February 7, 2018

JEONG | The College Protest Tradition in a Postmodernist America

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To cater to the massive Asian-American population in the Bay Area, my local movie theater occasionally screens blockbusters that are currently popular in East Asia. As dutiful Korean immigrants, my family fulfils our patriotic obligation by going every time they show a new Korean movie. Over the break, my family went to watch 1987: When the Day Comes, a Korean film about the military dictatorship that interrogated and tortured pro-democracy protesters during the 1980s. It showed scenes of college activists of my parents’ generation being beaten and hauled away by policemen who resembled vigilante gangsters more than federal law enforcement. As the final credits rolled, the audience, comprised mostly of stoic, first-generation Korean parents, sat in their seats silently weeping, bound by a collective reminiscence of mutual struggle only their age cohort could fully appreciate.

Growing up, my family was like those of many Asian-Americans in that we were very much apolitical and ambivalent to developments in U.S. politics. Never once were the Iraq War or the Affordable Care Act discussed at the dinner table, and despite their philosophical opposition, my parents have never been particularly outspoken about the travesties of the Trump administration.

However, by the time they were my age, they had both been tear-gassed with classmates in protests, and my dad described his experience throwing Molotov cocktails shoddily constructed from soju bottles. Pursuit of social justice, which once colored their formative years, has been diminished to a peripheral nuisance and replaced by the daily humdrum of driving to work and raising two sons.

We live in a 2018 spearheaded by a president who has turned the United States into a full-fledged postmodernist state. We belong to a Tide pod-eating, meme-idolizing generation that lacks the moral optimism and political clarity of past generations. Most of us are deep in so many levels of irony that the Earth seems to look just a tiny bit more flat every time we look at a map. The status quo has shifted to one that shrugs off pussy-grabbing and accepts the fact that our president deliberately and routinely lies to his constituents.

Fundamentally, there is nothing redeeming about our postmodernist irreverence towards institutions and truth. At best, our behavior can best be described as trendy pseudo-nihilism, and at worst, complicit apathy. For the large part, our generation has been negligent in our duty to continue a proud tradition of college activism that once stood up to racial discrimination and protested the an unjust war in the 1960s. Perhaps it’s a product of cynicism and disenchantment, but there seems to be a collective acceptance of an absurdist and nonsensical society that provide absolutely no utility to affecting the very systems that we want to change.

At Cornell, we are comfortably situated far above Cayuga’s waters, hundreds of miles away from nationally televised social battlegrounds and removed both physically and, by extension, emotionally from tangible struggle. Our Ivy League degree gives us a distorted sense of intellectual superiority that entitles us to analyze and trivialize real world issues from our lofty perch in Goldwin Smith. We talk of  sweeping, grand narratives in our liberal arts courses, unsuspecting of the fact that we might be a part of one right now. Indifference is a shame, because change is a luxury we currently have time to dream of. The vast majority of us have no mortgage or hungry children to worry about; therefore, this is one of the few times in our lives we have the ability and awareness to devote our resources and energy to fight for causes bigger than us.

Our generation can be a catalyst of profound reinvention for generations to come. Just like college students in the ’60s fought for the full citizenship for all Americans, we have the opportunity to participate in movements that will define our children’s understanding of racism, sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, health care and an extensive catalogue of social injustices. If you need inspiration, go to the front page of The New York Times’ website, and I assure you will find enough worthy causes to last until 2020.

But as a college student, I think the most direct, convincing argument to march during these four years is not one based on moral or political persuasion, but one that is far more intrinsic and personal. I believe the lingering question of “what if” is one of the most unfulfilling and frustrating feelings we will ever experience. That is why second semester seniors frantically try to squeeze every last bit their final months that Cornell has to offer, and it’s also probably the reason why Nick Foles played out of his mind last Sunday in the Super Bowl. It might be difficult to grasp the gravity of a situation that seems so distant in our safe haven of Ithaca. But we have the chance to participate in something special these next few years — a movement that transcends any individual and a movement that will surely be more worthwhile than those hours you spend scrolling through Instagram memes.

The examples set by the millions of women and men that protested in the Women’s March and the waves brought forth by the struggle of Black Lives Matter activists are inspiring and will prove to be immortal. Where were you when they marched?


Jason Jeong is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Jeongism appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.