I recently checked out the rally against George W. Bush (and a little against Bill Clinton), who were speaking at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Friday. What looked like a couple of hundred protestors (many of whom were onlookers, it seemed) gathered outside the centre to throw shoes at a giant Bush poster, sing protest songs and demand that Bush be tried as a war criminal. (They were also tough on Clinton for allowing US sanctions that caused the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children.) You can learn more through the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War.
I went because of my growing interest in activism. I’m particularly interested in the fine line between being perceived as an idealistic hippie and a rational, yet concerned, human being. From my perspective, I think it’s unfortunate that people who genuinely care about the welfare of other people, even if they live in other countries, or about the longevity of the environment, for examples, are typecast. I know I’ve told my fair share of hippie jokes. It’s one thing to disagree with the politics of protesters, but I feel as though most people just don’t care or they see activists – people who ACT – as extremists. I think back to people who are revered today, like Mahatma Gandhi, and I wonder how different his ideals and tactics were from the people who organized this rally.
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer prize winner, is a great example of someone who actively campaigns for change in a successful and “non-hippie” way. He is definitely a member of the system, but he works really hard to campaign for rights and freedom for all people, particularly women and developing nations. This is the kind of activism I want to strive for, not because I’m afraid if I tie myself to a tree that I’ll be embarrassed, but because I think its counter-productive to campaign in a way that puts off the average person, and as a result, hurts your cause.
But at the same time, that brings up the Sri Lankan protests in Toronto this last little while. I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of people were more concerned with traffic woes and inconveniences, than with the issue at hand. But if you’re going to try to enact change through protest, there’s no such thing as a protest that doesn’t inconvenience people and that’s also effective. You can’t always work from inside the system. These are our choices and I think the pros of that kind of action definitely outweigh the cons. But maybe that’s my youthful idealism.
So I guess we need both, the protestors and the Nicholas Kristofs.
Kristof actually recently wrote on his Facebook fan page about youth activism today: “Just spoke to Lawrenceville School about the world and how to make a difference. I’m struck that while there has always been student activism, it was mostly protest in my day, while these days it often includes an element of starting an organization to do something positive as well. It’s the social entrepreneurship revolution, and I’m in awe of it.”
I think the reason why young people are more inclined to the social entrepreneurship side of activism, is because there’s this growing belief in our culture that in order to change the system, you have to be a part of it. Less than 10 years ago, the campus paper at York University, Excalibur, fought to keep the Toronto Star off campus, and, according to the woman who organizes a yearly Star workshop for student press, they wore ripped jeans and had an air of defiance when negotiating with the big city newspaper; today, newspaper staff put on suits and ties as they hobnob for business cards and contacts. But that doesn’t mean student press doesn’t care about the same ideals than those of yesteryear; it’s just a different approach.
Meanwhile, I recently saw a documentary called “Rachel” at Hot Docs, about a young American woman named Rachel Corrie who joined the International Solidarity Movement, and was subsequently killed while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003.
My initial reaction was to be impressed with Rachel’s commitment to a cause she believed in, politics aside. I thought it took courage, and yes, some reckless idealism, to go there and stand on the front lines the way she did. Some others I spoke with, though, thought she was youngandnaive (yes, as one word). Is it a tough distinction? Perhaps. Maybe you need to be a little reckless to believe in change at all. If that’s the case, I don’t mind being a little like Rachel Corrie. I think, ideally, we would all be idealists.