To be entirely honest, I didn’t really take the Coke people seriously. Along with the majority of students on campus, I was often indifferent toward the efforts of the “Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola.” Indeed, there’s no need for the past tense: I still don’t care too much. Even if the University doesn’t serve Coke, each one of the 27-odd Jimmy John’s stores in the square mile around Central Campus still does. The University can cut its contract, the CCCCC crowd can claim its symbolic victory for human rights and I (along with every other University affiliate) can still savor my favorite fizzy drink. Call me whatever you want, but I just can’t get excited about carbonated water.
Righteous indignation has erupted, however, from the conservative corner. A Michigan Review editor wrote on his publication’s weblog: “The administration has succumbed to radical causes, leaving students who would just like a bottle of Sprite to walk across campus in the cold to enjoy a single beverage.” A reader posting feedback to the original Daily news story on this issue (‘U’ to suspend Coke contract in milestone decision, 12/29/2005) wrote: “The Coke Coalition doesn’t seem to focus too much on what they claim the problem is, instead it just sounds like they have some kind of vendetta against Coke. Worry about something more important like your grades or your girl/boyfriend and stop trying to make an utterly useless attempt to change the world.”
Like I said, I’m not really passionate about the Coke issue. But I am following it fairly closely, and it seems to me like the explosion from the campus Right has less to do with the defamation of Coke and far more to do with a preconceived hostility toward student A– and especially liberal – activism. The complaint emanating from conservatives is yet another permutation of a tried-and-retried mantra: Those liberal anti-corporate socialist hippies are at it again; (insert target here) is the victim of rich kids who don’t have to worry about normal concerns, don’t understand the real world and are making everyone suffer as a result. The reaction to the University’s decision isn’t a carefully constructed, intellectual response – it is, by and large, a knee-jerk reaction against progressive activism.
It isn’t hard to support the suggestion that campus conservatives don’t like student activism. Last year, the Review attempted to enlighten misguided activists with a editorial suggesting students should focus on direct action through service groups like K-Grams and The Detroit Project instead of activism. “It is interesting to consider,” the paper wrote, “how large an impact these groups make in people’s lives versus left-wing groups like the Defend Affirmative Action Party and Anti-War Action!, which spout off liberal rhetoric and fail to do anything tangible for the people who they claim are oppressed.”
Wow. Service-oriented groups do more community service than those oriented toward political action? That isn’t insightful analysis; it’s a bad argument for the preconceived notion that student activism is useless. (More amusingly, it’s also an argument against editorial pages: What’s the point of wasting money to print pages filled with rhetoric when it is so much more productive to donate it to charity?) With a prejudice against student activism, it’s not hard to see why the University’s conservative corner is mad that the Coke Coalition pressured the University into killing its Coke contract.
So, while I’m not passionate about the Coke issue, I am annoyed that the conservative response, often coming from a point of condescension, is motivated not by analysis of the facts, but by the holier-than-thou belief that campus liberals need to find real causes. The Coke Coalition found a real cause – the University’s own Dispute Review Board found the accusations against Coke to be plausible – and pushed the University to uphold its Vendor Code of Conduct.
The Coke contract dispute isn’t a case of off-their-rockers liberal activists harassing the University into taking action. Accusing successful activists of being out-of-touch and radical isn’t wise or enlightened, it’s whiny. Yeah, there may be very serious implications for Michigan workers. And it may be entirely true that Coke subsidiaries, not the corporation, engaged in questionable labor practices. But raising these concerns ex post and pontificating from a position of superiority that liberals don’t understand the big picture doesn’t highlight the supremacy of conservatism, it begs the question: Why didn’t vocal campus conservatives voice these concerns earlier?
Perhaps because it’s easier to bitch about liberal activism, to denounce it as extreme and disconnected, to scoff at it condescendingly than it actually fight against it.
Momin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.