disputed) has made us a
much more reserved generation: physically, and -- by extrapolation --
socially. We're less likely to get involved, share ourselves with other
people. The extent to which we've lived through political scandal is also
greater than most generations, I think. We came right on the heels of
Watergate, watched as Gary Hart and Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy and Oliver
North spilled (or had revealed) all their horrible secrets -- all the
things that made them untrustworthy in the minds of the readers of _Time_.
People have lost faith -- yet again -- in the powers of working within
the system and revolutions seem awfully messy, don't they, and what will
we do for work? I think there's also an extent to which the activism of
the 1960s has been demonized (by the popular press in more limited ways,
by conservativeish politicians, even by those who participated...think of
the books coming out lately disavowing radicalism and damning the 60s as
foolish and destructive) to the extent that most of my generation do not
wish to be associated with it.

I think, of course, that it's pretty unfortunate that my cohort
feels this way, but I think it is nevertheless true. Affirmative Action
may have some potential as a mobilizing issue, but I don't think a huge
one. So, perhaps we have to be content with the twentysomethings who are
at least willing to volunteer in hospices and soup kitchens, and prepare
and wait for the next generation to stir things up and be there to support
and join them.

-Anne Marie Ellison