In October of 1969, political unrest brewed nationwide, and Vassar was no exception. In response to the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam, the Vietnam Moratorium Committee on campus established itself as a center of antiwar protest, particularly to advocate for a cancellation of classes and Poughkeepsie-wide demonstration (Vassar College Encyclopedia, “Blood and Fire,” 2015). Enthusiasm for the moratorium reached a fever pitch in town, and Vassar students Carla Duke ’71, Julie Thayer ’71 and Carolyn Lyday ’72 publicly launched a four-part newspaper entitled “Blood & Fire.”
The publication demanded the attention of the student body, implicating them in the Southeast Asian morass and confronted Vassar students with a haunting question: “Who will be left to celebrate the victory of blood and fire?’” In launching the work, those students did not shy away from taking a very public stand on a contentious international issue.
Hold that thought. In the digital era, anonymity is an accessible and alluring option for personas ranging from internet trolls to hopeful activists. Sometimes, the line between troll and activist is all too blurred.
During Orientation Week of 2018, a mysterious document appeared in the digital inboxes of Vassar’s first-years, accompanied by physical copies left in dorms around campus. The document was the Vassar Disorientation Guide, a 50-page piece tackling topics varying from a history of student activism to criticisms of campus security and exposés on trustees. The guide received exposure outside of the Vassar community for its now-infamous suggestion that students partake in activism by “Slap[ping] a Zionist <3” (Scribd, “Vassar Disorientation Guide” 2018). Although supporters of the guide at a roundtable discussion hosted by the VSA insisted that it couldn’t be interpreted literally, that defense didn’t cut it, and, according to the anonymous author(s) of this year’s guide, “[S]tudents thought to be involved [were] fired from campus jobs and [went] through disciplinary hearings” (Issuu, “Vassar Disorientation Guide,” 2019).
I heard about this year’s guide during the first week of classes. On the heels of last year’s debacle, I felt compelled to check it out—part of me anxiously anticipating another vague threat of violence, another part of me eager to have a good laugh at, well, keyboard warriors playing revolutionaries. For the most part, only my latter compulsion was satisfied.
The document tries feigning legitimacy, containing practical headings like “Introduction,” and “Things to do near campus.” However, the seriousness of the guide declines as early as its introduction. Aggressive complaints of Vassar’s nefarious past and phony nature are followed by the caveat, “Vassar, as fucked up of an institution as it is, is still an incredible place in many ways and most of us generally enjoy our time here” (Issuu, “Vassar Disorientation Guide,” 2019). This confesses the authors’ darkest secret. Despite complaining against rich students and criticizing Vassar’s concept of community, the authors are not just beneficiaries of the institution and the social capital accrued here, but they also revel in it, and do not care to forego the privilege they pretend to despise.
This is not to invoke the old criticism of Marxists that they are hypocritical because they rely on capital. I am not saying that the arguments of the guide are baseless merely because the guide’s authors are students on campus. This would risk arguing that low-income students, for example, are not able to complain about the privilege of their classmates simply because they live on the same campus. To criticize a system in which someone has no choice but to participate in is one matter. But to pontificate from hidden safety is another. By being anonymous in distributing a document which is purposely meant to be inflammatory, those responsible for the guide have divorced themselves from responsibility for their words.
The guides’ authors have made a mockery of activists who actually put themselves and their credibility on the line when taking a stand against dominant institutions. For example, the Communist Manifesto, the authors of which actually wished to destabilize an institution rather than whine about it, was first published anonymously (Marx and Engels revealed themselves later.) For modern reference, the 1986 Hacker Manifesto was also published anonymously. The authors of the Disorientation Guides are not facing the wrath of the new world order though. If they bothered to distribute the guide without illicitly accessing students’ contact information, the little recourse that they faced from last year’s fiasco likely would not have taken place at all.
I reflect on the actions of antiwar activists such as those that launched “Blood & Fire,” not to mention the hundreds of demonstrators who later who took part in moratorium at Vassar on Oct. 15, 1969. In the end, the efforts of the moratorium were substantial. In Poughkeepsie alone, 5,000 students from Vassar and surrounding Hudson Valley colleges attended the antiwar rally in Riverside Park, in addition to other efforts like picketing, pamphlet distribution and protest (Vassar College Encyclopedia, “Viet Nam,” 2015). In the era of rampant McCarthyism and anti-liberalism, Duke, Thayer, Lyday and other associated leaders risked great harm to their personal safety and reputations. Nevertheless, they persisted, and refused to tolerate what they perceived as injustices.
The point of fruitful activism is to take a stand against an injustice perpetuated by the status quo, and this necessitates responsibility on the part of the activist. The creators of “Blood & Fire” find themselves in the company of countless champions of change in the sense that they stood against a series of systemic evils observed in their respective times. The willingness to remain public is what cements their names in the annals of history. Acceptance of responsibility—rather than remaining fearfully hidden—makes for poignant and meaningful activism.
Whereas past Vassar students publicly stuck their necks out to produce documents criticizing powerful institutions ranging from the College itself to the U.S. government, the authors of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 guides have remained shrouded in mystery, free of responsibility or recourse. That mystery, which some may tell you is that necessitated by vigilantism, is the mystery that cowards cloak themselves in. That, frankly, is all a potential reader needs to know about this year’s Vassar Disorientation Guide.