the dearth and/or birth of activism

August 22nd, 2008 by Phil Leave a reply »

When I talk about my political background, one of the things I inevitably bring up is how I went to college during the heart of the Clinton years. Not only that, but I went to a place which was fairly conservative, both in terms of who made up the student body, and in terms of the surrounding community. There was little to no activism to speak of, and what activism there was tended not to interest me very much.

Now, it sounds like I’m dismissing something which might be important, and which ultimately, probably is. So first, I should be clear that what was happening then did not interest me then. Therefore, I was likely not all that aware of a lot of it. Second, I should speak to the activism that I did see going on, and why it wasn’t that interesting to me.

I got to college in 1994. When I think back to campus-based activist groups, not a lot comes to mind. I recall that a new chapter of Amnesty International had started up, but not only did I not know much about what AI was, the people who started it up were some of the biggest jerks I knew. There was an environmental organization called ECO, but honestly, I have no idea what they did. The activist groups which were most visible were groups that were only partially activist groups, and all of the ones I can think of were primarily demographically defined: Black Student Union, CLASE (for Latino students), the Gay-Straight Alliance. I could actually probably make an argument that the College Republicans were the most visible activist group. Overall, there was little in any of this that was especially appealing to me.

I had tried to throw my lot in with the Argus, the campus newspaper. That blew up. It’s a good story, but it would be a ridiculous tangent here. So instead I wound up throwing my lot in with WESN, our radio station.

As it so happened, WESN wound up being, in a lot of respects, the most serious activist organization on campus. In other respects, of course, that’s an absurd, irrational thing to say, probably something which would offend some people. But ultimately, when you actually look at the dominant social-cultural-political paradigm, I think we were doing more at WESN to try and push the envelope than any of the other groups on campus were doing. We were, after all, the main anti-corporate entity on campus (and really, throughout the entire community), and toward the end, we’d even started using the airwaves to do more overt “normal” activism, like anti-sweatshop stuff.

As a history and political science major, and someone who did Model United Nations, blah blah blah, I was already interested in world affairs, but I certainly wasn’t an activist as regarded anything like that. The interest in world affairs and the immersion in music eventually bore fruit, largely because of the work the Beastie Boys did in promoting the Free Tibet movement. Via Free Tibet, I wound up dipping into anti-sweatshop stuff, and actually started getting serious about checking labels, trying to avoid stuff made in China, etc. Of course, there’s deep irony in all of this, because the most high-profile activist stuff musicians were doing were so high-profile because they had major labels – i.e. massive corporations – acting as their amplifiers. But rock and roll, of course, has always been about the yin of rebellion and the yang of cooption. Irony is part of its fabric.

My senior political science research paper, which was frankly pretty dumb overall, was called “Politics and a Red Guitar”, and the premise of it was that there was a correlation between musical preference and political awareness. More specifically, I demonstrated that people who liked certain bands were more likely to be aware of certain activist or social causes, and not just the ones most closely associated with those bands. Fans of Rage Against The Machine were more likely not only to know what the Zapatista Movement was, but were more likely to know about social causes generally. Fans of 311, however, were not more likely to know about social causes generally. And, lest you think that all of the causes were things like Free Tibet and the Zapatistas, I did throw a couple of highly mainstream things in there, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I figured everyone would claim to be highly familiar with MADD. They didn’t. Overall, one of the more interesting results was that people with the lowest musical awareness score – as in, the people who knew the least about these bands and didn’t rate any of them as particular favorites – were the people who were least aware of all social causes generally. In my 21 year old mind, that meant something big. Maybe it still does. But I’m not sure what it really means.

So for me, rock and roll was the real gateway to activism, directly and indirectly. My anti-corporate mindset developed not only from Dave Grohl talking about sweatshops, but from seeing band after band screwed over by major labels who put profit before art (what a gripping recognition to galvanize the hamburger-consuming nerves of the 20 year old American!) This isn’t to say I wasn’t predisposed to head down that path – certainly my father’s years of complaints about corporations had something to do with where I was coming from – but the key point may be that much of my activist mentality upon leaving college, and today 10 years later, is colored by rock music. And as I have drifted away from those kinds of roots, I am increasingly finding myself at something of a spiritual crisis as an activist and in my daily life generally; or, perhaps more accurately, the crisis has been lingering for a while, and only this year am I really starting to put the pieces of it together.


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