Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sunday Food for Thought: Unanswered Wake-up Calls

One of the most over-used phrases in American media today is the over-hyped "wake up call". Someone famous has a heart attack. That's a wake-up call for everyone else to live a healthier lifestyle. A politican doesn't use his seatbelt and is seriously injured in a car accident. That's a wake-up call for people who don't use seatbelts. Millions of cans, pouches and bags of pet food are recalled because they're tainted. That's a wake-up call for a stronger regulatory process. Don Imus uses a racist and sexist slur against the women of Rutger's basketball team. That's a wake-up call for a "national dialogue" on racism and sexism.

The problem with these wake-up calls is that the message is too often picked up and noted but then the recipients quickly throw the covers right back over their heads and go back to sleep. Wake-up calls are met with very short attention spans coupled with weak attempts at acknowledgement and even poorer attempts at anything resembling real action.

Take some of the loudest so-called wake-up calls of recent years in the United States:

- the bombing of the WTC in 1993.
- the Oklahoma City bombing.
- the Columbine school massacre.
- 9/11.
- the dictatorial powers seized by the Bush administration.
- torture at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and in secret CIA prisons around the world.
- the failure to successfully manage the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
- the refusal of the Bush administration to further the ME peace process.
- Hurricane Katrina's horrendous aftermath.

Wake-up calls met with lukewarm and mismanaged responses.

The US is no safer from terrorism today than it was years ago because the government has failed to provide even the most basic protections for the ports, roadways, chemical companies, nuclear facilities - the list goes on. Instead it has focused on oppressing American (and foreign) citizens by systematically stripping them of their human and civil rights while pouring multi-billions of dollars into wars that have only incensed more would-be enemies while also refusing to engage in anything resembling a robust peace process through diplomacy. Everyone is a potential terrorist now and must be dealt with as harshly as possible.

Is it any wonder then that schools are still full of bullies, some of whom choose to settle their differences via violent massacres, when that's what promoted by their so-called leaders? Kids get the message: killing is supposed to fix things. Violence is the norm. It's socially acceptable. Even the police and prison guards employ it frequently, so it must have some worth because those are some of society's heroes.

Meanwhile, behavioural lessons are still left to their parents because schools just aren't the place to actually teach something about having decent relationships. Or, if they are, it's only after a crisis, then it's back to reading and writing (at which many students fail miserably and too many others scoff at and just drop out.) Too many children are definitely left behind and, for many, that will continue throughout life but it's just, well, "liberal" to address things like feelings and actions at any sort of institutional level. After all, the children also have so-called moral religious leaders who can also teach them "the way" (when they're not busy being morally bankrupt, money-grubbing hypocrites).

So, it shouldn't be surprising that yet another "crisis" in the form of a wake-up call has come in the form of racist and sexist comments by a person like Don Imus who has, by the way, been getting away with these types of pronouncements for years with nary the blink of an eye. Oh there is outrage expressed once every month or two at some popular commentator, celebrity or politician who goes beyond that "pale" and utters something offensive. But as soon as that can be replaced by the new sensational story of the day, it's quickly forgotten and nothing in the broader dialogue changes. It stagnates, once again.

A hat tip to blogger Madman in the Marketplace for pointing the way to this post at Kung Fu Monkey that gives an astute analysis about what happened to Imus:

Humorists don't use jokes to establish power. We use jokes to steal power. We use jokes to steal power from the audience. We use jokes to steal power from smarter, better looking people. We use jokes to steal power from powerful men and women, politicians and celebrities. I do believe that this balance, these scales are hardwired into us culturally. This is why we tolerate celebrity-bashing humor -- the comedian is our proxy in levelling the playing field. "Britney may be rich and beautiful but she's still a redneck" ... and therefore not better than I am. This is also why shock humor tends to work. The boundaries of polite, acceptable behaviour are set by society, which is immensely powerful. When you break those boundaries, you are stealing power from society at large. It does help, however, if you have a larger purpose in mind than petty larceny.
For all these years, Imus stayed, barely, on the right side of the power equation. Always gone after public figures, or his bosses ...

... but then he screwed up. He didn't steal power, he used it. Used it to say just shitty things about people who, in our minds, just didn't deserve it. He broke the power equation. And when he did, we balked, even if we don't quite understand why this one got under our skin. The wiring goes both ways. It's actually heartening, because it confirms one of the admirable things about American society at large:

America loves a rebel.

America loves a bad boy.

But America hates a fucking bully.

While that last line may be true, it's also just as valid to note that too many Americans actually admire the bullies - whether it's Coulter, Limbaugh or a president who refuses to stop acting like a dictator in a system that is supposed to be a democracy. America itself is seen as the biggest bully nation in the world right now - a fact that is a matter of pride for some. Bullies believe that they cannot be crushed. Anyone who has ever read history knows just how false that belief is. They rise to their own level of corruption and begin crumbling from there and it's usually a very hard fall.

So, people do rail against power imbalances for various motives and reasons but too often those who abuse it in the most egregious ways are simply given a free pass for years before some point of extreme tolerance for that type of behaviour is finally crossed. It's just too hard to fight the system. Or is it?

Society-wide wake-up calls are useless unless they are answered with a committment to change - not the kind of band-aid infused change that seeks to calm the masses until the next instance rises up on the radar screen. Internal, individual change. If you ignore your own power to be that change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said, you deserve the corrupt society you inhabit. If you compromise your principles in the name of political party fealty, willful ignorance of how you contribute to your society's problems, joining in on bashing the powerless just because it's easier that way or by choosing to be apathetic, all of the wake-up calls in the world won't make one bit of difference and things will continue to be just as they are which, at this point, are startingly bleak and far too depraved.

Those of us who watched the poor, old, destitute, ill, and stranded on our teevee screens following hurricane Katrina could not help being absolutely horrified at what that torrent of wind and water washed away - leaving a very stark human reality for all to see. The reality that people who have no power are horribly forgotten and are sometimes just left to suffer and die. It shouldn't have taken the biggest natural disaster in US history to uncover all of that pain - pain that is still ongoing in that region and elsewhere while the rest of the country has moved on. Perhaps that's why it matters more now (or should, at least) when someone like Imus singles out African-American female athletes for totally unacceptable scorn.

The uneven balance or power that we all witnessed after hurricane Katrina did, for some at least, reveal a gaping, bleeding wound in a society that likes to pride itself as being charitable and democratic. Democracy means that everyone matters - not just the priviliged. Democracy means that equality is to be strived for and that that concept is not just some far-fetched ideal left in the hands of lawmakers, but that it is a challenge to be accepted and acted upon by all citizens. Tolerance of anything less is cowardice and the people with power who perpetuate insensitivity and indifference towards those they feel are somehow "lesser than" ought to be receiving the biggest wake-up call of the day.

But, alas, they always have others to answer their phones for them so they can get on with whatever they may deem to be important in the scheme of things. And what's important to them is their power, not yours.


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