Saturday, May 26, 2007

THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN: The Quiet Americans

Since my daughter is graduating from college today, I am thinking a lot about the class of 2007 and the world they are about to enter. I’m not sure what they call this generation. Is it generation “X” or “Y” or “Zero” or “Me”? Having taken part in two other commencements this season, though, and knowing enough about what my own daughter’s friends are doing, I can say there is something quietly impressive about this cohort. In fact, if I were giving them a label I’d call them the “Quiet Americans” — not in the cynical way Graham Greene meant it, but in a very positive sense.

They are young people who are quietly determined not to let this age of terrorism curtail their lives, take away their hopes or steal the America they are about to inherit. They don’t take to the streets much — in part, I suspect, because they do a lot of their political venting online. But it seems to me that they go off and volunteer for public service or for military service with as much conviction as any generation, if not more.

Four years ago, when my wife and I dropped our daughter off at college, I wrote that I was troubled that I was dropping her off into a world that was so much more dangerous than the one she had been born into — and I worried that she would not be able to travel in the carefree way that I had when I was her age. Her two summers teaching and researching in India have cured me of that misapprehension. Now I know how my mother felt.

“I don’t know where these kids find lepers, but they find them and they read to them,” said Stephen J. Trachtenberg, the departing president of George Washington University.

“I’ve been a college president for 30 years, and these kids are more optimistic about the future than any I have seen — maybe more than they have reason to be,” he said. “They still believe that the world is their oyster and go abroad with abandon. Notwithstanding everything, they remain optimistic.”

In my previous column, I wrote about the number of foreign-born students who are dominating graduate science programs at our best schools, which I witnessed firsthand at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s commencement. But something else struck me at Rensselaer — the number of R.O.T.C. grads, including women, who came up and collected their degrees in full dress uniforms.

It was not only the pride with which they wore those uniforms that was palpable, but also the respect they were accorded by their classmates. I spoke to one young man who was going from graduation at Rensselaer right out to sea with the United States Navy. As bad as Iraq is, they just keep signing up. I have been equally impressed by the number of my daughter’s friends who have opted to join Teach for America.

And that can-do-will-do spirit is a good thing, because we will need it to preserve our democracy from those who want to steal the openness and optimism that make democracy work.

When I graduated in 1975, the world was dominated by interstate rivalries and conclusive wars. The class of 2007 is graduating into a world of state-versus-gang wars and gang-versus-gang wars that are often inconclusive. Look at the Middle East today. You have gangs fighting states and armies in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Gaza.

If the dominant clash of my generation was between communism and capitalism, the dominant clash of this generation is between “nihilism” — represented by suicide bombers who try to blow up hope from New York to Baghdad — and “optimism” that a better social and political order can be created, and therefore service matters. That’s why this generation’s willingness to continue venturing into the world, whether to repair it or do business with it, is so important. It is exactly the opposite of what the nihilists want.

“Triumphing over fear is the victory of the democratic citizen against the paralyzing effects of terror,” the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi observed. “It has to be done, though, at the level of each citizen. Just as the violence has been fragmented, so must the victory over this violence be done one by one. Leaders can help, but ultimately victory is about not letting the fear engendered by this new era paralyze you.”

We have to hope, though, that the determination that characterizes these Quiet Americans extends into their adulthood, and is also shared by those who choose to be doctors, consultants, lawyers and bankers. So many big problems are going to come due on their watch — from underfunded Social Security to health care to climate change — that the effort needed to fix them will require them to stay involved, redouble their resolve and raise their voices.


Anonymous said...

I can't imagine why Thomas Friedman's column is included here. No one has done more to continually demean the Islamic nations of the M.E. and to promote the invasion of Iraq than Friedman.
He is first and foremost a Zionist, America is a resource only, to keep Israel secure in its continued occupation of Palestinian lands.

Anonymous said...

It is included here because of its relevance to changes in the American public, and its future citizens. Indeed, the intolerance of the comments about not including him because of other comments on Islam reflect the patterns these future citizens avoid. Perhaps the skeptical commentator should reread Jefferson.