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Falling Dow, Rising Awareness

In case you hadn't noticed, Wall Street went to the bathroom a few weeks ago. It has yet to emerge. And while some have been dealing with the possible end of our current good-times era by talking their Wall Street buddies down from the window ledges, or by convincing Mom & Dad that it wasn't so bad to throw a big lump of cash into the stock market the day before the slide began, and would they please shut off the Mercedes and come out of the garage, I have taken a different mindset. I have been busy contemplating the social fallout from the demise of the present boom period, wondering how all this will affect the current generation of go-getters and world-changers--namely, us.

In one sense, some tough times might be a good thing. Perhaps a visit to the school of hard knocks will be the galvanizing force that offers some definition to the current crop of twenty-somethings. After all, we've pretty much been on our own for some time now without anything coherent to bring us together. We've been enjoying ourselves, merrily afloat on the Good Ship United States, soaking up the remnants of our parents' and older acquaintances' good fortunes, loudly predicting our own success in a few years. A few years of an economy in the wastebasket might cause us to stop thinking about choosing a decorator for our midtown studio and start considering how we might actually make a useful contribution to the world around us.

After all, you have to admit that we haven't exactly set the world on fire yet. Let's take a quick look at some of the features of our generation, what we've been able to offer to the world thus far. Contributions such as...uh...hmmm. There's so-called "alternative" rock, you know, music so edgy that you'll only find it on no fewer than four major radio stations at one time. Marcy Playground, please stand up and take a bow, then quickly return to your well-deserved obscurity.

While we're on the subject of music, I guess there's that whole "Free Tibet" thing, the current cause du jour (see "Burma"). Hey, I went to the concert. And, believe me, everybody there was into freeing Tibet, as long as it involved taking off your top and listening to Pearl Jam. But even if few of the spectators ended up getting directly involved with the Free Tibet movement, I suppose the concert was successful in doing what trendy events do best, "raising awareness," which is another way of saying, "nothing tangible, but please keep sending money."

And let's not forget the Internet. You know, that shimmering entity that has enraptured human wonder like nothing since Helen of Troy. We're the "wired" generation, throwing out those silly paper books and riding the digital wave. Isn't that correct? Swell. Excuse me for not exuding giddiness over a development that, for all its great potential, still exists largely as a bog of mental quicksand for perverts and ninth-graders (often one and the same) to wade around in. Right now the experts are claiming that the Internet will forge a bond of understanding and goodwill across the globe. Of course, if you'll recall, the previous generation of experts said the same thing about television. I think it's safe to say we're still waiting on that one.

But though an economic downturn might motivate us to start making a real mark on the world, it also introduces trouble on the horizon. And I'm not talking about the usual effects of a recession: the blow-dried reporters tromping through small-town cafes, trying to coerce a little vox out of the unemployed populi who glare suspiciously at them; nor am I alluding to eyeball-glazing newspaper business features led by headlines like, "Whither Textiles?" I'm referring to what happened the last time there was a burp in the economy, in the early 1990s: the transformation of harmless activism into foot-stomping fanatacism.

Remember? It seemed that, in the phlegmatic, latter days of the Bush presidency, the sagging national economy seemed to allow every two-bit fanatic to whip out the bullhorn and start making some noise. Of course, everyone recalls different events from the time. If you're on one side of the spectrum, that period was when the NRA nutballs and prayer-in-school peons started gathering steam. On the other side of the political fence, you recall the rebirth of radical feminism, culminating in the so-called "Year of the Woman" in Washington. Any way you slice it, the early 1990s were years of activism on steroids, when everyone and anyone with a cause felt justified in taking any actions whatsoever to propel their narrow agenda forward with the rest of their zealous cohorts.

There is a fine line between activism and fanaticism, but several aspects of fanaticism are significant enough that should make us loath to return to those days of good intentions gone horribly awry, the early 1990s. For one thing, activists turned into absolutists. Healthy debate got thrown out the window. It's hard to have a spirited, enlightened discussion when both sides have set up their snow forts on each side of the lawn, nobody venturing forth into the middle lest he or she be pelted by a barrage of threats, epithets, and slurs, all delivered with the subtlety of a baseball bat over the head.

In addition to contributing to the alarming breakdown of discourse, zealots and their ilk also possess the peculiar trait of often being, well, just plain wrong. Oh, they start out right, but somewhere along the way they veer off the narrow path and start clearing new trails of their own. Much as they can still see the original path, there's still some ounce of truth left in their claims, but it's been shrouded by the questionable data and dubious claims that are the hallmark of fanatics the nation over.

My hope, then, is that in the event that we twenty-somethings have to put our banking careers on hold and turn to making our real mark on the world for at least a little while, that we do it with a little more thought and rationale than our predecessors. Not only will we get our respective points across, but perhaps we'll do it skillfully enough that instead of everyone forgetting about activism when the good times return, people will retain a healthy sense of service in their daily lives.

If this doesn't happen, however, and the zealots return, get ready for some fun. Like, say, if a prayer-in-school statute gets passed. I know that all those folks have in mind the nice Protestant Anglo-Saxon form of praying. They're going to get a kick out of my kid when she comes into second grade and demands to perform a ritualistic dance to Martoza, the voodoo spirit of fertility. I'll be honest, it gets a little messy, particularly once the open flames and the chickens get thrown into the mix. But hey, the right to pray is the right to pray. You let one in, you let 'em all in. Thank God, literally, for fanatics.

Please, let's not allow it get to this. Be an intelligent activist. Be a thoughtful person. Believe me, the chickens will thank you.

George W. Hicks '00 is an economics concentrator living in Winthrop House.

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