Sometimes I wish I was an apolitical person. This thought came to my mind once more on a Saturday two weeks ago, when I attended a local Open Day for international students with my usual goal of political agitation. This mission was somewhat complicated, as my fellow activist from a student housing action group has arranged a spot for us at one of the stands, only to get an e-mail shortly before the event from an event manager accusing us of being, I quote, political. The manager, employed by the university, was shocked and disappointed. She discovered via Facebook (typical) that our group aims to politicise the issue of student housing in Utrecht, the scarcity of which forces students to live at hostels for weeks or rent cupboard-sized rooms for €500 a month. The Open Day was supposed to be more of a party for the new students, and therefore reminding them of the harsh reality awaiting outside was uncalled for.
The manager wasn’t bothered by us being too radically left- or right-wing, but by us being political at all. Although I was as upset as my action group comrade, I wasn’t surprised. On the contrary, I was surprised when he first said that our group will have a stand at an official university Open Day, as I knew, more or less, what to expect from such an event.
I knew what to expect and yet it hit me like a brick. I entered one of the newer university buildings, all glass and Scandinavian minimalist light wood, and was immediately offered a bag, a reusable water bottle and a university hoodie for a discounted price. People speaking English with various accents surrounded me, bringing back memories of my “undergrad years” as I felt both alien and at home. There were multiple professional-looking stands of societies, charities and student clubs, with serious Dutch students in t-shirts full of logos communicating through walkie talkies. A DJ played songs from a separate DJ booth.
Suddenly a tall guy with a plastic tray attached to his body emerged in front of me.
“What’s that?” I asked, looking at the snacks on the tray.
“Ha, ha, snacks,” he answered nervously. “Do you want one?”
“Sure,” I took a tiny carrot and dipped it in what turned out to be mustard. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” the guy looked around and then quickly approached a couple of Asian students.
Shortly after that, I found the student housing comrade at a stand with information on accommodation, where he explained the situation to me. He could stay there and talk to students about their housing problems, but we weren’t allowed to distribute our flyers or any other material. The flyers at the housing information stand advertised staying at a hostel and renting out your room, rather than renting one in the first place. If I remember correctly, the event manager started questioning the nature of the group after we asked her if we could bring a banner to the stand. I couldn’t blame her. The handmade banner wouldn’t look good next to all the modern and attractive stands, promoting language institutes and bike fixing workshops.
* * *
The apolitical life is an easy one. It’s a life motivated by values which are entirely your own, formed through long years of education and self-reflection. In most cases you aren’t even conscious of these values and it isn’t a problem either. The key value is your own happiness, your comfort, both motivated by the unpleasantness of the world pushed somewhere to the periphery of your vision.
Walking across those stands, I thought about my months in LA. They were weirdly relaxing in the sense that I didn’t know almost anyone close enough to have real obligations to them; I had so little to do between classes that I even started going to the gym. I reached peak relaxation during the course “Film and Social Change”, watching non-Hollywood films from the 60s in a cinema-like room (with Americans endlessly complaining about having to read subtitles) and writing about them. (I would be proud to say that I got A+ for that course, if only it wasn’t so absolutely puzzling to me that other people managed to get lower grades.) In any case, save for one exhausting episode of flyering for my feminist friend’s party in the student elections (no election training will ever be intimidating to me after the American “close your eyes and imagine your candidate losing” nonsense), these 6 months on the other end of the world were the most apolitical time in my life since I first read Trotskyist propaganda aged 17.
And I was having a pretty great time. Literally no one knew anything about the place I was from (most local immigrants were from Mexico or Asia), barely anyone knew me as a person, I had a lot of weird and great experiences which I want to list but I will restrain myself, since this post is not really about that. This post is about the vague promise that being apolitical has for many of us: the promise of personal success, enjoyment, the assumed guarantee of a happy ending if only one is decent and hard-working, not bothering herself with frowned upon activities such as getting a burnout, doing unproductive and unhealthy stuff or questioning the liberal consensus.
Some people say that those who are apolitical can only be so thanks to their economically privileged position. I’m a humble person, so in regards to myself I think the opposite is true: I can be political only because I’m relatively privileged, or in any case not afraid of becoming homeless and hungry if I lose my job. I also never had to choose between politics and career, assuming (sometimes wrongly) that I can be politically active and do all my work and studies at the same time. But I imagine that people who fight for their apoliticalness (?) are not only happy about their comfortable lives and unwilling to change them: they’re also afraid of losing what they have now and what they might have in the future.
What explains excluding something better than fear? Of course, that assumption is ridiculous if one considers just our small example: an activist student group being a threat to the atmosphere of an event with dozens other organisations. But the manager’s response to us was a part of more general, slightly paranoid thought patterns which automatically relegate any actually subversive actions to the category of nuisance. Interestingly, there were a couple of environmental organisations at the event – for example De Groente Tas, an initiative set up at the university’s Green Office aiming to sell local, “biological” vegetables to students at a low price. Fighting against climate change and for a sustainable society is, as most people would agree, political. Why was De Groente Tas allowed at the event, then, despite its apolitical nature?
The answer to that question lies in the effectiveness of various sustainable actions. As nice as they are, individual enterprises such as De Groente Tas won’t change much; or more crucially, they won’t change things fast enough. The consequences of the climate change are a real threat not only to humans, but to entire ecosystems, and people should unite in finding effective ways to mitigate these consequences. But it’s more convenient for the liberal parties to put this burden on the individual rather than push for solutions on the state and global levels, which would require antagonising the supporters, if not employers, of many a liberal politician: international corporations. The big polluters. Call them as you wish, apparently they can get massive tax cuts while average citizens are expected to buy more expensive sustainable vegetables, pay higher energy bills and engage themselves in countless initiatives which will never be effective enough.
The individual, facing his or her endless individual problems – finding a job, finding a room, now apparently also fighting the climate change – is overwhelmed and confused. No wonder that in this confusion we try to cope as well as we can, hopefully finding a room through connections and then hiding from the world with Netflix and a blanket, and avoiding any additional difficulties – especially as time-consuming and seemingly futile as political activism in 2018. I was reading an article yesterday written by someone quite far away from me on the political spectrum and even confronting myself with unknown arguments was difficult; I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to form a political opinion for people who have been advised to avoid politics their whole lives. And at this point, who can blame the event manager for rejecting politics? She wanted to organise a party-like event. She probably just wanted to do her job well and then go home, get some rest, maybe run around the park and buy “biological” milk if she’s a bit more socially conscious. I know many people like that, who only study and/or work, and sometimes I envy them.
“You have cheese now,” I remarked, passing the snacks guy on my way out.
“Yes, ha, ha. An upgrade.”
I sunk in a soft white Ikea chair, eating my free piece of cheese. If I can understand why these people are demotivated, I mused, and it leads me to the realisation that my activism is pointless, maybe I should approach being (a)political from a different angle: what motivates me?
Probably anger. Based on values I also don’t understand that consciously, but they are still there. Most of all, the discrepancy: there is some basic minimum of logic and decency the world should adhere to, and even that minimum isn’t reached. Who knows if we will achieve anything – I have to do something, because otherwise I won’t be at piece with myself; because I don’t believe that it’s right that the university invites more and more international students without taking responsibility for the dramatic housing situation, choosing instead to advertise hostels which offer a bed in a shared room for €565.00 a month:
I wish I could just chill and enjoy the cheese.