Apathy stems from varied roots

We aren’t hungry and we’re not homeless. As college students, we don’t have money to contribute, and we are not compelling in our youth. As a group, we barely vote. In fact, regarding government, we are mostly silent.

Pat Leung
Guardian

It seems we matter very little politically in the United States. It seems we have few concerns that make our involvement crucial, and few attractions that draw the politicians near. We have isolated ourselves from active democracy.

I was struck in a small way on Oct. 29, when several UCSD professors gathered to give a seminar on the implications of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After the presentation, a student roved the audience with a microphone for those wishing to direct questions to the professors.

This segment was monopolized by individuals who were clearly not students. In fact, most were white-haired, such as the gentleman next to me who napped through much of the seminar but awoke in time to pose a lengthy, convoluted question to the panel.

Another woman, so intent on not relinquishing the microphone once she secured it, did not bother to ask a question. Steadily ignoring the efforts of the student timekeeper to wrench the microphone from her grasp, she blabbed on about any old thing until someone, somehow, made her stop.

Where were we, the students? To be fair, perhaps two students managed to ask questions just before the session ended. But this was so unusual that, when one professor noticed the student raising his hand, he muttered a comment that was perhaps not accidentally picked up by the microphone: “”Finally, a student with a question,”” or something to that effect.

And to be fair, one student’s question was so thoughtful and well-posed that the professors merely blinked for a few counts. Their initial and inadequate response was “”Good question.””

But it is no exaggeration to say that student participation at the seminar was mostly limited to the cheerful student timekeeper.

In fact, it’s possible that nonstudents were able to monopolize the question-and-answer period because the student timekeeper gave them unfair preference with the microphone.

If that was the case, then students should remember that this university belongs to us and not to intellectually preening community members. Students should certainly have been given priority at the seminar. These are, after all, our professors. But perhaps this was not the case.

The second possibility for our lack of participation is that the students in attendance were simply too dumb to formulate questions.

This is ridiculous. For one thing, we are students. It is our job to look, listen, think and ask.

But at that, the atmosphere in the auditorium was a bit stuffy and pedantic for my taste. A seminar is an exchange of ideas and not a trampoline for showily executed verbal acrobatics. Must audience-generated questions at a fairly informal seminar be impressive in order to be asked and answered?

We are, after all, neither political commentators nor coifed news broadcasters — only students. And I do not think the professors were crafty, polished politicians to be tripped and tricked and needled with elaborate, multiclaused questions.

The third possible cause of our collective muteness Monday night is the most frightening and the most complex: Perhaps we couldn’t be bothered to ask questions, since others seemed to be doing it for us. And perhaps we didn’t care.

Consider this: In “”Citizen Politics,”” author and UC Irvine professor Russell Dalton describes a discrepancy between the average voter turnout of people in their 50s (about 80 percent) and of people in their 20s (about 60 percent.) And that is of the people who bothered to vote.

Dalton offers evidence that describes voter turnout in the 1990s as 69 percent for France, 77 percent for Germany, 78 percent for Great Britain and 53 percent for the United States.

Some weeks ago, the New York Times printed a letter by a man who lives in the American Midwest. He said that his friends and family were unsure how to react to the Sept. 11 terrorist acts and the war that has followed it. Sure, they flew their flags and mourned with the rest of the country, but from a removed state. So far, he wrote, the war was something that was happening to someone else.

Perhaps, for college students, politics is something that happens to someone else.

Here, there will be some who toss this aside in disgust. What about our peace coalition, pro-America rally, affirmative action parade, student government?

These efforts represent only a minority of the student population at UCSD. Were we all represented, there would not be one peace coalition but one dozen, not one affirmative action parade but a daily parade for 100 different interests.

The massive dearth of significant student participation in politics means that either we are not interested in politics, we do not believe our participation will affect politics, or we do not believe that our personal political participation is important in a functioning democracy.

Well, perhaps we are not interested in politics. Perhaps neither party enchants us. Perhaps, at this age, we lack the social or financial responsibility that makes politics seem important to others. Or maybe “”the fact that some half-anonymous ass or another has been elected president of the United States”” is as meaningless to us as it was to Henry Louis Mencken, whose book “”A Blind Spot”” was published in 1920.

It could be that we don’t relate to the bills and political posses, and to faraway problems like hunger, when there are fresh bagels at Sierra Summit when we want them. Maybe democracy is something we’ll do when we grow up and have more time.

Maybe we don’t believe our participation will affect politics. Perhaps we have never signed a referendum that made it to the ballot, and it could be that the real world seems miles away from our tidy enclave at UCSD.

Maybe we do not believe that political participation is important. It seems that democracy functions well enough without us.

And when we attend Monday night seminars, the questions seem to get asked without our having to raise a hand.

Last Monday’s student silence is not to be dismissed as an incidental curiosity. If we are unable to participate in this most basic of democratic activities — political discussion and exchanges of ideas — then it follows that we will not participate in more demanding political activities.

Last Monday, I watched as students allowed their elders to steal their right to a political voice. I wonder what was not asked and what was not answered as a result of this theft; perhaps nothing important. Members of the community asked good, even excellent, questions. But they were asked at our expense.

Maybe we will, in fact, learn how to be democratic when we are all grown up and have time. Meanwhile, we are consumers of a cheap democracy we help to create with our silence.

Politics may feel like something that happens to someone else, but without our participation, it is something worse. It is something done to us.

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