May 15, 2014 6:06 pm

You say you want a revolution . . . 

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The students are revolting, and this time they have the gizmos to get their message across

If you are a capitalist, you should be worried right now. The children of Facebook and American Idol are rebelling in the US – and that spells trouble for many of you later on.

The uprisings have taken the form of protests against big-name guests invited to attend university graduation ceremonies. Those who have been rebuffed include such well-known people as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the human rights activist.

It’s not the end of the world. There’s no reason to shed dollar-denominated assets, diversify into Bitcoin or identify escape routes to the nearest hills. Our graduates aren’t really revolutionaries.

They are hard to please. Socially networked and sure of themselves, they can turn quickly on anyone or anything – and dealing with them as consumers is going to be tricky for businesses of various kinds.

The university troubles peaked this week when the news arrived that Ms Lagarde was withdrawing from a commencement speech – as such events are known in the US – at the elite Smith College for women in Massachusetts.

Earlier this month, Ms Rice had retreated from a graduation day speaking gig at Rutgers university in New Jersey in response to protests over her role in the administration of President George W Bush. In April, Brandeis University in Massachusetts withdrew an offer of an honorary degree to Ms Ali after objections were raised to some of her comments about Islam.

I know there are many leftists out there who read about such things and begin thinking we are going to see a revival of student activism in the US. Lord knows we heard a lot of such talk when the Occupy movement was making it difficult to find a seat on park benches in many of our cities a few years ago.

I would hardly be surprised to see US students take a radical turn. This year’s graduating class has come of age during an era of economic hardship; most were only in their second year of high school when the US tipped into recession in 2007. They head into adulthood weighed down by debt; student loan balances passed $1tn at the end of last year.

But I don’t see a new left taking shape. Protesting against a college commencement speaker isn’t the same thing as sitting in at a lunch counter to end racial segregation, or burning a draft card to protest against the Vietnam war. It’s not a way to start a social movement or to push one forward. It’s a parting shot – a way to say goodbye.

As such, the latest round of speaker-bashing on campuses reminds me more of the rituals of internet social networks or modern-day commercial television. The students are telling the world what kind of culture they would like to consume in much the same manner as a Facebook user hitting the “like” button or viewers of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars voting to keep their favourite performers on the show and send the others home.

By way of example, I would point to the online petition that was signed by several hundred members of “the Smith community” to protest against the selection of Ms Lagarde as their commencement speaker. (In the interest of full disclosure, it should also be noted that Ms Lagarde was selected to be one of the guests of the Financial Times at the White House correspondents’ dinner this month in Washington.)

The anger expressed by the Smith students is undeniable and their critique is fairly straightforward. “The IMF has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries,” their petition says. “This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

But the position of the student in the fight against imperialism and patriarchy is essentially that of an audience member expressing solidarity with actors in other places.

The petition says: “By selecting Ms Lagarde as the commencement speaker we are supporting the International Monetary Fund and thus going directly against Smith’s values to stand in unity with equality for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity or class.”

What does it mean, “to stand in unity with equality for all women”? Not having gone to Smith, I’m not completely sure. But it says to me that you better be careful when you are talking to this new generation of Americans. They are a tough crowd.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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