January 30, 2004
The Armor Of Apathy
BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
As campaign season heats up, and a cacophony of pollsters and pundits and TV spot whodunits saturate the airwaves, all competing for our attention while saying as little as possible to enlighten us -- perhaps we might reflect on the thing that matters most in our democracy -- the citizen -- and his or her role in shaping the national agenda, or being shaped by it.
We hear all the time about civic apathy, how wide and deep it runs in America. How voter turnout remains lamentably low, despite an array of aggressive mobilization efforts.
But there's a crucial corollary issue that's rarely addressed in the public square -- the more sensitive notion that the ongoing health of our democracy depends not merely on increasing the number of voters, but increasing the depth of thought that goes into the act of voting.
If citizens have only a cursory understanding of the country's critical issues, they lack the ability to make truly informed judgments about candidates and the policies they promote. And that produces government after government presided over by politicians who seem out of touch with ordinary Americans -- which they often are, since they’re funded and influenced by special interests that fill the vacuum created by a passive citizenry.
We claim to disdain this, yet we do nothing to reverse the trend. Which is curious, since democracy is about self-governing, and thus offers an obvious solution. If we want more effective government, we need to become more effective citizens.
The only way to do that is to fully inform ourselves about the increasingly complex problems we face as a nation. But, at present, too few seem willing to make the effort.
Why is this the case in a nation that claims to value education so highly? Why do so many of us know so little about the big issues that so deeply affect us?
Some say it's because we simply don't have the time do the requisite amount reading, thinking, analyzing. Our priorities are elsewhere. So we become, by default, apathetic about our civic duties. We become lazy as citizens.
When most of us think about governance at all, we focus on the personalities of politicians -- how they make us feel -- not on the ripple effects of the decisions they make that profoundly affect not only our own lives, but those of our children and grandchildren.
Yet we endlessly grumble about the quality of our “leaders,” as if we didn't elect them, as if leaning on style over substance doesn't deliver us precisely the government we deserve.
What kind of cognitive disconnect is going on here?
Most people consider themselves politically moderate, yet public opinion polls show America to be more polarized than at any time in recent history. Why is that? Perhaps the more we hear empty promises from politicians about what they're going to do for us, rather than inspire us to figure out what we're honestly willing to do for each other -- perhaps the more we're fed an empty calorie knowledge diet of simplistic slogans and useless news from cable TV infotainers and chest-thumping bloviaters -- the more we feel intellectually adrift, and in need of identifying with something -- even if that means clinging to one side or the other in the realm of the red and the blue, lest we drown in confusing shades of grey.
Unfortunately, our paint by numbers political parties spend way too much time in halls of mirrors, where our best and brightest spend their days dreaming up ways to hook us with eight-word value systems and bumper sticker philosophies.
So we’re left with a cynical sound bite civics, and we accept it. To be honest, we prefer it. But on some level, we know it's wrong. On some level, we know we're not doing enough. And the truth hurts.
So we wrap a sheath of psychological armor around our civic conscience to shield us from the sorrow we'd feel if we admitted to ourselves that we’re not really walking the walk.
This Armor of Apathy might assuage our guilt, but it helps keep us passive as citizens. It's a counter-productive crutch we use to help us avoid thinking about our failure to fully honor the social contract that formed the core of our extraordinary national inheritance.
An inheritance of uniquely liberating ideals and transcendent values that helped make this nation the most prosperous and powerful in history.
An inheritance that sustains us still, even as we squander it.
For several decades citizens, politicians, and the media have been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. It's been too politically incorrect for public figures to point the finger at the citizenry, and we weren't about to indict ourselves.
But stark reality recently reminded us that things have changed. And so should we.
So what are we the people to do?
How do we cast off the armor, and the apathy, and just say no to ignorance peddlers?
How do we wake up and wise up, and reconnect with our root values and lost ideals?
No one can answer these cosmic questions for us -- other than each of us ourselves.
But this much seems clear. We live in very tenuous times, and regardless of who is president, or which party controls Congress, we're on a nasty collision course with our future unless a new enlightenment arises from a vastly more informed and engaged citizenry.
To get to that promised land, we need to shatter the armor, and send apathy into exile.
Doing so would be the ultimate act of political correct-ness.
The right stuff of the true citizen patriot.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST COMMENTARY
Abelson is a filmmaker and writer specializing in music-driven film
hybrids. He started his career in music-video, pioneering tie-ins with
high profile movies (creating eight #1 MTV hits) -- and is currently
working on feature film projects in collaboration with major musical
artists. He’s also a long time activist, and is writing a book about
his views on the role of the citizen in a democracy -- and developing
a music-driven political action movie to bring its themes to the general
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