Eleanor Rigby picks up the ricein the church where a wedding has been.Lives in dream,Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.Who is it for?All the lonely peopleWhere do they all come from?All the lonely people,Where do they all belong?The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby was the anthem of the 1960s; it was the ballad of loneliness, of alienation. Its poetic words echo a raw nakedness of the mind. These words tell the story of a sleepless, wide-eyed, exhausted, and socially rejected generation. Jack Kerouac and other hip thinkers and writers who emerged in the 1940s took hold of these feelings of alienation and crafted them into a philosophy and culture called the Beat Generation. Some critics may claim that the ballad of the Beat Generation died with the fall of the Cold War and with the end of anti-Communism hysteria, but I contend otherwise.
I hold that another generation is also in a quest to define its meaning.I believe that another generation is as William Burroughs writes in Naked Lunch in search of some secret, some key to gain access to basic knowledge. But, I believe that this other generation is held back from this knowledge by the chains of apathy. As The Who sings, “I’m talkin’ about my generation” – to you, students present, to our generation. I believe that our generation suffers from the same beatific alienation of Kerouac and Burroughs, only that we have failed to take hold of our lonely fruits and gain from them the knowledge to overcome our isolation. I believe we are Eleanor Rigby, and we are lonely.
On my sixth birthday, June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and shouted, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity, if you seek liberation, come here to this gate, open this gate, and tear down this wall!” And on November 9, 1989, my third grade classmates and I gathered around a television and watched the Berlin Wall fall. Then in 1991 with the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, I was told that the Cold War had come to an end, and that the United States of America was now the most powerful country in the world. My grandmother who grew up during the Great Depression, whose husband-my grandfather-was a colonel in World War II, and whose son-my father-held an engineering degree that saved him from the Ho Chi Minh trail, sat me on her lap and told me that the world had finally been made safe for democracy. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, America had captured its manifest destiny. We had endured the test of battle and tilted the balance of power to our side. Now it was time for the Big Chill, the time for the happy slumbers of relaxation and indulgence. We had won, we thought.
The only problem with this period of relaxation is that it alienated the generation of the late 1970s to early 1980s, our generation. Unlike our parents, we do not have a counterculture. We do not have a Port Huron Statement. We do not have Mario Savio nor do we have a Tom Hayden. We have never experienced a Vietnam or a Civil Rights movement. We are weak, slack, and ignorant of war.
We are rampant individuals without a common cause and without a collective purpose. We are dissatisfied with our democracy and yet feel powerless to change it. However, I know we hold the spark to change society and save ourselves.
But, unlike Prometheus, we begin first chained to a rock and must find the tools to break away and capture Zeus’ fire.Our generation begs reconstruction. I believe three things must happen for us to experience manifest destiny. First of all, we need a great leader. Secondly, we need to form a student movement and forge a collective identity via participatory democracy. And finally, we must fully utilize the university experience both academically and socially to prepare us for the future.First, to accelerate forward, our generation requires a great leader. I agree with Carlyle’s theory that history is made by great men making hard decisions.
Great leaders are summoned by the events of the time and called upon to do extraordinary things. We as a generation have not experienced such an event and therefore have not seen such a leader. The Election 2000 debacle was arguably not enough to give us any velocity. The dissatisfaction with the two candidates and the prolonged haggling that followed only made us feel more alienated. When I attended President George W. Bush’s inauguration, it was clear that most young people wanted nothing to do with either the inauguration festivities or the protest against it.
Most of the supporters attending the inauguration were middle aged or senior citizens, and the protesters by and large consisted of hippies from the 1960s. Election 2000 was not enough to mobilize a student reaction, and consequently, it did not produce a great leader. But, in time, the event will come, and a leader must be willing to step forward and accept its challenge.Secondly, we must form a student movement around an issue of concern. It is true, that some students find common ground with humanitarian and economic issues, particularly ones of international scale, as with Israel and Pakistan or with multinational corporations like the World Trade Federation. However, I submit, we must fix our domestic problems before we can orient our democracy towards the needs of others. A noble issue that comes to mind is campaign finance reform.
Clearly, the Federal Election Campaign Act contains loopholes that will prevent many of us as prospective politicians from seeking political office because we lack the necessary financial resources. Public offices should be earned and not bought. And we do nothing. We leave it to the hands of our representative democracy to fix the contextual mess.
And, I (for one) have had enough: our generation needs participatory democracy. We cannot just bumper-sticker our cars to tacitly Question Authority; we must Change Authority.Thirdly, we must utilize the tools of the university to form our student movement. In the 1970s, Spiro Agnew hummed a common complaint that, “The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn.” Well, I submit, Spiro, that the student should go to college to learn, to experience, and then to proclaim. We should become an educated citizenry, but we should not abandon our individualism to the university machine. We should embrace tradition, but when the honors of our traditions fail, we must change our code. We are in control.
There is no in loco parentis. Like the Beat Generation, we must collectively share our anxieties to purify our apathy and bewilderment. We must conference with each other, argue with each other, write a mission statement, and confront our lethargy.
Some of you may be skeptical if not offended by my declaration of our generation’s relentless apathy. This audience is an ambitious and educated body and you all may very well be exceptions to my hypothesis, but I ask of you: search your souls. Do you feel it? I swear to you that I am one of the most motivated nineteen year olds that you will ever meet, but I can feel it. It is a raw, naked feeling that starts in the hollow of my stomach and grows like a weed encompassing my entire psyche.
At times my apathy beats me down to a hole in the ground and covers me up with the dirt of anguish. Can you feel it?Members of my generation, we are Eleanor Rigby, but the time has arrived for us to come together – right now. The time has arrived for us to become ambassadors to our own inner-peace. The time has come to battle our apathy, and like gladiators, tear down the tyrannical power elite. And, fittingly, when we become citizens of stature and influence, it will be appropriate for us to dress in the garment that connotes our mission-the Roman garment worn by citizens in time of peace, the toga. Indeed, my brothers and sisters, the time has come for Eleanor Rigby to wear a toga.