Blessed Peacemakers

They'd seem quaint if they weren't so eloquent: Meet the University of St. Thomas's loudest rabble-rousers

As she talks, people come and go from the meeting through a sliding glass door. As they walk in or out, they pass a display case directly across the hall. It's decorated like a trophy case, draped with American flags and patriotic images and the words "God Bless America."

 

In recent weeks, in places where activism used to be tolerated, even appreciated, it's become harder than ever to be a vocal proponent for peace. The current atmosphere at St. Thomas simply mirrors that of the larger society, Nelson-Pallmeyer notes, describing the virulent anger of counterprotesters at a recent peace protest. "There is the degree of irrational hatred that I have felt by those who don't want any protest," he opines. "They're trying to rein in a growing citizen activism."

As he thinks back to the Vietnam years, he notes that those antiwar protests came on the heels of another major change in the United States: the Civil Rights movement. "There was a deep awakening that the mythology--the dominant ideals of our country--was being shattered," he says. "Now there's a manufacturing of consent that I find most frightening. There's almost not a critical murmur about the contradictions that are all over U.S. policy."

And the backlash against progressive thought seems to be on the rise. Last month, a conservative group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni published a report chastising academia, arguing that its liberal bias has grown more dangerous since September 11. "While America's elected officials from both parties and media commentators from across the spectrum condemned the attacks and followed the President in calling evil by its rightful name, many faculty demurred," states the report, titled "Defending Civilization." "Some refused to make judgements. Many invoked tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil. Some even pointed accusatory fingers, not at the terrorists, but at America itself." The report goes on to accuse universities of squelching dissenting voices, in this case those supporting the war against terrorism.

"I find that charge to be almost laughable," Nelson-Pallmeyer retorts. "To suggest that [universities] are bastions of radical thought in a sea of conservatism doesn't fit very well. It certainly doesn't fit St. Thomas well."

And that, according to Father David Smith, is partly because the essence of peace studies is asking questions that many people don't want to hear asked, particularly after such heinous attacks. "Any peace program is counterculture, counterintuitive," he explains. "It's an effort to answer the question, 'Why do people hate us this much?' When you try to answer that, people get upset. They want the answer to be, 'They're nuts.' They don't want to think that people dislike the United States, or U.S. foreign policy."

It's a struggle, says peace movement expert Cecelia Lynch, for activists to exist at all in the midst of what often feels like a monolithic national support of the war. "They're having a difficult time of it right now, trying to maintain legitimacy, given that the way to act legitimately right now is to be seen as patriotic," she says. It's unclear whether today's small pockets of dissent will mushroom into a larger movement, as happened during the Vietnam War era, she adds.

Even though the early protests during that war did raise important moral questions, she continues, that criticism did not become the prevailing opinion until the public learned more about the war and its casualties. "The antiwar movement rose and increased with the information about U.S. body bags," she says, stressing too that the level of dissent at home also depends on the perceived success of the military actions in faraway war zones: "There was a lot more criticism a month ago, before Kabul fell."

Which makes it all the more gratifying to Nelson-Pallmeyer that there are students who are devoting their lives to trying to make an unjust world more just--precisely what Michel Clausen plans to do.

"Activism is a daily choice. It takes millions of different forms," she says. "For me activism is life. It's an everyday challenge, it's excitement, it's fun. It's fun to be involved in your country. It's hard now, because people say wanting peace is anti-American. I love America. That's why I stay involved.

"I wish it didn't take a war to get people to be aware of what's happening in the world," she continues. "Maybe they won't stay in the movement. But maybe they'll leave with a different state of mind."

 

Listen, for a moment, to the message of peace protesters today. Is it any different than it was 40 years ago? Have the activists changed? Or the crusades? What keeps the movement alive?

"The world, in many ways, isn't any better from when I started out," Nelson-Pallmeyer says. "I, personally, feel a deepening sense of urgency." Today, he continues, the environment is in crisis, violence is endemic, and injustice is built into the global economy. "The richest 3 people have assets that are greater than the 48 poorest countries," he lectures. "It's very dangerous to have a country that's as powerful as the U.S.--militarily, economically, culturally. There are so many things that are fracturing the world and ripping apart communities.

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