Blair: Contemporary Confusion

by Peter Blair | 10/5/11 10:00pm

In Britain this August, 1,200 people were arrested in connection with the violence, burning and looting that characterized the worst British civil unrest in a generation. Many thousands took part in the theft and rioting that ravaged London and three other major cities. The damage amounted to hundreds of millions of pounds, at least. There seems to be no clear reason or explanation for these riots they were purely destructive.

In Greece, starting on May 5, 2010 and continuing until the present day, there have been large-scale riots protesting capitalism and the government's economic policies. In the May 5 riot, three people were killed and 75 were injured. Yesterday, 20,000 protestors tried to storm the capitol building.

Starting on Sept. 17, Americans participating in the "Occupy Wall Street" movement began to protest against a hodgepodge of issues, from the organization of the military to the perceived prevalence of greed among wealthy Americans to capitalism itself. By Oct. 1, similar protests began to occur in several other American cities, including Boston, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles. This movement largely seems to be a less focused response to the Tea Party, another though decidedly less militant recent popular uprising.

And then you have the relatively unreported Operation Fast And Furious scandal that came to light at the beginning of this year and has continued to snowball. The scandal involves the American government not only allowing Mexican drug cartels to smuggle around 2,500 weapons (including automatic guns) into Mexico, but even paying for some of the artillery. This policy was established in hopes that it would lead to the arrest of high-stake cartel leaders, but the government lost track of roughly 1,400 of the guns, two of which have now been linked to murder of a U.S. border patrol agent. They also appear to have been used in several murders in Mexico.

There seems to be something in the air this year. Citizens and governments alike are running roughshod over the rule of law, popular uprisings the likes of which have not been seen since the 1960s and '70s are back, and beliefs that are wacky (many Wall Street occupiers are Truthers), unusual (many Tea Partiers subscribe to Ron Paul-style libertarianism) or presumed dead (Communism) are suddenly in the forefront of our national, even international, consciousness.

Of course, it would be far too dramatic to suggest that our society is coming apart at its seams. If the economic crisis continues to worsen or remain the same, however, it may be that the popular movements and uprisings mentioned above will become more numerous and more militant than in Greece or Britain. That, however, is a huge "if." But nevertheless, the confluence of all these movements and occurrences in a relatively short time period suggests that there is something interesting happening in the world right now.

There are many things to see in these occurrences, but surely one of them is that the Western world is suffering through a period of immense moral and intellectual confusion. Tea Partiers and Occupiers may seem very different, but they sometimes overlap. For example, Ron Paul supports aspects of both movements. More than a few people told me in 2008 that they were going to vote for either Obama or Ron Paul. The Occupiers are a mishmash of all sorts of people, and they have no clear objectives as a group. These movements and the weird and unexpected points of contact between them suggest there is a general widespread societal sense of dissatisfaction, a general sense that something is wrong and needs to change, but no real clear idea of what is wrong or how to fix it. The aimless violence of the British riots and the idiotic policy of our government to supply drug lords with weapons suggest that there is a general deadening of our moral sense and a general coarsening of our moral sensibility.

Which brings us back to Dartmouth. We have a unique opportunity, those of us who have the luxury of being sequestered away at a summer camp like Dartmouth for four years, to spend the time thinking very hard about what we believe and who we are as moral and political beings. Our society needs clarity very badly, and our education imposes upon us a duty to attempt to contribute some. We will not save the world with our thoughts, but maybe we will save ourselves, and that's a start.