By JOHN W. WHITEHEAD
“The fundamental political question is why do people obey a government. The answer is that they tend to enslave themselves, to let themselves be governed by tyrants. Freedom from servitude comes not from violent action, but from the refusal to serve. Tyrants fall when the people withdraw their support.”—Étienne De La Boétie, The Politics Of Obedience
Don’t pity this year’s crop of graduates because this COVID-19 pandemic caused them to miss out on the antics of their senior year and the pomp and circumstance of graduation.
Pity them because they have spent their entire lives in a state of emergency.
They were born in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; raised without any expectation of privacy in a technologically-driven, mass surveillance state; educated in schools that teach conformity and compliance; saddled with a debt-ridden economy on the brink of implosion; made vulnerable by the blowback from a military empire constantly waging war against shadowy enemies; policed by government agents armed to the teeth ready and able to lock down the country at a moment’s notice; and forced to march in lockstep with a government that no longer exists to serve the people but which demands they be obedient slaves or suffer the consequences.
It’s a dismal start to life, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, we who should have known better failed to maintain our freedoms or provide our young people with the tools necessary to survive, let alone succeed, in the impersonal jungle that is modern America.
We brought them into homes fractured by divorce, distracted by mindless entertainment, and obsessed with the pursuit of materialism. We institutionalized them in daycares and afterschool programs, substituting time with teachers and childcare workers for parental involvement. We turned them into test-takers instead of thinkers and automatons instead of activists.
We allowed them to languish in schools which not only look like prisons but function like prisons, as well—where conformity is the rule and freedom is the exception. We made them easy prey for our corporate overlords, while instilling in them the values of a celebrity-obsessed, technology-driven culture devoid of any true spirituality. And we taught them to believe that the pursuit of their own personal happiness trumped all other virtues, including any empathy whatsoever for their fellow human beings
No, we haven’t done this generation any favors. Given the current political climate and nationwide lockdown, things could only get worse.
For those coming of age today (and for the rest of us who are muddling along through this dystopian nightmare), here are a few bits of advice that will hopefully help as we navigate the perils ahead.
Be an individual. For all of its claims to champion the individual, American culture advocates a stark conformity which, as John F. Kennedy warned, is “the jailer of freedom, and the enemy of growth.” Worry less about fitting in with the rest of the world and instead, as Henry David Thoreau urged, become “a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.”
Speak truth to power. Don’t be naive about those in positions of authority. As James Madison, who wrote our Bill of Rights, observed, “All men having power ought to be distrusted.” We must learn the lessons of history. People in power, more often than not, abuse that power. To maintain our freedoms, this will mean challenging government officials whenever they exceed the bounds of their office.
Resist all things that numb you. Don’t measure your worth by what you own or earn. Likewise, don’t become mindless consumers unaware of the world around you. Resist all things that numb you, put you to sleep or help you “cope” with so-called reality. Those who establish the rules and laws that govern society’s actions desire compliant subjects. However, as George Orwell warned, “Until they become conscious, they will never rebel, and until after they rebelled, they cannot become conscious.” It is these conscious individuals who change the world for the better.
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