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Mom and Dad had a chance to protest — why can't I have one, too?

As I read Tim O'Brien's Vietnam memoir, "The Things They Carried," as part of a recent reading-period assignment, I was struck, though not surprised, by how central the war has been to the way in which he views the world. The war brought about the most pivotal dilemmas of his life. In fact, the most captivating aspect of the novel is O'Brien's long ethical struggle with whether to flee to Canada.

As he grappled with indecision, I began to wonder whether our generation would ever face such a broadly significant question. In turn, I thought about the disheartening apathy of our generation — an apathy created, I think, by the lack of a cause around which to rally.


O'Brien's generation — and that of most of our parents — had many such common causes, of which the Vietnam War was only one. Our parents converged around the question of nationalism. Was it valid? Should it guide our principles? Did it justify our attack on communism?

On the domestic front, too, our parents confronted dynamic issues. Their generation rallied around the question of civil rights, and though there were ardent partisans on both sides, by the early 1960s no one seems to have doubted that the question was a defining one. Less than a decade later, they rallied around the issue of gender equity, producing Roe v. Wade and Title IX. And half a generation later, young adults rallied in opposition to apartheid. All of these questions served as pivotal issues for college students around the country, breeding activism and political interest at unprecedented levels. Today, our generation has no such activism, no such political interest and no such central issues.

We cannot claim we are apathetic because all of the major social questions have been resolved, because clearly they have not. In fact, some of the same issues that plagued our parents — civil rights and gender equity among them — remain unsettled. Perhaps we have simply concluded that because the crucial first battles have already been fought on those questions, activism is no longer necessary. But this conclusion would be faulty.

A more valid argument might be that our apathy results from disenchantment with the political system — that it was precisely the domestic struggles over Vietnam that left students feeling powerless and apathetic, and that the fallout from the Watergate scandal left a sour taste that remains even today. But while this may be true, imagine that each of us had full faith in the political system, and then try to imagine what our rallying cause might be. I, for one, cannot think of a suitably pivotal issue, and this is the most disturbing problem of all.

Somehow, we need to build a cause to which we can lend our voices, because if we could successfully rally around an issue, our voices would almost certainly be heard. Gay rights is one candidate. The drug war and urban decay are others. The only issue that has yet garnered any attention on this campus — sweatshops and labor rights — is still another. And though it would be difficult to propose solutions through activism, the decline of family values — high divorce rates and growing numbers of children born out of wedlock — might be still one more. Even leaving social issues aside, maybe our cause will center on technology. And yet, it is hard to imagine any of these issues galvanizing our generation to activism.

Maybe our issue has yet to arise. But until it does, I will wonder how our generation will be remembered. When the Tim O'Briens among us write their memoirs, what will be the pivotal event? What will be the focal point? What battles will we have fought? Alex Rawson is a history major from Shaker Heights, Ohio. He can be reached at