Clippings: Obama’s speech prompts musings

After listening to Obama’s second inaugural address Monday, I found myself thinking about activism. In the speech, which was called “progressive” by various media outlets, the President touched on past social movements (Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall) and mentioned the one that — after a summer of Colorado burning non-stop, and Sandy wiping out seaside towns along the East Coast the week before the General Election — is finally holding the nation’s attention these days: the climate movement.
Activism means different things to different people. The word seems to carry a certain amount of stigma in some circles, though in itself, activism doesn’t mean taking to the streets and embodying a counterculture. I grew up hearing about the protests of the sixties and seventies, which both of my parents participated in, though by the time I was a young kid hearing about the rallies and sit-ins and demonstrations, they seemed to have lost some of their sheen. In school, the word “activism” was something that teachers said a little snidely. The message they sent was that “activists” were hopelessly divorced from reality, past their prime, and so cast away from the mainstream that they could never hope to accomplish much. Real change happened in politics, they wanted us to know, and through those elected people that older people put in charge of making decisions for us.
I was 13 and in eighth grade the first time I experienced something that might have been called activism. In my public school in New York, not too long after September 11, my friends and I followed a group of high schoolers out of the building and half a mile west to Union Square Park, a historic protest location in lower Manhattan. There was a rally there to protest the invasion of Afghanistan, a mixture of suits on their lunch breaks and old hippies who looked like they hadn’t left the park since the late seventies. After some speeches, my friends and I trailed after a section of the crowd that led an impromptu march off the sidewalks and onto the streets, where it stopped traffic. Eventually, we were corralled by city police into a single square block near Washington Square Park. Some people were pepper-sprayed, others were arrested. I was fine. Watching the news that night, my parents and I learned that the citywide student walkout that day had drawn thousands.
Whether or not the protest was effective was not the point for me. Clearly, none of the anti-war protests during the Bush years changed anything practical. But I remember walking with the crowd and being moved by the feeling of being in it together with other people. Right after the towers collapsed, our notoriously standoffish city had changed. People interacted with each other differently. In a place where passersby normally don’t even make eye contact, suddenly everyone looked out for you, stranger asking stranger how they were doing, where they were when “it happened.” People hugged each other, bought each other subway tokens, told stories at the vigils that were erected in every public square. Near Ground Zero people sat through the night. To my kid’s mind, it didn’t seem that the protest I attended was political, particularly, or going against the grain in some way. It seemed like an extension of the “coming together” phenomenon that had happened in the wake of tragedy and, though the messages spoken were political in nature, the reality of the experience just seemed very human.
Student activism is a tricky thing. At what point is your judgment considered sound? Hasn’t everyone been told at some point, “You’re a kid. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” At the age of 13, your claim to being an informed and effective protester is non-existent. In high school, it’s still pretty weak. And what about college? How much do twenty-somethings know?
At the office holiday party last month, my boss asked my boyfriend and I why we weren’t out there organizing and protesting with Bill McKibben, which struck me as a totally reasonable question. Many of my college peers were directly involved with climate change activism; aside from a handful of older scientists, writers and activists, today’s environmental movement (like most movements throughout history) is built by youth. If saving the environment really is my generation’s Seneca Falls, Selma or Stonewall, why aren’t we all out there?
My answer, in the simplest sense, is that activism doesn’t look the way I used to think about it anymore. Activism happens through voting, through writing, and by studying. The people on the street are important, but so is everything else. Though I can still remember a long period of hearing that my peers and I were apathetic and apolitical, I don’t think anyone could accuse us of that these days. There is an incredible, thriving political youth culture in this country regardless of what political party you ally yourself with (or whether you support either of the parties.) Without the youth vote, Obama would have lost the election handily to Mitt Romney; without a substantial youth voice, the Tea Party would not have rallied itself into becoming a major player in the 2010 midterm elections or the 2012 general election.
The climate movement is interesting because it’s not necessarily partisan, and though its organizers borrow heavily from the past, it doesn’t quite look like the old activism either. It seems to have both an objectivity (if you accept the premise of science) and urgency (Colorado’s burning; my home was destroyed in a hurricane; the Greenland ice cap melted in 72 hours) that makes it easy for folks to get on board. My social media feeds exploded with triumphant posts the second that Obama uttered the words “climate change” during his second inaugural.
As I’ve watched the movement develop I’ve noticed that activism has taken on a new tint. The protesters that are arrested on the Washington Mall are wearing suits; the Internet means that attention isn’t something that comes from physical numbers (though that exists, too) but how widely a message is circulated, a phenomenon that can now be tracked by “likes” and “retweets.” A social movement, as Obama’s speechwriters would like us to take note of, takes place in the political process as well as through energy generated from protests and rallies and Twitter feeds. And that’s encouraging. It means that when it comes to issues this big, the ones that really matter, there’s no one thing that “activism” is. It happens on many levels.

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