Plenty of these articles state a question and then answer it. This isn’t such an article—I have no answer. Columbia has long been marked by activism. Back issues of this newspaper document a storied history of student political action. While one may disagree about the merits of many of the acts, there’s no doubt they existed. Two years ago, students congregated and mounted both a hunger strike and a counter-protest, all because of the school curriculum. Just last year, masses gathered on Low Steps to watch moments of the election and then Barack Obama’s inauguration. So where is that energy now?
Could things be so good that there’s no need for students to react? Are Michele Moody-Adams and the rest of the Columbia administration so good that all the issues the hunger strikers fought for have been addressed to such satisfaction in these first few months of her tenure? Our new dean seems very nice from the couple times I’ve met her, but she has not revolutionized Columbia. And even if she has, so what? Furthermore, our most memorable activism, in 1968, was not simply a reaction to a hostile administration, but to national events and trends.
And to be fair, this isn’t just about Columbia. Across the nation, there seems to be a dearth of activism. After the eight years of George W. Bush, perhaps people just want a break. American politics have typically been cyclical. After the chaos of World War I, people wanted to turn inward and enjoy boring political “normalcy.” Following Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II, people wanted the picket-fenced suburbia of ’50s America. After Jimmy Carter’s turbulent four years of oil and hostage crises, business re-exerted its cultural influence, and the Silicon Valley dot-com bubble did the same. Is that what this latency is—a turn from politics to less chaotic realms?
Possibly, but so much is still undone. American soldiers are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. Climate change legislation, which might slow our sprint into the abyss, has not moved much out of congressional committees. Health care reform still sits in Congress with an unclear fate. Despite New York’s first Democratic-controlled State Senate in decades, gay marriage legislation is stalled, with questions about whether it will ever be voted on, let alone passed. Have we as a country decided that these issues are simply too tough, and it’s better to just leave them to other people?
Part of the problem may be that there is such Democratic control of government at the local, state, and national level. If things don’t happen, it’s not because Republicans prevent them from moving forward. Certainly, Republicans oppose many of the issues for which campus groups advocate. Up until Jan. 20 of this year, the answer to so many of our challenges could be “George W. Bush,” and it would be true. Yet, thanks in part to the work of many students, Democrats control almost every branch of government from the lowest to the highest level, with the notable exception of New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, an independent and former Democrat. Democratic activists achieved more than many ever seriously hoped, but in an odd way, that’s disempowering—nothing happened. We successfully worked to put people in office, and those problems still exist. For a variety of reasons, including politicians who don’t share our views, the issues haven’t been resolved. What’s the point of working and being politically active if it doesn’t accomplish anything?
The truth is, few of the things we face can only be addressed in Washington. Our attention may be riveted by health care reform debates in Congress, but that won’t be a panacea even for health care—there are so many complicated facets that Congress is not even dealing with, never mind fixing. President Obama will not reduce our student loans or help the homeless dotting New York’s streets to find housing and a means to live. We must take on the burden of solving these problems. So why aren’t we? Why aren’t we rallying to the cause of something greater than ourselves? If you feel bad that so many people must beg for a living, why aren’t you doing anything? And if you are doing something, why aren’t you enlisting other Columbia students in your cause?
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.