Why is American society such a mess? It’s simple: We have never really been We.
I can understand the sentiment, but I think I’d dial it back a touch, personally.
Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders … and millions have been killed because of this obedience…. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves … (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.
— Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
— Edmund Burke
Assuming there is some consciousness to the Universe that perceives us as we truly are, this in itself would be proof of its unconditional love. If the underlying intelligence of the Universe didn’t regard us with the proverbial patience of saints, it seems pretty clear to me we would have been toast millennia ago.
If we take any significant amount of time to really examine legislation in the docket for either the House or Senate of the United States, we can’t help but find ourselves clenching our fists white in moral outrage. Personally — and I know I am not unique in this, in just my immediate family alone — I can only look at so many of the issues our legislature is hell-bent on creating for our country (and the world) without seriously wondering if I will lose my sanity.
And the relentless growth of this ethical cancer is not limited to just our government, or governments in the world, or global corporatism, or despotic leaders in remote corners of far away lands —
- It’s in the bully that make lives hell for students in a school while the teachers look on either helpless from straitjacketing legislation or from simple, jaded indifference.
- It’s in the driver that cut us off on the freeway, endangering our life and property, out of selfishness, spite, or a lack of empathy.
- It’s in the co-worker that undermines our job and our relationship with our co-workers and superiors out of some kind of dysfunctional personal need that the corporate culture tolerates — or even encourages.
- It’s in the selfish customer in the cashier line that leaves his groceries on the conveyor and forces everyone behind him to wait while he saunters all the way across the store to grab the box of Twinkies he forgot.
- It’s in the member of a volunteer organization that makes life miserable for everyone else, but ingratiates him- or herself into the worlds of enough fellow members that they’ll actually stand up in mindless support.
Is it any wonder that individuals like these, should they get into positions of real authority or power, turn into petty tyrants?
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not a genius. It really takes only a little thought to recognize the ramifications of the kinds of behavior I’m describing, behavior we are all exposed to on a daily basis.
It is as if we are in a finishing school for devils, and the task of those of us who want to live a clean and honest life is to spend our existence captive with serpents in a pit of slime and somehow escape being befouled and envenomed.
I deserve better than this, and I really hope you feel that too.
Why We Got Here
Why did it get so horrendous?
It’s pretty simple, really.
When I ran across the Howard Zinn quote above, it rang very, very true, but in my mind it didn’t go far enough. This really percolates down into all strata and areas of society — at least American society.
And it seems like the root cause would be the same: our culture — a culture made up of the actions and expectations of each and every one of us, of cultural norms built up over generations of unexamined or half-understood motivations — let this happen.
The cause is this: when we see behavior that we know full well is counterproductive to the lives of others, or even to ourselves, we don’t stand up, and we don’t have each other’s backs.
We don’t say, “Excuse me, she was in line before you were.”
We don’t call the cops on the jackass that wakes us up repeatedly at 4:00 in the morning with his boom car music that sets off half a dozen car alarms — or worse, we’re ostracized for being the only ones who do.
We don’t pay attention to the city council meetings that enable even more bizarre home owner’s association rules, and when one of our neighbors gets burned by one, we don’t march on the city council and make their lives hell until they get it right.
And it probably started simpler, in rural communities generations ago —
We didn’t link arms and ostracize the neighbor whose kids were terrorizing the other kids until they got the message, or had to leave the community (and take their useless offspring elsewhere) because no one would have anything to do with them.
We didn’t recognize the business practices our neighbor started that would callously destroy our way of life — our neighbor who was once our friend in elementary school — and awaken our other neighbors to the reality of what was happening, so that we could turn our backs collectively on our former friend and force him or her to wake up to what he or she had become.
No, we don’t do that. We don’t even think to do that. We don’t want to “make trouble.” We’ve been told to “turn the other cheek.” We want to “be nice.” We even go so far as to encourage ourselves, our friends, our children to “rise above them,” and “be better than that.”
Wake up. That’s exactly what they want.
This is how that particular kind of devilish mentality is able to get a toe in the door and eventually winds up in bed with our spouse or child. He/she/it plays us against our own better natures, and seduces us into compromising ourselves against what we know is right. And with each concession these fiends take little bites out of our souls, day by day, moment by moment, until we’re feeding them everything we have left.
They won’t stop. Why should they? Who’s giving them a reason to?
A Long-Term Breach in the Social Contract
I’m not talking about “hypothetical evils,” here. I’m not talking about legal fictions that need the Supreme Court to make a determination. We all know it’s wrong for the neighbor’s kid to be smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat from his bicycle. We all know graffiti is vandalism. We all know individuals who exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior in workplaces have no business keeping their jobs.
I could use the term Social Contract, of the relinquishing of rights to some authority in the interests of a greater whole, but that’s not quite the term I’m looking for. It’s more like “Community Acknowledgement” — if we wish to be part of a group, if we wish to interact and have a relationship with our neighbors and the larger community, we have to be willing to act equitably with others. If we aren’t willing to do that little thing, then we shouldn’t be permitted to be part of the community, and the community has every right to throw us out.
With the exception of individuals who have significant mental disabilities, anyone of contract age — or even before it — should be able to understand this.
We shouldn’t need a mountain of legislation or the hammer of the executive power of the police or military to force to a community to interact with its members in a constructive manner. We have this and need this because we find every excuse our fertile imaginations can give us to abdicate responsibility for our own behavior, and we tolerate and encourage this abdication in others.
We All Know What to Do
Maybe you and I can learn to live in that pit of slime and escape the fangs of the serpents, as ugly a proposition that may be. Or maybe because of the internet, and the reality of relatively uncensored information, the world will make a turn for the better.
Ultimately, if we want a better world, we need it filled with better people, and at the moment I don’t have a lot of confidence that this is happening.
We, as a society, are reaping what we have sown by not listening to that inner knowing, that sense of moral outrage when we’re looking evil in the face.
And this wall of petty tyranny will do everything it can to take every single one of us down with it.
Those of us who are left, we all know what to do.
Are we going to do it?
• • •
Copyright © 2012, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.