April 1992; page 8; Volume 3, No. 5
Polemicist asked readers to respond to the dialog on the demise of the student movement that we ran in the last issue. We received only one letter (Thank you!), but we encourage others to continue the discussion.
To the Editor:
The February Polemicist's responses to the question, "what happened to the student movement of 1990?" offered both insightful self-critique and examples of some of the detrimental dynamics within the movement (i.e. the preferencing of personal conflict over political alliance and the idealizing/demonizing of individual leaders) that contributed to its demise.
However, discussion of negative factors outside the movement were for the most part missing from the five men's analysis of the movement's deterioration. Critical discussion of any movement's relationship to world, national, university and community level events is essential to strategical analysis of that movement's effectiveness. While I agree with some of the author's points on in-house failings, I think some mention must be made of negative outside factors, in particular the Gulf War and the conservative assault (I believe the term "backlash" misrepresents the malignant nature of most of the attacks) that at UT has focused primarily on delegitimizing already marginalized groups and curriculum within the university.
Both the E306 cancellation and the Gulf War were highly orchestrated and strategically planned, as are current tuition hikes, "PC debates," Japan bashing, and the everpresent "war on drugs"; whether intentionally or not they disrupted the lives and priorities of all of us involved in resistance to them. During Desert Shield/Storm the agendas of most progressive groups fell by the way as did the academic and personal lives of most individuals involved in Gulf War protest and education. Information despatching on racism, sexism and heterosexism in the military and racist attacks on Arab Americans replaced time spent exposing, discussing and protesting racism, sexism and heterosexism as manifested on campus.
Constructive and effective voices of resistance to the tyranny and genocide of these events from the UT community must to some degree, trace their success back to the coalition building and SA elections of Spring 1990. The material support of the SA office, as mentioned in previous discussion, was vital to the exchange and dissemination of information on many facets of the war in the Middle East. While the maintenance of trust between groups and individuals was inadequate, many of the vital connections that facilitated work during the war and during various stages of the E306 saga were established in Spring 1990.
However, since the "end" of the Gulf War and the burial of E306 there have been, to my knowledge, no large demonstrations, little coalition building and not much public activism on the part of progressive campus groups despite increasing civil rights abuses and increased structural violence. While I would assert that these crisis events contributed to a displacement of the progressive energy on campus in Spring 1990, they are not directly responsible for its demise. Post-crisis burnout has claimed its victims, but I think there is a larger issue at stake.
While the "moderate" right has the structural support of the military-corporate complex at its disposal, marginalized groups have little access to large scale utilization of technology, money or state-endorsed political power. We cannot effectively and continuously resist the structural violence of the university, the government or any other institutions without a base of our own that encompasses and empowers the struggles of all whose rights are denied by structural violence. In order to even begin to create a student movement with long-term endurance we need to develop our own alternative power sources - everyone ill-effected by this university.
We need to discuss how to create leadership without built-in hierarchy. We need to learn to listen to and respond to each other constructively not defensively. We need to learn how to deflate puritanical judgement and accusation and other destructive interpersonal dynamics, and replace them with firm and informed articulation of the problems at hand.
We need to come to terms with the degrees to which we all participate in structural violences; at the same time we need to establish standards of respect whose violation we will not tolerate. When such a base is in place exterior crisis can become opportunity to focus support. And coming out of crisis can be opportunity to reaccess, and develop strategy that is not merely reactive but proactive.
Editor's Response: Who will establish the standards of respect in our non-hierarchical organization? "We"? How do we as individuals learn to work as coalitions of people without honest and public examination of specific incidents and the individual people - kind, insecure, vain, compassionate, terrified, pompous, guilt ridden, needy, abusive, defensive ... as well as black, white, asian, indian, latin, woman, man, old, young, gay, straight - that made them happen in precisely the ways they did.
Academic professionalism has taken its toll on our common sense and filled us with fear of public debate. The campus rightists and the campus leftists toot the same horn. Both fear personal exposure to public scorn. Both cower beneath their robes, hoping that no one will notice that their high-minded ideas conceal persons with wrinkled thighs, balding skulls, nipple hairs, moles, embarassing childhoods, awkward pruderies, disgracefully kneejerk emotional outbursts and many different kinds of blinders.
Why should I fear to subject my ideas and actions to public scrutiny? What harm can it do? At worst, they can only appear flawed. This is what the Allen Gribbens of the world call their "oppression." People might hold them personally responsible for their actions and opinions. They might fall from the pedestal of universal truth into the mire of ordinary debate. Some young whippersnapper might stand up during a lecture and call their version of history a racist fraud. They might, god forbid, feel humiliated and momentarily nude before a crowd.
"PC" broadsided the left because academics left and right share the same fears of exposure and hide behind the same kinds of oblique generalities. A Liberal academic does not want to be read any more than a conservative does. The squawk over academic freedom brought liberals to their knees, not because they were guilty of some kind of jargon-ridden conspiracy, but because they all know in their hearts that they gave up academic freedom and replaced it with fear decades ago.
I'm not saying that we should renounce generalities, but they must be built of specifics. If at times we point, angrily dissect each other, and laugh at one another's vanities we will grow stronger. No one that I know of has died from a good telling off. People who are afraid to knock their knees together are never gonna learn to two-step.