Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mr. Boggs' Question: Alienation, Anomy, and Apathy - Origins and Solutions

Before I actually state the question I'll be answering today, I first want to define a few terms that I'll be using for the sake of clarity later. Also, full disclosure, I built these definitions based upon the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.  First, there is apathy.  Apathy is the lack of feeling, emotion, and/or interest.  Secondly, there is alienation, which is a sense of removal or estrangement from what are usually the sources of one's identity: polity, society, economy, occupation, class, ethnicity, and so forth. Finally, there is anomy or anomie, literally the absence of law, but more generally the absence of norms, guiding ideals, principles, and again, identity as described by those norms.

On to the question.  Mr. Alexander Boggs of the glorious Commonwealth of Virginia asks:
As a new government teacher at a local high school, I have found the greatest enemy to civic duty is apathy. Another issue is a sense of hopelessness, insofar as the system does not work, in their opinion. I try explaining how the system DOES work to find them just as apathetic and disillusioned. My question, what, as a teacher, could I do to show them and convince them the system is not broken and may only need mending that can be achieved by their vote?
Yrgh.  A difficult question.  Let me see what I can do.

First, I suspect we need to establish something - a helluva' lot of people are feeling apathetic, alienated, and anomic.  This isn't just in the United States, mind you, but as an American it is our particular experience that I am most familiar with.  So let me ask a preface question: why are we so apathetic, so alienated, and so anomic?  Well, that isn't a simple question to answer, but I've some notions.  I've listed them below and, equally, I have added what I think might be most useful - links to the works of thinkers I admire on exactly these subjects, readily available and eloquent  as the devil, and when possible available online for free.  My suggestion - read them, then make your students read them.  To use the allegory of Mr. Plato - drag them from the cave.

(1) The quality of political discourse has declined.

We shout at each other.  We don't learn rhetoric in school.  We don't study our own history and culture and politics and economics and we degrade those who do (politicians, goes one mantra, are all crooked).  We do not talk with our friends and family about politics in a meaningful way and we deny that it is a "proper" subject to discuss at the dinner table.  We deny the validity of well-tested science that we disagree with.  We don't read newspapers and magazines as often as we listen to angry people on the radio (telling us what we want to hear), watch infotainment television, and (cough) read blogs by the comparatively uninformed but emotionally charged.  We have become obsessed with the power of compulsion and disenchanted with the power of influence. 

How do we fix this?  Well, we emphasize the teaching of debate and discussion, we vote for those who engage in discourse rather than glittering generalities, and we teach our kids that people who disagree can still meaningfully speak and work together and respect one another. 

Who to read?

I'd check out John Stuart Mill's On Liberty then contrast The Federalist Papers with The Anti-Federalist Papers.

(2) Our relative power is declining.

At the end of the Second World War the United States was very nearly godlike in its relative power.  Our economy made up nearly 80% of the global gross domestic product.  Our military was challenged only by one other nation.  We were the richest nation on the planet and our quality of life was skyrocketing. The thing is, other nations have been improving, so even though we're still doing swimmingly, frankly, and in many ways life has literally never been better, we're nonetheless relatively less powerful - we may be the most powerful nation on the earth still in absolute terms, but the time when America could do whatever it willed and everyone else had to swallow it, well, that time is over.  And we have a hangover.

We have to grow up and realize that a decline in relative power is not the same as impotence and that it isn't necessarily a bad thing - after all, the world seems to have "caught up" largely because of an interstate system based upon American values and the adoption of institutions at home similar to our own.  Does it mean there will be adjustments and that we will have to stop taking our power as a "gimme"?  Certainly.  But it is not the end. 

Who to read?

Well, I recommend Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World and Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest

(3) We admit we're not saints now.

Americans have been insanely optimistic as a culture.  We can all be rich and president someday.  That was never true, of course - we were always, and will always be, merely human beings, imperfect, mistake-making, finite in our abilities and moral judgment. But dammit, we used to believe we were saintly - we had the shine of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem without any of the tarnish.  We were the light to guide civilization to a new era.  And, yeah, in many ways that is true.  We are a good people who have done amazing things.  But we also have committeed genocide, enslaved generations, and deprived further generations of their political, economic, and social rights. We are a land of the free but an enormous number of our people are in prisons and believe themselves unable to improve their economic position.  We no longer venerate our political elites - there are no more Washingtons and Lincolns, and it is unlikely there will ever be any more - though of course Washington and Lincoln we're the men we imagine them to be, so much as just men.  We had a draw in Korea, we lost in Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan are still very much in question. We set fire to millions in Germany and Japan in our "good wars" and we have allied, and still ally, with peoples and groups that despise us and our values, slaves to realpolitik.  We are an empire, we do bad things, we exploit people, and we're indifferent to that insofar as we're able, and that makes us ill.  Because it means we may not be so different or exceptional as we imagined.

That is okay.  Listen to me.  It is okay.  Our ancestors have done bad things.  We have done bad things.  It is okay.  My mother taught me exactly what we need to do in this situation.  First, we recognize when and where we made mistakes and, equally, when and where we did consciously immoral things.  Then we do as our theologians and philosophers and psychologists have instructed us for so long.  We repent and then, equally, we try to do better, to be better men and women. We try to do what is right, and admit that we cannot control things that we had no control over, rather than letting our inability to change the past prevent us from improving the future. 

Repentance and improvement.  That's it.

What to read?

"The Allegory of the Cave" in Plato's Republic, Smedley Butler's War is a Racket, Immanuel Wallerstein's World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction, and of course the Rev. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."

(4) There are a lot of people who are very scared of change. 

If you're a white, protestant, man, like I am, then you are one of the "lucky" - by which I mean that there are few if any structural impediments to your succeeding in the world.  But you also realize that you're having to compete more and more - with women, with ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, hell, with the people of the world.  People who don't look like me.  People who don't speak my language (at least with my accent).  People who don't pray like me, don't work like me, or don't play like me.  They are alien and they are more powerful everyday.  And I know a few things.  One is that other white, protestant, men have not been nice to everyone all the time and these folk might be angry.  The other is that I might have to learn things that I am ill-prepared for if I am to thrive in the new world.  And this is scary. 
This isn't all people are scared of.  People are scared of changing technologies, changing understandings of our place in the universe, and of our responsibilities - we understand that our planet is tiny, so very tiny, and part of a huge, insanely large existance.  We feel so little, yet we are changing our big/little planet so much.  And we're afraid that if we admit we're changing it, maybe not for the better, that we're responsible for the costs of fixing the problems we're creating, or dare I say it, avoiding them altogether.  Inconvenience and cost inspire us with fear.

Here are some simple truths.  First, bigotry is a way for men and women to either legitimize their fear or their desire to dominate and exploit other men and women.  Secondly, life changes - it always changes.  If we adapt, we remain vibrant, part of the meaningful discourse.  If we don't, we are passed by.  These are hard truths to swallow, perhaps.  But dammit - sometimes people have to take their medicine.

What to read?

Besides what I have already mentioned?  Goodness - everything.  Read the great works of religion of other major faiths, the history of other ethnic and religious groups - leave the familiar.  Feel uncomfortable - this is appropriate sometimes, since it is only in discomfort that we really start to understand the truth of things.  It is hard to be afraid of, or to hate, things we know personally. 

(5) We are too distracted.

There is so much to do now, so much to see, and it is all accessible - cheap seats are the norm, unless you can afford the expensive ones, then why not.  We are all false epicureans - we believe that we should sample everything all the time, rather than seek a life of pleasant moderation (what the epicureans really believed) focused on a life of public service.  A civilization where children do not lay on their backs and watch the clouds is a civilization where adults do not contemplate the problems that confront their people and the solutions best to solve these problems. Television, the internet, movies, books, magazines, sports, booze, drugs, and a heckuva' a lot of other things, many of them positive in appropriate doses, constitute distractions - and we're complicit in this.  We want to be distracted. We want to opiated, to forget that we live in a republic and that we are responsible for its maintenance or, equally, its failure. We are Romans ignoring the newsreaders on our way to the colosseum. 

What to read?

Hmm.  This is a tough one, in no small part because if we are taking time away from electronics and distraction to read we're probably already dealing with the problem.  I find reading poetry helps me find myself (I lean towards e.e. cummings, personally), as well as religious works (for me the Bible - I like the flow of King James but the detail of the Oxford translation - and the Tao Te Qing), and any book that helps me to really concentrate on a brief moment with incredible intensity, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or James Agee's A Death in the Family.  Train yourself to be alone, to think, to read, and to work without distraction.

(6) We are too individualist.

Individualism, I feel, is a good thing.  It causes us to seek self-improvement, to demand more of ourselves and our work. But when individualism comes at the expense of our understanding that our interests are necessarily embedded in larger fields of interests - those of our families, our friends, our community, our nation, our species, and life in general - both geographically and temporally, well, we're no longer individualists.  We're nihlistic, selfish, iotas, obsessed with nothing more than feeling good, living long, or having more of something.  Good government, economics, and politics demands we be both individualists and socially-minded. 

What to Read?

Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments and John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.
 
(7) We have a sense of entitlement.

With the exception of bigotry, probably no attitude disgusts me more than an undue sense of entitlement.  If you want something, work for it.  Frankly, none of us "deserve" manifestly anything more than what we have worked for.  Equally, though, all of us deserve what we have worked for.  Is there perfect fairness, perfect equity, a perfect balance to the universe resulting in everyone being born with equal opportunities and, in turn, everyone getting materially, socially, or political what they deserve?  Of course not.  So if life isn't fair - you fight for it. 

What to Read?

Again, virtually everything listed above - plus the work of Adam Smith as a whole, as well as any revolutionary or reformer you respect.  Doing what is right, stoically, demanding justice, accepting the consequences of civil disobedience - this is the only right thing to do. Ever.

Finally, please consider reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The simple pleasure of this work, and the clearness of its stocism is a pleasure and heartening.  Back it up with The Analects of Confucius and Machiavelli's The Prince and, in combination with the other works noted here, you have a solid preparation for a life of practical morality in which one realizes that we are obliged to serve our people, to do good things, and to know what we're doing when we do it.  Which is a start.
 
Conclusion

Is knowledge enough?   Maybe not.  But the great thinkers of the Western, Islamic, Indian, and Chinese civilizations all advocated some variation on the theme of liberal arts with the understanding that they prepared one for public service, rendering one adaptable, ethically centered, moderate, and politically motivated.  I can't imagine that they were all wrong. 

PS - If you have other suggestions for Mr. Boggs, please, include them in the comments section!