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And You Thought It Would Be Easy?

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Posted on Jun 28, 2012
Rochelle, just rochelle (CC BY 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Betting on the Future

In other words, you’re about to head off campus into a world in which the concentration of wealth, power, and war-making capability is unprecedented, at least in our time, and yet here’s the counterintuitive thing: at a moment when it looks like all of you couldn’t do less, this planet never needed you more.  This country never needed you more.  American politics never needed you more.  We never needed you more.  But it won’t be easy.

In societies organized in such a top-heavy way, who can be surprised when a bunch of kids head for Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park to protest and the powers-that-be strike back devastatingly?  Who can be surprised when demands, even requests, are twisted and shredded, when the world doesn’t turn on a dime the way it turns on $10 million dollars?

Think of it this way, class of 2012: for 40 years, they’ve been busily rigging the game, stacking the deck.  Now, with their power at the ready and regularly on display, they would like you to think that you’ve got nothing going for you, that your only choice is to accept the world they have on tap for you on their terms.

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What they don’t bother to mention is that you have the biggest thing of all going for you, the one thing their money can’t buy, their lobbyists can’t win over, their lawyers can’t negotiate out of existence, their politicians can’t legislate into passivity, their policemen and hire-a-guns can’t pepper spray or bludgeon into submission.  I’m talking about the future, the one thing they haven’t a hope in hell of controlling.  It’s yours at least as much as theirs, if not more so, no matter what they do.

Time and again, the future turns out to have its unexpected surprises, and no matter how our rulers prepare, they are invariably caught off guard.  That explains the remarkable initial successes of both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.  However much money the powers-that-be can put out, the future’s surprises are their hell on earth.

Yes, of course, they can and will strike back, sometimes all too effectively, other times dumbly beyond belief.  Give New York’s Mayor Bloomberg credit, for instance.  (“I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.”) When he sent that occupying army into lower Manhattan, he seemed to grasp that Occupy Wall Street was less a coherent movement than a location—and that if you ordered your uparmored legions to clear the place (or rather those places, since mayors, supported by the Department of Homeland Security, did this all over the United States), you would set Occupy adrift, as has happened.

Now, they are undoubtedly well prepared for Occupy II, as long as it occurs in more or less the fashion that the last one did.  It’s your job to be prepared not for the last time around, but for the next.

In the meantime, graduation speeches are, of course, vehicles for advice from the old to the young.  Here’s mine.  I can’t mainline into the future any better than anyone else, so I have no idea what Occupy movements or Tahrir Squares may (or may not) be lurking around the next corner or the one after that.  In the meantime, my advice couldn’t be simpler: make yourself useful.  And don’t be afraid to let yourself be used.  As a book editor, I can tell you that being used by others and so useful to them is one of the better things in life.

Admittedly, on a planet that needs so much, that’s exceedingly small-ball advice.  Then again, we’re small, even when we’re waiting for big things.  So do what’s small, what’s around you, what’s possible, and while you’re at it, place your money on a future potentially full of surprises you can help to spring.  Put it on the value of acting against the lopsided odds made in Washington and on Wall Street.  And don’t spend your time worrying about what effect, if any, you’re going to have.  You’ll probably never know.

Meanwhile, it’s still their world and welcome to it, class of 2012.  The time has come to form into your serried ranks and ready yourself to cross the grassy expanse of this campus, head through those familiar gates, and out into an overheated, unforgiving world.  Admittedly, by now many of you have already mortgaged your lives—$180,000 you didn’t have and may not have 60 years from now when you graduate into your grave.  This is the living definition of a subprime education in an increasingly subprime country on an increasingly subprime planet. 

So congratulations, class of 2012: it’s one tough world you’re walking into.  When the odds are this lousy, stop worrying about them.  Bet instead on the one thing they can’t control.  It just could be yours.  And while you’re hanging in there, waiting for what neither you nor they can even imagine, don’t forget: be useful.  Help someone or something on this planet.  You’ll figure out how and you won’t regret it.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses drone warfare and the Obama administration, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

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