Will Duke students and Americans learn to act?

"If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

--Martin Luther King Jr.

All people live in search of that something. In America and at Duke, our articulations of that something are muddy.

When the U.S. Department of Defense admitted last week that there was a major military intelligence failure last December in Tora Bora that allowed Osama bin Laden to escape, the silence of the press corps deafened.

Then again, with the press being denied access to the front lines, how do we know what really happened? Did we really make a mistake, or are we just being fed a fake slip-up in order to work the polls or work the enemy? Our government's propaganda machine is making our press into the American al-Jazeera--seemingly independent, but actually a de facto participant in a dis-information campaign.

The effect this blackout is having on the public is devastating. Americans are still buying into the Manichaean worldview of the current White House--with us or with the terrorists. Claiming secrecy, the government is tightening the screws on the public--via the press--every day. Using the label of "un-American," the White House is driving a wedge in the First Amendment that should make us all uncomfortable.

Should. Unfortunately, the people are not paying attention. Not right now, at least. When something goes wrong--something devastating--then we might start to think first. But for now, we are forgetting the most important lesson of Sept. 11: Anticipate. Heed the reports that say the government is unprepared (our elected officials knew we were at risk and ignored it); listen to civil libertarians talk about the hypocrisy of abridging rights in order to protect freedom.

Americans have a reputation in the rest of the world as a lazy, ignorant sort. It's unfair and inaccurate, but when it comes to how we respect our great democracy, it's dead on. We must learn to act instead of react.

The same can be said of students here at Duke.

To my fellow seniors: Over the next couple weeks, professors, friends and your conscience will ask you how you changed over the past four years. Let's redirect that question. Ask your professors, ask your friends, ask yourself: How has the world around you changed? Better yet, what did you do to facilitate the changes you wanted and impede the changes you opposed?

The answer to that question, for most Duke students, will be brief. Despite four years of every opportunity imaginable, most of us have accomplished an intangible nothing--by choice. Despite our roles as future leaders of America, we are a passive student society. This passivity, which should be a crime when considering the infinite energy possessed by youth, is an ill-fated option for a campus undergoing widespread change.

How has the world around us changed? Old Duke is dead. When the Class of 2002 leaves, there will be no one left to reminisce about the hell of trying to find a spot in the Ocean. Three-fourths of the students won't know what the Ocean was. Remember when sophomores got screwed on housing? Recall when frats were fun for the non-fratter and fratter alike? Ancient history.

Then again, it's not like any student on this campus really fought the policy changes. Sure there were a few orderly and quiet forums, but outrage? Where were the student-designed alternatives? When it comes to modern residential life, we're qualified to draft proposals--we live it! We chose instead to react to the situation, to let administrators shape the future.

The parking plan is another example of reaction instead of action. We have known for over a year that this summer would lead to permanent closing of the Divinity School parking lot. We waited until the administration offered us a manifesto. Too late for an alternative, the result is that some off-campus students will be driving away from campus to catch a shuttle bus to campus.

It's not all the fault of the at-large Dukie. Your student government has failed you repeatedly, offering little but a collection of rZsumZ-padding children. If The Chronicle didn't cover Duke Student Government, no one would know it existed. This is always subject to change, but given the recent Nookiegate line-monitor scandal, it doesn't look like change will happen next year. DSG should watch its back--voter turnout is so low right now that a determined sorority or large enough on-campus faction could overtake the entire organization in one swift legislative election. Also failing the student body are campus political groups. The political natures of campus changes go unnoticed; campus liberals prefer to shoot the messenger while campus conservatives prefer to cause conflict.

I'm not arguing that we need to die for housing or parking. But we do a lot of complaining for a politically passive people--this is true both in the Gothic Wonderland and across America. The sparks of action do not need to come from the people who are leading--if that were true, we'd still be fighting Vietnam. The inspiration to act--the spark--needs to come from the bottom, until it rises and challenges every tenet, truth and lie that is dictated by those in power.

Martin Barna, Trinity '02, would like to thank PE, CM and ST for years of valued discussion, criticism and encouragement. He says it's been an honor and a privilege.


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