Collins: Contending with the gunpowder plotters

The rhyming imperative to “remember, remember the fifth of November” rose to prominence worldwide thanks to the sultry tones of Natalie Portman’s voice in the 2006 action film “V for Vendetta.” But for those of us raised at British schools, the lyrics were already quite familiar, as was the story: man hates government, man tries to burn down house of said government, man is hanged, man is curiously venerated by generations of schoolchildren in a macabre pyrotechnic ritual. (For those of you unfamiliar with the custom, the Brits build and burn effigies of Mr. Fawkes on the anniversary of his failed plot. Curious indeed.)

Fawkes’ antics, though well known, had always seemed to me the stuff of distant past — the real notion of using extreme means to prove a political point was clearly behind us. Of course, wars are constantly being waged, embassies attacked, buildings burned, but these carry the air of foreignness — we Anglo-Americans resolved our disputes through reasoned debate; anything else would simply be silly. Or so I thought.

Luckily, no American has come close to destroying the Capital in recent years, and there is no foreseeable chance of civil war. But without a doubt, the political environment has become far more receptive to unjustified, inflammatory madness than it was a few years ago. I don’t mean to steal Jon Stewart’s thesis, but it carries weight: an increasing number of people across the country have deemed it acceptable to compare healthcare reform to the holocaust, liken political candidates to terrorists, hurl homophobic and racial epithets, spit on members of Congress and cut gas lines. (I will also note that this phenomenon is not limited to the Tea Party — one of the most egregious examples of this rhetoric is Alan Grayson, an outgoing Democrat Representative from Florida, who used deceptive video-editing to paint his opponent as a religious fanatic, “Taliban Dan.”)

This worries me, as it does many people, but mere concern is not enough of a response. Whether or not the Yale population supports this kind of unprincipled, rhetorically violent activism, it has become a piece of our national political discourse. Writing now as a U.S. citizen, I hold that we, as a people, need to do our best to understand it.

This isn’t just a partisan problem. It also worries me that the predominantly liberal Rally for Sanity was attended mostly by an older demographic — people who had been to this kind of thing before, 30-something years ago. Middle-aged activism is admirable, but the ratio of soccer-parents to college students indicates a surprising lack of political vigor from the young. As the fervor and irrationality of politics escalates, those of us who are accustomed to reason and debate find a solution in separatism. We are content in the intellectual shelter of the Yale community and seek similar enclaves thereafter. This is understandable: the tools with which we have been armed — analysis and debate — seem overawed by the more arresting tactics of those whom we would seek to correct. But although taking a stand is difficult and often fruitless, that does not mean it should not be done. I am as guilty of this isolation as anyone, and I now feel even more estranged from my own country (or at least the parts of it that Sarah Palin would call “the Real America”) than I ever did when living abroad.

The Yale bubble is as constraining as it is idyllic — we live in a tolerant, carefully-curated environment; we are friendly to all races, religions and sexual orientations, and, by and large, we agree that this is a good thing. But the outside polis can be unfathomably different, and we cannot change it through scorn alone. The challenge we need to set ourselves is to understand why this new era of heightened-yet-degraded activism is now acceptable, and how to engage with it. This does not necessitate approval or participation — only observation. As we look at the country outside of Yale’s campus, outside of the confines of our meticulously constructed sphere of reason, we need to seize opportunities for understanding, not just opportunities for judgment.

Teddy Collins is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College and the President of the Yale International Relations Association.