Today I want to pose to you a political question that has been bothering me for years. It is, as Eurie once put it to me: “In light of all the outrages that go on in our country and our society, why aren’t we all revoluting?” I’ve wondered about this ever since Berkeley, when in History 7B we watched Mario Savio addressing the student body on the steps of Sproul Hall in 1964 and I felt myself moved by his passion and the activist spirit of the times.
Wow, I thought, people cared about things so much back then. I wished I lived during the 60s! Then, as I became more aware of contemporary politics (especially after 9/11), I realized — and yes, this was naïve of me not to realize it before then, but that’s what a good liberal-arts education is for — that there are just as many reasons to be an activist these days, maybe even more reasons than there used to be, and yet that widespread activist spirit is, as far as I can tell, almost totally gone. The most similar phenomenon I can think of is the new eco-consciousness… but come on, there’s a big difference between bringing your own bag to the grocery store and allowing yourself to be arrested in the name of protest.[*]
So I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now, but it all came back up again last night while I read a 2007 graphic novel, Arab in America, by a Beirut-born lecturer and writer named Toufic El Rassi. El Rassi was born in Lebanon but his family immigrated to Chicago when he was a year old, so he’s as American as I am. In Arab, he writes about his upbringing, about being teased and feeling ashamed of his parents, in a way that I suspect would resonate strongly for all children of immigrants. But even more than this, El Rassi writes about what it is to be Arab-American in the wake of the two Gulf Wars and 9/11. He explains the history of Arab-American politics, from the creation of Middle Eastern countries by European colonial powers to what is going on today, and explains Arab stereotypes and how they’ve been perpetuated by American media and culture. He even explains such should-be-givens as what the term “Arab” even means (many Arabs are Muslim but not all Muslims are Arab; people who live “in that part of the world” but are not Arabs include Turks and Persians). I know I’m not the only supposedly educated person who has remained shamefully ignorant of all these things; I think this book should be required reading, especially since it’s so readable and I don’t know of anything else that breaks it down so understandably. I learned much more about international politics from reading this book than I ever have from the news, school, or from any other source.
Reading El Rassi’s book made me really sad and really angry about incidents I already knew about, particularly the violation of Arab Americans’ civil rights in the name of post-9/11 national security. I knew about the Canadian man who was imprisoned on no cause and tortured for many months before finally being released to his family, or the entire families deported “back” to a country the children didn’t even know and now have to grow up in. But seeing these incidents in the context El Rassi provides — a long history of political and cultural discrimination against Arab Americans and Muslims — made them seem like even more of an outrage. I guess I knew beforehand that there was this kind of context, but I didn’t know it in a very specific way. These incidents were not just isolated events in the post-9/11 period but were part of a long and shameful heritage that continues to this day, largely without notice by anyone not directly affected! Arab in America made me feel sick at heart that these outrages were perpetrated on my home soil and with my tacit (though unknowing) consent.
Which brings me back to my and Eurie’s question: Knowing this, why are we not all revoluting? Are we afraid of the consequences? Do we feel that we can’t make a difference? Do we even know how we would stand up and fight back? One thing I’ve learned is that people have a tipping point when it comes to breaking their self-absorbed complacency (and I include myself in this condemnation) for a cause. Remember the time I watched the man on the train plead for help? I felt curiosity right away, pity soon after, sadness and great compassion after that — but I felt paralyzed to act! I’ve noticed the same continuum of feelings-to-action in other situations too, most recently when Erik and I were stopped at a red light on our road trip and we saw a man holding a “hungry please help” sign. It took me a very long time to decide to do something, even though we had so much food in the back seat and wouldn’t endanger anyone by calling the man over to our car at such a long light (we ended up giving him a bag of chips; I’m still sad I forgot we also had crackers and salmon jerky). The continuum looks something like this:
stimulus -> observation –> compassion -> feeling that someone should do something —>
urge to do it oneself ————————————————–> actually doing it
And these two examples required simple handouts from me; the distance between compassion and action for bigger causes (like fighting on behalf of an unfairly imprisoned individual) must be so much greater. Why do we wait so long to act, if we even act at all? It’s not that we don’t want to or don’t see that the need is there. Surely, at some point, the moral obligation to act must be greater than the amount of time, money, or personal security we lose by doing so.
I think what most of us don’t fully, mindfully, constantly acknowledge, is that every single wrong in this country/society is done with our tacit consent. It’s when I remember this that I feel so incredulous that we’re not all revoluting. Imagine, if someone came and knocked on your door and said, “Greetings, citizen! I’m here from the People in Charge of America! We’re going to willfully destroy the environment, falsely imprison and torture innocent people, kill civilians in other countries, torture billions of animals so you can eat meat, stand by while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and more desperate, make education and healthcare prohibitively expensive for lots of people, and do tons of other bad things that you would never do on your own. We’re just here today to check that you’re okay with all this! Do we have your approval?” Would you say yes?! And yet, by doing nothing, that’s what we are saying, every day of our lives.
Of course the real problem isn’t that we all want to say yes, but that we don’t know how to say no, or to whom we should say it. Or we figure we’d have to turn over our whole paychecks and all our free time to protesting, possibly getting in trouble along the way… and we figure it’s just not something we can do right now. I don’t know. I’m constantly saddened and angered by what I see happening, and yet I’m not revoluting either. And I’m just not sure why. I guess I could write letters to congresspeople, but I always feel that my half-assed poorly-informed vague letters aren’t worth a dime; I don’t know whether that’s true, but it’s enough to stop me from doing it. I think in some sense I get so wrapped up in the structures that have been laid out for us — oh, if I vote for Obama then I’m making my stance against all those people in power who’ve done bad things! — that I forget that even wonderful king-of-our-hearts Obama won’t and can’t right all the wrongs I see done with my tacit consent. And then I feel like I have to reinvent the wheel just to have my say. And that, naturally, seems like too much trouble. I hate my inaction.
So, I’m turning the question over to you, because I want to know how other people feel about this too. Are you sad? Are you mad? What do you do about it? Why aren’t you revoluting?
[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]
[*Reading this post, six years later, I realize I want to rephase this sentence — it isn’t that there is no longer a widespread activist spirit, but that I was not aware, in 2008, of the various activist movements in my contemporary world. Also, it hadn’t occurred to me then that a documentary about UC Berkeley in the 1960s wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation of that era’s society at large.]