That brings me to this whole issue of civic engagement and civic literacy. It is our civic machinery, our structure of government, that gives us the capacity to resolve disputes and work in the interest of the common good. It allows us to achieve our highest aspirations as a society. We take that for granted, but it works only as well as the people who are engaged in it. So that means people have to understand it.
So let me wrap up with a quick story from my own background. I was civically illerate for the first two decades of my life. I was bored to death. I was not interested in politics. I was not interested in government. I was a 21-year-old student, a junior, at Dartmouth College in 1968, when a lot of things were going on — the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam.
“Martin Luther King was registering black voters in the South, there were sit-ins in restaurants, where they would go into segregated restaurants and sit down at the counter and expect to get arrested. They didn’t oppose the rule of law, but they wanted to highlight a law they felt was unjust. As a result of that, we had the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately elected Barack Obama president.
In 1969, people were getting drafted to go to Vietnam at the age of 18, but you could not vote until you were 21. So we were essentially being drafted and sent halfway around the world to fight in a war that had murky justifications, at least to us, who had no say in that. Bobby Kennedy was running for president; he was against the war, and he was giving a voice to many voiceless people — the farm workers in California, native Americans on reservations, who were out of the mainstream of American life. That was all going on.
That April (1968), Martin Luther King was assassinated. I can remember right where I was. I was in a physics shop, I remember putting my screwdriver down, listened to the radio and felt profoundly moved. I couldn’t even begin to tell you why. It was just as if the light had gone out. Then when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, just after he won the California primary. I think for a lot of people my age, we just decided the country lost something that was a lot more than two individuals. But it was a belief that you could work in the system, work within the structure and change the world and make it better — and we all had a responsibility to do that. That was my moment of political awakening. I ended up doing this for a lot of reasons.
So my message to you is that you really are not powerless. I am speaking more to young people, not to those who teach and guide them. What this country desperately needs is to rebuild a sense of community. There are certain things we have to do together to make us all better. The only tool we have to make that happen is our government structure — and the will of individuals to use that structure. If you drop out, it operates on its own. You are the drivers. Civic literacy gets you there. It is your ticket.
That looks a lot like a rebuttal to the Occupy movement to my eyes:
- America has structures for civic engagement but those structures don't run themselves, they are only tools for citizens.
- The civil rights movement is a demonstration of how to effectively use those tools. Civil disobediance targeted at specific laws, with the purpose of changing them to create fairer and better laws. With the tools we have, even the most disadvantaged segments of society can affect radical change.
- No system is perfect, and sometimes things go bad as when national reform leaders were murdered. We face a choice in those moments, to carry on the work of building a better society or to abandon it and fall into cynicism and disassociation.
- Too many people have chosen the latter course in the false belief that it is a means of reform. It is not. Our system of governance is the only one we have, and disassociating from that system won't change it. It just makes the system operate poorly.