GETTING A LIFE IN A LOCKED-DOWN LAND
By Sam Smith
ABOUT THE BOOK
Why Bother, in a wonderfully engaging and erudite manner, addresses the great question confronting democracy, community and justice -- and that is civic motivation. Prepare to be motivated. Sam Smith is an antidote to mindless speed reading. He makes you pause between paragraphs in order to mull over the captivating morsels he is placing in your imagination. - Ralph Nader
The alienated young, the over-worked 30-something, the free-thinking 40 year-old, the downsized 55-year-old worker, the senior who society has put out to pasture are all part of an America that finds itself a fugitive from the law of averages -- the tens of millions who don't fit the media-driven stereotype of a booming, contented country. Living in a culture that has reduced their role to that of compliance and consumption, these Americans increasingly react with anger, anxiety or apathy.
In this highly readable short book, journalist and social critic Sam Smith takes on this crisis not as a political issue but as a personal one: how does the individual survive in such a place? Drawing from a wealth of sources and experience ranging from philosophy and anthropology to the Internet and rock zines, from Kierkegaard and Camus to Humphrey Bogart and Rage Against the Machine, Smith confronts directly despair and survival, approaches to personal rebellion, speaking truth to power, suicide and false faith, the loss of democracy, and what to do when nobody cares whether you do it or not.
This is no glib self-help book, but rather a brutally honest exploration by someone who, as an alternative journalist for more than three decades, has repeatedly been out of step with his time and culture. Yet beneath the direct, honest language is a love letter to the individual, freedom, and life itself.
Smith writes: "Hectored, treated, advised, instructed, and compelled at every turn, history's subjects may falter, lose heart, courage, or sense of direction. The larger society is then quick to blame, to translate survival systems of the weak into pathologies, and to indict as neurotic clear recognition of the human condition. The safest defense against this is apathy, ignorance, or surrender. Adopt any of these strategies -- don't care, don't know or don't do -- and you will, in all likelihood, be considered normal. The only problem is that you will miss out on much of your life."
Smith describes an alternative based on the existentialist "hat trick" of integrity, passion and rebellion. Describing despair as "the suicide of imagination," he writes, "the task is to bear knowledge without it destroying ourselves, to challenge the wrong without ending up on its casualty list." Despite more than three decades of challenging wrongs, bearing bad news, and bucking the system, Smith retains a spirit and humor that attracts an audience across political lines to enjoy and be challenged by his work.
Let's turn off the television, step into the sunlight, and count the bodies.
As we were watching inside, the non-virtual continued at its own pace and on its own path, indifferent to our indifference, unamused by our ironic detachment, unsympathetic to our political impotence, unmoved by our carefully selected apparel, unfrightened by our nihilism, unimpressed by our braggadocio, unaware of our pain. Evolution and entropy remained outside the cocoon of complacent images, refusing to be hurried or delayed, declining to cut to the chase, unwilling to reveal either ending or meaning.
We shade our eyes and scan the decay. We know that this place, this country, this planet, is not the same as the last time we looked. There are more bodies. And fewer other things: choices, unlocked doors, democracy, satisfying jobs, reality, unplanned moments, clean water and a species of frog whose name we forget, community, and the trusting, trustworthy smile of a stranger.
Someone has been careless, cruel, greedy, stupid. But it wasn't us, was it? We were inside, just watching. It all happened without us -- by the hand of forces we can't see, understand, or control. We can always go in again and zap ourselves back to a place where the firestorms and tornadoes and wars are never larger than 27 inches on the diagonal. We can do nothing out here. Why bother?
Why bother? Only to be alive. Only to be real, only to be made not of what we watch and acquire, but of what we think and do. Only, Winston Churchill said, to fight while there is still a small chance so we don't have to fight when there is none. Only to climb the rock face of risk and doubt in order to engage in the most extreme sport of all -- that of being a free and conscious human. Free and conscious even in a society that seems determined to reduce our lives to a barren pair of mandatory functions: compliance and consumption.
What safety we have, the privilege of the cocoon, comes from those who, at much greater danger and with far less chance, climbed that wall, insisted on being human, fought despair, suppressed fear, and denied themselves the illusion of detachment. Some were only a generation or two away and carried our name, some were more distant. Our present safety is built upon their risks, on their integrity, rebellion, and passion, and upon the courage that propelled them.
Part of the reckless hubris of our time is to believe that we have become so clever and complex as to render such qualities superfluous. We are assured that if we are competitive and hip enough, if we just obey the rules of the marketplace, all will be well.
Yet, as Lily Tomlin said, even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat. And there is another irony. The rules of the marketplace recreate by artificial means the brutality, unfairness, and helplessness that humans have sought to escape for most of their evolution. Only during the last one-tenth of one percent of our history have at least some broken away from tyrannies of nature and culture to build societies hospitable to the free individual. No small part of this work has occurred in our own land.
Yet, rather than acting as stewards of this fragile achievement, we have lately become increasingly indifferent toward its lessons and profligate with its rewards. Too many, particularly in places of power, have become the spoiled brats of human progress.
For the rest, there is seldom power commensurate with available conscience or opportunities enough for available will. Worse, in the land of the bottom line, virtue often is not only devalued and fails to be its own reward, it is undermined and becomes an object of ridicule.
To survive in such a time, to retain the will to be human, to build good communities, and to be decent and caring in such places, is extraordinarily difficult. The carelessly powerful are not about to tell us how. We have to help each other.
What follows is my contribution to this common endeavor. It suggests three exercises. The first is to see clearly our present condition and to examine honestly our losses. The second is to pass safely through a maze of faulty promises and failed prophets. And the third is to consider some of the possibilities that remain.
Life is a endless pick-up game between hope and despair, understanding and doubt, crisis and resolution. "Evermore," Emerson said of it, "beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats." Sisyphus nears the mountaintop and the rock rolls down again. We lose courage and suddenly there is a light. What follows reflects this contest in which the grim and the glad are only oscillations and never the end.
For such reasons, I'll speak of possibilities and not of solutions, for it is in the abundance of our choices rather than in the perfection of our path that our future lies. And I'll not dwell on hope and faith because, central as they may be to our lives, far too many politicians, preachers, and publishers have used such words to defer present responsibilities, opportunity, and consciousness. Further, it has been wisely said that hope won't pay the cable bill, and faith is too often just another drug, producing hallucinogenic visions of a flawless future. This is not to reject either, but rather to return them to their rightful role, that of planting seeds of possibility rather than sowing false prospects.
Are these possibilities enough? Well, they have served others in far more dismal times. We have come to expect more -- including the entitlement of certitude. Hence we sometimes approach these concerns much as though we were apostles out on a Saturday shopping for a creed. If this is you, I'm afraid I can't help you. You've come to the wrong door. There's nobody here but another member of the search party. Let's step into the sunlight together and see what we find.
Copyright 2001 Sam Smith
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