Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More Than a Mob Mentality

Having listened with much chagrin at the uncivil discourse at these Town Hall forums, I'd like to ask a few questions, rather than return fire with my own incredulous anger. Rather than ripping into these people, no matter how justified an act that might be, we might seek to understand why there is this degree of unreasoned, irrational anger in our society. I could point fingers at a long list of wholly understandable things: a government that has historically promised much and delivered little, a belief in cynicism so intense that a sense of powerlessness results, a society in the middle of a shift to a fully information-based economy, a history of anti-intellectualism that discourages developed opinion, a supposed War on Terror that quickly bogged down in Iraq, an economic recession that further exacerbated existent negative growth, and a tremendous amount of change that has occurred in a short period of time, just to name a few. Where we place the blame is not nearly as important as acknowledging that this degree of fear and hostility is very real.

The media, like me, or for that matter, like us, are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to make sense of these events. There really may not be any rational conclusion to draw from a group of disaffected and misinformed citizens. When tempers flare, the effect produced, regardless of the speaker is not a particularly endearing one and it cheapens whatever legitimacy such people might have held in the beginning, but rather than almost infantilizing them, a better path towards understanding might conceivably be trod. I remember seeing a French documentary of Idi Amin from the 1970's, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, whose chilling final lines read, in part,

...Let us not forget that it is a partially a deformed image of our own selves that Idi Amin Dada reflects back at us.

While, the specific context of the piece refers to the complicit role that French colonialism and imperialism formed in creating a monster, in this context, it highlights that these deluded souls are corruptions of ourselves. It could also be argued that our own inaction and our own refusal to speak out and combat these unfounded views prior to now did much to create what we see before us. That so many could place full belief and full trust in lies is food for thought for each of us. When lies provide easy answers for complex matters or when lies are all certain people have at their disposal, then we all suffer in the process.

The views expressed by these people may be little more than innuendo, gossip, immature logic, urban legend, and unfounded supposition but regardless of where all of this came from, for these people, these fears are very real. To dismiss them with caustic disdain and reduce them to cranks, or wingnuts, or coordinated efforts by right-wing groups to prevent health care reform is to only see one facet of a very complex gemstone. Nor is the nature of their response anything particularly unknown to history. For example, during the Depression, small groups of radicalized and emotionally charged farmers led protests and infrequent, but nevertheless violent responses in their communities, but then, as now, they were highly isolated events. No wholesale protest on a massive scale ever saw the light of day, and this fact alone might give us reason to question the wisdom of being frustrated that we alone can't seem to cobble together a unified voice. Americans are rarely unified people. Though we may live in the United States, we also live as united individuals first, united states second, and united countrymen third.

Perhaps, in all seriousness, we might be wise to give these misguided souls an outlet. In the colonial days and before, governments often allowed there to be a certain degree of acceptable debauchery and drunken revelry. Provided that the proceedings did not get out of hand, there were certain times every year that the masses were encouraged to let their hair down and be momentarily irresponsible. The theory behind this was that doing so was a necessary pressure release that allowed people to blow off steam so that their pent up frustration did not bubble over into something more sinister later. We might considering doing something like that again, provided, now as was then, that people understood that if violence or chaos broke out that the event would never be scheduled again.

What would be even better, of course, is if we could find a way to channel peoples' often completely justified anger into something far more productive and constructive. I am not naive. There are all kinds of mechanisms, organizations, tactics, groups, power bases, and the like who exist to prevent this very thing from happening so I certainly recognize that it isn't as easy as just proposing an idea and casting it out into the world. We all have our theories. Some say it's a simple matter of extending greater educational opportunity. Some say we ought to provide a better means for everyone to attain some degree of wealth. Some say that de-emphasizing the right-wing faiths that keep people in designated positions of servitude and powerlessness is the first step.

And in this situation I will openly claim that I don't have the answer. Much like you who are reading this, I have a few proposals myself and maybe even a well-reasoned plan of action behind it. It should be said that for big picture issues like this, I'm more interested with encouraging healthy debate and hopefully generating unique solutions in others than being right or believing I've got the answer. Every one of the issues listed above have been fomenting and fermenting in our group consciousness for a very long time and sometimes all any of us can do is propose an interesting hypothesis. If we contribute our bit and allow other to do the same, we have not failed. If we accomplish at least this much, we have no reason to angrily rant and rave at a Senator or Congressperson, or embrace conspiracy theories, or threaten to pick a fight, or resort to attention-getting stunts to get our point across to a President or to the media.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just one facet of a complex gemstone — I like that.

Among Nietzsche’s store of aphorisms, there is this: “Where one can no longer love, there one should pass by.” In this case, if all you can feel toward the “wingnuts” is hatred or contempt, then your best course is to do nothing. You can still work on health care reform, for instance by putting pressure on your lawmakers. But do nothing to engage the hated enemy.

I don’t think it’s possible to be a change agent for people, as you describe here, without loving them in some sense.

Here’s a tough comparison. If SNCC volunteers in Mississippi could love the sheriff's deputies and vigilante bigots who beat them bloody and murdered their friends, it doesn’t seem impossible for us to love desperate, scared-shitless people who scream out loud at public meetings.

Not every conflict calls for a weapon. Not even in politics.