Will we revert to the fears of yesteryear?
By: Mauricio Vieira
September 14, 2001
Freedom-loving slackers, tolerant Gen-Y’ers and anti-globalization college students face a new test to which they may be unprepared.
After the terrorist attacks in American soil against symbols of U.S. financial and military might, students have a tough conscience check ahead of them.
It will be much easier now for a liberal college student to discover sudden nationalist feelings than for a young Republican to argue for greater civil liberties to immigrants. With the threat of terrorism close to home, with an enemy that is easy to stereotype but hard to combat, students will have to question their protest against what some call the “paranoid,” “imperialist” and “intolerant” behavior of the U.S. government.
The stakes are much higher now. After a decade of low-scale liberal rhetoric against injustice in Indonesia and Iraq, we may face a resurgence of strong protest on campus, but perhaps of a different kind—against the civil liberties of certain ethnicities. Our parents protested against discrimination of minorities in the civil rights era. They rallied against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. With liberal views common in the counterculture 1960s, they condemned the country’s imperialist power play to contain the spread of communism.
That threat is now gone. Previous rogue states such as the former Soviet Union are bankrupt, although they sit on a nuclear arsenal. North Korea and Cuba are paupers. China will not be ready to play superpower ball until 2050, if not longer. The danger now comes from governments who host and fund terrorist organizations.
Current students grew up in a climate of toleration, far removed from the xenophobes of earlier generations, who without television and the Internet did not know enough about people in other countries. We accept and embrace different cultures and languages. In our trips to Europe and Southeast Asia we seek that diversity, things we don’t have at home with malls crammed with the same chain stores.
We seek the exotic, the other things we read about in our post-modernist cultural studies classes in the English, sociology and anthropology departments, about societies exploited and victimized by Western greed. We seek exotic countries because we have money and are tired of the hegemony of corporations like Nike and McDonald’s.
We seek the exotic—but once we get there we miss America. We go to Thailand to hang out with other Americans; we go to Indonesia to groove to hip hop. We want danger, but just a little bit to stir the blood after leading programmed lives in our suburbs and college campuses. And above all, we don’t want to see too much of the reality in these countries. Once we’ve tasted a little of their flavor and partied enough on cheap currency, it’s time to go back to campus.
We don’t see people from developing countries partying in New York City or San Francisco. If they are there, they are washing dishes, waiting on tables, sweeping the streets, cleaning toilets; taking up labor we don’t want. We think they should have the right to have nice lives too, though we don’t know how. Sure, they can move to our country, the freest land in the world, the land of opportunity, as the cliché claims.
But are we prepared, now that America stands vulnerable, to hold on to these views of liberty we cherish without thought? It may well be that the U.S. becomes a militarized state where college students who—though themselves free of prejudice—discriminate against people of the wrong color or wrong religion. How fast will the civil rights conquests be forgotten by those who grew up with nothing to fight for?
It will be shocking to see once skeptical college students who read Thoreau, Said and Chomsky, who satirized The Man and its excesses, turn into die-hard nationalists, quick to rise when someone offends the country and its symbols, quick to anger when people don’t fit into neat, stereotyped categories.
During World War II, the government held Nipo-Americans in captivity for fear that they would become the enemy within. With the impact of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. still ablaze, it is possible once tolerant people will misdirect hatred against terrorism into generalized hatred against a particular religion, its devotees and ethnic Americans who look and dress a certain way.
It will be a test for the liberal college student who once protested from his college campus against distant things, such as sweatshop labor in Indonesia and the embargo on Iraq, to maintain a tolerant attitude towards certain foreigners once a threat is in his backyard.