There is no crude oil lapping at the shores of Joshua Tree, in the high desert, threatening our way of life. There are no terrorists lurking behind the creosote bushes, waiting for us to lower our guard. Global warming has resulted in a cooler-than-usual spring and a sluggish start to the summer, and some fierce winds, but nothing too extraordinary, and since there are no polar bears to worry about up here, the earth’s climate is mostly just the ups and downs of local weather. The rabbits have run out of stuff to eat and are eyeing all my plants with the fixed gaze of a teenager in the buffet line, but that’s normal for this time of the year. I have a part-time job and I love it. We’re paying our bills, making our mortgage. Once in a while my wife and I go out to eat. In fact, up here, we are conducting business as usual.
But everything is not normal out there, in the country, especially the tepid citizen response to, well, everything. Sure, there are the Tea Party folks, and, of course, the outrage and heartbreak of the people whose way of life is threatened by the BP spill, and once in a while some news outlet on TV or on the web gets self-righteous about some political issue — although they don’t really seem to have any stake in their rants other than theater and ratings and preaching to the choir — oh, and scoring some points. Mostly, we are entertained, titillated, and worried about our immediate problems — which may be normal, but it’s a quiet slide into a kind of oblivion of the mind and of reason. No, it seems that we are all preoccupied. We were NOT preoccupied during the sixties.
I was in community college back then (we called them “junior colleges” in those days), waiting for my veteran’s check, and barely going to class. But class wasn’t in session much anyway. Almost every day there was a demonstration against the Vietnam War, or for the war, or for or against some damn thing or other, including support for and against the Black Panthers, speakers who were hawks, doves, or kamikaziphiles, eager just to cause chaos. Not to mention the spontaneous demonstrations at the flagpole at the center of the campus, the disruptions of all classes, the chanting, the boycotts, the leaflets, the appeals to reason and passion and political correctness — and the counter demonstrations to all those. One day a Navy recruiter showed up and all hell broke loose, including — but not limited to — a colored-smoke grenade going off, several fistfights, and lots of chairs being thrown around. Great times.
Everyone in the school came to these outbursts: seekers of truth, seekers of chaos, seekers of spectacle, and the mildly curious who wanted to know what they should think about some particular issue that particular day. No matter what his or her political or societal orientation, no matter what the issue, there was a daily congregation at the flagpole, with small to huge crowds of students and the not-so-occasional undercover cop.
The ferment of those days was not limited to schools. The UN debated, families fractured as parents — veterans of other wars –decried and disowned their peacenik offspring, At home, we ate our meals to the sounds and sights of war on TV, and no one was exempt from the discussion — not at the laundry mat, not at the grocery store, not in public restrooms. And the discussion was not just about the war; it was about government power, the lines of force between citizens and the Federal establishment, about the nature of being American and the direction the country would, should, could take. It was about sexual and political power and orientation. It was about what America was and who Americans were going to eventually be. It seemed to some that the country was on the verge of a cataclysm, and we would be a different, even better place when it was all said and done.
Well, it’s a different country, all right. Not necessarily better, but different. We are in the midst of a torrent of irrelevancy, the likes of which has rarely been seen in modern times. We have “reality shows” which are not very real, what with the large crew of writers, technicians, and various production staff which follows island dwellers or house members everywhere. We have sports to watch year-round. We have the shenanigans of various celebrities. We have all the local news shows which exaggerate the incidence of crime by highlighting selected examples daily, hourly — which heightens our fears of crime.
We have freeway chases and sitcoms and commercials and a highly fragmented and extremely unfocused internet — billions of pieces of factoids with no connections between them, rants, videos of cheerleaders with exposed buttocks, tons of porn, and some newspapers, which few read unless they already agree with the editorial slant, and if they are of a certain age — all of which aids those who have authority to keep it, exercise it, and abuse it — and all without much generalized, national, notice. Our attention is unfocused, fragmented, distributed in so many directions, we cannot form a united consensus on what matters, what should be done about what does matter, or how to go about fixing the problem or problems — because we don’t know what the problems are.
Yes, it’s quiet out there. Too quiet. I mean quiet on the streets, on the campuses, in the homes, offices and classrooms of America. Right now, you could put any 10 Americans together in one room and couldn’t get a unanimous vote as to whether manure stunk. Everyone has an opinion about almost everything, but no consensus seems to have formed outside very narrow interests, especially narrow in this election year. It seems — as John McCain has shown — that all politics is about is doing what it takes to win, not doing what it was designed to do: clarify, designate, protect, and serve — no matter what.
What’s wrong, then, with us? Is this just a phase, like global warming? In 10,000 years, the ice will return to Antarctica and the American public will resume vigorous public and private discussions on issues of importance and significance? Or are we seeing the final twilight of American interest in anything but self-indulgence, leaving the really “important” decisions to the government and/or private interests? But the quiet must cease or we will go to our national death with ears stopped and mouths open only in awe of the latest spectacle.