Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Communists

I forgot to mention that Angela Davis visited my institution a couple of weekends ago and delivered the keynote address for the Women's and Gender Studies Conference that we hosted. (Aside: I'm not generally inclined to be star-struck, but I definitely was a little around Dr. Davis. I was charged with taking care of her and transporting her back to her hotel after the keynote address, so I got to spend time and speak at some length with her one-on-one. It was awesome.) Anyway, while she was here, a few of our students "protested" her visit, standing outside of the building with signs that read (among other things) "My Tuition Shouldn't Pay For Communists." I had been told earlier in the day by one of my (non-protesting) students that this might happen, and when I asked "why are people protesting Angela Davis?!?", he responded "Because she was a Black Panther and she is a Communist." For the record, Davis was exceptionally gracious with-- and more than a little amused by-- our student protesters. On her way into the lecture hall that night, she stopped and spoke with them, inviting them into her lecture so that they could (in her words) "come to a better understanding of one another." (They declined.) I'm still a little shocked that there were protesters, especially given Davis' prominent role in the Civil Rights struggle and our institution's emphasis on service and civic responsibility. (We made the President's Community Service Honor Roll.) But the more I think about it, the less shocking it is.

I regularly teach Marx in my Ethics and Social/Political courses, and I have found over the years that students know very little about communism or socialism before coming into class. Actually, it's worse than that, as students often have gross misconceptions about communism and socialism before coming into class. Many of them think that "communism" = "atheism" (full stop). Or they think that the only historical instantiation of communism (the USSR) was an unqualified moral, political and economic failure. Or else they believe that everything they learned in ECON 101 about the merits and meritocracy of the Free Market is true. So, I find that it takes a little bit of massaging to get their minds open to some of Marx's critiques of capitalism, which are in reality quite consistent with their fundamental ethical and political sensibilities. And with a little more massaging, it's usually not that difficult to demonstrate the "socialist" elements present in our own democracy. It's not about Stalinist totalitarianism or hedonist atheism, I tell them, it's about poor people. Believing that Marx might have been right doesn't mean you have to give up your iPod, dress in all grey, and stand in a bread line. It just means, at the very least, that you might object to the exploitation and alienation of your fellow human beings.

I'm particularly interested in this as a sociological phenomenon. Why are today's students-- who were, for the most part, not even born until after the "fall of communism"-- so hostile to it? I would think that people of my generation would be more so, since we grew up with the Wall still in place, but it doesn't seem like we really are. When I was an undergraduate, I didn't have anywhere near the access to information about global poverty, or multi-national corporations, or any of the other collateral damage of capitalism as students today have. And, oh yeah, the entire economic infrastructure of my country didn't collapse, either. My formative years were the cushy, consumerist, mostly peaceful, Clinton years. What gives?

8 comments:

dog hands said...

amen.

e. said...

very interesting, dr. j! I like to think that most youth tauting these myths are just repeating their parents' (baby boomers') right-wing rhetoric, considering that probably more than 50% of Rhodes students come from Republican backgrounds. (I am being totally assumptive, obviously) I mean, generally it is likely that "protecting one's wealth" is a popular subject around their dinner tables at home. So, it IS great that community is emphasized so much there, and that they are getting a picture of what other people on the planet are dealing with. AND that they have speakers like Angela Davis coming there! Sad to have missed it...

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I have to admit I'm a little surprised --- my sense has been that the kids don't really care about communism anymore (although in retrospect, it might just be that I don't care what they have to say about it). I teach a lot of Marx too --- right now I'm teaching a Philosophy of Culture class that has a lot of Marx himself and a heavily Marxist roster --- but students don't seem too knee-jerk anti-Marxist. Or so I thought. Until I asked them today if they thought knee jerk anti-Marxism was still the norm. And they all did. So maybe I am just out of touch.

steventhomas said...

I love Angela Davis.

B Blake said...

Maybe too much Reagan? Or maybe that my generation seems to be one of the more naturally cynical ones, especially toward any ideologies that trumpet huge changes? I think it's mostly the latter. If the epoch we live in is truly the most post-modern yet, I'm not especially surprised. Cynicism does seem like a logical outgrowth of postmodernism. Additionally, there is practically no positive rhetoric about communism in the USA to offset this natural atmosphere of skepticism (somehow i knew I'd be able to resurrect my Reagan suggestion =p).

Courtney said...

Dr. J

I'm so jealous...no seriously, when people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to say Angela Davis. Thoughts about driving from St. Louis there to see her did come up but sadly work, school, and studying for comps stood in the way :(

I'm not surprised that there were protesters especially at Rhodes. My thoughts on it from being a student there at one time is that many students, like e. said, come from affluent backgrounds and protecting one's wealth/status is important. But I'm glad that Rhodes got Angela Davis to come. She was at UMemphis last year I do believe (and I missed it then too).

John said...

I am not familiar with Angela Davis and her work, first confession of ignorance on my part.

As tempting as it would be, I will be making no avowal here of any concept of spectrality or of a certain book that takes apart swearing, conjuration, and counter-conjuration, and the question of what it means to be "out to get a communist".

I would like to rather yield everything, admit (for the time being and for the sake of argument) that there has been a complete and final triumph of capitalism-- what would this mean and can we consider what this implies, in effect?
Given that anticommunism has always aligned itself with a certain type of message of the religious, that we can (correct me if I'm wrong or stating things to summarily) since at least the time of Luther speak of a kind of evangelization of capitalism-- what does this mean? The "impossible that has already happened" becomes rather the "theocracy that has already happened", and once again yielding everything to this tidal wave, whatever shape it takes-- monopolization of truth, unstoppable reactionary backlash, centralization of media--I am thinking of everything that takes place between tele-vangelism and tele-conferencng (or more broadly some kind of tele-capitalism).

We seem all to have been overtaken by this flood, this Other, this mono-Alterism all around that is never (or not yet?) friend. So
I think it would be interesting to consider the effects, to sort through the damage and see what we can retrieve. It is first of all a time of universal bad faith, we are all with one hand studying Levinas and with the other Business Administration, we are technicians of otherness, we are spiritual robots. We allow "technocratic" to be a description of a form of government.

Or perhaps I am only talking in my sleep, I am describing a nightmare that will have never been. But friends, are we awake?

CBR said...

"Or they think that the only historical instantiation of communism (the USSR) was an unqualified moral, political and economic failure."

This should read "historical instantiation of SOCIALISM" because there never was a historical instantiation of communism.