Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Aswat Asharq Al-Awsatt since 1987

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Condorcet Gets a Keffiyeh

To those of us old enough to remember the good (or bad) old days of student revolt in Western universities in the 1960s, current disturbances in a number of European and American universities appear as a bad remake of a controversial original.

The current disturbances are on a much smaller scale.

In the US, they have affected a handful of universities and attracted a few thousand students out of a total college enrolment of over 15 million.

In France, the “uprising” is centered on the Institute of Political Science which boasts between 12,000 and 15,000 students a third of them foreign from more than 100 countries.

The Palestine Group that organizes and leads the “uprising” boasts a membership of around 200 of which between 50 and 60 involve in action including breaking windows, barring entrances and threatening hunger strike.

The smallness of numbers, however, is compensated by a media presence that was unimaginable in the 1960s.

Protests in the Institute of Political Science (Science Po in French) has attracted TV channels from over 50 countries and often benefited from live reporting on a Franco-Belgian channel.

Add to that the countless accounts on the ever growing jungle of the Internet and you get an exposure that the rebellious youths of the ‘60s couldn’t imagine.

Spending the good part of a day around Science Po and talking to a number of protesters and student observers of the “struggle” revealed another fact: the protest feeds on media attention. As soon as TV cameras are switched off the shouting of slogans dies down.

The student revolts of the 1960s were prompted by two issues: the war in Vietnam and the rejection of a cultural inheritance that some students regarded as a relic of colonialism.

American students calling for an end to the Vietnam War had a direct interest in the issue because they didn’t wish to be drafted to fight in what they saw as a bloody civil war in a distant land.

Student protesters in England and France also had direct interests at stake.

In England, John Osborne’s play “Look Back in Anger” encouraged an Oedipus revolt against the British Empire and its paternalistic Victorian culture a key feature of which had been colonialism.

In France, the Algerian war of independence, which was seen as a civil war because Algeria had never been a colony in the classical sense and at the time formed two French provinces, furnished the template for a revolt that later morphed into the May ’68 Revolution.

It may be argued that the ‘60s protesters ultimately failed.

In the US, the protests may have prolonged the Vietnam War for at least four years by persuading the silent majority shocked by scenes of mayhem to vote for Richard Nixon who, on Henry Kissinger’s delusional advice, chased some form of victory as a prelude to peace. On the way, the Nixon-Ford administration expanded the war to Laos and Cambodia.

In England, those who had looked back in anger soon found out that they had to look to the future in boredom.

In France, protests helped partisans of Algerie-Francaise to expand their audience and make it difficult for shaky IVth Republic governments to negotiate a peaceful disengagement from the North African provinces as they had done in Morocco and Tunisia.

In political terms the May 68 “Revolution” in Paris also achieved the opposite of what it had hoped for by enabling Gaullists to maintain their monopoly on political power for 13 more years.

The 1960s student rebels forged a neo-colonial narrative in which the West was responsible for whatever was wrong with the world. That in turn denied “the rest” any free will, reducing to an object in its own history.

In the Arab-Israel war of1967, that belief persuaded rebellious students to support Israel against its Arab neighbors.

In Paris, Science PO was adorned with the Star of David flags and shaken with cries of “Israel Vaincra!” (Israel shall be victorious).

In London, New York and Chicago Israel was seen as a victim of “feudal Arab regimes” backed by the old colonial power in Great Britain.

At that time, Israel was the darling in the left because it owed its birth to armed rebellion against British colonialists while obtaining the weapons it needed from the Soviet bloc via Czechoslovakia with money that came from America.

Israel’s special place in the global left was illustrated by a vice presidential slot it held in the Socialist International.

If support for Israel in those days was prompted by ideological considerations that had nothing to do for its struggle to survive, a mirror image of the same considerations inspires today’s student rebels in the West to be anti-Israeli.

Talking to some of the Science Po activists one sees Israel branded as

“an outpost of “American Imperialism” in the Middle East and Benjamin Netanyahu as a key player in the resurgence of “the hard right” in Europe and the US.

There are other differences today.

In the 1960s, student rebels focused on issues their respective governments were directly involved in.

Today, anyone who thinks that any Western power could set the tune for either Israel or Hamas needs a fresh course in political psychology. Science Po rebels mumble about “enforcing UN resolutions”, resolutions that have been meaningless for more than seven decades.

In any case, even if all the UN resolutions were implemented, they would not reassure Israel and won’t quench Hamas’ “from the river to the sea” thirst.

For seven decades, Israelis accepted the “advice” of the US and its European allies to accept a fish-tail end to its wars rather than the victory won on the battlefield. Beyond Hamas which wants everything, Palestinians, too, have realized that listening to advice from “well-wishers” like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W Bush, the inventor of the roadmap to a two-state solution, will not provide even half a state for them.

It may sound like a nostalgia-stricken voice from the past.

But, in the old golden days of campus rebellion, student rebels took time to learn about what they were protesting against. Instead of wrecking campus furniture, they organized what was called teach-in to discuss and debate the issues and hear different views.

Today’s protesters know little about what they are rebelling against and, at least in our experience of talking to some of them in Paris and reading and/or hearing what their counterparts say on American campuses, don’t even wish to know.

Meanwhile, as flags are waved or burned and as the statute in Paris of the philosopher Condorcet is coiffed with a keffiyeh people die in a distant land.