Love it or hate it, our dear University resides in a famously liberal city. We’ve got a vibrant gay community, scads of hippie gift-shops and a yearly carnival paying homage to marijuana. But the forward-thinking Ann Arbor we know today is a far cry from what it was in the 1960s. Those were the years that saw the impetus for the creation of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Union and the unveiling of the Great Society program during President Lyndon Johnson’s commencement address at the Big House. Yet, more significant was Ann Arbor’s spirit of student activism in those years. Protests gained enough steam to close South University Avenue for days. One organization, Students for a Democratic Society, formed here and quickly became a fixture at colleges across the nation.

Radical leftism was Ann Arbor’s answer to a period in history that asked the American people difficult questions. Even a cursory glance at the ’60s illustrates the overwhelming uncertainty and complexity of that era. Society was rife with inequality, the nation was fighting an increasingly brutal war and abstract -isms threatened to undermine the American way of life.

Now stop. Go back to the preceding sentence and conjugate all verbs in the present tense. Eerie, isn’t it? We may have Starbucks and iPods and Facebook to divert our attention from this reality, but our society is in an equally precarious spot today.

By now you’ve likely heard the news — from partisan news sources, no doubt — that income inequality has skyrocketed out of control. A month ago, I referenced the finding that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now controls 24 percent of all income in the nation (Our American contradiction, 11/10/2010). In a recent interview with “60 Minutes,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke went so far as declaring that this inequality “is creating two societies.” Nevertheless, it’s now almost certain that the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans will continue for the next two years. Thanks to Republicans in Congress, the rich will get richer and the poor will stay poor for two more years.

And speaking of things we can’t afford, let’s talk for a moment about the war we’re still fighting in the Middle East. Pardon me, I meant wars. We’ve spent over a trillion dollars fighting them since 2001. The toll on American lives has been in the thousands — not to mention the exponentially higher casualty rates among innocent Afghans and Iraqis. Yet, the argument that the U.S. is safer because of our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan is unconvincing. Even when we leave — if we leave? — the threats of terrorism and fundamentalism will likely remain omnipresent in our national psyche.

Though we may not know how the War on Terror will pan out, it’s now obvious — thanks to WikiLeaks — that American credibility around the world has suffered myriad blows in the past decade. The leaked documents, while fascinating and even darkly hilarious at times, only confirmed the increasingly obvious truth that the U.S. no longer commands the respect of the international community.

The world around us has grown remarkably unsettled. So what are we to do? As the next generation of politicians, educators, lawyers, doctors and more, we not only have a responsibility to try to change our society, but we also have no other choice. Musing on this reality, I’m reminded of the opening sentence of the Port Huron Statement, SDS’s manifesto written in part by Tom Hayden, a former editor-in-chief of this very newspaper: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

It may seem as though I’m giving in to my own obsessive paranoia about the state of the world. It might also appear as if I’m surrendering to an activist nostalgia that I’ve only read about in books. But I refuse to believe that changing the world is the business of other, more qualified people. As students, unbridled by careers and families, we have a unique opportunity to devote the necessary energy to researching, questioning, organizing and bettering our society. Indeed, we must do all those things.

I’m not calling for a renaissance of radicalism on our campus. I’m not imploring you to forgo your finals as a protest of education inequality in this country or anything of the sort. I only ask that as you read the news, and as you look ahead toward the life you’ll soon build, you find ways to make a change in the circles you inhabit — be it in your family, classroom, relationships, campus, nation or world. And in the words of the Port Huron Statement, “If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

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