Apathetic Apologetic

A few Mondays ago, I saw my future.  No, not a vision of being arrested and thrown in jail—this was a more long-term vision.  It was a premonition of my future as a college professor: standing in the front of a lecture hall filled with bored-looking undergraduates, their tired faces half hidden by laptops (open to facebook, I’m sure—it wasn’t that long ago that I was an undergrad, after all).

It seems fitting that my first experience teaching undergraduates was a lesson in activism, not sociology.  As part of our mobilization for Wednesday’s peaceful civil disobedience violent police riots, the union organized classroom presentations to educate the campus body about the extent of the impending cuts to public education.  When an e-mail went over our listserve asking for someone to present to a 250 person Introduction to Sociology lecture, another graduate student and I stepped forward, thinking that with ten minutes crammed full of ghastly statistics and compelling arguments, we could turn out a veritable horde for our upcoming rally.

The professor warned us that his students were “greener than green”, nearly all of them freshmen and almost none of them well-informed about the intricacies of neo-liberal retrenchment of government services.  This in mind, though, I thought we had a pretty good schtick: I roped them in by quizzing them about what tuition was five years ago (no one came even close to guessing that it was less than half its current amount) and comparing it to what it would be in five years under the regent’s proposal (double the current figure).  My friend then wove these numbers into a broader narrative of how they, as students, were being asked to pay for a crisis caused by the misdeeds of others.  I closed with a rousing description of the effectiveness of public protest, ranging from Tahrir Square to Berkeley’s own demonstrations in the 1960s.  “Who’s with us?” my friend asked.

You could practically hear crickets chirping at the end.

As a general rule, apathy makes me angry.  I’m hardwired to think that injustice demands a response, so I struggle to empathize with those who will not stand up for others (or even themselves).  Yes, I know enough sociology to understand that most people face deep, structural barriers to political action.  But over the past week, riding through Berkeley on my way to events in Oakland, I cannot help to think that at least some of these people going about their business have the time and resources to stand up for what is right.  After all, as scores of us were being beaten on November 9th, hundreds of our peers were walking by on their way to the library or Wednesday night frat parties.  I don’t expect them to pull the cops off of us, but it is almost impossible for me to forgive a mentality that leads someone to just walk by without even stopping to inquire about what is going on.  There is only so much indifference that sociology can excuse

Yet, even given the events of the last few weeks, I still couldn’t be angry at these kids.  I wonder how I would have responded had, ten weeks into Princeton, someone come to my class and told me that, despite having worked for years just to get to college, I would now have to fight tooth-and-nail to get any education at all.  Added on to the stresses of adjusting to college and coping with my academic work, would I really have heeded the call?  I’ve heard so many times from people who don’t want to protest, “I’m just here to get an education.”  As if I’m not.  The last few days, I’ve thought over and over again how I’d really rather just read Marx and Durkheim, just be a student, have time for reflection and cooking and drinking and soaking up the bliss of my mid-twenties.  I get it.

But this is not the world we live in.  We are at a historical juncture in which we must take sides.  Eventually, those wide-eyed undergraduates will learn that.  They’ll find out that, in America’s second gilded age, they will have to fight for everything—for public education, for a decent job, for health care and a pension, for access to the criminal justice system.  Or perhaps they can ignore it, buy into the American dream, and get screwed anyway.  But it seems cruel to tell them now.  Jesus, they’re just kids, and the world is a scary place.

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3 thoughts on “Apathetic Apologetic

  1. I feel obliged to say, again, that there are many kinds of battles. It’s not a matter of being “just” a student; being a student isn’t opposed to, and certainly isn’t lesser than, being on the barricades. My god, I wish every undergrad would throw themselves singlemindedly into their studies and into intellectual inquiry, because that would do as much as anything to bring the capitalist power machine crashing down! I would hope that if I saw unjust violence being done before my eyes I would have the courage to stand up for my convictions alongside those who were being hurt. But on an ordinary day when the world is going to hell in a handbasket, going to the library is a form of activism of its own. Give us bread, but give us roses too.

    1. I mean, I think this is sort of the position I’m gradually getting at, one which acknowledges both the privilege of being an “activist” in a conventional sense and accepting that that will never be something that many / most people can or will engage in. And you’re right, there’s incredible power, I think, in the willingness of some people to commit themselves to academic pursuits – which have become so routinely degraded in our society – despite the maelstrom of dissent swirling around them.

      I don’t think we disagree that much on this; I’m just bad at articulating it! Perhaps I shouldn’t ponder publicly on these things…

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