Thursday, November 11, 2010

If you're not going to get mad, at least don't be lazy

Recently, I spoke to a friend of mine about the value of voting in particular as well as the value of worrying about politics and government in general. The attitude of this self-employed single mother of two was that as far as she was concerned, the world is more or less controlled by folks who are wealthy and powerful, and she’s not terribly interested in wasting her energy by getting invested in outcomes that are totally out of her control.

The conversation came at a time when I'd already been mulling over an election that mostly went in a direction that was disappointing to me. And, in the course of said mulling, I came across a reference to the famous scene from Network where Howard Beale, a beleaguered news anchor on the verge of psychological collapse, experiences a breakdown that most folks are familiar with, even if only through cultural osmosis:

We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, “Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.” Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! . . . I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, “I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

Personally, I’m not really big into rage for the sake of rage. Surveying the current political scene, it seems as if the Tea Partiers have that covered quite well, and all that nameless rage appears to have gone into either (a) re-electing Republicans who have gotten no more serious about small government or debt reduction than they were two years ago, or (b) creating an internecine war within the Republican party that’s just fantastic for the cause of ideological purity, but will do little to give us a government that responds in any substantive way to the reality of the world around us.

Faced with the reality of that, my friend’s point was well-taken. It certainly makes sense to look at the world around you, and rapidly conclude that you have a limited number of choices in how to respond. One is the sort of formless, incoherent rage articulated on the far right. The other is an apathetic acquiescence to the notion that the rich and the powerful hold all the cards, and that either things will either work themselves out without you worrying about them or that things are just too corrupt for your worry to make a difference.

And here's the rub: neither reaction is an illogical one. After all, people have bills to pay, and kids to feed, and careers to pursue. It’s perfectly reasonable that in a 15-20 hour day, filled to the brim with things that you have to do, either on your own behalf or on behalf of those who depend on you directly, that you decline to invite even more agitation into your life by worrying about things that either don't affect you or that you cannot affect. There's something to be said for conserving your mental energy for more worthwhile, and satisfying pursuits.

(Hell, there's certainly very little reason for me to follow politics. I really don't have much of a dog in that particular fight. I'm a white male heterosexual with both a college and a post-graduate degree. If I put in the effort, I'll probably make plenty of money. So, I actually will probably be all right no matter what jackassery the government gets up to. Given everything I see on the news, a disengaged, ironic attitude would certainly save me a lot of trouble.)

Nevertheless, I find myself coming back to the scene from Network. What struck me upon re-watching the scene is a small, almost throwaway line in the middle of all that exuberant rage:

Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis.

My emphasis highlights a subtle point that gets lost when this scene is referenced: Anger is a useful antidote to apathy and a necessary pre-condition to progress, not an end in itself. It’s easy to forget that formless rage can easily be harnessed to destructive ends. But that doesn’t mean that the only alternative is resigned, world-weary apathy. (And frankly, I figure that if you’re under age 45, it’s a bit pretentious to be acting world-weary in the first place.) I’ve frequently been told I’m cynical, but as a casual student of history, I believe whole-heartedly in the notion that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” And while inchoate anger isn’t particular useful, letting in the sort of anger that rouses us out of apathy is what bends the arc in that direction.

To paraphrase old Howard Beale, I don't know what to do about the recession, and the energy crisis, and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, or the rising costs of health care, or any of the rest of the Big Important Issues that crop up on blogs and tweets and 24-hour news networks. All I really know is that for all the talk about how the wealthy and powerful control everything, and things are thoroughly corrupt and unchangeable, and civic engagement is a useless exercise...well, to tick off a few counter-examples:

  • sixty years ago, it was acceptable (at least to some) to turn fire hoses on peaceful black protesters; now, the best intolerant folks can do is conjure up absurd little protests about "reverse racism"
  • seventy years ago we didn’t need secret prisons to round up our presumed “enemies” in a time of war; we could just herd Japanese-Americans into internment camps with the approval of the Supreme Court
  • ninety years ago, women couldn’t vote; now, you've got women publicly telling male candidates running for elected office to "man up"
  • one hundred years ago, no one gave a damn if industrial process put poison into our food or children into factories
  • one hundred and fifty years ago, half the country existed in some anachronistic, medieval feudal society that kept human beings as property

And so on. None of it happened because otherwise good people looked around and said, "You know, this is awful but that's just how the world works. I've got my own shit to worry about." It all changed because people cared enough to get mad and stay mad.

That being the case, I can’t help but conclude that unyielding cynicism and apathy, while great coping mechanisms for an increasingly chaotic world, are as much of a short-sighted flight from reality as na├»ve idealism. After all, the people with a stake in keeping the world the way it is are certainly pretty engaged -- seems like the worst one could do is make their task easier.

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