'DO YOU SOLEMNLY swear to uphold the constitution of the United States of America?" the judge asked. "Yes," about 70 of us answered in unison. We were a colorful, diverse crowd, with nearly every ethnic group imaginable represented in our midst. And we were, on the fourth day of December, 1981, about to become naturalized citizens of the United States.
In many ways, that memorable day marked the beginning of my adulthood. I was 17 and had made a conscious decision to renounce my West German citizenship and embrace that of the United States. It was a proud moment for me, yet one filled with grave responsibility; I didn't take this honor lightly. My immigrant heritage had taught me to appreciate the interdependence of our world. Unlike a lot of my friends who were born in the '60s, it leaves me thinking that foreign policy is important. It also instills in me a fierce determination to make this country even better.
I love this country, perhaps more intensely than many of my peers. I emigrated from Germany with my parents in 1969, at the ripe old age of 5. Growing up in Cleveland, I lived close to Kent State University, where, in 1970, four student protesters were killed by National Guardsmen, precipitating the worst campus upheavals of the Vietnam era. In fact, my earliest memories of the United States are of the heavy industry of northern Ohio -- so different from the small town in Germany that I'd left -- and the Kent State shootings. Later, many of my teachers were "radical" former Kent students, who had vivid memories of their own, and distinct feelings about the establishment, the student movement and Vietnam.
For some reason, I always associated myself with that generation. I mean, they had good music, they dressed funny and did all those crazy things kids love to hear about. It goes deeper than that, however. Somehow the ideals of that generation made a great deal of sense to me.
Since both sets of my grandparents fought in World War II for Germany, I learned a wariness of war and the military early. When I visited Germany as I was growing up, the ravages of World War II were still a common topic of conversation. My mother's father never came back from Berlin in 1945. As a teen-ager, she had spent a great deal of time trying to determine whether her father had simply been caught up in the era, or whether he had been an avowed Nazi. And we talked about that.
Thinking about it now, I realize this early antimilitarism found expression in the readings I did about the '60s. It also explains, in part, the vehement antinuclear movement in Europe. There, it seems, many are attempting to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors.
During a five-month stay in Germany late last year as part of a study- abroad program, I was asked many times if I was German or American.
It was a difficult question to answer. I felt strangely comfortable in German society; Europe, I came to realize, is my intellectual home. I discovered an entire segment of the population that was in the same mindset I was. Socialism and communism weren't dirty words, and weren't necessarily associated with the Soviet Union. Spontaneous political discussions were not uncommon and usually took place over a good German beer in the corner Kneipe (pub).
While there, I did an internship with Petra Kelly, the outspoken and energetic member of the Green Party. Kelly, too, came to the United States as a youngster -- her father was an American soldier. She worked in Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968 and her style of politics owes something to '60s American radicalism. The Green Party today, in its anti-nuke, anti- NATO, environmentally conscious, slightly chaotic grass-roots-democracy style would not be unrecognizable to my early teachers from Kent State.
While I was in Germany, I discovered that my personal struggle to come to grips with my heritage and the historical burden of Nazism, was not a solitary one. There, I could bounce ideas off others of my generation, and together we would examine the importance of that era to our time.
I struggled with a desire to stay in Germany -- to carve out a life there. Yet, I realized that the United States has tremendous potential. It is clear to me that if all those who have criticisms leave, not much is going to change.
So here I am.
In Ohio when I was growing up, I remember often asking my parents, "Why couldn't I have been like everyone else?" I'd noticed the differences. My family didn't go to church. We spoke German at home. My parents took me out of fifth grade for a month and we traveled all over Europe. My parents were young, hip and no subject was taboo in our household. Their favorite album was "Hair," and I distinctly remember them forbidding me to sing some of the more suggestive songs on the album. At the time, the words were meaningless to me, they simply had good tunes. Nursery rhymes for non- native English speakers, one could say.
One of my first kicks was the women's liberation movement. I remember doing an oral report in fifth grade on the recent achievements of various women, and one of the "women" I discussed was an executive in the auto industry. Several weeks later, the news hit the stands that "she" was really a he, padded bras and all. It had all been a hoax, a fraud. I was shocked. I felt obligated to tell the class. They laughed. I was adamant -- "There are lots of other women who are doing important things."
I've had it comparatively easy. Equality always seemed a natural, given fact. That, I suppose, had something to do with my mother being such a strong-willed, independent woman. She found the courage in the conservative Germany of the early '60s to have an illegitimate child (me), run a business, and make a name for herself in the male-dominated photography world.
But as I was growing up, it became clear to me that equality doesn't exist for everyone. Between the ages of 10 and 14, I spent many summers in the heart of the Deep South visiting my great-uncle and aunt and their kids at their pig, pecan and peanut farm in south Georgia. There I saw the terribly inhumane effects of racism and poverty. I remember seemingly endless arguments with my great-uncle, who had moved to Georgia with his family shortly after the war. He would never talk about his life in Germany, but it was clear he saw no institutional injustice in the treatment of blacks.
What I saw was completely different. We lived in a big farmhouse and over there, just across the street, were entire families with sometimes 10 to 12 children living in what amounted to nothing more than makeshift shacks. The children were shy and the road seemed to be a sort of barrier. We kids would talk and laugh, but the blacks would always stay on "their" side of the road, and my family on "ours."
Outside of the workplace, everything was segregated -- from the pools we went to with the carefully selected children of friends, to the huge community potluck dinners. I cannot remember ever seeing a black family on these numerous occasions.
Naturally, these were things I did not or could not comprehend at the time, but in retrospect, I am shocked and appalled. There are many things I perceive as inherently wrong in our society. I am incredulous that despite the battles fought in the '60s, there has been so much backsliding, leaving abundant evidence of racism, sexism and bigotry. Admittedly, many of the battles for equality and civil rights had already been fought by the time I was born, yet what I see is a war that is far from won.
This became especially clear to me last fall when I worked with the Green Party in Bonn. There is an urgent sense of a need for change in Germany today. Because of Germany's history, location at the start of the logical route of an invasion of Western Europe, and the ubiquity of NATO troops, many Germans, young and old, are challenging the "establishment." And like them, I am not content to play the status quo game. I believe there are possibilities for growth and change.
My idealism has been around for most of my life, but it has only been in the past three years in college that I've thought about how I might attain my goals realistically.
Journalism was an early interest. I remember a career day we had in eighth grade. Each of us had to pick a career, research it, and do a short report on the job outlook in that field by the time we graduated from college. I chose journalism. The job outlook for '86, my expected year of graduation, was lousy. In the wake of Watergate, everyone and their brother had decided to become the next Woodward and Bernsteins of the world, including me.
My motives were simple. I wanted to change the world. I realized that politics and the media were two of the main instruments influencing the shape of events -- and, by God, I wanted to be there in the thick of things. I decided the swamped job market couldn't stop me. Besides, I figured, most of those pseudo-Woodsteins would be in the public relations business by the time I was ready to hit the stands.
I started writing seriously around my sophomore year of high school at the age of 15, choosing such topics as family-planning clinics and the influence of drugs in high school. By my senior year, I was writing a column for the local commercial weekly, trying desperately to keep the community in touch with the high school students.
My school system went broke that year, leaving many students angry and confused, and many taxpayers even more so. As a result, I had the opportunity to cover some of the most exciting education news in years.
That same year two other students and I wrote and published an underground newspaper -- "The Whip." We had faculty contacts who kept us posted on the lastest union news and school system bungles. Our pet peeve was the incredible mismanagement of funds that eventually caused the bankruptcy of the school system. The entire experience was a great way to learn about libel laws and student rights firsthand. For most of my senior year, I carried a student-rights manual with me at all times, lest someone catch on to our subversive activity, and attempt to deny me my rights.
Citizen rights were on my mind again as I hovered near the phone in Bonn on the eve of the 1984 presidential election. My friend Joan, a fellow "radical," gave me the news piece by piece. The two of us grew more and more discouraged as state after state turned "blue," and Reagan's victory became a fait accompli. Together we began plotting ways to turn back the tide of conservatism sweeping the States. Walter Mondae came on the Armed Forces international radio around 5:00 a.m. our time. He said, "the fight is not over, it has just begun." And indeed, I believe that accepting the fatalistic swing of the political pendulum is too easy.
When I first entered American University, I became involved with a leftist student discussion group on campus. One of the issues I first got involved with was the firing of 92 janitorial workers at the university. All 92 had gotten their walking papers the day after Christmas, because the university was hiring a contract cleaning service.
It was a big issue, and a real one. We organized petition drives to get the workers reinstated, and I remember many late nights of walking through the dormitories asking for signatures. I realized then that some of my generation's priorities are a little off. The firing meant little to nothing to many of the students; what mattered was the lack of cleaning services on their particular floors. I quickly learned how to manipulate their emotions -- "So, how long has it been since you've had your bathroom cleaned?"
In the end, most of the 92 were hired by the contract cleaning service.
In conversations I've had about the '60s, many have said that people were only active because they were personally affected. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it any better now, but after that experience, I recognize it as reality.
Despite everything, I am optimistic. I know I am not alone in caring about what is happening in the world. Most of my close friends are politically aware, if not active. We argue politics sometimes, late at night, and sit around singing the protest songs of the '60s. Every party seems to end up with a core group clustered around somebody with an acoustic guitar. Yes, in college apartments in 1985, you can still hear people singing "Four dead in O-hi-O." or "A friend of the devil is a friend of mine."
One of my friends who helped organize the janitorial workers' protest several years ago, is now working as a journalist in Nicaragua. He writes me crazy postcards about the "revolution," and says it is alive and kicking.
My friend, Joan, whose parents were active in the '60s, and who considers herself a historian, has a theory about us. She thinks we are the survivors of a revolution. We benefit from the gains, but worry about their erosion.
Whatever the explanation for us, I am convinced my generation isn't apathetic, and we don't just care about jobs and expensive cars. Sure, we're terribly caught up in the economic games of the time. We have thousands and thousands of dollars worth of student loans to pay off. We work part-time jobs because sometimes we can't even get those loans. I'm not going to deny it. We go about our lives amassing impressive credentials to put on our resumes because there aren't enough jobs to go around.
Yet we do care about peace and nuclear weapons. We are concerned about starvation in Ethiopia and apartheid in South Africa. We may not be in the streets protesting en masse, but more and more of my peers are involved in lobby efforts and campus political groups.
We may not be as visible as the college students of yesteryear, but we still have plenty to say.