Apathy and rage, David Perez writes, have a lot in common.
As I gaze at my bookshelf, I see the remnants of a once-deep fascination with international relations and American politics: Master of the Senate, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, After Liberalism, Multiparty Government. There are other books there as well, but the selection leaves little doubt that I was once a certified political dork. It would seem quaint, even cute, if it didn’t remind me of why I no longer feel compelled by matters of governance and politics.
One of the few books of this ilk that I still value is Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless, written shortly before the future President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic was imprisoned for his dissident activities. I circled the number at the top right of page 28 at one point because of this passage: “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier to part with them (italics in original).” It is a passage that he wrote about totalitarian Communism, but its universality makes its application to our current context a worthwhile, if difficult, proposition.
A turgid mix of willful ignorance and disgust with the entire subject of politics has slowly poisoned the American civic discourse since the 1970s. One can pinpoint many causes and many other points before this period and after where trust between groups with differing political interests broke down catastrophically, but the background is irrelevant because the plain fact is that American politics and society cannot cope with these problems. We are mad, we are hopelessly in debt, class stratification continues at breakaway speed, and our government is simply not up to the task of addressing, much less fixing, the mess.
I should care. I’m young, in tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, chronically underemployed or unemployed, and knowledgeable enough about the world around me to know I’m getting screwed. This, in and of itself is not news, as many of my peers are in even more precarious positions than I. The real news is that it seems this situation is not going to change anytime soon. Three years after the economy collapsed, most people in America remain worse off than they were before the Great Recession. American politics has reached a low of dysfunction not seen since the Gilded Age.
So then why do I feel so apathetic toward the entire situation? Why am I not furious? The short answer is that I am furious, but the seeming stupidity of the situation at hand and the feeling of my own powerlessness to change it makes activism seem an exercise in futility that I literally cannot afford. And while I am getting screwed, many of the problems I face are of my own doing. I’d prefer to handle those shortcomings before I embark on a windmill-conquering quest through the countryside. Apathy, in short, is convenient.
The rage does boil over, though. Watching the President on TV for the first time in months recently, I started yelling at the screen: “WHERE’S MY MONEY? WHERE’S MY FUCKING MONEY, BARRY? BARRY, WHERE’S MY MONEY?” It was wholly undignified, and I was sort of joking, but it felt at once cathartic and pathetic. The frustration, with and at everyone and everything, is all too real. Bitching about elected officials, the police, or the super wealthy is the normal outlet, and it has its place. The distance between this and unmitigated rage, though, is surprisingly small.
It is obvious that this is not merely an American sentiment, as the recent riots in England attest to a similar frustration with authority and lack of opportunity for advancement. The riots themselves were an opportunistic wave of destruction that, in spite of its obvious appeal to thrill seekers and criminals alike, made the near-term prospects for the youth there worse. There is no reason to make sense of this conundrum, except to say that rage is a potent fuel, not prone to forethought and certainly averse to any sort of control.
The question that Tom Matlack asked earlier this week (“Are U.S. Class Riots Inevitable?”), then, is prurient but also misses the point. Could class riots happen here? Sure, but there are two problems. The first is that the beef with the current situation is not just about class, or race, or citizenship status, or opportunity. The points of contention encompass all of these points and many more. More importantly, riots don’t solve anything, and we need solutions.
The other issue at hand is that the complexity and sheer vastness of these problems seems so overwhelmingly large that it seems far easier to just ignore it and concentrate on one’s own condition. Apathy is fundamentally selfish, but when no one is looking out for #1, what else is there to do? This conundrum reflects reality in a way that all the ideologies, demagogy, and ways of examining life that promise a clean, simple solution to the problems at hand fail. Then again, maybe that’s where the cathartic, cleansing power of rage comes into play.
I don’t know, and that is what I find most frustrating. But I intend to abide by Havel’s exhortation to ‘live in truth’ and agree strongly that “a future secured by violence might actually be worse than what exists now; in other words, the future would be fatally stigmatized by the very means used to secure it.” If we are to salvage any shred of optimism of a better future, then we would do well to heed this.