It's sad to see what prompts student unrest on American university campuses these days. On recent weekends, we've seen glasses and bottles flying in Pullman, Wash., and students arrested in Berkeley, Calif. -- and in Raleigh, N.C., too. A woman and a cop were hurt in Clemson, S.C., and cars were set afire, furniture was burned and dozens were arrested in Columbus, Ohio. Then there are the student riots last year in College Park.
And what is causing America's future leaders to abandon civility, embrace violence and convert their campuses into war zones? What injustice has moved them so?
Suppression of student rights? Incursions on speech, assembly, academic freedom? Nah. On American campuses, students are fistfighting and smashing and burning over what else? Sports. Yep. They're socking it to the town over football and basketball. (In Gainesville, Fla., the University of Florida stations a German shepherd at each corner of the football field.) In stadiums across America, the frenzy to win is driving responsibility out the window. The fear of losing is trumping respect. And indulgence in personal excess is the ruling ethic.
Contrast that kind of campus behavior with the university scene in Iran. Thousands of Iranian students have been bravely taking on their country's oppressive Islamic regime, openly criticizing the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other hard-line Muslim clerics for standing in the way of social and political reforms. Unlike the drunken hooliganism on the grounds of American academe, students in Iran have been seriously and soberly engaged in a power struggle against Islamic hard-liners. And it's no weekend affair.
It's not cost-free either. Unlike their American counterparts, Iranian students aren't waging their battle with credit cards in their pockets and with protective and indulging school administrations covering their backsides. In Iran, student demonstrators and their courageous professors are up against the country's police, Islamic courts and militiamen -- armed foes who will break their heads at the order of the conservative Islamic regime.
America's students riot over the defeat of a legendary rival. Iranian students are in the streets over the sentencing to death of a history lecturer, Hashem Aghajari, who had the nerve to criticize the regime in a speech. The American collegiate sports fans erupt in rowdyism in pursuit of fun. The Iranian students put it on the line in the name of democracy.
They are a different breed. The supreme religious leader denounced their protests as the work of the devil. He ordered the movement suppressed and student leaders arrested. They responded to the crackdown by announcing a symbolic referendum on the Islamic regime to be held next week among students attending more than a dozen universities in Tehran. Now they are in even deeper trouble with the conservative hard-liners, who are mobilizing thousands of their supporters and paramilitary units to stare down and frighten off the pro-reformers.
Ah, but who can think of stuff like that in Iran when here at home there are beers to be drunk, goal posts to be torn down, fires to be started, and sofas and chairs to be burned. Today is a far cry from that time in America when students built shantytowns on their campuses and marched on their administration buildings to demand that their schools cut ties with companies that invested in apartheid South Africa. Then students were all about raising consciousness about South Africa's oppression. Today it's all about losing consciousness in a fog of alcohol on Saturday night.
And when the football team isn't so hot, there are other fun ways to pass the time at school. How about a party? A dress-up party? A party where fraternity guys and sorority gals can paint their faces black like they used to do in minstrel shows back in the good ol' days. Where you can dress in tennis outfits and come in blackface as Venus and Serena Williams, the two African American tennis champions. Or, if you have a patriotic bent, you can dress as Uncle Sam, of course with black makeup. That's the way they did it last month at a fraternity-sponsored Halloween party at the University of Virginia.
What do they know? What do they care about college students who sat at lunch counters, conducted read-ins in public libraries, kneel-ins in churches, stand-ins at movie theaters, wade-ins in public swimming pools, because, as they said in the '60s, "Education without freedom is useless"? Are they even fazed by a movement started by African American students that was joined by hundreds of white students from across the country, which saw 1,700 student demonstrators standing trial in 1960 alone?
That was then. Nowadays, for some in America's next generation of leaders, when it comes to sheer emotional fulfillment, nothing quite matches the act of tearing up the campus or coloring the skin and lips to exaggerate black features.
Welcome to American college daze, 2002.