Activists need to broaden their horizons

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published February 23, 2001

I don"t get women ... I mean ... I don"t understand them, not that I don"t "get" them. Anyway, they confuse me. Immensely. And I consider myself to be a pretty smart guy. But whatever. Uncle. OK? I think I"m going to put together a parody of "Jumpin", Jumpin"" that starts, "Ladies don"t leave Amer at home ..." That leads me directly into my column this week on campus activism.

Paul Wong
The Progressive Pen<br><br>Amer G. Zahr

We definitely have an abundance of causes on this campus. Not an overabundance to be sure, for there are many issues that are ignored, but I think it is fair to say that most people can pretty much pick their poison. Hate hunters? Not a problem. Cuban defector? No sweat. Do you agree with Scott? I don"t care. Do you agree with Amer? You should. The point is: You have a cause, we have a group. There are many fallouts to this kind of environment, and not all of them are all that desirable.

Surely, this glut of organizations helps keep many educated on many subjects. But it also encourages another uninviting phenomenon: "Specialization." In other words, people get so focused into one cause that they lose the big picture. We have a lot of "activists" on this campus that are "involved" in many organizations. The problem is that we hit roadblocks when it comes to seeing the bigger theme. So, if you are a member of the Native American Student Association, are you protesting the specific oppression of Native Americans by white settlers, or do you protest the general imperialism of the strong against the weak? If you are a member of the Black Student Union, do you protest the racial profiling of young Black men by middle-aged white cops, or do you stand against the racial tagging of any group by the majority? This is the dilemma. Where do we stand? It would seem logical that he who supports the rights of Native Americans should also support the rights of oppressed Irish peoples. Rationality begs me to think that she who objects to the racial profiling of Blacks would also voice her opposition to the airport profiling of Arab-Americans.

The thrust here is not to specialize. Don"t be a "Black" activist, don"t be a "Latino" activist, just be an intellectual activist. And don"t pay any attention to those abounding on our campus who love to tell you that you jump at every cause. You tell them that your causes are one. How are you being intellectually honest with yourself if you visibly voice your support of one cause, and then shy away from another simply because the actors have changed? Don"t specialize. Don"t be a professional. Be an amateur.

Be general. Sure, you can be knowledgeable on one cause in particular, speak more on that one, write about it, educate others, and so on. But when you shy away from other subjects simply because the oppressed is no longer your brethren, you lose integrity and sincerity, if not with others, then at least with yourself.

It is this "specialization" that bothers me most about our campus. And it"s not because we have too many organizations or too many causes, but rather because it is "specialized" activism that hurts all activists. It divides us. Activism, and intellectualism for that matter, needs to rise above ethnic affiliation.

What"s wrong is wrong. We cannot fall into the trap of being convinced by interest groups and our government that who the victims are actually matters. We cannot stray down the path of believing that who the oppressor is should be some kind of factor in our intellectualization of a certain situation. Surely, each predicament has its own unique nuances, but most times there are underlying themes that need to be grasped onto. Are you a progressive "liberal" or are you a "liberal"? Surely, they have different connotations. The former is the kind of activist I am advocating: the one who finds the truth in each impasse and sees the bigger picture.

Unfortunately however, we seem to have a bounty of the latter: The "Liberals" who only a few months ago were telling everyone nothing should change in the face of the "Conservatives" who were promoting massive reform. It"s quite ironic. It"s a kind of neo-liberalism that tells everyone "you never had it so good!" It is a liberalism that settles and is not worthy of support by any kind of true progressive.

The major political discussion on our campus needs to be not only about specific issues and how they relate to specific groups, but also about larger motifs and how they affect us all. Questions about affirmative action, for instance, need not be discussed vis-a-vis Blacks, Latinos, and women only. Instead, we must view such an issue in the scope of social suffering. The same goes for the situation of the Palestinians, the Irish, the Native Americans, and so on. When we frame the issues in this light, our success becomes more of a reality, and our ability to speak out about the suffering of others is refined. Perhaps I speak in this light because I am of a people that have suffered and are suffering, and I feel it has made me sensitive to the agony of others. But it leads me to a deeper question. How much social anguish is tolerable before the need for change actually causes change? This is what I see as the major political question of our generation.

Amer Zahr"s column runs every other Friday. Give him feedback at www.michigandaily.com/forum or via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.