Only only time I’ve ever been arrested for civil disobedience, or held up a sign during a protest, or marched and chanted in the name of a political cause, was when I was an undergraduate at BYU. Go figure.
Why haven’t I done any of those things since? Part of it is the evolution in my own ideas, though not necessarily in the manner of the old Benjamin Disraeli quote (“a man who is not a liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at sixty has no head”). Rather, I’ve become both more radical (in political and economic matters) and more traditionalist (in moral and cultural matters) over the years, and thus have found fewer and fewer places and times where my ideas can effectively fit into a single-minded movement. So mostly I sit back and comment, vote and contribute where I can, and watch from the sidelines. And part of it, of course, is also simply the obligations which I carry as an adult as opposed to those I carried as a young man: participating in a long and enthusiastic Take Back the Night march around Provo sponsored by BYU’s feminist VOICE club is difficult when you have children you need to help put to bed, and risking incarceration for trespassing on federal land in Nevada as part of a witness against nuclear weapons testing organized by the Mormon Peace Gathering is foolish when your family depends upon the paycheck you need to earn the next day. And finally, let’s face it, I’m an academic, and you know us–give us a petition to sign, and often the first thing we’ll do is analyze the language of the petition, and consider all the alternative interpretations, and reflect upon the historical antecedents of all those interpretations, and then when we come out of our intellectual reverie the person with the clipboard has already moved on.
But all that being said, I actually the primary reason for the end of my protesting days is that I no longer live in Utah County, arguably the single most Republican place on the planet, and it is no longer the early 1990s, and no social environment I’ve been in yet has had the same strange, frustrating, defiant, heady rush as those days had.
I confess that, when it comes to the actual substance of many of the causes I was caught in at the time, I feel a fair amount of chagrin. Not a great amount, but enough. For those who weren’t there or don’t know, 1991-1994 was an interesting time at BYU and in Utah, with reports of excommunications and faculty firings and rumors and accusations filling the pages of the Salt Lake Tribune on what sometimes seemed a daily basis. There were candlelight vigils at stake centers while church courts met within, dueling statements about the meaning of academic freedom and the definition of “Mormon intellectual” in the pages of the Daily Universe, even a delivery of a symbolic “peace offering” of white roses to the Church Office Building during general conference (if I recall correctly, Elder Robert Hales was sent down to meet the delegation, accept the offering quietly, and shoo them off church property). I was sometimes present at the organization of these events, knew many of the principal participants and had some sympathy for them, but never got directly involved. Ultimately, I was neither personally nor philosophically comfortable with treating the church itself–and to whatever extent some of BYU’s decisions reflected the explicit interests of the church, BYU too–as an ordinary site of protest. I’m grateful for that now, though I still sometimes hash over what I did or didn’t say or do back then, thinking sometimes that I said more than I believed, other times that I allowed opportunities to challenge comments and actions I thought to be clearly wrong to pass me by.
Participation in other, more purely political and policy causes, whether national or local–the Gulf War, freedom of the press on campus, environmentalism and Earth Day, whatever–came more easily, and I have far fewer after-the-fact doubts about them. My thinking as regards several of those causes has changed from what it was fifteen years ago (and as regards a couple–*cough* wars in Iraq *cough*–I’ve even changed my mind back again), but I don’t see that as a cause of embarrassment; while going from passionate commitment to doubt to the opposite point of view can be taken as evidence of inconstancy and immaturity, I think it’s equally likely that it can be incorporated into a reasonable narrative of growth, one which will probably always include some rueful regrets and eating of crow (which ought to be done thoroughly and up front, to prevent one–*cough* Mitt Romney *cough*–from being dogged by charges of political expediency), but not one a person ought to feel a need to hide. I took a lot of pleasure from being part of and reporting on all these events, and I still do from my memory of such. Direct political action can, of course, be loud and self-righteous and simplistic, but it can also be a great and enriching and educational experience, in terms of the connections you make and the lessons you learn (including the costly, negative ones, of which I experienced a few)….and sometimes, just sometimes, it can even do some good.
I write this today because tomorrow, when Vice President Dick Cheney visits my alma mater as the commencement speaker at graduation, the event will be marked by the great and good work a lot of dedicated protesters have accomplished in recent days. The BYU Democrats put together a widely reported demonstration against Cheney’s visit, and will hold another protest on campus before commencement tomorrow; and between the hard work of dedicated organizers and the financial support of the netroots, an alternative commencement featuring Ralph Nader will take place tomorrow evening. I call this “great” because, again, I think direct political action is often–not always, but often–a healthy thing for the civic body and the individual soul; and I say “good” because, frankly, I think Cheney deserves to be dogged by protests pretty much wherever he goes, and it’s delightful that not even Utah County will be an exception. The theme of the protest–“go forth to establish peace”–is a fine one, and bringing Nader to Mormon Country as a counterpoint to Cheney actually strikes me as a lot more apt than one might at first think (more here).
I didn’t contribute to any of this, I have to say, because I didn’t think it would happen. Melissa and I agreed that we ought to cough up some dough for the commencement people, but we didn’t, as we figured it would be a waste. Unlike the more idealistic folks at FMH, I assumed that the effort to organize a critical response to the Cheney invite was doomed to failure, that the alternative commencement website would quickly be abandonded as an embarrassment, and that the whole affair would collapse and be forgotten, if not outright denied by those involved. That’s a legacy of my protest days too–eventually you get burned out and angry, then get to feeling cynical and superior towards anyone who thinks they can pull off a challenge to student apathy and official hostility. By the time Melissa and I left BYU we were thoroughly sick of the place, contemptuous of what it was trying to do and annoyed at many of the ways it implemented and presumed its plans. I’ve long since outgrown that contempt–dismissing the honest efforts and commitments of one’s fellow citizens and saints, unlike my acts of youthful protest, is the real sign of immaturity. (Though note that criticizing and even satirizing isn’t the same as dismissing.) But I fear I haven’t outgrown my fatalism, a fatalism that told me that even such a blinkered act as inviting a man whose record in public office is (or should be) at least as controversial as Bill Clinton’s would be accepted by the students of BYU with barely a peep.
Well, as it turned out, between faculty support and some good press coverage and some professional rabble-rousers and the power of the internet, there’ll be a little bit more than just a “peep” emerging from Utah County tomorrow afternoon and evening. To all those who made it happen, I salute you. I was never part of pulling off anything quite this big, and I can’t deny I’m jealous. Not jealous enough to wish I was there organizing it; I’ve got papers to grade and a lecture for a community action meeting to prepare and a missionary team-up to schedule and a daughter who needs help with her homework. But a little jealous, yes, nonetheless. Rock on, you guys. And give the VP my best.