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What Does Toni Smith Mean?
In Dissent, Number Ninety-One
by Brian S. Wise
3 March 2003

Examining the fine line between experienced protest and youthful exuberance.

People in their very early twenties, not at all unlike people in their mid to late teens, have opinions … and that’s just one small part of what’s wrong with them. The unfortunate part of young opinion, whether it comes from the Left or the Right, is that it’s so often rooted in one’s suspicion and gut feelings (as opposed to fact) that it loses its grandest intentions and becomes self parody. Anyone who has attained serious majority knows where this observation comes from – just as you convulse when viewing old prom and graduation photos, so do you (most likely) cringe when reflecting back upon your young opinions and thought processes. (One supposes Mr. Buckley doesn’t have that problem, having graduated from Yale only to immediately write a modern conservative masterwork.)

Enter Toni Smith, a native New Yorker and a senior at Manhattanville College, which rests 25 miles from where the World Trade Center towers once stood. She is 21, a sociology major and a guard / forward on the ladies basketball team; though unable to find her statistics for this season, I can tell you she averaged 5.4 points (with a shooting percentage of .277), 8.2 rebounds, 2.6 steals and less than one assist per game her junior year. As in often the case with college athletes embroiled in controversy, however, Smith’s play isn’t the focus of the current attention, and won’t ever be: when the National Anthem is performed before Manhattanville games, home or away, Toni Smith … turns her back to the American flag.

Well, all right. And you could very well expect such a thing from a sociology major. Thing is, there’s a war coming up soon, and the Smith protests have become another convenient way of reporting that opposition to the thing is, indeed, everywhere. It has so much as been said, in every possible venue; reads a caption below a picture displaying the ongoing protest, “Toni Smith of Manhattanville College turns her back to the flag to protest U.S. policy.” That’s the popular story, and the media – both Left and Right – are by and large sticking to it.

But what does Toni Smith say are the reasons are for her protest? It is to point out: 1) That Indians were killed to claim the land upon which America sits; 2) That blacks were enslaved in order to build the nation, and that; 3) We continue to enslave people in order for the country to continue forward. Well, as to the Indian and slavery issues, there are regrettable parts of the country’s past, and honesty demands a certain condemnation of the philosophies behind slavery and some practices employed in moving West (young man). One can criticize both, but no parts of either can be undone. Certain passions can be pacified (and have been, through this affirmative action program and that reservation casino), but long ago wrongs can only remain long gone, and distinctly uncorrectable.

Now as to the third thing, I am genuinely at a loss as to what she means; the closest America comes to a legal, organized slavery is the income tax. There are such things as third worlders shipped to America for a few sex and agricultural trades, but the benefits of those trades cannot logically be said to subsidize any man of real importance, which cannot be said of the slavery Toni Smith wishes us to consider. Distance-wise, the closest we come to that sort of continuing slavery is Haiti, which stands for children being kept as domestic slaves, and adults as forced laborers on sugar plantations. That, it bares mentioning, is in Haiti, which is notably not the United States, which nonetheless bears the brunt of the young girl’s protest – maybe because she knows nothing about the modern examples of injustice and slavery around the world, maybe because she chooses not to know, because to know would be inconvenient. (If, on the other hand, she means foreign sweatshops turning out American product, she should protest Kathie Lee and Nike.)

Toni Smith isn’t fond of America in a place where she is free not to be, a convenient thing. (You cannot, to take the current popular example, be publicly unhappy with Iraq in Iraq.) There are no shortage of people who have their objections to the grand experiment; I am one of them. There is also no shortage of people who are willing to tell you America is their country, right or wrong, and that they will defend it, right or wrong. The manifestations of both those things can be, and often are, wrongheaded. One doesn’t ask Toni Smith not to turn her back to the flag, nor does one ask her to abandon the exuberance typical in her age. One does, however, expect her to learn a few things before undertaking positions she may not fully understand, and maybe there will be less to regret later, when age and experience finally catch up to philosophy.

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