A Really Stupid and Futile Gesture

Commentary, Education, Gerry Bowler

In the classic comedy Animal House, the authorities deal the protagonists a crushing blow – for their many misbehaviours, our heroes’ fraternity is dissolved and they are expelled from university. As they sit forlornly bemoaning their fate, one of the groups rallies their spirits by demanding that they go down fighting. He calls for revenge, saying “Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!” 

Today, it is our authorities who are calling on us to make a really futile and stupid gesture. The call has gone out to Canadians, especially young people, to take part in a “climate justice strike” on September 27. Presumably, by not showing up to work or attending school, and choosing, instead, to take to the streets with signs and chants, we will bring global warming to a halt, stop the rise in ocean levels, and prevent catastrophic levels of illegal migration. Who knew that by shunning income and education we could do so much good for the world, and that voluntary poverty and ignorance could be used to save the planet? 

Not I, that’s for sure.

For, you see, I have a long history of participating in such gestures and have marched, waved signs, and have sloganized aloud for a multitude of causes. Let’s examine the success of such virtue signalling. 

In 1968, I and millions of my college-aged cohorts at North American universities, disturbed by the war in Vietnam, hit the pavement in a big way. We paraded. We occupied. We surrounded. Some tried to employ magic spells on the Pentagon. We chanted “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” and “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Viet Cong are going to win!” A mere seven years later, we got our wish: Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and a brutal tyranny was installed, one that caused millions to flee to a better life in another country. 

OK, so maybe that was a bad example.

A couple of years later I and a group of campus radicals vow that, in protest at the presence of Dow Chemical recruiters on campus (those folks who made napalm for the US military), I and my fellows would burn a dog to death in front of the Administration building. Let me clearly state that we had no such intention nor any incendiary devices – we only wished in our naïve way to point out that people were getting upset by the threat to immolate a dog but were indifferent to humans being roasted alive by napalm. Imagine our surprise as we dozen or so long-hairs, standing on the steps with our signs and old Rover, were confronted by hundreds of screaming red-clad Engineering students and blue-jacked Agriculture students who proceeded to pin us to the wall, rough us up, and rescue the dog.

So much for a sophisticated give-and-take on foreign policy.

A decade later, and I am a student in London England, disturbed by the 10th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I join a hundred thousand others and march on the embassy of the USSR, demanding an end to international Communism and the withdrawal of the Red Army from eastern Europe. Curiously, Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and the KGB remained unmoved by our cries of distress. It would take the death of three Soviet leaders, a catastrophic war in Afghanistan, and an economic collapse of the Soviet command economy before serious reform took place behind the Iron Curtain.

So, I ask you: if I and my minions, no matter how earnestly we pleaded, could not bring an end to the Vietnamese war and the Brezhnev Doctrine, what chance does my Anglican bishop and thousands of teenagers have to take control of planetary climate on September 27? Answer: none.

This is not to say that mass demonstrations have always been useless. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumpling of the Ceausescu regime were both speeded along by brave Germans and Rumanians who risked death to defy their dictators.

And therein lies the crucial difference between a real movement of popular will our forthcoming “climate justice strike”. A true strike has genuine moral power: workers agree to forgo wages until they get better conditions; Gandhi risks death by starvation to force the British to agree to leave India; Lech Walesa and the Dansk steelworkers challenge the machine guns of the secret police to win Polish democracy. 

On September 27 we will see only a legion of spotty adolescents and their adult enablers out for a stroll and a righteous excuse for making a long weekend of it.