If you were raised in a progressive household like me, you might have learned from an early age to wrinkle your nose when confronted with the image of Ronald Reagan. You might have sung along to the Hair soundtrack after pulling the glistening vinyl from its psychedelic rainbow sleeve, or memorized all the words to “It’s Alright to Cry” from Free to Be You and Me. You might have marched, on small sturdy legs, socks scrunched into the soles of your Kangaroos, to support a woman’s right to choose, or used your red and blue Crayolas to color homemade signs protesting the nuclear arms race. You might have had a parent who helped reform the culture of her women’s college, or another who was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
But if you’re like me, you also might not have made much of all this. You knew what you were doing, sort of, but you had no way to place it in a sociopolitical context; it was just a regular part of growing up you. This was the world your parents were creating for you, the world that was your due as their child. This world was weird, certainly, but so were your parents, so at least everything was more or less consistent.
Finally, if you were me, your late teens and early twenties — the supposed hotbed on the roadmap of your life’s activism –- stayed fairly quiet, at least where your relationship to broader authority structures was concerned. Bill Clinton, for instance, bumbled his way through your disaffected years, doing nothing quite offensive enough, in your left-of-center-world, to become a target for your untapped radicalism. The two thousand election pissed you off, but you were also pretty busy trying to figure out how the hell to pay the rent and make a life in a lonely world where your immediate needs were no longer provided for. Wars were quick and quiet and you didn’t hear much about them; the economy was good and you didn’t really know what that meant, anyway. If you were me, the thousands of myriad problems in the big weird world out there made you sad, and sometimes really upset, but they remained just beyond the innermost layer of your privileged angst. You were still figuring out who you were, and it really didn’t seem like there was much you could do about all the rest of it.
My twenties have marched on, though, and things have started to feel like too much. Wars are no longer short, or quiet; they are miserable, drawn-out affairs where terrible decisions are made and people with full shining lives are cut down day after day after day. The weather has been changing, literally, but saggy-faced politicians are hell-bent on pretending it away. The folks in charge have lost that aura of wisdom and thoughtfulness that once seemed inherent even to such objectionable authority figures as Ronald Reagan. The current versions are disastrously puerile, power-hungry and ill-informed, or worse, corrupt and self-serving. I’m now approaching the age that my parents were when they first taught me how to cue up Free to Be You and Me on vinyl, and I’m just beginning to understand why they did. The weird world they showed me was not perfect, nor permanent. And they wanted me to be prepared.
But I’m almost thirty now. What can I do?
I have started to do some things. I attend war protests when I can. I boycott Exxon Mobil. I call and write my Senators, and my Representative. I make regular donations of $10 or $20 to environmental organizations, and sometimes to political campaigns. I made hundreds of phone calls before the last election cycle. I replaced most of the old-school light bulbs in my house with swirly new ones. I worked hard to convince the limousine company whose website I maintain to begin replacing some of their Lincoln Town Cars with Toyota Prius and Hybrid Camry sedans (a success!). Is this enough? Vehemently, no. But by the time I turn thirty, I will be thinking about the world’s problems in a much different way than I did ten years ago. Because for reasons I don’t entirely understand, the problems of the world have begun to hurt me more and more. And in consequence, I am more and more compelled to do something about them.
Will I take to the streets like so many passionate 20-year-olds of my parents’ generation? I don’t know. The slow boil of my activism is taking me along a more careful course, but one that will, I hope, be no less passionate or productive. And if “Free to Be You and Me” isn’t too ridiculously dated by the time my future kids are ready to operate the CD player, I will make sure I show them how to put it on.
A few places that helped me get started:
The Rainforest Site (very easy, if you’re interested — it’s my “Home” page)
National Resources Defense Council
Airport Commuter of San Francisco (book a hybrid!)