New Apathy

September 2004


People who believe that they have lost (or never had) any influence on the political process constitute the new apathy. After all, if you can't win, why play?

I had an interesting discussion with a friend the other day about politics. Their views can be summarized as follows:

"Why bother voting? You can't have any effect on the outcome. Whoever you vote for, there won't be any real difference."

To which I responded with two questions:

  1. Do you feel that everything about American democracy is a lie?
  2. Does that mean that you think we live in a totalitarian state?

Her answer to both statements was, "yes."

Many people would disagree with her, but many thoughtful but discouraged people would admit that there is at least some truth in her views. Being discouraged, convinced that one's views and feelings have no effect and that it is pointless to do anything anyway is the new apathy.

"America," says Noam Chomsky, "is and always was a Polyarchy." A polyarchy is a country run by competing powerful interests. Formerly they were mostly white, land-owning intellectuals, but they have more recently become members of the corporate elite. However, because of the democratic form of our government, one of those competing powerful forces is us. We, the electorate, can influence political processes in this country. If that were not so, we would not have labor laws, environmental legislation, or the Bill of Rights. All those things were won after hard struggle by people like you and like me. We are responsible for how much we allow other powerful forces in our country to rule and how much we constrain that rule because we push back.

Make no mistake: power is pressure sensitive. The moment you stop pushing in your own chosen direction, the course of your life and the country will change. However much you dislike the way your country is going now -- stop pushing and it will get worse.

Another aspect of the new apathy is expressed by another friend who is an ardent environmentalist who declares, "They (the opposition) have all the advantages. They have all the money, all the influence, all the time in the world. And they only have to win once. You can fight them over a forest for a hundred years maybe, but it only takes a week for them to trash it and it won't come back in a thousand years. It doesn't matter what you do, whatever kind of sand castles you make -- when the time comes and the tide comes in, they win."

So, if you can't ever win, what's the point?

The point is, that it is not about winning or losing. It's not even about being right or being wrong. It is about doing right and living according to your beliefs, insofar as you can, and doing whatever you are able. You may not have an effect you can see. But the effect of this way of living in the world on your life, on your family, and on your community is fundamentally different from a life spent in selfish, uncaring pursuit of safety or material prosperity.

"I am tired of losing. I am so tired of losing that I am angry with myself because I let myself get so close to giving up and letting them win again. I may not be much, but if I owe my children anything, then it is to be a millstone around the necks of those who would make their lives not worth living -- stealing from us the hard bought fruits of liberty and hope. They lie. I will not lie to defeat them. They cheat. I will not cheat to defeat them. I will hold up to them the flame of truth. And when I am done, my children will inherit a world where goodness does defeat evil, where right and truth do prevail -- not because of me or because of what I have done, but because I am only one among so many and all our children deserve a better world."
--Marion Anderson

The other good reason not to give up is that giving up is exactly what they want you to do. Don't give them the satisfaction. If you don't tell the people in power where they can put it, you will find yourself there by and by.

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