(posted on Friday morning) I am curious about the "transnational
activists": those young people who organize movements and stage
protests about global issues. In particular, I wonder about
their knowledge levels. In the 1999 IEA
Civic Education Study, American 14-year-olds ranked dead last (out
of 28 countries) in their knowledge of international issues and institutions.
I presume that the transnational activists are more knowledgeable than
their peers are, although that should be investigated. I wonder whether
knowledge is a predictor of activism, and/or whether people gain knowledge
It is possible that interest in transnational issues has risen because
knowledge of local and national issues and institutions has fallen.
A lot of young people are fairly perplexed about how and why they might
participate in local or national issues. Before they can participate,
they must form opinions about private actors (such as corporations)
and also about elaborate sets of public institutions. For example, if
they want to get involved in US environmental issues, they may find
that they have to understand the role of the EPA and the courts, the
differences between Democrats and Republicans, their own state’s regulations,
and many other matters that polls show they do not grasp. They also
have to understand and consider a wide range of potential actions, such
as voting for particular candidates, joining parties, and criticizing
specific public officials. At the international level, however, the
public institutions are very weak and can more easily be ignored. I
realize that activists often choose to protest outside the existing
international public institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF.
But my sense is that these bodies are viewed mainly as symbols of multinational
capitalism. They don’t exercise as much power as national governments
do, and they give average people no opportunities for influence. Paradoxically,
their weakness and undemocratic nature may make them easier to understand.