Wanted: a new Mario Savio


In the first of two articles on younger adults Kevin Ryan wonders if the new Silent Generation is going to keep letting Baby Boomers and their politicians walk all over them.

In the early 1960s a then unknown Berkeley
philosophy student named Mario
woke up students around the nation to the mischief into which their
elders had gotten them. He spoke specifically about the Vietnam War that was just
then percolating in Southeast Asia. Savio mounted the step of his university to
address the racial injustices to which white society had turned a blind eye. His
rhetoric appealed to both the self-interest and the better angels of his
generation. He woke up a whole generation of Americans with this cry:

is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so
sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part,
and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the
levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got
to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless
you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

We need a new Mario Savio.

As a certified geezer, I am hardly in a
position to speak for the young. However, as a father and grandfather, I find
it difficult to ignore the frightening economic problems and social milieu my
progeny faces. While Americans struggle to understand and come to terms with
this swift reversal of our condition, any concrete actions being taken are
aimed at pacifying the concerned of the nation’s senior citizens.

This pandering to seniors is particularly
evident now that the political season is officially open and the struggle for
the White House is ratcheting up. Since more and more Americans are living
longer and longer, it is expected that politicians would adjust their sights to
satisfy us with more and more bread-and-circus goodies. Clearly, their programs
and policies, whether drug benefits, nationalized health care, dubious
legislative protections for our retirement funds and increased social security
benefits, are intended to please the Early Bird Special crowd. We benefit. Our
children pay the bills now and in the future.

Politicians, especially those who are
making it a career, are nothing if not survival oriented. They know that, on
average, seniors go to the voting booths with much more frequency than the
twenty-something and thirty-something voters. We have the time. Our children
are busy making a living and driving their children to the SAT prep classes. We
have the money. After paying for the gas and the SAT tutor’s bills, they have
little cash left to bribe the politicians.

Oldsters have a voice. In fact, several
voices. Groups like the American Association of Retired Persons [AARP] are
ready to go for the jugular of the politician that suggests reconsidering any
of these “entitlements”. A politician’s modest proposal that ninety-year-old
drivers perhaps ought to have an eye test before renewing their license to
drive their SUVs can set the Internet aflame with calls for the offender’s
impeachment. A mention that the benefits structure of Social Security ought to
be re-examined sends a legion of grannies off to buy “Keep Your #@&% Hands
off My Social Security” T-shirts.

Besides hearing from the myriad senior
citizen groups devoted to larding benefits for their aging constituents,
politicians get constant reminders from the mass media. The mere mention of
changes to Social Security benefits or Medicare immediately provokes phrases
such as “the third rail of politics”, and “political death wish”. The media’s
opinions are rarely lost on politicians who are famous for their excellent
hearing and faint hearts.

Representative democracy is a beautiful
system for sharing a community’s benefits and pains. It needs balance, though. It
needs to hear from all corners to keep it as an effective tool to work toward
the common good. Right now, our governments [municipal, state and federal] are
hearing loud and clear from one corner, one large group. The other is just a

This new Silent Generation of 20- to 40-year-olds
seems to be unaware of what is happening to them. They are, in fact, the most
educated Americans ever, but they appear to be blind to fiscal and social
problems bearing down on them. Of course, there are some among this group that
are vitally interested and involved. The majority, however, are strangely

The best among the Silent Generation (in
normal times the leadership group) are increasingly consumed by demanding
careers and the challenges of family life. Their “outside” involvements tend to
be local: church, sports, book clubs, volunteering at the hospital. Many are
turned off by politics. The combination of assassinations, sexual scandals and
continued incivility of politics has caused them to tune out and, regrettably,
to drop out.

The middle group has traditionally been the
loyal follower. Their mid-20 Century counterparts answered the call of duty and
became members of what we now call “the Greatest Generation”. Today’s middle
Americans work and pay their taxes, but are slowly realizing the America that
their Baby Boomer parents experienced is no longer theirs for the asking. They
don’t have similar job security. They don’t have the good schools for their
children. Their parents were able to buy a home when they were their age. But if
the younger generation own a house it is now “under water”, or they live in a
small apartment with little prospect of home ownership. They are restive and
confused and increasingly disappointed.

The worst among this new, politically Silent
Generation, and the group that seems to be growing like the proverbial Topsy, is
zonked on weed or cable TV or Internet porn or all three. The future, like the
past, is “like…so yesterday...or whatever.” As long as comforts keep coming and
life doesn’t make too many demands on them, they will be quiet. The danger, of
course, is how they will react when the circus goes away and the free bread
stops being delivered.

All three groups are being badly treated. They
have real concerns which are being overlooked. The Silent Generation deserves
better today and certainly they deserve more attention from leaders who are
paid to serve and protect them. They need, however, to find their own voice and
their own agenda.

It is, of course, nice to imagine a new and
energetic Youth Party emerging to take up the cause of ninety million young
Americans. However, the history of national third party movements is hardly
encouraging. What is needed is a youth and family interest group, one which is
unaligned with either the Democrats or the Republicans. Unshackled by ties to a
particular party, such a group would be a clear and compelling voice, and would
have little trouble gaining the attention of our two political parties.

First, however, the Silent Generation needs
a leader from their own age cohort, from their own ranks, someone to sound the
alarm and give voice to their needs and their hopes. This current failure of
governments to serious address the concerns of young Americans can also be seen
as a great opportunity. Is there a new Mario Savio out there?

Next week:If and when the ninety million twenty- to forty-year-olds wake up from their
political lethargy, there is no shortage of issues awaiting their attention.

Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston
University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books.
He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning
America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting
System speaking on character education. He can be reached at [email protected].


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