Last week, the right-wing student group Young Americans for Freedom put on an event that inspired hundreds to protest in the deep freeze. The same nut jobs who brought us November’s “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” proved yet again that they could mobilize impassioned students in numbers the College Democrats can only dream of. This just shows that activism at Michigan has a serious problem, and it’s not apathy.
YAF brought three “ex-terrorists” to campus to stress the link between the religion of Islam and terrorism. The speakers were ineloquent and unimpressive – likely low-level terrorists shucking and jiving to the tune of the American right wing for promised benefits in return.
The real stars of the event, however, were the YAFers themselves, who managed to provide us with another familiar scene of infuriated protesters and hungry news cameras. The event was a major YAF success, doing exactly what it was designed to do: exploit our deepest divisions and our most embedded prejudices to end productive dialogue between student groups.
YAF in itself, of course, is a weak entity, little more than a disaffected group of individuals devoid of critical thought and compassion. But the group is empowered by this campus’s inability to confront an atmosphere of anger and suspicion between identity-based student groups (and students) that makes the open exchange of ideas impossible.
It’s not that consensus is impossible. There is, in fact, a wealth of common ground to be had. Both the Jewish and black American communities, for example, have a vested and historical interest in ending the genocide in Sudan. The cause would benefit greatly from a working collaboration between, let’s say, Hillel and the Black Student Union. But until there is an environment of respect and understanding among the students and groups that make up our so-called diverse campus, any effort to create these kinds of coalitions will be in vain.
When it is broad-based and inclusive, community organizing is a force to be reckoned with. In a nation where politicians can’t even be trusted with their 16-year-old pages, thinking about grassroots change may not be such a bad idea. Before we end the war in Iraq, save Darfur and solve global warming, we might want to think about cleaning house. Judging by the way we treat each other on this campus, YAFers have no need to get their bowties in a tizzy just yet – there’ll be no broad-based movement across lines of race and class anytime soon.
It isn’t apathy that prevents our campus from organizing and tackling the big issues. Hundreds waited on the steps of Rackham Auditorium in frigid temperatures to see last week’s event, and the fury it provoked was palpable. The problem is that when it comes to the issues that matter most to this student body – among them the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and affirmative action – our conversations become emotionally charged and intolerant (if not anti-Semitic and racist). We feel silly and small as we attempt to create an open dialogue in an environment of ignorance and mistrust.
Two years ago, the Michigan Student Assembly voted against the creation of a committee that would have contemplated divestment from companies doing business with Israel. Hundreds of students packed into the Michigan Union like sardines. They were all passionate, hoping to share their stories. Instead chaos reigned. Israel supporters wore blue “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel” shirts, and Palestinian supporters sported black “Free Palestine” shirts. Cries of anti-Semitism and anti-Arab racism drowned out reason and another chance for real dialogue was lost.
Then there was the pro-affirmative action rally in November 2005, sponsored by the controversial group BAMN. Detroit high school students, most of them black, were recruited to run around on the Diag and scream unintelligibly from the stairs of the graduate library as minority University students cringed with embarrassment. Rest assured, YAF was on hand to enjoy the spectacle.
When we are brave enough to look, what we will find is as ugly and destructive as any YAF rally has ever been: We are a campus of strangers, alien to one another. We may share the misfortune of walking to class in 7-degree weather or the joy of watching our football team, but we don’t really know each other. We live separately, study separately and date separately. We don’t even get drunk together. Then we assemble on the Diag every so often to scream at each other from across the battle lines.
The stage is set. The major players are all present. When that curtain goes up, all YAF has to do is sit back and enjoy the show.
Mara Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.