Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Putting Action Back Into Activism

At lunchtime today, three miles from campus, thousands of Americans will gather on the National Mall to speak and learn about fossil-fuel drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. embers of the Georgetown community should join them, because regardless of where we stand politically on ANWR – behind the Bush Administration and oil companies, with environmental groups and Gwich’in Native Alaskans, or among the undecideds – we should stand, literally, on our own two feet.

Too often, action in today’s political activism amounts to signing a check or mailing a prefab form. Our democratic contribution, the treasure of citizenship, we make payable to the Democratic Party; our gift to the republic goes to the GOP. At the same time, interest groups across the ideological spectrum encourage us to make a difference “with just one click.”

Take, for example, the Parents’ Television Council. Backed by right-wing funders including the John M. Olin Foundation and Carthage Foundation, the council opposes what it calls indecency on TV. Fed-up “family values” visitors to the council’s Web site produced numerous program-content complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission. Likewise, during a nine-week public comment period in 2000, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and other green groups generated more than one million letters, faxes and e-mails endorsing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Roadless Rule” creating a process for state governors to inventory and protect 58.5 million acres of currently roadless national forest.

But to what avail, this “virtual” activism? FCC commissioner Michael Powell told Congress about “a dramatic rise in public concern and outrage about what is being broadcast into their homes,” but his testimony lost credibility when the council’s lopsided role came to light. Despite the opportunity afforded by Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Congress has yet to tighten its loose reins on TV indecency. As for the Roadless Rule enacted at the end of the Clinton era, President Bush repealed it this year.

A January study by the University of Washington’s Jon Agnone shows that these modern cases are true to a historical trend. Looking back 40 years, Agnone found that of three factors – public opinion, institutional advocacy and environmental protest – only the latter is linked with statistical significance to the passage of environmental legislation. Opinion makes polls, advocacy creates mail and meetings, but protest alone affects laws.

According to a CBS/New York Times poll, the majority of Americans opposes oil and gas exploitation in ANWR. The anti-drilling Arctic Coalition is composed of the country’s most prominent environmental organizations, funded by wealthy liberal benefactors. Yet the refuge has nearly been breached several times in the past four years – most recently in this summer’s energy bill enacted by Congress – and is vulnerable to future budget provisions or a second energy bill called for in the wake of Katrina. Though both donations and e-mails have been deployed in the ongoing campaign to prevent Arctic drilling, today’s Capitol gathering, organized by environmentalists, suggests that ANWR’s would-be saviors recognize the limitations of virtual activism.

Proponents of drilling can prove their own wisdom by showing up, too. First, “he-said-she-said” journalists covering the event will gravitate to counter-protestors, however small in number. Second, following activities on the National Mall from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., attendees will walk to Congress to meet with representatives and their staff, who will duly record the position of constituents.

The undecideds will be edified by oratory and accompanying materials, to be compared, perhaps, to the arguments available at https://www.anwr.org, set up by pro-drilling groups.

To be certain, virtual activism has a time and place – notably when time is short and place far away. But on a Tuesday afternoon with a sunny forecast, surely we can squeeze into our schedule a short walk or bus trip to the site where Americans have made some of our most memorable stands.

Many of us came to Georgetown to be close to the action. I’ll be there, standing against drilling; I just don’t see it as forward-looking energy policy. I look forward, however, to standing with those who see it differently.

Geoffrey Johnson is a 2003 graduate of the College.

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