Loose Change. That’s the term fringe political movements use to describe people who join their organizations or show up to their events, not because such people believe in what the group stands for, but because such people want to be doing something, anything, to demonstrate they care about an issue.
For example, in the last decade several far-right European political parties found success among voters who didn’t care for the right’s political and economic policies, but who wanted to “make a statement” on Europe’s challenging immigration issues. And in the US during that same period, many people who came out to protest the war in Iraq found themselves at rallies and marches where the messages from the podium or on banners and signs seemed to go far beyond the issue that brought them into the streets. To the uncomfortable European voter or the bewildered American marcher, he or she was trying to take a stand about issues they found important. But to the organizations that claimed those voices as their own, these well-intentioned people were just so much loose change.
To see the relevance of this “loose change” in the current Berkeley divestment debate, think about the outcomes (bad or good) that could come about if such a resolution ultimately wins the day.
Practically speaking, the vote will have little to no economic impact. The Berkeley administration, like the administration of hundreds of college campuses that have had divestment pressed on them over the last decade, has shown no interest in politicizing their investment strategies, especially based on the questionable characterization of the Middle East conflict so perfectly embodied in the Berkeley resolution.
But if the practical repercussions of the resolution are small, the symbolic impact is more significant. For, despite the fact that the issue was sold to Berkeley’s leaders as a uncomplicated, general human-rights issue that takes no specific stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict, last week’s vote is today being communicated around the world as the university as a whole standing four-square behind the divestment movement’s real message: that Israel is a racist, apartheid state alone in the world deserving of punishment. And one need only look at how the controversy is playing out on campus to see that, far from helping students better understand these complex issues, divestment is helping to rub political, religious and ethnic wounds raw.
Given the resolution’s limited practical potential and significant downsides, we are left searching for where a successful resolution would do anyone any good. And thus we are left with twenty student Senators, many sincerely concerned about problems in the Middle East, and desiring to do something, anything, to make a statement. Even if they have no electoral mandate to make statements, much less take action on international issues, a “Yes” vote would give them the feeling that they are doing something virtuous, even though the actual effects will be all bad for Berkeley and for the Middle East. It would turn leaders trusted to do what’s right for the students they represent into a handful of loose change in the pocket of the worldwide boycott Israel movement
There are times, most times, when we want our leaders to lead, to think about and act on issues on which the rest of us have entrusted them. There are also times when we want our leaders to follow, or at least listen to the people who have elected them more than the few month’s preceding an election cycle.
Acting like loose change, however, does not represent either leading or following. It consists of being manipulated into taking harmful action in order to make oneself feel good. Another term for this would be “sucker” and while it would make me sad to see leaders at Berkeley or anywhere else waste their own money or reputation taking a sucker’s bet, it’s far worse to think that they are considering taking that bet with the reputation of the entire university, an asset they are not empowered to sell.