On Sept. 21, over 400,000 people turned up in the streets of New York City for the largest climate change rally in U.S. history. Like them, and so many others my age in America, I am angry.
Let me be clear. I am not just angry at the short-sighted politicians and captains of industry from generations past, though their ignorance and avaricious commitment to capitalism has set us on a very real path to global collapse.
I’m angry at those in power now — those who know the consequences of inaction and still choose to do nothing.
In a Daily Show episode from last week, Jon Stewart likened the task of convincing Congress to do something about climate change to the tragic plight of Sisyphus. “It’s like pushing a million pounds of idiot up a hill,” he said. It’s funny. And when I think about the ignorance it takes for our leaders to insist, against overwhelming scientific evidence, that doing nothing is okay, I also think it’s true.
Unfortunately, climate change isn’t by a long shot the only issue where congressional inaction irks me. Gun control, equal pay for equal work, racial equality in policing, gay marriage. These aren’t complex, convoluted issues with crucial open questions that affect whether or not we should address them at all. These are legislative slow pitches, which we as a nation could knock out of the park with a few common-sense legislative measures if our leaders would only step up to the plate.
What I think makes me and those of my generation so angry is that these failures to act are failures of logic and common sense, not just manifestations of differing values and opinions. It is not a partisan position to expect that our leadership will thoughtfully discuss issues and then propose solutions.
We have a leadership problem in Washington: Those elected to fight for our best interests consistently fail to deliver.
When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 2010, my secret dream was to become a congressman. I remember thinking that working on Capitol Hill seemed exhilarating and important. I imagined myself passionately advocating for my constituents in wide-reaching, historically relevant ways.
But even as a freshman, I could tell that politics wasn’t a career path respected by other Yalies, so I didn’t tell anyone.
Over the years, I witnessed peers and professors skewer government officials and their many idiocies. I watched Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert dance intellectual circles around politicians like cheeky matadors taunting their victims. I saw a friend who had come to Yale with presidential ambitions get socially crucified for saying it out loud.
I was young, and I was soft in the face of social derision. I forfeited my political aspirations. But I didn’t stop thinking that wanting to be a leader who makes Washington different was a noble thing.
Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe that satire and fiery opposition to bad policy keep democracy in balance. The road to public office is paved with temptations to corruption, and our good-humored skepticism of politics and politicians is healthy and necessary.
But I fear that the way we talk about our public servants here at Yale is turning off all but the most ruthlessly ambitious people from careers in public service. I fear that our open hostility will only leave us with the kind of stubborn, partisan, game-playing leaders we love to hate.
If you’ve been within a hundred miles of a YCC or New Haven Aldermanic campaign, you know what I’m talking about. We treat those who want to take up the messy mantle of governance like ill-intentioned goons, so we end up with leaders we can’t respect. It’s a vicious cycle.
At Yale, we find awesome ways to fight for the issues that matter to us. We post articles, we debate, we attend climate marches. We drive relentlessly toward impact.
Now imagine if the result of all this vibrant campus conversation were a student body empowered to fight for our passions as public servants instead of one afraid of being thought of as too calculating, too ambitious or too political.
Somewhere along the line, we decided that aspirations to public office — a place where real impact is a tantalizing possibility — are inexplicably gauche, and we are worse off for it.
Roles of leadership and power aren’t going anywhere. We will continue to have congressmen and senators and presidents, and they will continue to act — or not act — on the issues that matter.
If we continue to treat public office as a special circle of hell reserved for stubborn, unlikable individuals with outlandish ambition, then we are going to lose the reasonable, pragmatic voices with the power to change our perceptions of leadership — and, ultimately, our world — for the better.
Ike Silver is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.