Hess: The Anathema of Giving a Damn

by Ivan Hess | 5/19/15 6:41pm

It is hard to imagine that a mere 45 years ago, our nation experienced some of the largest protests in its history. In the wake of the United States’ decision to invade Cambodia and the National Guard’s murder of four student protestors at Kent State University, more than four million high school and college students took to the streets. Many were peaceful protests, but student strikes shut down campuses nationwide, dozens of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps building were set ablaze and the National Guard was called onto more than 20 campuses. The violence and chaos of the general strike prompted fears within the Nixon administration of an outright insurrection amongst American students. Ray Price, Nixon’s chief speechwriter at the time, recalled the Washington demonstrations saying, “That’s not student protest, that’s civil war.”

We continue to grapple with similar issues of racial and socioeconomic inequality, state violence and censorship and rectification of historical abuses into the 21st century. Despite the magnitude of these issues, they have failed to resonate with a largely indifferent American public. Although the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Ferguson protests and protests earlier this month in Baltimore can be identified as consequential episodes of grassroots social activism, these various movements were relatively short-lived. This invites us to question our relatively muted response to the issues of our time. Why do Americans no longer care?

Civic apathy is an endemic social disease in the United States. I am disappointed in us — actually, I am disgusted. I am disgusted with myself, with you and with America as a whole. I am disgusted with the internet slacktivists that come out of the woodwork to proclaim their radicality when it prompts them with an opportunity to gain some social capital. I am disgusted by the American anathema of giving a damn, of the supposedly silent majority’s fear of daring to care. We must keep in mind President John F. Kennedy’s infamous statement on service — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” We must abandon apathy to ensure equality for all in the United States and the resolution of our society’s many injustices. To continue abiding such abuses is an affront to the humanity of millions of marginalized, disadvantaged and exploited Americans.

Those that refuse to abide these things should be commended for taking action when the rest of us instead choose the ease of apathy. Yet I must be just as critical of activists as I am of the apathetic silent majority. As the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno eloquently notes in his last published work, “Resignation,” “even political undertakings can sink into pseudo-activities, into theater.” Activism must embrace productive praxis that goes beyond the mere performance of the protest, seeking novel ways to utilize the technological and media products of exploitative neoliberalism to reclaim its place in the American social debate.

This is not to say that contemporary advocacy is entirely devoid of productive praxis, for many thousands are doing great work. It is, instead, to point out how the messages of many activists are lost because of the medium used to express them and how protests may often serve a purpose that is more cathartic than productive. As the cultural theorist Rey Chow notes in her essay, “Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies,” oppositional rhetoric without complementary direct action provides no recourse for progress — it merely distracts from the fundamental goal of social reformation.

Perhaps I am naive for clinging to such ideological sentiments, but I know this much: I won’t be able to live with myself 20 years from now, knowing that I sat at my desk in Dupont Circle instead of getting on the first bus to Baltimore, that I watched as young black men were slaughtered in the streets, that I was silent as Wall Street bled the working class dry, that I stood idly by while the country burned. As always, I have more questions than answers. But I expect better from all of us. I expect us to give a damn.