Democratic Underground  

Forget Sunscreen - Save Democracy
April 10, 2003
By D. G. Bowman

I am not Mary Schmich. I am not Kurt Vonnegut.

I'm D.G. Bowman. A human being, husband, son, brother, writer/editor and American patriot - roughly in that order. Being a patriot, I find myself very angry with my country's government these days. I'm not alone in that regard, of course.

Six years ago, Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist, wrote a lighthearted graduation "speech" that began with the now-famous words, "Wear sunscreen." For some reason, that column, thanks to the wild and woolly nature of the Internet, became attributed to the famed novelist Vonnegut, who, countless e-mail recipients around the globe were told, had given the address to the graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Vonnegut had given no such speech. But I am writing these words. Why the reference to Schmich's memorable lead?

Because I have better advice for this year's crop of college graduates:

Forget sunscreen - for now.

Save democracy instead.

I haven't been on a college campus since 1979, when, at my own graduation, I listened to the brilliant editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, then with the Los Angeles Times, talk about a citizen's duties in a representative democracy. I've tried to follow his advice through the years: voting in every local and national election, keeping abreast of current events, calling or writing my elected officials.

Alas, I often feel as though I'm swimming against a rising tide of civic apathy, social boorishness and intellectual mediocrity. As a student of politics, history and geography, I've been greatly dismayed at the ongoing "dumbing down" of Americ - a condition, I'm afraid, that helped pave the way for a spoiled, delusional frat boy to be installed in the White House by dint of a clearly illicit Supreme Court decision.

Dear graduates, a lot has changed in the quarter century since Mr. Conrad sent me and my classmates out into the world. We are involved in an immoral, unjustified, pre-emptive, unilateral "war" against a sovereign nation. Those who dissent against the war are branded as traitors. (Actually, "disagree with" is the better phrase; "dissent against," with its implication of government infallibility, carries the whiff of Soviet-era repression, something we're rapidly approaching.) A sprawling bureaucratic "anti-terrorism" apparatus, with the ominous name of "Homeland Security," is being erected by the political party that traditionally inveighs against the evils of big government. Who said irony was dead?

While brave U.S. troops fight and die in the sands of Iraq, more for the purpose of securing oil infrastructure than "liberating" the shell-shocked people of that ancient land, veterans' benefits are being cut at home. Schools, roads and bridges are crumbling. Libraries are slashing hours. Small businesses are going under. Basic health care remains out of reach to many. National Parks are sinking into neglect (while facing myriad "wise use" threats by snowmobilers, strip-miners and others hostile toward ecological stewardship).

While the lower and middle classes fight for their economic lives, George W. Bush's corporate cronies continue to live high on the hog, slopping at the trough of tax cuts that benefit only them. Environmental regulations, workplace protections, privacy safeguards, media fairness and diversity, a woman's right to control her own reproduction, the crucial separation of church and state as envisioned by our Founding Fathers - all are under ferocious assault by an administration that is more resembling a one-party fascist theocracy every day.

I could go on, dear graduates - there may soon come a time where if I do go on, I'll be hauled off by John Ashcroft's thought police - but I think you get my point. I had to speak up, to put words on a screen, to join the ever-growing chorus of everyday citizens who are genuinely alarmed at what is happening to our once great (and potentially great, as John F. Kennedy reminded us) nation.

You may disagree with me, of course, which is your blessed right under our gravely threatened Constitution. And if you do disagree, in the same manner that millions of patriotic Americans disagree with our invasion of Iraq, you should not be cordoned off into "First Amendment Zones." You should not be sprayed with Mace or shot at with rubber bullets - among the tactics employed by authorities at recent peace demonstrations in Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif. (and doubtless other cities).

Save democracy. Forget about the divisive, often inaccurate labels of "liberal" and "conservative," "Democrat" and "Republican." Think of yourselves as Americans first. Look closely at what this most secretive and disdainful of administrations is doing. You're young enough to not yet be calcified by partisan opinion. Remember why we fought the original American Revolution. Go out and do good deeds. Embrace this nation's liberal traditions. Read whatever you can. Listen to a variety of voices. Be civil in your debates. Resist the demagoguery of hate radio. Question authority. Support our soldiers by bringing them home.

And send this essay around the Internet. Just don't say that I spoke at MIT, or any other institution of higher learning. The only education I'm getting now is from the school of life, which can be the most illuminating teacher of all.

And, if you do find yourself at any sort of protest, the "peaceful assembly" guaranteed to you by the Bill of Rights, do this as well:

Wear sunscreen. Even on a cloudy day.

D.G. Bowman, a former longtime editor at The Seattle Times, is a writer and editor in Waikoloa, Hawaii. He detailed his gradual and empowering transformation from Republican to Democrat in the October 2001 issue of The Washington Monthly. Abraham Lincoln "who would probably sue the current GOP for the slanderous use of his name" remains his favorite American president.

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