Whenever I order cage-free eggs at Usdan, they force me to use styrofoam trays.
Why? Because in order to make sure I pay the extra 20 cents, cafeteria workers have to write ‘cage-free’ on my food, and marker doesn’t take well on ceramic plates.
Isn’t that something? A victory for animal rights is negated by increased environmental damage. Buying local often precludes buying union-made. Buying used makes it much harder to order sweatshop-free. Even buying political television advertising feeds millions into the mega-corporations that control the airwaves.
Life doesn’t have to work this way.
The unfortunate status of cage-free eggs in Usdan highlights a larger problem: the progressive movement/reality-based community/our generation has a more awesome task before it than just passing positive progressive legislation. In fact, the election cycle is, up to a point, a distractor from our real mission – influencing and changing public opinion.
Now, that isn’t to say that we should abandon electoral politics, of course. Electing good (i.e. non-corrupt) Democrats will immediately lead to better lives, a “stop to the bleeding” (as it were), restoration of regulation on lead in gasoline, pollution in the air, lead in our buildings, a functioning FDA, cheaper and better healthcare, less plundering of our wealth by the rich and well-connected, etc. Electoral politics is a big deal. All election cycles (especially presidential elections) are immensely important and will determine the course of our nation’s history.
That said, we have to think strategically. In a democracy, getting laws passed is great. Doing so can help people in very real ways. On the other hand, even in an imperfect democracy like ours, popular opinion will, over the medium term, triumph. It’s great to have cage free eggs, but if they come at the expense of the environment, how much progress have we made? It’s great to expand SCHIP to cover more cildren under health insurance. However, we should also remember that SCHIP further solidifies the private health insurance providers that will block any real progress on health-care reform.
If passing laws is such a double edged sword, wwhat’s the answer? What is the activist youth movement to do?
Easy. Examine the concept of a movement, and you won’t find legislation as a major focus. The purpose, soul, and identifier of a movement is the people . To use the now-hackneyed Civil Rights analogy, we didn’t get the Civil Rights Acts because Lyndon Johnson decided that he’d be nice to Black people one day. It took decades of work, multiple generations, and the systematic creation of institutions. It took organizing in the South, North, West, MidWest, Coastal West, etc to get things done. Even after the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts were passed, it took courageous organizing by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to really create a change in enrollment in the South, for example.
What does this mean for the contemporary movement? For one thing, student union resolutions are all well and good, and getting Jehuda Reinhartz to vow to get rid of all water bottles on campus is great. Our energies, however, should be on organizing likeminded people and persuading others to our way of thinking.
And when I say orgazining, I don’t mean protesting. Protesting the war didn’t work in the 1970’s and it sure as hell won’t work now. As a fellow student recently wrote:
But how do we rebel against a generation that is expecting, anticipating, nostalgic for revolution? How do we rebel against parents that sometimes seem to want revolution more than we do? We don’t. We rebel by not rebelling. We wear the defunct masks of protest and moral outrage, but the real energy in campus activism is on the internet, with websites like moveon.org. It is in the rapidly developing ability to communicate ideas and frustration in chatrooms instead of on the streets, and channel them into nationwide projects striving earnestly for moderate and peaceful change: we are the generation of Students Taking Action Now Darfur; we are the Rock the Vote generation; the generation of letter-writing campaigns and public interest lobbies; the alternative energy generation.
Now, where does our egg situation coem in? Simply ut, agitating for certain government programs or Aramark goodies, be they as mighty as a more progressive tax or as down-home as cage-free eggs, is not enough. OUr mission is to change the mindset of not only our fellow citizens but our institutions. Instead of a reactive posture – “we want locally grown food, cage-free eggs, etc”, be pro-active. Foster a culture that instinctively cares about environmental issues so that it would be inconceivable for them to increase their use of styrofoam plates. We should foster a culture where consumers would find it ludicrous to waste as much paper, metal, and plastic as we find in kids’ juice boxes.
Am I saying that pushing for a ban on water bottles or kraft mac and cheese is a bad idea? Of course not! We’re not going to change peeople’s consumption habits overnight. Rather, we should recognize that our ultimate goalas a movement is ti change attitutes and assumptions, for then a change is the law will easily follow. It’s impossible to outlaw racism, but the Civil Rights movement changed enough minds so that a change in the attitudes of the public was matched by a change in the posture in the people’s law.
Our job here on campus is to dabble in and learn the tools of social action, sur. And our job here as activists on campus is just as surely to pressure the University to use it’s massive wealth for good rather than evil. Our job here on campus, however, should be, perhaps most importantly, to construct the idea framework for persuading our fellows that we are all our brother’s keeper. We, the children of America, are not his kids or her kids. We’re America’s children, and we are here to ask the nagging question, to raise the troublesome truth, to agitate so that our parents and grandparents remember the “we’re all in this together” ethos that is the foundation of America. But first, we have to convince each other.