- Be strong: Other generations before you have come of age during wars, depressions, and natural disasters. Much will depend on how you handle it, both individually and collectively.
- Be strong: The virus has laid bare the complete lack of leadership in both political parties and to a great extent in the media as well. Bernie Sanders is the only figure in recent times that one can call a visionary leader, proposing a future that you all will need to play an active role to achieve. This means that your generation is going to have to create a whole new cadre of leaders and whole new ways of thinking. This can be a great opportunity.
- Be strong: It didn’t need to be this way. In America’s previous two great crises, the Civil War and the Great Depression, we had great leaders, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. We do not have that now. Europe’s descent into fascism after World War I is an example of what happens when people go through trauma without real leaders.
- Be strong: The economic and public health crisis triggered by Covid-19 is a human-made disaster, one that was long in the making. The biggest mistake would be to lay all blame on Donald Trump’s shoulders. This crisis was a collective failure, based on a way of life promoted by elites who blindly pursued wealth, who had no long-term vision, and who had the worst values. Many will say that this was an act of God and that no one is to blame. Do not listen. Religion has its place but not as an explanation of history.
- Be strong: Act as a generation. What it means to act as a generation is not “youth politics,” or opposition to the old because of the deficit. It certainly doesn’t mean the 1960s Baby Boomer mantra, “Trust no one over thirty.” There are plenty of people in the older generation you can trust, who are not in the power structure. Acting as a generation means taking your place in the continuity of time, connecting the past with the future, preparing the world for your children, even though your parents did not prepare the world for you.
- Be strong: Build a collective society. The virus makes clear how close to catastrophe human life always is. It is incredible folly to believe that if everyone pursues self-interest, things will work out for the best. It’s the opposite. we need advance planning and more, collective ownership, obvious things such as Medicare for All, the abolition of student debt, and free college. Yes, the wealthy (including the rich colleges) will have to pay their fair share.
- Be strong: Think globally, and reach out. The emergence of a global culture—intellectually, artistically, musically—is one of the great achievements of our era. We need to build on it, not let it go to waste. Defensive nationalism, great-nation chauvinism, and efforts to remain “number one” run counter to our responsibilities as a species. We have to organize scientific research, public health, climate-planning, ecology, and the exploration of space and the oceans internationally.
- Be strong: Make love as you wage political war. We have to build on the achievements of #MeToo and earlier feminist and LGBTQ movements. This means continuing to emancipate ourselves from both Puritanism and policing by the state. Sexual liberation has always been a demand for youth. Embrace it.
- Be strong: Save the arts and the universities. Now more than ever, we will need art, history, and literature. The attempt to turn all but the elite universities into mere job training programs has been ongoing for at least a decade. Our desperate financial situation is going to exacerbate this trend. “Listen to science” is good advice when it comes to epidemiology and public health, but it stops there. The goals of science need to be clarified by history and the arts. Science cannot give us values. Only democratic discussion in light of philosophy, literature, and the arts can give voice to our deepest concerns.
- Be strong: Reaffirm the liberal tradition of individual rights. People have rights that banks and corporations do not. Individual rights do not include the right to destroy the planet. Make room—in your own ranks—for dissent. The task that has been waiting for you is to combine the wisdom of rational planning for a just society with the imperishable rights of the individual. To come of age in a time of sickness and death is ghastly and horrific, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that you have whole worlds to make your own. Seize this historical moment. It is yours.
Eli Zaretsky is a professor of history at The New School for Social Research.
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