As Americans we are so conditioned to avoid pain and inconvenience, so pansified by the endless mendacious ministrations of the system, and so unthinkingly devoted first to matters of home and the pacification of the insatiable "me, me, me" instead of principle (whose very "abstract" quality is clearly sheer pain to most of our fellow citizens), that even something as basic and risk-free as an article on progressive politics has to be formatted and spoon-fed in a way suitable for advanced hedonists, or chances are it won't be read. Not even by people who define themselves as activists.
The acceptance of this realization -of which I have been in denial for years if not decades-came after talking to a dear friend whose noble and empathetic character is beyond doubt, and whose political leanings are impeccably on the left...and yet, not even this excellent human being could escape being an unplugged American. Her suggestion, if she was to read Cyrano's materials [or any publication, blog or text that requires a bit of investment and true dedication to the subject], was to make them more "like People Magazine." "Make the type larger. Make the articles shorter, so anyone can read them." Well-meaning, she was also apparently oblivious to the oxymoronic implication of that very sentence. In other words, write like the system if you want an audience. Produce soundbites. Otherwise, don't count EVEN on me to read the stuff, as my attention will drift elsewhere.
How far can we go with this unexamined catechism of always making everything totally "accessible," "easy," even "fun," in order to gain and retain a political audience? (Just think of the gigantic pandering implicit in these recent ludicrous, accomplish-less-than-nothing Live 8 concerts.) What kind of foundation would that be anyway? Social change requires patience, sacrifice, steadfastness, precisely the virtues eviscerated by the marketing-consumerist logic that, like an invisible and unstoppable cancer, has metastasized to every last nook and cranny of America, and is now extending itself like a plague in literally every other nation imprudent or helpless enough to copy America's DNA.
In any event the friend in the example is so overwhelmed getting her child out the door every morning, what with the other chores of keeping house and holding down a job, plus whatever other routines happen to fill the day of the holy American family (in this case a single-mother household), that I'm ready to extend far more sympathy, and yet...dear folks...let's look at this for the impossible equation it is: how can we reconcile this pathetic level of willingness to make even minor extra efforts with the humongous, and eventually risky tasks that enlightened Americans will have to discharge in the near future if this monstrous world system is to be brought to heel? For whether we like it or not, given our position as denizens of the empire, besides our own fate we are also proxies for the rest of the world. In Annie Hall Woody Allen hit the nail on the head. The dialogue between Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), right after her first obligatory immersion in The Sorrow and the Pity, captured rather pithily the self-paralyzing complacency that may render the revolutionary project in America a stillborn child:
Boy, those guys in the French Resistance
were really brave, you know? Got to listen
to Maurice Chevalier sing so much.
M'm, I don't know, sometimes I ask myself
how I'd stand up under torture.
You? You kiddin'?
If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale's charge card, you'd tell 'em
That movie makes me feel guilty.
Yeah, 'cause it's supposed to.
[Annie Hall, 1977]
This is art giving it to life double, redouble and vulnerable! Good for you, Woody. Annie's case is emblematic of the soft-belly disease prevalent in contemporary America, epidemic among liberals, many of whom don't even know they are liberals-meaning by that not real leftists, not real progressives, but hopelessly confused establishmentarians-not so much because of their creaky self-serving political consciousness, which is often, in some sectors, surprisingly lucid, but because they suffer from a recalcitrant inability or unwillingness to implement even a minimal part of the implicit program. They're not just risk averse: they're morally and physically lazy. A check or a demonstration here and there is enough to assuage their conscience and the call to duty, sometimes for years. Am I being unfair? Tell me that I am.
Thus, it didn't come as a terribly shocking surprise that still other acquaintances, who fiercely avow, and who have also shown, on occasion, deep environmental commitment, are now sworn enemies of spending any "more" time reading about the issues of the day. "It turns them off," and besides "they know already what's going on." Plus, again, their children and requisite parenting chores leave them exhausted at the end of the day. To which I reply: If you're not reading, if you're not arming yourself with ammunition to struggle more effectively against the current nightmare, are you already in the trenches, doing something real and tangible to change the world? Have you even examined your own personal routines, your way of life? Have you thought about the implications of this unexamined egoism, this family-centered narrow-gauge approach to life, this obsession to ensure advancement for the kids by chauffering them from coach to coach without factoring in the larger picture...that they may well be the wonders of tomorrow, well-educated and accomplished. and still inhabit a living hell, a world defined by ecocide, mass joblessness, endless war, pestilence, violence, and almost inevitable personal tragedy?
Well, you know what the response to that kind of prodding is. After the initial blank stare, the look of pained discomfort, or, far more common, the torrent of justifications... usually comes the indignation at the audacity of your questioning their progressive bona fides, not to mention the right to organize their lives as they see fit. Who made you a prophet? Who made you God? How can you sit there in judgment? A long overdue conversation about the grotesque disparity between what needs to be done and what is being done suddenly gets derailed, transmogrified into a battle over individual sovereignty. You are now fast becoming a pariah in what moments ago was a charmed inner circle: you're making everybody uncomfortable. Uncomfortable, for Chrissakes! In today's corporatized America, among way too many people, and given the fragility and impermanency of so many social bonds, this is a capital sin, a huge no-no, real friendship-busting stuff. Historical sociologists will probably shake their heads one day and take note of this peculiar feature of American civilization, this pervasive brittleness, should there be some history left in the cosmic clock of our martyred globe, but I doubt they'll come up with any satisfactory explanations.
And so it goes, dear friends. It's a cruel joke that so much of the destiny of humanity and the planet itself should depend today on such flaccid and easily cooptable legions. Spartacus and others like him at least went down fighting. Our armies, unwittingly sabotaged from within, may not even show up for battle. They might have better things to do. Just busy. Just too busy, I suppose.
Patrice Greanville, Cyrano's Journal [http://www.cjonline.org/] senior editor and founder, is an unemployed and unemployable radical economist making ends meet in Southwestern Connecticut. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .