Dissent magazine (I serve on its editorial board) recently published a short online think piece by one of America’s greatest political theorists, Michael Walzer. Walzer addresses the recent surge in gun activism on the part of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Although much has already been said on this topic, he brings to the discussion an important historical perspective. After all, one of his first “assignments” for Dissent was to travel south and report on the civil rights movement—that series of “sit-ins” at lunch counters in 1960 that came to constitute one of the most important organized actions in movement history, thanks to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Having personally witnessed young people make transformative change on the ground in the past, he believes it may be possible to achieve once again.
Walzer offers a historically anchored hope, although replete with carefully considered qualifiers: “If they don’t stop their demonstrations, if they don’t accept token reforms, if students around the country join their protests, if thousands and hundreds of thousands of them come to Washington at the end of March—yes, they could change the world.” Of course, he’s not the only pundit in recent days to reach back to the civil rights movement’s young ranks for historical ballast in conflicted time. But he’s certainly unique for the political perspective he brings due to the fact that he was a first-hand witness to one of the most transformative movements in American history.
Although I was cheered by Walzer’s optimism, his piece brought out in me a certain amount of worry as well. No one wants to shut down rage—the sort of rage that one should expect from this community which must, grief-stricken, stare out at a country that prizes gun ownership over the young lives lost and over the security of those who have survived to tell the tale—nor should we muck up the waters of youthful idealism. On the other hand, it’s fair to worry about how such intense energy might dissipate when it faces down the realities of a Congress stalled on just about every issue, except, of course, giving tax cuts to the wealthy. It would appear that Walzer wrote his ebullient piece very close to the high profiled, televised townhall meeting where students from Parkland shouted down Marco Rubio for taking NRA money, making him look cowed. Although he started off strongly on the offense, he was ultimately unable to simply spout NRA talking points without immediate follow-up, destabilized by the sort of holding-his-feet-to-the-fire confrontation rare in American history. That event certainly warmed my heart, but it needs to be put side-by-side with other events.
For when students marched on the Florida legislature close to the time of the town hall, they were confronted with some unpleasant facts, including that their Baby Boomer lawmakers worried more about pornography than gun legislation. As we also already know, the students then had to face down conspiratorial accusations that they were simply “crisis actors,” shamming their way into the hearts of Americans by pretending to be victims. What all of this means it that things have already gotten harder for these young activists (in the political sense) than they were in the days immediately following the attack, as their moral high ground finds itself face-to-face with the deep cynicism of America’s political culture.
After reflecting on the obstacles faced by these young people, my biggest concern is the fact that they have grown up living in a world of instantaneous politics—where change is expected fast and certain. The culture of the Internet and rapid 24/7 commentary are two things that make the Florida students’ struggle so different from the civil rights movement of the 1950s, which faced a slow press that often didn’t pay attention to the struggle. The instantaneous politics of today can also be seen in the “Me Too” movement, another high-profile cause that has made headway in a manner that I think few of us expected. In a recent discussion on NPR (if I recall correctly) I remember hearing a feminist critic saying that she worried that hopes might be too elevated around “Me Too,” that some might expect that if they came forward immediate action would follow (meaning the perpetrator would be fired or removed from office, as happened in some cases). But the right to due process and of a fair defense under our legal system means it could never be entirely so. Fairness doesn’t produce presto-justice, as much as we may hope. But when you organize online, for example, your expectation for political change may start to look like the push-button immediacy that drives Internet culture.
And so I worry that the high school activists might fall prey to the expectations of instantaneous politics. And the result, I fear, might be rapid burnout, which Walzer warns of in his piece. But here’s where there might be some reason for hope. The March for Our Lives is not happening tomorrow but rather on March 24; indeed, activists have given themselves sufficient time to deploy old-time organizing techniques—getting buses for travel to D.C., making sure commitment is there, signing people up. This is the slow and deliberate work it takes. So too for the current boycott being organized against the N.R.A.
If we’re looking for inspiration here from the civil rights movement, there’s no better place to look than the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where Martin Luther King suddenly leaped into a leadership role. What some might forget, though, is that it took a year of activism and sacrifice (getting poor people to their jobs without using public transit was no easy task) for the boycott to make a dent against a segregated public transit system. In that spirit, it would be nice to see an alliance built between those in Black Lives Matter and the suburban students from Florida—addressing shared concerns about gun violence that traverses inner cities and sunny suburbs and that builds momentum. All of this, by its very nature, won’t be instantaneous.
Whether any of this might have an impact on a gerrymandered Congress or on our dimwitted President, I don’t know, but I have serious doubts. Still, the only other option is to give up hope, and that’s certainly not fair to the legacy of those kids who lost their lives. “This might be one of those moments that we live for,” Walzer ends his piece by saying, meaning, as the overused cliché goes, a turning point. This might be true, but only if it comes with the understanding that, as the social theorist Max Weber once put it, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” It’s always a slow walk toward justice, and I only hope that these brave teens will continue their long march.