IT is an honored but dangerous custom among journalists, sociologists, and other soothsayers to read the mood of the country by first reading the mood on college campuses. As a scientific approach, this is about as valid as forecasting the stock market by the rise or fall of hemlines.
Nevertheless, correlations were neatly drawn, for instance, between the Silent Generation, allegedly filling campuses with a mannerly hush in the 1950s, and the Eisenhower years - an administration as quiet as a monastery.
Those noting a certain dullish diffidence to President-elect Bush and his first appointments, and thus anticipating a reawakening (excuse the expression) of '50s torpor, can be found these days in Salt Lake City, collecting clues on the campus of the University of Utah.
The student government - if it can be called a government - has fallen into the limp hands of a group called the ``Who Cares?'' Party, whose president and vice-president sauntered into office on a platform of ``We're committed to apathy.''
So was the student body that elected them. About 90 percent of those eligible to vote abstained, showing an apathy that the ``Who Cares?'' ticket accepted as a mandate.
Of all public moods, apathy requires the most strenuous analysis, leading in this case to the following conclusion:
In the subtly outraged spirit of satire, the members of the ``Who Cares?'' Party are trying to tell us that we are the ones who don't care.
If you think this analysis is just a little too strenuous, consider the evidence:
The president of ``Who Cares?'' was once a student at the University of California at Berkeley, who says of Berkeley radicals, ``They might seem radical, but they've got their own credo, their own convention. We're not rebelling against anything.''
We're not rebelling against anything. Is not this posture the ultimate in defiance - passive resistance at its most resistant?
The president of ``Who Cares?'' is a rebel who has simply gone beyond the limits where rebellion is recognizable.
Similarly, the vice-president, who happens to be a former Mormon missionary, is delivering a silent sermon against apathy by sacrificing himself to become the sin he detests. With a yawn of boredom, he makes us stifle our yawns and confront the boredom in ourselves. His text might well be the words of the historian Robert Nisbet: ``Faith or even interest in progress is hardly to be expected in a civilization where more and more groups are ravaged by boredom.''
Behind drugs and horoscopes and New Age magic and marathon entertainment-by-TV and runaway greed, does there lie a profound and all-inclusive boredom such as the world has not seen since Nero fiddled (and despaired) while Rome burned?
It is our strenuous analysis of Salt Lake apathy that the ``Who Cares?'' Party believes this - and secretly cares. Knowing that the rest of us think college campuses reflect the mood of the country, and vice versa, they are holding up their funhouse mirror to us and saying: This is what you will become in the '90s if you don't watch out - the Age of ``Who Cares?''
Could anybody moralize more ingeniously? Could anybody, in fact, care more? Could anybody be more right?
A Wednesday and Friday column