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The war on apathy

While it is true that the stereotypical college student is blissfully liberated from adult reality, Princetonians are known to be ambitious, active and responsible. For one thing, we have all that independent work. Also, given the level of competition in admissions, some of us got started on extracurriculars and SAT prep shortly after exiting the womb. Yet, given the political turmoil that currently characterizes America, the Princeton campus appears almost rebelliously docile. Aside from the Frist Filibuster and Princeton Pro-Life's display on Frist lawn, Princeton students largely read the newspaper, pop their collars and go about their daily lives fuss-free. Where is the passion? Where is the activism of our campus and of our generation?

Though 18- to 20-year-olds flooded the polls after gaining the right to vote in 1971, only 58 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds registered to vote in the 2004 election and only 47 percent of them showed up. Apparently, the thrill of enfranchisement has worn off. Did our poor showing make a difference? A solid majority of voters between 18 and 29 years of age — 54 percent, according to CNN's election result tabulations — supported John Kerry. In case you've been heavily medicated for the past two years, he didn't win.

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I don't mean to blame Kerry's loss on the low student-voter turnout, but I do want to remind you that the current administration has accumulated the largest deficit in history. We're the ones who are going to have to pay it off, and we didn't even vote for the guy responsible for it. This is the essential reason that young people need to vote. They have the longest future ahead of them and therefore the greatest stake in every decision that the government makes.

When we go to the polls in 2008, 40 years will have passed since Nixon won with a campaign of "peace with honor" and troop withdrawal from Vietnam. In the years leading up to the 1968 election, the antiwar movement had gained incalculable momentum. Student activism reached an unprecedented level, and their voices were heard across the country. At this time, the Vietnam War was steadily losing support. Students seized the inertia of public sentiment and protested an unpopular war with vehemence and conviction.

The war in Iraq is unpopular, just as Vietnam was. Just like in Vietnam, there are moral concerns about civilian casualties and irreparable destruction. So why are there no antiwar protests in front of Frist? Why are there no marches on the Pentagon? The most obvious reason is the absence of the draft. Few students know men and women in uniform in Iraq or Afghanistan and even fewer confront the possibility of facing combat themselves. The primitive emotional urgency of Vietnam, the feeling of "this could be me, my brother, my friend," that accompanied casualty statistics and nightly news reports, is not a part of student life today. Start up universal conscription for the war in Iraq tomorrow, and we'd watch the campus erupt.

It may well be that simple. However, the activism of previous decades was not limited to the war, and there is currently plenty to protest that has nothing to do with the Middle East. Princeton provides us with a direct link to many of today's most controversial issues and figures. The Princeton campus has the potential to have a profound impact. Justice Samuel Alito '72 was newsworthy a few months ago, and the University itself — and especially a certain alumni group — made headlines. The student body remained unforgivably silent, allowing The New York Times to pass through campus during the nomination hearings and emerge with only a reference to traditional elitism.

According to several Princeton students at the forefront of political and social activism on campus, however, it is easy to underestimate the level of passion and involvement at the University. Tom Haine '08 who helped organize Princeton Pro-Life's display outside Frist last week, said student activism on campus is "alive and well." Asheesh Siddique '07, former editor-in-chief of Princeton Progressive Nation, cited the Frist Filbuster, the campaign to divest from Darfur, the Student Bill of Rights and the Pride Alliance's efforts as recent and viable instances of student activism. He asserted that "Princeton students are at least as passionately engaged with issues relevant to our time as they ever have been." Dylan Hogarty '06, a member of the College Republicans, agreed saying there was an "incredible amount" of activism on campus.

All three students admitted, however, that the activism they see on campus is of a different nature than the kind 30 years ago.

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"The charge that students are not active neglects the fact that activism can take multiple forms," Siddique said. Hogarty sees Princeton activism taking on a more sedate, academic tone. He cited "serious discussion" about the war and domestic policy between faculty and students as a way of actively engaging in national issues. He said Princeton students do independent work that explores political issues, for example, as well as community service, application for national, public service fellowships and participation in community-minded programs like Teach for America. Haine said he believes in the power of "intellectual debate."

Perhaps it is a feeling of futility and resignation that is turning political protest into an instance of all talk and no game. It's nice to feel "political," and for many of us, that means reading a blog, emailing an oped piece to a friend, turning on Jim Lehrer or quoting Jon Stewart. However, being informed is not the same as being active. Having an opinion does not bring about change. We need to vocalize; we need to persuade; we need to protest.

Stanley Katz, director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Wilson School, taught at the University of Wisconsin during the Vietnam War and has been at the University since 1978. He says that he has "always been disappointed in the relative lack of political engagement at Princeton." He suggests that this lack of activism is a natural characteristic of what is clearly a self-selecting student body."

The 'Orange Bubble' has a seductive ability to sedate the college student into complacency. We need to snap out of it. When we leave this place, we become adults. We're the ones who will have to clean up the mess.

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It is possible, of course, that history repeats itself in cyclical patterns. Political activism, like many aspects of American life, ebbs and flows with the passage of time. Just as the peaceful calm of the post-World War II era gave way to the chaotic, unapologetic protests of the Vietnam years, the calm that besets America today may be a staging ground for an unforeseen, frenetic bout of activism. However, in an era of incalculable importance, of profound political and social change, can we really afford to wait?

A. Veronica Thew contributed reporting to this article.

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