Thursday, January 20, 2005

Chris: Escapism

I do not normally eavesdrop on student conversations, but sitting around the galley table late at night I learned something about what it is like to be young again. Not one of the Americans at that table was proud of her country. Indeed, each was deeply ashamed – so ashamed that several questioned the Canadians in the crew about the prospects of emigrating. I had not heard such conversations since I was in uniform, some 37 years ago.

Back then, disaffected liberals had enough faith in the promise of America to try to reclaim it, before dropping out. These students expressed no such faith. To them, American politic is little more than a kleptocracy – a feeding frenzy of special interests with no concern for the common good. Some had worked in Kerry’s campaign, but more out of fear of the alternative than any faith that the Democratic Party retains its moral compass. Hence the inclination to emigrate, drop out, or go to sea. One quoted her mother: “If Bush institutes the draft, we’re moving to Canada.” On the two occasions when I offered the students a New York Times a general revulsion arose from the table. They were trying to escape all that.

I spend much of my professional life criticizing the United States. I try to do so as a loving critic who wants it to live up to its heritage and its potential. But these students, at least in that fragment of a conversation, did not acknowledge America’s heritage or the promise of its institutions. They simply thought that life might be better somewhere else, and that they were entitled to an easier life than the one they already enjoy.

It is easy, I suppose, to become disaffected with the United States if one rarely studies its history, law, or politics, if one associates only with critics of the Left or super-Patriots of the Right, or if one thinks of history as just one damned thing after another. It is easy to be repelled by American politics or culture if one focuses only on the moment, or on the incoherence of our more transient locales. It is also possible for privileged students to feel politically impotent if they sense a lack of commitment for liberty, equality, or justice among their peers or their families, which seems to be the case among too many of my students today.

As I eavesdropped on that conversation, I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake taking this group to sea. What I should have done is create a course that would bring them into contact with the people who are trying hardest to redeem the promise of America. They are not the politicians, who largely reflect the interests of their donors and constituents. They are not political parties, which are amoral vote-getting machines. They are community activists, who often do extraordinary things with almost no resources at all. They don’t have the option of emigrating to Canada or running away to sea. Some ran away to America precisely to get to a country where some degree of justice still seems possible.

But this course was meant to accomplish other ends. As Elettra put it, sailing a tall ship requires a measure of courage, a quality not valued much in the ultra-protective colleges of the moment. Conquering a fear of heights, living outside the reach of emergency services, or surviving at sea, can do something for one’s sense of efficacy and prudence, and what the captain likes to call “common sense.” Deep sea sailing can also build character and commitment to one’s community, as Carly observed. I certainly hope so, and I think we observed those qualities in the ship’s crew, most of whom are mature and competent beyond their years.
posted by Chris