Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma increasingly seems like the Gandhi of our times. As the physically unimposing head of a nonviolent political movement, the Nobel Peace Prize winner speaks to world leaders largely from the authority of her moral stature.
In February she appealed to Burma's trading partners to break economic ties with her troubled country to further isolate its oppressive regime. Though Burma's closest neighbors recently voted to accept it into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, President Clinton vowed that no new United States investment dollars will go to Burma, which the military regime there calls Myanmar.
Since Mr. Clinton's announcement, Ms. Suu Kyi's enemies have threatened to "punish" her. The military junta that keeps her under virtual house arrest has imprisoned hundreds of her supporters in the past few weeks. Yet she bravely continues to speak out for democracy, as she has since returning to Burma in 1988. And her words, like Gandhi's, often carry a spiritual message that transcends politics.
Suu Kyi delivered just such a message to some of America's newest college graduates through a smuggled speech read for her in January at American University's winter commencement in Washington.
"Some are destined to lead tranquil lives, safe in the security of a society that guarantees fundamental rights," she wrote. "Others may find themselves in situations where they have to strive incessantly for the most basic of rights, the right to life itself."
"It is no simple matter to decide who are the more fortunate," she then added to the surprise of some in the audience, "those to whom life gives all or those who have to give all to life. A fulfilled life is not necessarily one constructed strictly in accordance with one's own blueprint."
Suu Kyi, who raised two sons in the West before she returned to Burma, suddenly had interjected into a talk about the wounds of her country mention of what many say afflicts the young in ours - that they have nothing but their individual pursuit of material comfort as a blueprint for constructing a life. They have been called Generation X. Though every day there is news about the unraveling of our social fabric, post-cold-war America is frequently described as a place where no compelling challenges exist for them. Though the world still burns in many places, as Burma attests, we are told that history has ended.
Why does most of the talk about the supposed banality of post-cold-war America come from the mouths and word processors of the educated middle class? The poor in our inner cities and impoverished rural areas don't complain about ennui. Perhaps, instead of experiencing the end of history, we are witnessing the end of the social connections between the middle class and the poorer segments of society.
DURING the first 70 years of this century, many in the growing middle class were themselves only a generation removed from the struggles facing the lower rungs of society. The differences in income were not great.
But as the Commerce Department reported last year, income inequality among households "increased significantly" between 1968 and 1994. The measure of family-income inequality showed a stunning increase of more than 22 percent. Prior to 1968, it had been decreasing for almost 20 years.
As material inequality increases in our country, the middle class and the poorer segments of society grow further apart both physically and psychologically. The problem this poses for Generation X is a spiritual one. As Suu Kyi stated in her address:
"Thinking and feeling people everywhere, regardless of color or creed, understand the deeply rooted human need for a meaningful existence that goes beyond the mere gratification of material desires."
What can bridge the economic distance that has led to today's emotional separation from the most significant problems of our time?
Though some disdain was heaped on President Clinton for calling for volunteerism at the Summit for America's Future in April, it may be only through moral leadership that reconnection can be made. Suu Kyi reminds us that high principles can connect people of different fortunes in important causes:
"Young women and young men setting forth to leave their mark on the world might wish to cast their eyes beyond their own frontiers towards the shadowlands of lost rights."
Or to the shadowlands that exist here. Contrary to critics who consider it too lightweight an activity for a president, Clinton should spend more time speaking for such things as volunteerism and community service. Generation X's challenge is the challenge that Suu Kyi faces: to reach beyond the connections of economics to find the higher connections of the spirit.
* Alexander Kronemer, a freelance writer, is an economist in the United States Department of Labor.