In this column two weeks ago, I discussed a tendency within 21st-century American liberalism toward self-satisfied smugness. I argued that this smugness, aside from being intellectually lazy, actually stands in the way of pursuing a serious liberal agenda by coaxing those on the left into a cozy haze of cerebral self-righteousness rather than encouraging them to take concrete action in the political sphere. It is this passive aloofness that remains the target of President Donald Trump’s frequent censures of “empty talk.”

I was encouraged by the feedback that I received in response to this piece, and not only because I now know that at least someone reads these things. A fair number of my peers enthusiastically agreed with my sentiment, commenting that they, too, are frustrated by the smugness and inaction on campus. This response in itself, along with the remarkably large attendance at the discussion of ideological diversity on Feburary 3 moderated by Professor of Government Paul Franco, raises a number of interesting questions about political diversity on our campus.

Another handful of readers approached me to ask what would qualify as meaningful forms of political action on campus. What about protests, walkouts, petitions and the like? These questions got me thinking, and I figured they warranted a proper response.

At the end of my previous column, I encouraged students who feel dismayed at the lack of socioeconomic diversity to apply for a summer internship in the Office of Admissions. I hope that the importance of this type of action was not lost behind the rhetorical flourish. On a small, geographically isolated campus like our own, involvement within the College is a tremendously important mode of political engagement. The opportunities for student engagement within the infrastructure of the College are vast and, I fear, underutilized. Run for Bowdoin Student Government. Work as an assistant in an administrative office. Conduct policy-focused research with a professor. The opportunities are myriad.

Outside of the strict purview of the College, we should take greater advantage of our extracurricular organizations. Political groups like the College Republicans and Democrats are a good place to start, especially in election years that focus on get-out-the-vote efforts and campaigning. Additionally, the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good lists 28 student-led service organizations on its website. Imagine the political effect on the College if every single Bowdoin student were involved in one of these 28 organizations.

The same goes for life as a private citizen. Instead of interning at Bain and Company over the summer, respond to constituent mail in your congressperson’s district office. Go canvas during an election. Hell, run for public office. How many recent Bowdoin graduates do you know who are public servants compared to, say, financial consultants?

The big question, especially as of late, hovers over protests. What are the role of mass protests in the emerging political milieu? What makes for an “effective” protest? Considering that college students continue to both populate and organize protests, this question intimately concerns us.

In my mind, we ought to recognize protests as, at best, a double-edged sword. As David Frum recently observed in the Atlantic, “With the rarest exceptions—and perhaps the January 21 demonstration will prove to be one—left-liberal demonstrations are exercises in catharsis, the release of emotions. Their operating principle is self-expression, not persuasion.” In this cathartic capacity, protests promote the smug inaction that I addressed in my last column.

Beyond simple catharsis, protests can draw attention to a cause. But attention on its own rarely translates into action. In an article in New York Magazine, Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at the University of Indiana is quoted saying, “There are some people that think that protests solve everything; you just have a protest, it’s going to make everything change...That’s not true—it is a tool that does a very specific thing, and you have to understand that when you start out.” 

These objections represent fairly standard critiques of protests. But elsewhere, Frum has offered a more insightful and pressing concern, arguing that short of being simply ineffective, protests might be counterproductive in the Trump era. Frum writes, “Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it … Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing anti-police slogans—these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be.”

Frum’s observation is important to bear in mind, especially on college campuses. I vigorously support opposition to any policy of the Trump administration that infringes upon the civil liberties and rights of Americans, but students should think twice about the role of public protests in today’s political atmosphere. We ought to be weary of the self-fulfilling prophecy: the right lampoons the liberal and academic elite for being snobbish and out of touch, and in turn we protest to urge our college president to meet a list of demands that the College has already been meeting. Trump and the press in turn point to these protests as proof of academia’s snobbery and isolation, and the cycle continues.

Although vocal opposition to public protests has long been a favorite in the playbook of the reactionary right, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the left would be wise to be more hesitant before taking to the street. So while we should encourage opposition to Trump’s unconstitutional measures in as many forms as possible, we should think twice before picking up the megaphone.