Feeling Too Down to Rise Up
The New York Times, 28th March 2009
Feeling Too Down to Rise Up
By SUDHIR VENKATESH
IN Chicago, during the summer of 1992, I watched a rally explode into a riot. Unruly public housing tenants were protesting high prices at local grocery stores. A request to speak with a manager turned into shouts and screams when the proprietor was spotted scurrying out the back door. In minutes, bottles flew overhead, gangs began shooting indiscriminately, people shouted for the heads of the management, and mothers scrambled to shelter infants from flying glass and bullets. In the eyes of the rioters, I could see both anger and euphoria.
These days, we are hearing a lot about “populist rage,” but so far no riots have broken out in front of the Treasury Department or the A.I.G. headquarters. The pundits assure us that Americans are furious, disgusted, mad as hell, but cabinet officials and chief executives haven’t been confronted by throngs of angry citizens. In fact, the only mass disturbance to make news lately was at an “America’s Next Top Model” audition, where three people were arrested on charges of “inciting a riot” — the cause of that uprising, for the record, was not the financial crisis.
The texture of discontent (or lack thereof) can say a lot about a nation, and that Americans today are less likely to rebel may not be an entirely positive sign.
It certainly doesn’t mean we have more love, patience or tolerance for one another. Indeed, it may mean just the opposite, that we tend not to trust one another and that we are more alienated from our neighbors than ever before. The lack of direct action could signal the weakening of a social contract that keeps people meaningfully invested in the fate of our country — which may, in turn, be hindering our ability to resolve this crisis.
Before blogs and radio call-in shows, people joined forces and turned to the streets as their most effective means of expression; a unified, angry crowd was often sufficient to win concessions from employers and governments. And so most rebellions of the 20th century were over bread-and-butter issues like unsafe work conditions, wages and high prices for basic commodities. Even “race riots” were usually motivated by competition between ethnic groups over access to jobs and housing subsidies.
But some outbreaks of lawlessness were also indicators of strong, shared sentiments and were driven by a sense of higher purpose. For example, in 1919 Chicago, black soldiers returned home from World War I to find segregated ghettos, white-dominated unions and racist government practices. Many joined their neighbors who battled white youth and police officers in the streets. They had fought an enemy overseas; now it was their moral duty to fight injustice at home.
Today widespread anger and collective passivity exist side by side. To explain this seeming contradiction, we might look for clues — as so many are doing — in 1930s America. Then, as now, the citizenry reacted angrily to high unemployment, mass layoffs and a crippled banking system.
But it was only several years after the stock market crash that large-scale protests, bread riots and street rebellions began to occur in small towns and big cities. That’s the most pertinent lesson of the Great Depression: people waited, with relative patience, for years for some government response before anyone looted a grocery store or fought off police officers who were evicting families. So it’s possible that if our economic hardships endure, civil unrest could follow.
But if American anger remains corralled on the Internet, into e-mail messages to Congress and in sporadic small-group protests, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will do much to assuage the anger of taxpayers. Administration officials certainly don’t seem concerned that rage will heat up and overflow; after all, anticipating unrest would mean a broad and intensive campaign to shore up housing, food and welfare safety nets. The proposed budget contains a few such line items, but a comprehensive, coordinated program to prevent violence and defuse anger would need sustained commitments from mayors, service providers and civic leaders.
Perhaps the lack of concern is warranted, as several factors make widespread revolt less likely today. Our cities are no longer dense, overcrowded industrial centers where unionized laborers and disgruntled strikers might take a public stand. Concentrated inner-city poverty has declined, too, so don’t expect 1960s-style ghetto unrest.
Our urban centers are instead corporate hubs and the victims of this recession include hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers. For obvious reasons, these folks tend not to have the particular sense of grievance — that a select few are receiving preferential treatment, that they’re on the losing end of a rigged game — that usually sets off a conflagration.
And in today’s cities, even when we share intimate spaces, we tend to be quite distant from one another. Mass disturbances are not highly orchestrated ballets. They require spontaneous interaction, a call and response among unidentified cries of rage, the possibility for a unified mass to form from a gathering of loosely connected individuals.
But these days, technology separates us and makes more of our communication indirect, impersonal and emotionally flat. With headsets on and our hands busily texting, we are less aware of one another’s behavior in public space. Count the number of people with cellphones and personal entertainment devices when you walk down a street. Self-involved bloggers, readers of niche news, all of us listening to our personal playlists: we narrowly miss each other. Effective rebellions require that we sing in unison.
We may also have anger fatigue. Each day brings more layoffs and more news of taxpayer-financed corporate office renovations. Add to this the Iraq war, which is six years old this month, and a national debt that will likely rise by trillions. Such reports provoke fury but after some time, even the righteously indignant can tire and accept the outrageous as status quo.
Ultimately, however, what could keep the lid on unrest is the very issue that has pushed us toward the cliff: our high levels of personal and household debt. The average American owes about $9,000 on credit cards alone. Indebtedness redirects an individual’s energies inward: failing to pay the mortgage and college tuition can bring up feelings of anxiety, shame and a sense of personal failure.
It’s easy to feel that one isn’t working hard enough, that one should try harder to save money or take on additional work. To rebel publicly, even to engage politically, would mean exposing your own inadequacies, so most people just hunker down and keep plugging away at those monthly payments.
As our shame grows, we shutter ourselves inside. Afraid of acknowledging our anger and unable to join those similarly suffering, we grow distant. Worse, we judge quickly and harshly the actions of others; we devolve into snark, which will never lead to meaningful change.
To restore our social bonds, each one of us must overcome our isolating feelings of embarrassment and humiliation and understand that this is a shared plight. We’ll also have to accept that anger, real anger, has a role to play in producing collective catharsis and fostering healing.
Fury, after all, can manifest itself in more productive ways than urban rioting or cable-TV ranting. Fury can inspire real protest, nonviolent civil disobedience, even good old-fashioned, town-hall meetings. That’s how we’ll recover our public life and perhaps help one another through this crisis — storming angrily into the streets and then, once we’re out there, actually talking to one another.
Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia, is the author of “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets.”
Imported from BlueGreenEarth / ESEI, at: http://www.myspace.com/socialecologyinstituteeu
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