Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Sitting Down and Shutting Up

You’d think they have something more consequential to worry about.

…all the time Madisonites spend screaming about problems half a world away, instead of worrying about issues at home they can actually change, is wasted because their screaming lands on deaf ears.

…the activists realize how long they have been working on their cause with no tangible results and throw a temper tantrum in response.


One would hope the Madison City Council would have better, more important issues to debate than federal law.

The last thing I want this column to turn into is a call to action.


Add a few transitions, and it would read like a column. The message could be conveyed best as a headline:

Sit down and shut up.

The five excerpts that comprise the mini-column above come from this semester’s opinion page. While the controversies they purport to address are different, the sentiments they espouse are the same: Futility. Insignificance. Irrelevance. Apathy.

Given the issues our nation faces, these are unfortunate messages. But they are not uncommon. In Minnesota, supporters of Paul Wellstone were derided for celebrating the late Senator through a celebration of his political passions. In Wisconsin, a prominent CEO was blasted for making a personal contribution to a group that opposes war.

Advocacy is under attack.

As with any deliberate political strategy, this attack is cloaked in euphemisms: campus climate, bipartisanship, patriotism, security, responsibility. In plainer terms, it is manipulation and marginalization, and its effects are disillusionment and cynicism.

Sadly, these are also its tools. Just as election mudslinging is more about depressing turnout than winning votes, dissuading grassroots participation is much easier than converting its participants. Courting the silent majority has given way to keeping it silent.

Rhetorically, this tactic has been advanced with three arguments directed at the local level:

1. There are more important issues to worry about.

This common claim suggests that an activist has misplaced priorities: Why does the protection of Dane County farmland deserve any attention when millions are suffering under brutal regimes? Conversely, why does political repression deserve any attention when Dane County farmland is disappearing right in front of our eyes?

It has been my experience that those who employ this argument care little for any of the issues they juxtapose. Yet they subjectively prioritize issues while denying the same opportunity to those who care most passionately.

Regardless, relative importance has little bearing on absolute importance at the individual level. It is a testament to the strength of our culture that there are advocates for so many interests and causes. Should a Madisonian be lambasted for choosing to donate time or money to a museum over a homeless shelter?

2. This is not the time or place.

In his new book, Bob Woodward quotes the current president: “I’m the commander — see, I don’t need to explain — I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

Madison’s Common Council has been criticized for daring to debate national issues of local importance. To paraphrase those who have taken to ridiculing Madison’s alders, controversies like the federal government’s encroachment on civil liberties are better left to, well, the federal government.

Given Mr. Bush’s apparent views on accountability, the attentiveness and advocacy of other branches and levels of government is not just appropriate but imperative.

3. There is no point in taking action.

This argument not only promotes cynicism and apathy, it epitomizes them. Progress can be abstract, and victory can be personal. But neither is possible when one fails to act.

Moreover, American history is rich with examples of local institutions taking principled stands on issues that transcend city limits. In fact, U.S. history begins with precisely such a revolutionary stand.

Bryant Walker Smith ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in engineering.

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