By Nick Winnie
On a temperate, late-autumn day a few months ago, my father and I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to look at the most patriotic of American landscapes. The reflecting pool, the National WWII Memorial, the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol lined up like a row of standing soldiers.
“It’s been almost 40 years since I’ve been here,” my father reminisced. “The last time I was here, you couldn’t even see all of this beautiful grass — there were so many thousands of us, standing shoulder to shoulder, pissed at Nixon, sick of that war.”
He didn’t ask, but beneath his words lay an obvious question.
Why, after nearly five years of a war that was originally justified on what we now know were false premises, that has killed 3,972 American soldiers and up to 1 million Iraqi civilians, violently uprooted 4.8 million Iraqis from their homes and cost American taxpayers nearly $500 billion dollars, why is your generation not doing what we did?
Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, these questions have been as difficult to answer as they are necessary to ask. And in a city like Santa Cruz, so proud of its progressive activism and so given to 1960s countercultural nostalgia, these questions are nearly inescapable.
And yet our generation continues the critiques: Where our parents’ generation was engaged and idealistic, we are passive and cynical. Where they were cooperative and violently anti-establishment, we are self-absorbed and materialistic. The list of self-evident generational opposites goes on and on.
Beyond these simple black-and-white assertions are common explanations with a bit more historical perspective. Our parents’ antiwar activism drew inspiration and practical lessons from the civil rights movement. In MLK, JFK and RFK, ’60s activists had charismatic figures to rally around. They watched the grisly scenes of the Vietnam War unfold on their TV screens every night. Perhaps most importantly, they had draft notices and the death letters of friends who weren’t coming back. We’ve lacked all of these things and have remained relatively quiet about our war.
Questions about the apathy of our generation have plagued me for years. Now, on the eve of the American invasion’s fifth anniversary, they ring in my ears, louder than ever. But this is because I’m beginning to reformulate my own answers to such questions.
I’m beginning to see signs that we are slowly waking from our civic slumber.
First of all, we’re voting now in numbers that actually carry some weight in national elections, a fact that became abundantly clear with the Iowa caucus. In this significant first primary campaign stop, young voters (ages 18 through 29) flooded the polls, increasing their turnout from 2004 by 135 percent.
A recent Time magazine feature tracked the spike in youth voting, which has extended from Iowa and the early primary states through Super Tuesday, and has continued to lift Barack Obama to an uninterrupted 11 primary state victories since then. In “The Year of the Youth Vote,” columnist David Von Drehle wrote of Obama, “His campaign has become the first in decades — maybe in history — to be carried so far on the backs of the young.”
The article displayed a poll that compared general youth interest in the 2008 presidential elections to 2000 and 2004. According to the poll, 74 percent of 18- through 29-year-olds said they were paying close attention to the campaign, as opposed to 42 percent in 2004 and a paltry 13 percent in 2000.
In our generation’s own slightly detached, digital-age way, we have also turned the Internet into a powerful grassroots weapon that has the potential to revolutionize American politics.
The emergence of rapidly growing online organizations, such as MoveOn.org, has created a new avenue for mass protest and organizing that was simply not available to youth a decade ago. MoveOn has a network of over 3 million members and can make a strong, mass political statement immediately. The organization is currently demanding that super-delegates allow voters to decide the Democratic candidate and it has rapidly gathered over 400,000 petition signatures to apply significant political pressure.
Outside of cyberspace, our generation has also exhibited its nascent idealism and willingness to sacrifice in its little-known, but significant, volunteer efforts. A poll recently used by Mother Jones magazine indicated that today’s youth are volunteering at a higher rate than any point in the last 40 years.
So, perhaps our generation isn’t so apathetic after all.
There is certainly an encouraging trend of increased political activism and involvement. What remains entirely unclear is how this general shift will affect the way we relate to our war, whose blood-encrusted legacy will define these years of our political maturity.
On April 7, when the American occupation of Iraq officially becomes five years old, we might not stage mass antiwar protests that rival those of the Vietnam era, but we must find a way — our own way — to exercise the passion and idealism we’ve always had for our country.