Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Apathy Mask

I recently finished reading "A People's History of U.S.," a book I've mentioned again and again here. As I neared the end of the book (and moved closer to present day) author Howard Zinn argues that the government has become disconnected from the people.

Zinn writes
After the disastrous war in Vietnam came the scandals of Watergate. There was deepening economic insecurity for much of the population, along with environmental deterioration, and a growing culture of violence and family disarray. Clearly, such fundamental problems could not be solved without bold changes in the social and economic structure. But no major party candidates proposed such changes. The "American political tradition" held fast.
In recognition of this, perhaps only vaguely conscious of this, voters stayed away from the polls in large numbers, or voted without enthusiasm. More and more they declared, if only by nonparticipation, their alienation from the political system.

Passages like this really stuck with me. My brother turned 18 a few years after Kurt Cobain killed himself. Interviewers were asking Cobain constantly if "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was about teenage apathy because the story of the time was that my brother's generation, the one right before mine, was apathetic. They didn't vote because they didn't care or so said the media.

That story continues today. Sean Combs "Vote or Die" Campaign seems based on the idea that if teenagers and people in their twenties just really understood how incredibly important it is to vote, if they were just whipped into a frenzy, they would be voting.

But perhaps apathy masks something deeper and more frightening, despair.

Again, Zinn writes, "In a two party system, if both parties ignore public opinion, there is no place voters can turn."

The apathy story is a good one for the government and the media because it turns nonparticipation into individual moral failing (laziness, being uneducated, selfishness). The "despair" story is a much more difficult one because it requires us to admit the system is failing the people rather blame people for failing to participate in it.

1 comment:

drh said...

I just read an interesting article in The Atlantic (about Barak Obama, actually), that made a really good point about how in politics today, in the gulf between left and right, those in power are still essentially playing out the main argument of the baby-boomer generation, which is all about Vietnam, the 1960s, and whatever you were doing then and now that the baby boomers are at the height of their political power its going to continue (and continue to alienate Gen X-ers and younger) because its not our argument and we don't see the world that way.

(The actually point of the article was that Obama, being so young and therefore not really a part of that baby boomer fight is the only person currently in the fight who can transcend and move beyond those old arguments and mobilize other people to care.) Gen X-ers have always been labeled as apathetic--and we resent that label because in terms of outlook we share much more in common with the generation that grew up in the depression and fought WW2--simply because we don't accept the values of the Baby Boomers--we care, just like Gen Y folks care, we just care about different things. And demographically, Gen X-ers will probably never wield a great deal of political power because we are so small, and things will skip directly from the current generation to yours, and the danger is because of what's going on now in politics that the war (in Iraq, over the meaning and direction of America) will get overwritten onto YOUR generation and we'll never freakin' move past it.

Sorry if that was incoherent. I can show the article if you like.