Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A witness at Sunset and Capitol

The same small group of protesters gathers each Friday evening at the busy corner of Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway. We are there to remind commuters that our country is engaged in a wasteful, tragic war, and that we visibly and fervently oppose it.

Our vigil bears witness to our opposition. It is an act of conscience.

I’m surprised that our numbers are so small, although I suppose I shouldn’t be. A family member recently asked what good I thought I was doing standing on the corner with my peace placard. (I’ve upped the ante; my sign now calls for impeachment.)

Her skepticism was obvious. I sometimes ask myself the same question. Do people think me mad, or at least mildly deranged?

Does our public, weekly reminder bother them, even though they may agree?

But then, last Sunday, out of nowhere, a friend came up to me at the Hillsdale Farmers Market and said, “I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your vigil on Fridays. It always makes me feel good to see you there. And I always honk.”

I appreciate both comments because they force me to think again about what we are doing— in Hillsdale, in this country, in Iraq and in the world.

My time on the corner with my sign always hooks me back to protests of 40 years ago. I protested then against an equally tragic war in Vietnam. The anti-war movement was raucous but focused. Through its own non-violent, political insurgency, The Movement, as we rightly called it, forced Lyndon Johnson out of office (It also gave us Richard Nixon, but that’s another story.)

Above all, ours was a youth movement.

Today, in Hillsdale, our vigil consists of a cadre who are mostly seniors and were part of that long-ago struggle for peace.

Sometimes I feel that I stand at Sunset and Capitol almost as a gray specter. Mine is a ghostly call to today’s youth to take a stand — or else suffer the consequences.

Often during our vigil, Wilson High School students wander by. Some carry skateboards. Some text message, noses to the screens. They playfully push and shove each other. They don’t pay us much attention. Occasionally one will thank us, but mostly they see right through us.

Joining us is out of the question. Not cool.

What keeps them so distant? I often think it is the absence of the military draft. In the ‘60s, we protested an unpopular, distant war that threatened to swallow us. Fear and outrage were motivators.

The Iraq War inspires neither in these frolicking students with their cell phones, skateboards and iPods. Indeed, they seem to devoid of fear and outrage, although our generation has left them an outrageously fearsome world — of war, of global warming, of massive debt, of grotesque inequality, of messianic terrorists, of an American democracy in a shambles.

Where is their fear? Where is their outrage? Are they sleepwalking through youth?

What do they learn in school? Are their courses so bound to benchmarks and testing that they’ve become divorced from the real world? Is the school culture so dominated by sports, by getting into college and by ambient coolness that there is no room for social concerns beyond who’s hooked up with whom?

Then there is their time beyond the school. In today’s New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman writes about the “Q generation”, (“Q” is for “quiet”) which may be “too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good.”

I’m not concerned about a generation being on-line. You are on-line now. I may be. I’m concerned about the part of technology that turns time into games and sucks kids away from a world that desperately needs attention, their attention — their serious, immediate attention.

All of this is why I stand at Sunset and Capitol on Friday evenings. My reason obviously isn’t apparent to those driving and walking by. If my message is “awake up!” it isn’t getting through. My vigil isn’t working.

But I’ll return, if only to spend 30 minutes thinking about how to make it work, or to inspire an occasional honk, and perhaps change a mind.

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