The students of America haven’t been so united since the protests against the War in Viet Nam that followed the killing of students at Kent State University and Jackson State College (now University) in 1970.
Like most sane Americans and surely all of the almost 70% of us who want to ban all private ownership of assault weapons, I applaud the many high school and college students who marched across the country over the weekend, and especially the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School students who cast aside their shock and sorrow to get the ball rolling.
But in the exuberance of the moment, I can’t help but notice one interesting and perhaps troubling similarity about the Viet Nam War protests in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In both cases, large waves of students, most of whom have never engaged in protests on other issues, were united to protect themselves from getting senselessly killed.
No war since Viet Nam has directly threatened the lives of large numbers of American youths simply because in no post-1960’s war has the U.S. military forced people to serve. The ending of the draft in January of 1973 effectively ended all mass student protest against the Viet Nam War—and any sustained large-scale sustained movement to oppose any subsequent war. While there were some major marches before the First Iraq War, for example, as soon as the troops landed virtually all opposition disintegrated. Certainly in no antiwar protest or movement since Viet Nam has the Youth of America (to borrow Casey Stengel’s phrasing) played a predominant role.
Contemporary high school and college students literally have more to fear from on-campus gun violence than dying in war. It makes sense they would rise up to oppose our irresponsible and anti-social current gun laws.
But again, like the Viet Nam War, the primary motivation to protest is self-interest and not commitment to a political, social or economic ideal or policy.
I’m not chiding the kids. I love them. They’re smart, educated and articulate. In their leadership and organizational efforts, they seem to take American diversity and equality as givens. But all they’ve proven so far is that they can mobilize when their own lives are in danger, which ends up being the only thing that the Baby Boom generation ended up proving, too.
While expressing my enthusiastic support of the marchers, I also want to issue a challenge: Don’t limit yourself to this one issue which deeply involves you and your continued existence.
Students should keep in mind that gun control is connected in many ways to the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, LBGTQ and pro-immigration movements, and to the much smaller and less well-known movements to shrink the military and ban nuclear weapons. One big connection is that these movements all have the same opponents, the Trump base of misogynists, racists and nativists, encouraged by the big-money ultra-right wing. Surveys show that those who hoard guns are primarily whites afraid of blacks. To a large extent, the gun culture, the white supremacy culture and the hetero-white-men-are-superior cultures overlap in their adherents.
But there are also subtler relationships between the sudden wave of anti-gun activity and existing grass roots movement that lean left: virtually all American mass shooters displayed racist or sexist behavior in their past, and all fed on the same pool of hate and fear that animates racists, nativists and misogynists. Moreover, the companies selling weapons and funding the National Rifle Association are often subsidiaries of the companies selling American weapons to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and dozens of other countries. The United States sells almost as many military arms to other countries as the rest of the world combined. The current administration is loosening regulations to make it easier for U.S. companies to sell arms abroad. The weapons industry is one of the most dominant forces in both state and federal government and one of the most insidious forces in mass culture.
When I started my anti-War activity at the age of 16, I was pretty dubious of the declarations of some of the more radical, and usually highly educated, among us that the War in Viet Nam was intimately connected with the abuses that the Civil Rights movement was battling. Soon enough I became “woke” to the relationship between racial injustice, cultural imperialism and unregulated free markets abroad and on the home front.
It’s time for the marchers in favor of stricter gun control laws to get “woke.”