Watters: Seeking activism amid laughs

Arabella Watters

In the short seven months I’ve spent at Northwestern, I’ve seen two vastly different prominent political speakers address the student body. In November I attended a lecture that former Wisconsin Democratic senator Russ Feingold gave to promote his new book, “While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era,” and just last night I sat in Fiske and listened to former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain address a select few hundred students who sat in something that resembled confused and amused rapture. Both speakers land on opposite ends of the political spectrum. To give a little bit of context, Feingold was the only one in the Senate not to vote for the Patriot Act, while Cain doesn’t believe in global warming. Watching each politician spinning his opinion in a way that would appeal to a bunch of college students was entertaining, especially since I feel like Northwestern’s student body as a whole lacks any sort of political conviction at all. In the past year, the Northwestern I’ve experienced has been politically apathetic. Not that people don’t have opinions, because they definitely do; some of my best friends at school are die-hard liberals and impassioned conservatives. However, despite people’s individual opinions, NU as a community doesn’t seem to prioritize political activism. I don’t say this with condescension, but student participation with the College Republicans as well as the College Democrats on campus has been lackluster. It seems that both groups bring a big, sensational name to campus one a year, stir up political excitement and then fade into the background for the rest of the year. Take the big move the College Democrats made in 2010 in bringing former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to campus. The student body was eager and ready for the political controversy his presence would bring. However, once the event occurred, the College Democrats faded into the background again. It is not entirely their fault; our campus is buzzing with so many issues all of the time that its easy to get lost in the fray. I just wish that political awareness wasn’t the issue becoming irrelavent. In comparision to equivalent institutions Northwestern lacks in political activism, either conservatively or liberally. Take, for example, the controversy occurring right now at the University of California at Berkeley and at UC Davis. In October, students organized a walk out protest supporting Occupy Berkeley and Occupy Oakland which was met with strong physical opposition from the police. Both schools are known for being fiercely liberal. The report from UC President Mark Yudof gave recommendations for police handling of protests and advocated to regulate the use of “less-than-lethal” weapons, like tear gas and batons, against protestors. Compare the fact that student protests get so fervent and intense that they have to be controlled by physical force to anything political you’ve ever seen on Northwestern’s campus. It’s not an understatement that Northwestern pales in comparison. Our school lands right smack in the middle of the political spectrum, and that surprises me. For a student body that is so intelligent, articulate, and passionate about a variety of issues, you would expect that there would be more of a political presence on campus. I’m excited on a daily basis that I’m going to have the right to vote for the first time this year, and a lot of people simply don’t care. That’s why I was surprised last night at the substantial turnout and the palpable tension in the room as Cain spoke. Cain, who dropped out of the nomination race in early December, is noted for his accidental attribution of Donna Summer’s “The Power of One” (featured in the Pokemon movie) in a speech last year. Despite being a skilled orator and a self-made businessman and politician, two qualities I find admirable and respectable, Cain lost any ounce of credibility he had with that faux pas. That’s why it was such an interesting atmosphere as he spoke last night. The students in the crowd were a combination of those who genuinely respected Cain speaking as a politician and those who had come purely for the entertainment value and a good laugh on a Tuesday night. It made me wonder, at what point does a politician from an opposing party become less of a competitor and more of a farce? Cain had clearly made that leap for many members of the crowd as they struggled to take him seriously at all. Judging by the laughter and the way that people squirmed when Cain made a couple of less-than-politically-correct remarks about ethnic groups in the Middle East, Northwestern does have a political backbone after all. The fact that people were reacting, that they had even shown up at all, whether it was to mock or appreciate, gives much more credence to Northwestern as a political entity than as an institution that thrives in nonchalance. If it takes a comical politician who takes himself and his policies very seriously to incentivize students to care just a little bit more, I hope that the political groups on campus keeps them coming. I appreciated Cain’s slightly zany opinions on issues, his passion, and the free Ronald Reagan calendar given out at the door. Arabella Watters is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]