Posters with that quotation from Albert Camus graced many a dorm room wall when I was a student, and perhaps those posters may still appeal to young idealists.
New Year’s day always seems like a great opportunity to reconnect with our inner young idealist, so this morning in the spirit of Camus I sought out my favorite local summer haunts — the banks of small Potomac tributaries in southern Maryland, Nanjemoy Creek and the Port Tobacco River. This time of year, the once-lush tidal flats have faded back to tawny stillness, the summer’s inviting blue waters now gone to foreboding cold steel. I have to content myself with walking along the shoreline for a bit until the whipping wind sends me back to the warmth of the car heater. Even the eagles have retreated from view, though I came upon one greedily feasting on some fat road kill a few miles up the road. The photo above is just a memory of a late August evening on the creek, cormorants and pipers gazing at the slowly encroaching twilight; seeing them today in the photo, they seem to be yearning for summer once more.
The idealists among us never forget that summer will brighten our days and lighten our moods in just a short few months. January 1 always makes me glad because I am now more than halfway to the day when I will return to my other favorite wilderness place in the Adirondacks. Long ago I learned that having these quiet summer places of solitude and contemplation are vitally important to keep my spirits bright all year, and taking the time to reconnect with them is one of my more cherished new year’s resolutions.
The summer spirit of optimism and genuine hope is something our world needs in large measure today. 2008 dawns with the world as a coiled spring, just waiting for something else to happen. Terrible news comes at us each day, just this morning out of Kenya where more than 50 people were burned to death inside a church set afire by a mob. Nearly 300 people have died in Kenya since the results of a presidential election on Sunday that opposition leaders claim was fixed. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, scores are dead following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the elections in that country have been postponed.
In the United States, we take peaceful elections for granted. Yet, historians today note that 40 years ago this year, the U.S. faced what was one of the most tumultuous political seasons ever, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, and rioters in Chicago tried to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. Cities across America burned in the riots following the King Assassination and college campuses shut down amid student protests. The once-unelectable Richard Nixon prevailed over Hubert Humphrey in that election largely because the Democrats could not shake the blame for the deepening mess in Vietnam.
Today the United States is more deeply sunk into a quagmire of unwinnable war than even in the Vietnam era, and on multiple fronts. Yet, unlike 1968, in 2008 the domestic scene is relatively peaceful, a fact that many commentators ascribe to the lack of a draft and the relative strength of the rising middle class among African Americans. As a nation, we appear united in our desire for peace and security, but remain somewhat fragile in establishing a sensible response to terrorist threats largely as a result of the still-fresh memory of September 11. While the majority of Americans today want the troops to come home from Baghdad, have no doubt that the sentiment would change if another incident occurred in the U.S.
On Thursday of this week, in Iowa, American voters will begin the long march toward the November presidential election. Our task is nothing less than finding the leader who can re-establish balance and common sense in this dangerous world, someone who can lead us back toward a more peaceful civilization while not relenting on the strength that is necessary sometimes to maintain the peace. We need a leader who can inject a great dose of confidence into economic markets to slow the march toward recession. This leader must also have the talent to forge bipartisan solutions to the domestic agenda that has been so sorely neglected for such a long time: genuine health care reform, better care for those who live in poverty, real support for education (not impossible mandates, but actual support for schools who need support the most). We need a leader who has the courage to say that the civil rights agenda remains far from completion, and who will give voice to our common heritage as a nation of immigrants on behalf of those who are still seeking the American Dream today.
Who is such a leader? You must find your own candidate from among those who have held themselves out for election. Our task as educators is to insist that we foster the best possible environment for political engagement among our students, that we teach about political responsibility and faithful citizenship as an essential part of our moral obligation as citizens of a free nation.
Robust civic engagement flourishes through the spirit of the invincible summer. Citizens must work actively to create the change they believe can occur with the right leadership. Elections matter, and every vote is important, as this nation learned in the Year 2000.
And so, my chief resolution for Trinity this year is to foster that spirit of active civic engagement among our campus community and larger Trinity family. We have wonderful examples of great political and civic leadership among our graduates, and even more opportunities to wield leadership broadly in the days to come. Whatever party, candidate, or advocacy issue we choose to embrace, let’s do it with large intelligence, strong voices, firm conscience, and the spirit of hope for a new day. July may be a few months away, but the invincible summer is already with us.
See Joel Achenbach’s Washington Post Outlook article comparing 1968 and 2008.