Sam Smith, Why Bother?
Los Angeles: Ferel House, 2001. ISBN 0922915725
Whenever I hear of another school shooting or other youthful violence, the first thing I think about is Dr. Calhoun and his mice. Dr. John Calhoun put four pairs of white mice in a steel cage eight-and-a-half feet on a side. Within two years the mice had increased to 2,200. The adult mice began excluding young mice from their company and the young began biting, attacking, and slashing one another. Finally social and sexual intercourse became impossible without violence. The mice stopped reproducing and eventually all died out.
We’re in a cage, too, except it has shopping malls and freeways and cops with guns and sirens. We have governments and hospitals and schools and we have talk shows and newspapers to help us forget that we’re in a cage.
But spend an evening surfing the channels and count the humans being destroyed—by crime, for fun, in sport. You can say it’s television’s fault, but, in the end, the producers and the reality cops and the extreme fighters are also in a cage, just like the viewers. Each is trying to control an environment over which they have lost control, whether using a gun, a ball a camera, or a zapper. And it always ends in another confrontation: another ratings war, another arrest, another illegal deal, another TV pilot, another channel.
If you step back, there is a madness in this, but if you think only of those in the cage—what they can hear, see, and understand—then a primal logic emerges, the need to restrain, suppress, or eliminate the proximate usurpers of one’s rightful time and space. We don’t talk about it much except when somebody suggests we might do it differently and then we say they are “thinking outside the box.” Thinking and living inside a box is now more normal.
As with Dr. Calhoun’s mice, the problem begins to reveal itself with the young. After World War II, spurred by a series of reports from Harvard president James Conant, America deliberately dismantled the education system that had brought it that far. Among other things, Conant considered the elimination of the small high school essential for the US to compete with the Soviets. America listened and Between 1950 and 1970 the number of school districts in the country declined from 83,700 to 18,000.
Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the internal bureaucratic logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.
That we have come to accept a politics that offers no choice save between our acquisition of abusive power or our submission to it speaks only to the depths of our condition; it says nothing about that which is possible.
This condition has been largely the result of limits we have voluntarily accepted for ourselves. To those who would rule, manipulate, and lie to us, we have replied with remarkable apathy, repeated acquiescence, and utterly reliable consumption. These are precisely the responses that power seeks.
If we wish to change events there is no better place to start than to change our own reaction to them, to declare that a politics lacking justice, equity, decency, and compassion is no longer acceptable. Economics, efficiency, perception, and brutish power calculations no longer suffice. The bottom line has bottomed out.
The most radical act of individualism in which one can engage today is to come together with other individuals— as church, neighborhood, city, and organization—in order to uncover the biggest secret our leaders keep from us— that we are not alone.
We could ask the questions, raise the concerns, and share the ambivalences that might illuminate the way to a wiser and more just community. We could fill the air with the sound of voices not afraid to speak of decency and encourage those who profess to guide us - politicians, writers, academicians, and preachers—to join our concerns rather than continue to lease their moral authority as though it were just another apartment on the market.
What would this look like? It might mean a coalition of conscience formed by the religious, by socially concerned business people, and by non-profit organizations to give the community a moral opinion on political questions and to set moral standards for politicians. It might mean a city or community coming together to discuss and discover common ground.
It might mean academicians demonstrating their political conscience as well as their political facileness. It might mean children being taught once again what being a citizen and having a constitution is about. It might mean reporters treating ideas as news. It might mean a media more critical of the corrupt and less sarcastic about the idealistic. It might mean compiling indicators of a good and just society as well as those of a prosperous and efficient one.
It might mean a country that asked why as often as it asked when and how much and a culture that was concerned about the way something was done as well as what that something was. Finally, it might be a country that, just in time, paused to ask a question it had almost forgotten” what it the right, just, moral thing for
us to do" And we might find that by just asking that questions, we had already become a better people.