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Graduating into a tough world

Another batch of college graduates has been launched into the world to make their way, like promising sea turtle hatchlings scurrying toward the wide ocean. Reading coverage of the commencement speeches — that annual rite where rich and famous people tell eager lumps of human clay to mold themselves into adults who don't care about fame and fortune —I thought back on my own college graduation.

It was Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., 1982. The address was given by the university president at the time, Frank H.T. Rhodes, an erudite speaker with a clipped British accent who came with the added benefit to the university of speechifying for no extra charge.

I remember essentially nothing of what he said but I do recall the golden retriever that loped to the bottom of the podium and lifted its leg just as Rhodes began his welcomes.

My class, as with the class of 2011, graduated into a tough job market. The national unemployment rate hit 10.8 percent in 1982. But that year, just as every year, commencement speakers were undoubtedly urging young graduates to grab hold of life's intangibles — meaning, curiosity, commitment, love — over the great chase for the almighty dollar.

While I took that advice personally with a career in public interest law and journalism, if I were doling out received wisdom to young people today, I would put more emphasis on the vital importance of economic security. Money is far more essential to a good life than I expected it would be, and much harder to come by. Luck, too, is key, but really, what are you going to do about that?

When I try to look out again through my 21-year-old eyes, I don't see the future for my nation that I'd hoped for back in 1982. My generation came of age when justice and fairness could be obtained through mass social movements. People mobilized around powerful, humanist ideas. I was a direct beneficiary of the women's movement.

At that time I thought Richard Nixon would be the worst president in my lifetime. Who could be any worse? He cravenly used the power of his office against political opponents, including an illegal political spying operation.

But then the press rode to the rescue, uncovering the cover-up. Congress responded. The courts did their duty, holding the president to the law. A rogue American president was out. There were safeguards in America's check and balance structure, and a strong Fourth Estate watchdogging government.

It would have been inconceivable at the time to have a Fox News equivalent blaring an opposing narrative — one in which the Supreme Court is "activist" for questioning executive privilege, all the president's men are really national heroes and, as to the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, the real question is: Why is this doctor treating a traitor, anyway?

That's what we would have heard if Watergate broke today. From a civil liberties standpoint, Nixon was a boy scout compared with George W. Bush, but Bush got away with his constitutional crimes because our national mechanisms of oversight and correction are broken.

In 1982 I could never fathom an America where torture, indefinite detention and massive domestic wiretapping would be officially employed without sparking an unstoppable tsunami of public dissent.

While the Moral Majority was already ascendant at the time, I would never have guessed that religious fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism and scientific illiteracy would become the overriding characteristics of one political party, making bipartisan problem-solving virtually impossible.

I could never have imagined the withering of print media to a point where its shrunken resources would be no match for the job it has to do. Or the rise of right-wing propaganda as "news." But here we are. The unthinkable is reality.

Today's graduates need to appreciate how their hopes for their future are intertwined with the fate of their nation. So, if I have one word of advice for the nation's newest college graduates, it's "vote." Vote as if your future, your family's future, the country's future and the world's future depend on it. When you turn 50, you'll see how much it does.

Graduating into a tough world 06/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 4:31am]
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