Living in a Can’t-Do Nation
By Tom Engelhardt
Graduates of the class of 2010, I’m honored to have been asked to address you today, but I would not want to be you.
I graduated in 1966 on a gloriously sunny day; then again, it was a sunnier moment in this country. We were, after all, still surfing the crest of post-World War II American wealth and productivity. The first oil crisis of 1973 wasn’t even on the horizon. I never gave a thought to the gas I put in the tank of the used Volkswagen “bug” I bought with a friend my last year in college. In those days, the oil for that gas had probably been pumped out of an American well on land (and not dumped in the Gulf of Mexico). Gas, in any case, was dirt cheap. No one thought about it — or Saudi Arabia (unless they were working for an oil company or the State Department).
Think of it this way: in 1966, the United States was, in your terms, China, while China was just a giant, poor country, a land of — as the American media liked to write back then — “blue ants.” Seventeen years earlier, it had, in the words of its leader Mao Ze-dong, “stood up” and declared itself a revolutionary people’s republic; but just a couple of years before I graduated, that country went nuts in something called the Cultural Revolution.
Back in 1966, the world was in debt to us. We were the high-tech brand you wanted to own — unless, of course, you were a guerrilla in the jungles of Southeast Asia who held some quaint notion about having a nation of your own.
Here’s what I didn’t doubt then: that I would get a job. I didn’t spend much time thinking about my working future, because American affluence and the global dominance that went with it left me unshakably confident that, when I was ready, I would land somewhere effortlessly. The road trips of that era, the fabled counterculture, so much of daily life would be predicated on, and tied to, the country’s economic power, cheap oil, staggering productivity, and an ability to act imperially on a global stage without seeming (to us Americans at least) like an imperial entity.
I was living in denial then about the nature of our government, our military, and our country, but it was an understandable state. After all, we — the “sixties generation” — grew up so much closer to a tale of American democracy and responsive government. We had faith, however unexamined, that an American government should and would hear us, that if we raised our voices loudly enough, our leaders would listen. We had, in other words, a powerful, deeply ingrained sense of agency, now absent in this country.
That, I suspect, is why we took to the streets in protest — not just because we despaired of American war policy, which we did, but because under that despair we still held on tightly to a hope, which the next decades would strip from our world and your generation. And we had hopeful models as well. Remember, the great Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was still a force to be reckoned with — and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, the riots of 1968, the burning ghettoes, the shock of American troops occupying American inner cities, as yet had no reality for us.
Even in protest, there was a sense of… well, the only word I can think of is “abundance.” At the time, everything seemed abundant.
President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program was expansively underway in the midst of war — and even guns and butter seemed (for a while) a plausible enough combination for a country like ours. The Peace Corps, that creation of the Kennedy presidency — which my future wife joined in 1964 — was still new and it, too, encapsulated that sense of American abundance and the hubris that went with it. It was based, after all, on the idea that you could take a bunch of American kids like you, just out of college, with no particular skills, and ship them off with minimal training to needy nations around the world to improve life, all as part of a great Cold War publicity face-off with the Soviet Union.
And those kids, who turned out in droves to experience something bigger and better than themselves, did often enough find ingenious ways to offer limited amounts of help. The Peace Corps was but one small measure of a pervasive sense — about to be shattered — of our country’s status as the globe’s preeminent can-do nation. There was nothing we couldn’t do. (Hadn’t we, after all, singlehandedly rebuilt devastated Europe and Japan after World War II?)
Then, of course, there was “the war.” Vietnam, that is. It was the oozing oil spill of that moment, regularly referred to as “an American tragedy” (never a Vietnamese one). The tragic aspect of it, above all, seemed to be that victory would not come; that, as Henry Kissinger would later put it, speaking of communist North Vietnam, “I can’t believe a fourth-rate power doesn’t have a breaking point.”
The very idea of defeat — hardly mentionable in those years but ever-present — was corrosive to what, in a book of mine, I once called America’s “victory culture.” Because the Vietnamese refused to give way in that “meat grinder” of a war in which millions of Vietnamese (and tens of thousands of American soldiers) would die, doubt, like that oil seeping into the Louisiana marshes today, oozed into the crevices of American life, and began to eat away at confidence.
Even the nightmare of war, however, had a positive side — and you can thank the draft for that. The U.S. then had a civilian, rather than a professional (verging on mercenary) army. It was, in a sense, still faintly in the tradition of the “people’s armies” that began with the French Revolution’s levée en masse. For young men nationwide and those who knew them, the draft — the possibility that you, or your son, husband, lover, friend, might actually end up fighting America’s misbegotten war in Southeast Asia — ensured, strangely enough, a deeper connection both to war and country, something now absent in most of your lives.
With rare exceptions, you, the class of 2010, live unconnected to the wars America has been fighting these last nine-plus years. As a result, you also live in avoidance not of a draft, but of the damage our country is doing to itself and others in distant lands. That kind of denial is a luxury in a country now far less well known for its affluence and still squandering what wealth it has on wars and armaments. Today, it’s guns, not butter, and that fateful choice, regularly renewed, seems totally divorced from your lives (though you will, in the end, pay a price for it).
When it came to this country and its wars, my education took place not in the classroom, but extracurricularly, as part of an antiwar movement. It involved a kind of stripping down of so much I thought I knew, so much I had been taught or simply absorbed. Much that I had to unlearn about this country is now your birthright, for better or worse.
Who can deny that our American world is in trouble? Or that our troubles, like our wars, have a momentum of their own against which we generally no longer raise our voices in protest; that we have, in a sense, been disarmed as citizens?
You, the graduating class of 2010, are caught in a system; then again, so are our leaders. In recent years, we’ve had two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who could not be mistaken for one another. In most obvious ways — style, thinking, personality, politics, sensibility, impulses — they couldn’t be more different, as have been the ways they have approached problems. One was a true believer in the glories of American military and executive power, the other is a manager of a declining power and what passes for a political “pragmatist” in our world. Yet, more times than is faintly comfortable, the two of them have ended up in approximately the same policy places — whether on the abridgement of liberties, the expansion of the secret activities of military special operations forces across the Greater Middle East, the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands and elsewhere, the treatment of prisoners, our expanding wars, Pentagon budgets, offshore oil drilling and nuclear power, or other topics which matter in our lives.
This should be more startling than it evidently is for most Americans. If the policies of these two disparate figures often have a tweedledum-and-tweedledee-ish look to them, then what we face is not specific party politics or individual style, but a system with its own steamroller force, and its own set of narrow, repetitive “solutions” to our problems. We also face an increasingly militarized, privatized government, its wheels greased by the funds of giant corporations, that now regularly seems to go about the business of creating new Katrinas.
Compared to the long-gone world I graduated into, yours seems to me little short of dystopian, even if, on the surface, it still has something of the look of American abundance. If nothing changes in this equation, your experience, as far as I can tell, will be of ever less available, ever less decent jobs and of ever less wealth ever less well distributed, as well as of a federal government (“the bureaucracy”) that has everything to do with giant corporations, their lobbyists and publicists, and the military-industrial complex — and nothing to do with you.
You have grown increasingly used to an American world in which a war-fighting state armed with increasingly oppressive powers offers you a national security version of “safety,” directed by Fear Inc. and based on waning liberties. You seem to me deeply affected by, but detached from, all of this.
In many ways, given our situation, your response seems reasonable enough. The problem is: if you simply duck and go about your lives as best you can, what can this country hope for?
Unfortunately, your disconnect is, I suspect, made more severe because your lives are encased in what I would call a grid of exterminationism. It was in my youth, of course, that the world became exterminable, thanks to nuclear weapons. Today — with other threats, especially global warming and resource scarcity, joining those doomsday weapons in what feels like a fatal brew — how could you not feel despair, whether fully recognized or not? How could you not have the urge to avoid looking toward the horizon, toward a future too grim to think about? If you can’t imagine a future, however, you probably can’t form a movement to change anything.
In short, you, graduates of 2010, through no fault of your own are, it seems, living in our 51st state, a state of American denial, in a nation that is being hollowed out (as the paltry governmental response to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico indicates). As we now know, America’s aging infrastructure — its bridges, dikes, levees, dams, drinking water transport systems, roads, and the like — is quite literally hollowing out, as well as springing “leaks,” and not a mile under the water either. Little is being done about this.
The hollowing out, however, goes deeper — right down to the feeling that, with disaster in the air, little can be done and nothing reversed. The can-do nation of my youth has given way to a can’t-do nation with a busted government.
I think I can guarantee you one thing, for instance, about the historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. When the commissions have commished, and Congress has investigated, and the president has re-staffed the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, and the pundits have pontificated, and everything else that could possibly happen has happened, we will, once again, have learned next to nothing — other than, perhaps, how to drill for offshore oil at the depth of one mile marginally more safely. We will not be any closer to an alternative energy future. We will not have one mile more of high-speed rail.
Nothing that matters will have happened. And months from now, BP will again be announcing profits in the billions and pouring more money into the pockets of politicians heading for Washington, while the people of Louisiana, among others, will be left to their misery as the 24/7 media moves on to the next set of disasters, real or ephemeral.
When the first deep-water oil spill happened in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, Americans were shocked and there were actual protests. In the streets. Shock, that is, was followed by the urge to act. As parts of the Gulf of Mexico are being turned into a dead sea, shock there may be and even complaint, but next to no protest. Here’s a recent headline that catches something of the mood of the moment: “A nation mesmerized: Can BP plug the Gulf gusher?” Mesmerized is a good word for it. The whole world is watching — and nothing more. The media tells us that there is anger, and there’s certainly plenty to be angry about. But look around. Do you see anger? Does outrage march past you any day of the week?
Is this the American world you really want?
Leaving the 51st State
Call it fate, but on this graduation day, the skies are grey, a light rain is falling, and a surprisingly heavy fog has cut this tent off from the campus on which you’ve spent four years. Think of it as a message from the gods and let me, like any reader of oracles, do my best to interpret it for you.
Usually, graduation speakers are intent on encouraging graduates to sally forth into the world, get a job, and have a life. I have a different message in mind. After all those courses, seminars, papers, tests, it’s time for you to sally forth and get an education — on your own and under terrible circumstances. You’ll have to find your own teachers, assign your own papers, and carry on your own seminars in the noisy precinct of your mind or among your friends and acquaintances. The subject? What is to be done with America.
I was born in a country that thought it could rebuild anything. You’re living in one lacking recuperative powers. Our resources are now being mobilized to fight two obscure and remarkably pointless, if destructive, trillion-dollar wars in distant Afghanistan and Iraq that most Americans pretend aren’t even going on. In the meantime, you have never been called upon to mobilize for anything. You have never been asked to sacrifice anything for the greater good. Even as nothing is being asked of you, your future is nonetheless being sacrificed. If you leave this campus and do nothing, your life will be far worse for it.
When I began, I said I wouldn’t want to be you. That’s because the task before you is grotesquely super-sized. You undoubtedly sense this, sense that somehow you need to free yourself from so much these years have taught you in order to imagine a future for us all.
You’ve been robbed of the sense that you could matter — outside your own small world and your individual life. It’s the worst sort of thievery. Worse than that, it’s a lie. If you believe it, though, it will become so. Given the size of the problems at hand, given what needs to be mended on our wounded planet, the easier path is to settle down for good in the 51st state.
On the other hand, yours could be the ultimate American odyssey. You could have stories to tell your children, and your children’s children that would be memorable indeed. The question is: What is to be done with America? What will you do with it?
I know what I’d suggest as a start. Tens of thousands of dollars and, for many of you, mountains of debt later, get an education. If you can’t do it in the daylight of the workaday world, do it at night. You’re young. Drink coffee. Stay up late. If you don’t feel that you owe it to yourself (and you do), then you owe it to the American world that you would like your children to live in.
I feel no pride over the oil-slimed, war-making, money-blowing country that my generation has left you. Not for a second. I wouldn’t chose to be you, not given the tools we’ve left you to work with. But you are, of course, you. That’s the one choice you can’t make, so make something of it.
We’re constantly reminded that we need heroes. We have a tendency now to call the soldiers fighting needless wars thousands of miles away our “heroes.” But what hero struggles halfway across the planet when his home is on fire? What we need is another kind of hero, another kind of bravery: you marching off this campus and out of the 51st state. You facing up to the miserable world you’re in, figuring out its parameters, and doing something about it.
And here’s the good news: in bad times, action engenders hope. So act. It’ll feel better to do so.
It’s time for me to end and for you to form into your ranks, depart this tent, and with your banners flying, your heads held high, into the fog that covers this campus, into a future that’s anything but clear or beckoning. Still, I’m counting on you. End the American state of denial — or else.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), will be published in June.
[Note for Readers: Just to be completely clear, I was invited to no campus to give this commencement speech. I gave it in the campus of my mind, which was indeed foggy that day.]
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt