Hey, Young Americans, Here’s a Text for You
By Naomi Wolf
Sunday, November 25, 2007; B04
Is America still America if millions of us no longer know how democracy works?
When I speak on college campuses, I find that students are either baffled by democracy’s workings or that they don’t see any point in engaging in the democratic process. Sometimes both.
Not long ago, I gave a talk at a major university in the Midwest. “They’re going to raze our meadows and put in a shopping mall!” a young woman in the audience wailed. “And there’s nothing we can do!” she said, to the nods of young and old alike.
I stared at her in amazement and asked how old she was. When she said 26, I suggested that she run for city council. Then she stared at me– with complete incomprehension. It took me a long time to convince her and her peers in the audience that what I’d suggested was possible, even if she didn’t have money, a major media outlet of her own or a political “machine” behind her.
This lack of understanding about how democracy works is disturbing enough. But at a time when our system of government is under assault from an administration that ignores traditional checks and balances, engages in illegal wiretapping and writes secret laws on torture, it means that we’re facing an unprecedented crisis.
As the Founders knew, if citizens are ignorant of or complacent about the proper workings of a republic “of laws not of men,” then any leader of any party — or any tyrannical Congress or even a tyrannical majority — can abuse the power they hold. But at this moment of threat to the system the Framers set in place, a third of young Americans don’t really understand what they were up to.
This seems to be the year of Naomi–Naomi Wolf with her timely book, The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot” and Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine, the Rise of Disaster Capitalism.“
The first (and subject of this brief piece) has to do with why no one knows the way back to democracy in America. Mostly, we older Americans never took the time to leave a trail of bread-crumbs for the young to follow. We were too busy making a buck.
“They (the citizens) will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war (of independence), will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in convulsion.
-Thomas Jefferson, third US president, architect and author (1743-1826)
Expire in convulsion is the concern of Naomi Wolf. Listen to her reasoning;
But this distressing situation isn’t just George W. Bush‘s fault. Young Americans have also inherited some strains of thought from the left that have undermined their awareness of and respect for democracy. When New Left activists of the 1960s started the antiwar and free speech student movements, they didn’t get their intellectual framework from Montesquieu or Thomas Paine: They looked to Marx, Lenin and Mao. It became fashionable to employ Marxist ways of thinking about social change: not “reform” but “dialectic”; not “citizen engagement” but “ideological correctness”; not working for change but “fighting the man.”
During the Vietnam War, the left further weakened itself by abandoning the notion of patriotism. Young antiwar leaders burned the flag instead of invoking the ideals of the republic it represents. By turning their backs on the idea of patriotism — and even on the brave men who were fighting the unpopular war — the left abandoned the field to the right to “brand” patriotism as it own, often in a way that means uncritical support for anything the executive branch decides to do.
That’s what happens when you pick up the bread-crumbs–something we’re doing again today.
- It’s just the way it is
- You can’t fight city hall
- We’re just the tools of capitalists
- I show my true feelings by refusing to vote
Expire in convulsion. It’s our choice to make, but the stakes are the future of the free world, because if we fail, no other soil will ever be fertile enough to replant the seed.