PSU Vanguard Shield Icon

Art Chenoweth

Am I an advocate of progressive social policies? Yes. Am I an “activist”? No. So-called activists today seem to fit into a very narrow slot. While I agree with some of their goals, there are things about the activist attitude that I can’t stomach, much less agree with.

American activists were united 30 years ago against the Vietnam War. There was a semblance of unity. There was energy, but I question if all the demonstrations actually helped bring an end to the war. I believe the media was more influential: showing body bags, reporting the My Lai massacre, demonstrating how our military was lying.

After the mid-70s, the “movement” broke up, and we entered the era of single-issue politics. Some issues began fighting against other issues. More recently, there has been something of coalescence again under the banner of anti-globalization. If you look at the media pictures of demonstrations, you still see all those diverse signs fighting for attention. An example appeared in the Oregonian Sunday, a Jobs with Justice sign competing with union protest signs.

I have another concern with the present style of activism – the habit of activists who cheat on the facts. Last month, on campus, signs appeared in the Park Blocks stating that at that specific location a sexual assault had occurred. In fact, there are no records of any such assault and the signs didn’t stay up long. The signs lied and their cause became thereby diminished. One of their apologists later said the signs weren’t intended to be that specific but, instead, were designed to create a general awareness of sexual assault. I don’t accept that rationalization. Ends do not justify means; bad means create bad ends.

Another problem I have with the current activist movement is that it is almost entirely middle-class white. This elitist approach goes back a long way. Black women protested in the past because they felt unwelcome in the feminist movement pioneered by Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

Another complaint I have is that if you’re an activist, you have to think Michael Moore is hilarious. I find him totally unfunny. Not that I don’t agree with some of his viewpoints (I can believe General Motors is run by a bunch of thugs, for instance), but a real comic pokes fun not only at others, but also at himself. Moore only sneers at the other guy. His barbs are obvious, lacking in originality. I felt uncomfortable when I watched a video of Moore questioning two young Kuwaiti women about why they’re not allowed to vote. The expressions on their faces made it plain they feared they were being made fools of. Besides being unfunny I don’t like the fact that Moore looks like an overstuffed unmade bed. I cringe to think he is off in places like Kuwait as a symbol of overfed America. He’s a slob. Some of the people he talks to probably wish they had access to that excess grub he has stuffed down his gullet.

Probably my greatest disaffection with current activists is that they only tackle easy targets. It’s easy to militate against sweatshops in foreign countries, or oil drilling in Alaska, or giant corporations polluting the air and water.

Consider this: one of the greatest sources of air pollution is the internal combustion engine. Yet neither OSPIRG nor any other activist organization has ever tackled this critical problem. The closest OSPIRG ever got was when they exhibited a giant inflated car on campus and advocated for a “clean car.”

This habit of shrinking from the really hard issues goes all the way back to OSBIRG’s founder, Ralph Nader. Nader made his reputation writing a book titled “Unsafe at any Speed.” He especially attacked the Corvair auto, and he was right, the Corvair was unsafe. It was not, however, more unsafe than any other compact car, including the more popular Beetle. The Vanguard in 1965 quoted Nader arguing correctly that the automobile generally has brought death and injury to thousands, but the Beetle was far more popular.

My final complaint about today’s activists is they are more interested in media coverage than tangible results. They gloried in the fuss they created in Seattle. They did shut down the opening ceremonies. But they claim they caused the WTO meeting to fail, which doesn’t jibe with reported facts. The media were predicting failure before the meeting began because the participants could not agree on an agenda. That’s the way it ended. It only represented a victory if the goal was to provoke police response and media coverage.

To me, this pride in creating disturbances sounds disturbingly like the old fascist ideal of the glorification of the deed. Some of the rowdyism of demonstrators reminds me of the tactics of Hitler’s Brown Shirts. If demonstrating makes the activists feel good, bully for them. They do create dialogue. As for me, I get my kicks doing more constructive things.