Ranting, Raving and Rationalizing

by Caleb Ballou | 11/20/07 1:27am

Last weekend, my father visited me on one of his meandering journeys up to Dartmouth. These became an instant tradition a few years ago, when he realized that he could use the somewhat legitimate-sounding excuse of "visiting his son at college" to take a few days off, drink some wine and enjoy some good, old-fashioned quiet. In his day, noises were neither so loud nor so obnoxious as they are today. Indeed, loud noises tend to startle him unpleasantly, and I truly believe that he takes every honking car in Boston as a personal affront. But he enjoys the trips, as far as I can tell, not only for the superb lack of honking, but also because they give him the opportunity to hear the rantings and ravings of arrogant youth (the best and only kind) from a slightly bemused perspective, before genially dismissing them as ranting and raving, and relishing the following day's quiet all the more for the experience.

He is a little hard of hearing, my father, and I am not so sure that all the raving gets through to him along with the ranting. But he takes what he can get, and my various associates and I delight in the prospect of disturbing a quiet so profound as the one he has the good fortune to know. Last Sunday our conversation turned to global warming, a topic that I assume we arrived at in a vague and scattered attempt to broach as many controversial topics as possible. After all, they screwed it up; we weren't even born yet. My father's approach to the subject was very logical, measured, and, for a man of his age, quite sensible; a tribute to libertarian ideology. I don't want to get into the details, but the plan basically involved the encouragement of socially-conscious investing, a greater effort to understand the issues, and a solid helping of personal discretion as well. The sample 21-year-old response was equally impressive in its apathy and its cynicism: We're doomed. The resident expert, an environmental studies major, fully supported the consensus. We gave the world 500 years.

Of course, within the context of the discussion, it was impossible to draw the line between flippancy and sincerity. None of the five contributors to the forum felt particularly invested in its conclusions; we wanted nothing more or less than a good time, and were determined to squeeze it out of any and all debates that presented themselves.

But doesn't that sentiment sound unnervingly descriptive of our general modus operandi? These days it seems that we are more than content to lie back, preach apathy to our pillows, and vaguely shake our heads at the foolishness surrounding and encompassing us. Sometimes, if we are not too distracted by the weight of more abstract problems, and the appropriately blue receptacle is not too inconveniently distant, we might even deign to recycle that sheet of old doodling paper.

Truly, I do not mean to compose another impassioned plea for activism; that time has come and gone. The point is this: We are each so busy trying to secure the same confident, self-assured quiet my father still seeks that all other goals feel trivial in comparison. Faced with the possibility of global crisis, 98 percent of the population looks around, shrugs, and wonders whose problem it really is. The reality is that everyone is a part of the problem; the holier-than-thou administration's wasteful keg policy; those drunken, wasteful frats; even you, Homeplate-tray-disposal dude, I haven't even seen you out there this year.

This is serious.

Actually, it really isn't. The issue of "global warming" appeals not so much as a cause itself, but as a prominent example of some great looming threat that we all just prefer to ignore by becoming consultants (money don't buy good weather, sucka!). Our generation has perfected a sort of semi-pragmatic hedonism that is disturbingly self-aware, and has the uncanny ability to beautifully justify any life we choose to pursue. Each and every one of us boasts a veritable Ph.D. in rationalization, and we've learned to cope with the loud and jarring noises of life by retreating to a personal quiet. One day, I hope, we will achieve the ability to rationalize our way right out of any problem, environmental or otherwise. I mean, we always have the moon, don't we? That's definitely something ... and Mars! At any rate, I'm confident that someday, someone will eventually break the trend (but it won't be me)...

Flippancy and sincerity -- they can be a devastating combination.