Reading Quote of the Day (2009-02-22)

I found it in my school reading (Marian Mollin, Radical Pacifism in Modern America), but I think it’s of more importance than that. The quote is “Speak truth to power,” and it’s a Quaker thing: it came from 18th-century Quakers, but was adopted as the title of a 1955 pamphlet produced by the American Friends Service Committee. According to my reading, it “made both ‘a pointed indictment of military power’ and a social scientific argument for pacifism while emphasizing the power of individual action to effect change.”

How cool is that? Not just the nonviolence stuff, and not just the fact that it’s historically interesting to see the origins of the ’60s and ’70s anti-war movement in the mid-’50s. Those four words, “Speak truth to power,” are incredibly potent. They embody, I think, so much of what it means to be a voice against the established wisdom of the day, especially a voice for peace when the “power” wants to use its military might to control everything as far as the eye can see. It’s also a phrase I’d invoke today, when urging the current presidential administration to investigate the crimes of the last one, or when speaking up for a minority group to assure those who make the decisions that our voices do matter. These are four words of immense visual significance, which to me invoke all the greatest images of nonviolent demonstration of the past century. They bring to mind seas of strong, silent individuals who are gathered as one, holding signs and singing and standing up against all odds for what is right.

If you haven’t heard, NYU had some excitement last week. You should click on those links for more information, but basically a group called “Take Back NYU!” barricaded themselves inside the third floor of NYU’s student center, filled with shouting and demands, asking their university powers to do everything from freeze tuition to establish a socially responsible investment policy to give aid to war-torn Gaza. It was a mixed-up set of demands, and an ill-thought-out protest. It was disbanded after 36 hours; some students were disciplined and some will lose their college housing.

A lot of left-leaning college folks criticized this protest. I don’t blame them. It was a bit naïve and juvenile, really. It looked like a cheap knock-off of The New School’s December protest. I have some similar views, and I’m worried about the future of collegiate direct action, now that TBNYU has made it seem so risible and has incurred snark from exactly the people who I wish would support something like this. But I can’t find it in me to fault those kids. I can’t find it in me to belittle them, or laugh at them, or say they were wrong to do what they did. Maybe they didn’t exactly think things through. But I think I understand how it must be to feel so disenfranchised, and so angry, that you have to scream and you have to take action. There have been many times in my life, in high school and in college, when if I hadn’t been the only person who felt that way and if I had been something more of a natural leader, I would have taken similar action. I have to admire the bravery of kids who didn’t back down in the face of disciplinary reprisal, who were willing to risk arrest or injury for what they believed in, however muddled that belief may have been.

I was raised by pinko commie parents; I was indoctrinated to believe in the beauty and power of nonviolent action. I grew up thinking that you can get something done by gathering in large numbers and speaking out for it. I grew up thinking that there is an inherent good in speaking truth to power. So yeah, I’m biased. I’m way biased. But it seems to me that the TBNYU kids set out with the goal of speaking truth to power, and in my mind that all fuses with decades of marches on Washington and marches in New York and San Francisco; it’s one of those movie montages that stretches from the Bonus Marchers to the Prop. 8 protest I went to in New York in November. It’s “Peace now, freedom now!” “We shall overcome!” “Hell no, we won’t go!” and “Solidarity forever!” Last November, for me, it was “Marriage is a civil right!” It all streams together with kids—they’re just kids—turning down the food they were offered when they locked themselves in a building at NYU because it wasn’t vegan. And it becomes one long saga of speaking to power that brings very impressed tears to my eyes.

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