Sunday, February 6, 2005

Still hating freedom

I should clarify: I'm not more upset by students who don't understand freedom of the press and its role in democracy than I am by, say, the prospect of drilling in ANWR, the assault on Social Security, the encroachments on freedom of reproductive choice, or the threat of globalizing the "War on Terror."

But I confront every day my students' inability to believe that human beings really need the same freedoms and rights that they believe in, carte blanche, for corporations. Clearly, I'm the one out of step here, for believing in the naive concept of human decency and a moral obligation to our fellow citizens. My students are starting to eye me pityingly. "Ah," their eyes say. "So that's why she's stuck here in academia, instead of out in the Real World. She still subscribes to foolish notions like the 'common good.'"

I raised the notion of the "common good" recently, in a class of upper-division literature students. The class, significantly, has to do with acts of literary rebellion. The kinds of rebellion my students see as something from "back in the day"—the day, presumably, being a time before corporate capitalism rendered collective action unbelievably quaint. I dared to raise this notion, only to have one of the very best students in the class respond thus: "Well, the communists kind of wrecked that, didn't they? I mean, the common good is pretty much a socialist concept..." Eighteen heads nodded assent.

My students don't believe in the most basic tenets of the Enlightenment—the social contract, consent—that form the basis of American government. Instead, they're dazzled by the false promises of individualism. Each is comfortable with the notion that the most we owe our fellow man is to step over him when he lies in the gutter at our feet. They believe that corporations need more rights than people do, because, well, corporations supply jobs wherein people can exploit themselves, missed vacation by sixty hour workweek, into an early grave.

In their hatred of "communism"—which, since most of them were born well into Reagan's first term, has been anything BUT a major player on the world stage—they are unswaying. Better to starve to death individually, they believe, than to attempt something so passé as collective political action.


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