Prof. Lassiter’s Golden Apple Lecture

In a crowded Mendelssohn Theater the audience attending the lecture of this year’s Golden Apple winner Matthew Lassiter chuckled as U-M president Mary Sue Coleman twice referred to Prof. Lassiter as “Mark Lassiter,” saying she “can’t wait to hear your last lecture.”

Prof. Lassiter began his lecture quipping that not only had he “never won an aware that required I give an hour lecture,” that “I’m not bilingual, and I’ve never made a protein,” referring to the introductions of Hillel Director Michael Brooks who incorporated Hebrew into his remarks and President Coleman’s story about how an undergraduate helped her in the laboratory.

The lecture, titled “Alienation, Apathy, and Activism: American Culture and the Depoliticization of Youth” argued that youth are indeed political, but are often silenced by the mass media, and silenced with false nostalgia for the “1960s,” another period which was widely believed to have “apathetic” youth until the youth themselves proved otherwise beginning in 1965. He used three events from 1999 to give his analysis: the coverage of the Columbine High School shootings, the Woodstock riots, and the Seattle protests during the 1999 WTO meeting. Saying that the stereotype of young people as a “generation of conformists and consumers” has been largely imposed on college students, and that there was more activism among youth today than before 1965, he pointed to these three examples where the political views of youth had been ignored, misrepresented, or repressed. He began with an overview of campus activism of the late 1990s, saying “They’re living proof that student activism is a vibrant force today,” continuing: “Charges of alienation and apathy are overstated … or based on a misunderstanding of the cultural forces at work today.”

“Nobody came to the nonprofit tent to burn it down,” said a young man in a video clip he showed about the rioting that occurred at the 1999 Woodstock where young people looted corporate vendors many felt were exploiting the captive audience with $4 bottles of water. Lassiter argued the stereotype of “Generation X” as a generation of slackers and dropouts largely ignores the successful activism of the 1980s, whether it be the nuclear freeze movement, anti-sweatshop activism, anti-apartheid activism, (And, I would add, civil rights activism such as BAM III and the United Coalition Against Racism strikes at the U of M that created the Martin Luther King day symposium and arguably formed the origins of the University’s affirmative action policies challenged in the 1990s)

He argued the obsession of the media on columbine elevated an unusual event (youth are statistically safer in school than at home and school violence did not increase in the late 1990s) had the effect of criminalizing political youth in general. In closing, Prof. Lassiter commented, “The bad job market is the best thing thing that could happen to the people in this room … Today, as in the 1960s, the belief that history has ended is a lie.”

Hopefully, he’s right. And I believe a good way to think about activism today is to break down the nostalgia and myths about activism of the past, and where better to start than right here at the U of M.

See also: The Daily’s endorsement – “Lassiter a great choice for Golden Apple”

Author: Rob