Don't Sleep Through the Revolution: A Graduation Message for a Dark Age

Those coming of age today will face some of the greatest obstacles ever encountered by young people. They will find themselves overtaxed and struggling to find worthwhile employment in a debt-ridden economy on the brink of implosion. Their privacy will be eviscerated by the surveillance state.

They will be the subjects of a military empire constantly waging war against shadowy enemies and on guard against domestic acts of terrorism, blowback against military occupations in foreign lands. And they will find government agents armed to the teeth ready and able to lock down the country at a moment's notice.

As such, they will find themselves 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 prospect, isn't it?

Unfortunately, we who should have known better failed to guard against such a future.

Worse, as I document in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we neglected 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 civilization.

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 often 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.

We botched things up in a big way, but hopefully all is not lost.

Not yet, at least.

Faced with adversity, this generation could possibly rise to meet the grave challenges before them, bringing about positive change for our times and maintaining their freedoms, as well.

The following bits of wisdom, gleaned from a lifetime of standing up to injustice and speaking truth to power, will hopefully help them survive the perils of the journey that awaits:

Wake up and free your mind. 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.

Be an individual. For all of its championing of the individual, American culture advocates a stark conformity. As a result, young people are sedated by the flatness and predictability of modern life, which can mean the death of individuality.

Resist the corporate state. Don't become mindless consumers. Consumption is a drug. It makes us unaware of the corruption surrounding us.

Realize that one person can make a difference. If we're going to see any positive change for freedom, then we must change our view of what it means to be human and regain a sense of what it means to love one another. That will mean gaining the courage to stand up for the oppressed. In fact, it's always been the caring individual--the ordinary person doing extraordinary things--who has made a difference in the world.

Help others. We all have a calling in life. And I believe it boils down to one thing: You are here on this planet to help other people. In fact, none of us can exist very long without help from others. This is brought home forcefully in a story that Garret Keizer recounts in his insightful book Help: The Original Human Dilemma. Supposedly in hell the damned sit around a great pot, all hungry, because the spoons they hold are too long to bring the food to their mouths. In heaven, people are sitting around the same pot with the same long spoons, but everyone is full. Why? Because in heaven, people use their long spoons to feed one another.

Learn your rights. We're losing our freedoms for one simple reason: most of us don't know anything about our freedoms. At a minimum, anyone who has graduated from high school, let alone college, should know the Bill of Rights backwards and forwards. So grab a copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and study them at home. And when the time comes, stand up for your rights.

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 have to 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.

Don't let technology be your God. Technology anesthetizes us to the all-too-real tragedies that surround us. Techno-gadgets are merely distractions from what's really going on in America and around the world. As a result, we've begun mimicking the inhuman technology that surrounds us and lost sight of our humanity. If you're going to make a difference in the world, you're going to have to pull the earbuds out, turn off the cell phones and spend much less time viewing screens.

Give voice to moral outrage. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." There is no shortage of issues on which to take a stand, whether it's government surveillance, police shootings of unarmed Americans, homelessness, poverty, endless wars, SWAT team raids, overcriminalization or profit-driven private prisons.

Cultivate spirituality. When the things that matter most have been subordinated to materialism, we have lost our moral compass. We must change our values to reflect something more meaningful than technology, materialism and politics.

Standing at the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. urged his listeners:

[W]e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motive and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

We didn't listen then, and we still have not learned: Material things don't fill the spiritual void. As King said, we have to start putting people first.

Pitch in and do your part to make the world a better place. Don't rely on someone else to do the heavy lifting for you. As King noted, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." In other words, don't wait around for someone else to fix what ails you, your community or nation. As Gandhi urged: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Finally, you need to impact the government, be part of the dialogue on who we are and where we're going as a country. It doesn't matter how old you are or what your political ideology is. These are just labels. If you have something to say, speak up. Get active, and if need be, pick up a picket sign and get in the streets. And when civil liberties are violated, don't remain silent about it. Take a stand!

The only way we'll ever achieve change in this country is for this generation of young people to say "enough is enough" and fight for the things that truly matter.

I shall end as Dr. King ended his commencement address to the graduates of Oberlin College in June 1965:

Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality.