Dessert today is just jelly beans that came from my Easter basket (more later this week) over the Sunday Times. I was a History Major in college, and spent the past few weeks looking back on my education and readings for what’s to follow. I also had the opportunity to connect with one of my favorite professor’s during an SMU event at the New York Public Library. Dr. Rick Halperin, a former head of Amnesty International, and the current head of the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program taught one of my favorite, and most difficult, classes at SMU on…Human Rights. Number 76 on the 101 list, CHECK!
As young adults, we have a responsibility to understand what’s happening in the world around us. What I discovered in my studies was that with this understanding often comes more questions and an unfamiliar skepticism. In the past few months, we’ve watched history unfold in Northern Africa. The uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya are not new. (For a decent briefing on Libya, click here). Let’s take a look back.
In 1688, John Locke’s theories on the importance of the natural rights of the individual propelled England into the Glorious Revolution. Nearly a century later, the American Revolution occurred in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789. Each movement symbolized the power individuals possess when they unite for a common goal. With each revolution, the masses pursued their vision of a good society that differed from the status quo. The result was an optimism that power can come from writing and intellect, and that human beings are capable of implementing significant changes.
Such faith in the power of the masses continued as a means of establishing various forms of what cultures considered a “good society,” and served as one of the driving forces of history. Into the 19th and 20th century, ideologies including as socialism and capitalism became the two contrasting precepts dictating how society should operate. While capitalism placed power within the hands of the individual and stressed laisez-faire means of government, socialism focused on community living where economic and social success was produced with group effort and collaboration with the government working as an active partner. From socialism sprung Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which turned history and the human experience into a scientific study based on class struggle. Marx’s theory called for the people of Europe to unite as the proletariat would form a government based on the good of the whole, rather than just the good of a few. From such teachings arose the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when Lenin attempted to install a radical socialism.
Amidst the turmoil in Russia, the First World War tore Europe apart from 1914 to its end in 1918. The war’s close marked the first attempt at a global governing body with the League of Nations. The League’s attempt to prevent future world wars failed. Hitler worked to create his vision through the Nazi party, while Mussolini did the same with fascism. Yet out of failed attempts for peace, such as that of the League of Nations and the experience of distopias, came a more acute vision of a good society. More protective laws were established, the United Nations formed, and the role of global cooperation came forthright as the U.S. emerged as the leader in world politics. And yet the Cold War took place and the 1960’s brought our nation into internal conflict about what should formulate our own good society. The Civil Rights movement was perhaps the last time the Lockean spirit of the individual was strong enough to bring the individuals together in a united front. With the non-violent movements harnessed by leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it became once again clear that united individual conviction could result in community power. And now we are seeing it again in the Middle Eastern countries under protest.
What do we do with this information? We should no longer have the luxury of saying “I didn’t know that was happening.” In today’s digital age, knowing what’s happening around us is easier than ever. There’s an app for that. A lot of them. Twitter feeds. The issue is defining our personal roles within the time we were given.
I sometimes fight to believe that my own optimism for the world is not disillusionment. So much history has happened in such a short amount of time. We weren’t part of making it. The issues are intense and complicated, and often overwhelming because there is rarely a right or wrong answer. Is the Lockean spirit that once mitigated change lost in the individual? There’s the optimistic hope, but the realist in all of us battles it. Because SO much has happened, and the problems are SO big, we question if we can be agents of change.
We’re told each of us can make a difference in this world, but once you start to understand the world, you don’t know if you really believe that you are capable of anything. We see flaws in our economy, electoral system, and more. Without faith in institutions, how can we feel grounded, and what becomes of our values?
I think this is the symptom of my generation’s difficulty: We’re torn between optimism and nihilism. We’ve been raised to believe in limitless possibility. That we as individuals are capable of anything. The consequence is that we have no idea how to choose anything. With all the complications, it seems too big to think about the future or challenge the status quo the way people once knew they could. People have said there would be peace and equality, but a lot of those people traded in saving the world to render the financial benefits of trading stocks. And I wonder whether it got too difficult or if they just got bored. Everyone before us stood at historical crossroads and made decisions or took actions that at the had unpredictable ramifications. Revolutions were fought, wars waged, coups instigated, nuclear weapons created and used, while all the good sex and drugs were taken and the best music already written. We’re just left with the bill. And it’s as if I’m staring at a tab, knowing I don’t have the money on my debit card, which somehow always seems to happen at the end of the month.
While history often is ugly or makes us feel helpless, it’s ours. I think as individuals who interact within the community, we can share our own stories to inspire empathy in others, and the desire to want to contribute to the greater good. I think often these little gestures can add up in a world so full of complexities. Your contribution might just be forwarding an article you read in The Atlantic. It’s a simple service project, or a $5 donation. Writing, or running a marathon for a cause. Within each of us is a skill that we can use for a cause we believe in. Everything will always be too big. But the change always adds up in the jar.
Knowing yourself and feeling a sense of value in our nation means giving back. Know what you believe, and give something to that. You’ll feel good about it.
As Robert Kennedy stated in his speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King, “We often don’t live to our full potential, but when we do, our choices individually add up to be good for the whole.”