November 14, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | An Open Letter to Students After the Election

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To the Editor:

At the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were competing in the development and testing of nuclear bombs, an Australian doctor named Helen Caldicott came to the United States. An expert in children’s cancers, she had taken leave of her profession to give three years of her life to raising awareness and urging people to stand up and speak out in opposition to further production and testing, which were both sending strontium 90 into the food chain and increasing the chance of a nuclear war. As she explained to audiences:

  • When I first grasped what a nuclear war would mean, I felt overwhelming grief.
  • Then that grief turned to anger — anger at the “them” who were doing this to our planet.
  • And then I turned my anger into energy; I determined that I would do all in my power to end the danger of nuclear war.
  • And then, I looked around to see who would work with me.

In their grief over this election, some college communities are calling for symbolic expression, such as the American flag to be taken down or lowered to half mast.  I am reminded of the young Vietnam Veterans who climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty and unfurled a gigantic flag — upside down in the international signal of distress. But they didn’t stop with a gesture. They organized a massive rally in Washington, D.C., where veterans tossed their medals of the steps of the Capitol, and they fanned across the United States to march through towns and perform guerilla theater to simulate the experience of war.  Students on college campuses responded.

When we returned to Cornell in 1970 for our 10th reunion, we were met by graduate students who passed out literature and offered teach-ins on the war.  That summer, Cornell opened a lobbying office in DC, where people interested in lobbying could find out where their Senators and Congressmen stood, and after their meetings with their Representatives, return to file a report for others to use.

You are now faced with a challenge perhaps greater than those students faced in the 70s and 80s — that of climate change caused by the warming of the planet.  And we have a President-elect who not only thinks climate change is a hoax and plans to strike down the advances the President has made against it, but also intends to appoint Supreme Court Justices and Federal judges who may curb our right to speak in opposition. Your first reaction was grief, as it was for millions of us Americans. And we now see that grief turning into anger in the streets and on campuses across the land.  You — we all — have a choice.  We can withdraw into our anger, or we can convert that anger into energy and act. You young people have power. You also have tools that the college students in the Anti-Vietnam War and the Anti-nuclear movements did not. You have the tools of the internet and social media which can connect you with students on other college campuses almost instantaneously. You can build a movement of tsunami proportions which will force politicians to listen to the generation that could easily vote them out of office in three years.

So this old Cornell grad is calling upon you to use those tools to lead us into a new age of empowerment of the people.  Commit your intelligence, your energy, your skills into using those tools to build a movement that is directed toward a positive goal — a movement that calls upon us to protect the rights we won in the past and to build a safer, healthier and more just world for the future.

Cynthia Loring MacBain ’60