Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take it Anymore?

There are few who enjoy engaging in outrage and righteous indignation as much as I do. I'm sure there is ample evidence of it at this blog as well as around blogland. In addition, I've got more than one family member to remind me of it, especially the teenagers who just can't wait to find themselves in a car with their friends with their mom driving somewhere and gesticulating wildly about the latest news article, court opinion, video clip, or Anglicana dust-up that has appeared online. Ordinarily, I dismiss their lack of interest in the latest life-or-death controversy as shallowness on their part. I take very seriously my causes and the careful reading I do to keep informed. Those who don't keep up and, worse yet, don't want to, are to be scorned, tolerated, or pitied.

Well, I hope I haven't been as bad as all that, but I'm not taking any chances anymore. Moral outrage and righteous indignation is cheap, easy to come by, easy to spew forth. The character Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network epitomized this in his famous speech, taking up the troubles of the people in the audience and using them to arouse the ire of everyone (and in the process, boost the network's sagging ratings):
"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad.

[shouting] You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell,

[shouting] 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it:

[screaming at the top of his lungs] "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"
IMDb. As the film critic Roger Ebert pointed out twenty-five years later, the movie turned out to be "like prophecy. When Chayefsky created Howard Beale, could he have imagined Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and the World Wrestling Federation?" (Wiki quoting Ebert's 2000 review). And I might add, could he, in writing the "Ecumenical Liberation Army" into the plot, have imagined what the internet would end up doing to religious discussions and debate?

There are, of course, plenty of things worth getting mad about. Outrage is a good thing when it finally wakes people up out of a slumbering apathy, out of the sense that well, things aren't always what we'd like them to be, but we think we can muddle through just fine, taking care of ourselves in the here and now, and giving no mind to those who might be out to harm us or our neighbors or worse yet, not seeing how we can extend a helping hand to those in need. Sometimes one has to stand up for oneself and others who need fighting for, to speak up, shouting if need be, to take to the streets, the law courts, the legislature, and, when all else fails, maybe even take up a stone or musket or... whatever.

But aside from the usual worries about which causes are worth pursuing, whether some ends ever justify the means, what can and must be done for the least of us, there is the problem of just plain getting stuck in the white hot flash of anger that comes with most fervent expressions of moral outrage and righteous indignation. I got deeply mired in it myself during the closing days of the election campaigning. While there was nothing inherently wrong with appreciating the best of what Olbermann, Maddow, Stewart, and Colbert (among others), had to offer, to follow the news and the arguments, pro and con, there came a point for me when that's about all I could do. I was so angry that I found myself freezing up at a phone bank one evening, unable to make another call. I became so fearful that after an entire lifetime of being, for the most part, on the losing side of almost every political campaign or any other kind of cause I participated in, that I'd end up in a country with Sarah Palin at the helm, one in which no one cared about reason, science, justice, corporate malfeasance, economic inequality, war, peace.... or anything else that really matters, that religion, especially, would be left in the dung heap of those who might commandeer any human institution for their own greedy and selfish ends. I thought I was concerned about the country, but really, it was all about me, how the wrong result was going to offend, aggrieve, irritate, and confound me personally, as if that could really matter in the larger scheme of things.

And then, despite all odds and all my worst paranoid fears, Obama won the election. I knew from the beginning that it wasn't going to change anything overnight, that Obama most likely would make plenty of mistakes, and that his thoughtful approach to problems was no guarantee of any particular results, but...... still, not only did it create the first national hope I can remember since JFK was elected, it showed, at least for a moment, that the voices of hate and unreason were not always going to win, that at least on one day a plurality of Americans could once come together to say "no" to the hard, neo-cons and their allies on the religious right. Yes, that victory was diminished by the failure to gain the majority needed to defeat Prop. 8 in California, but it was still something of a miracle that Obama won the national race.

I don't know today whether the new administration is going to bring any substantial changes to this nation or the world at large. But the fact of its election has, slowly but surely, begun to change me. I very much appreciate the many people I have encountered online who provide companionship and solace to those who are in pain, who are discouraged, and who may need to stand up and shout with no small measure of outrage and righteous indignation over those things in the world around us that cannot be suffered in silence. But I just don't feel like I can or should be a part of that culture of pain and anger and outrage anymore.

I'm tired, so very tired, of the anger all the time, of being angry and reading others' angry outbursts, at least when there is an unwillingness to cut it off and move on to either taking positive action against whatever has provoked the anger or putting it aside and focusing on what can be done here and now. I'm even more weary of the pace at which news erupts, opinions are given, and reactions blown all over the internet, with relatively little time for reflection, deliberation, or thought. I've been as guilty of it as anyone, but it is time to stop -- stop the egotism of believing that individual outrage is worth emitting, day in and day out, and that I and those who think like me are always good and right and fairminded, and that the tone and cadence of our collective outrage is somehow different from what we see spewing forth from the blogs and news sources we have come to hate so much.

This all occurred to me long before this latest controversy about Rick Warren burst on the scene, but I haven't until now tried to take some time to try to pull it together and start thinking about how to put it in practice. As some may have read what I've written elsewhere on the Rick Warren issue, partly in the heat of the moment, let me try to clarify what, if anything, all this has to do with that topic, although I still do not know if I'm up to addressing it in full.

First, I am in no position to judge whether someone else has the "right" to be angry or whether anger, or at least outrage, might be an appropriate or helpful response to a given situation or problem. Second, I don't know what the best tactics or strategies are for changing the laws and the hearts and minds of people with regard to gay marriage. I do, however, suspect that the civil rights approach does not appeal much to anyone but those who already firmly believe in the cause because the emphasis on freedom, autonomy, and choice does not address the values and concerns of those who question the wisdom of opening up marriage to everyone, regardless of gender. Instead of trying to reframe the issue in terms of stability, fidelity, and strong family relationships, the demand for freedom seems to play into the worst fears and prejudices of those who are inclined to think of gay marriage as simply a license for peculiar sexual behavior.

Third, the politics of offense and grievance has never worked well for any minority, yet over and over people - heteros as well as gays and lesbians - seem obsessed with talking about how hurt and offended they are that there are people who do not understand or respect persons who are GLBT and who speak and act accordingly. That seems to be the reality, has been for a very long time. It does not do anything to even try to change the hearts and minds of those who are causing the harm -- it only says that it is terrible that such attitudes exist, that those who express them are wrong and awful and not worthy to speak in public, and that what counts is repeating the demands for respect and equality over and over as if saying it enough times will get the point across to those who think they are really being asked to condone immorality and to respect licentious or unwholesome behavior.

Maybe I'm being insensitive, or stupid or whatever. Maybe I'm in position to be more objective. I don't know for sure. What I do know is this is not a fight I can engage in as long as it requires me to keep beating the drums of anger and outrage at what I know is wrong, just to keep in good graces with those who feel the need to keep at it. There may be a time for casting stones, but the more important work and the longer time required is in gathering them. For now, I'd like to see if I can work on the gathering.

Meanwhile, I want to reiterate that I am not suggesting that no one should ever get mad or express outrage. I do believe, however, that on the issue of GLBT rights, that there must be a concerted effort to get the positive message out that what is at stake is not sexual freedom per se, as the opponents like Warren would have it, but rather the way of preventing teenage suicides, of building up relationships and families, of encouraging and promoting responsible, faithful, loving behavior on the part of all persons, no matter what their sexual orientation. The Rick Warrens of the world want to write off GLBTs as some tiny segment of the total population unconcerned about the good of all, rather than those who are often who are vital members of the larger community, who are friends and family and neighbors and colleagues, who pay taxes, raise children, grow old and pretty much live like everyone else, except to the extent that society creates barriers against them.

That message, however, has to come from those who know the stories as their own, who can give full pictures and accounts of real-life people, their pains and sorrows, their loves and their joys, not just talking points or positions or general statements of offense and injustice. I cannot tell those stories - can only tell others that they are real and important. I can, however, listen with the eyes and ears of an outsider, to suggest, the best I can, those gaps in information or narratives that may not be apparent to those who know them well. I'm good at analysis and criticism, the more measured and carefully thought out the better. If someone wants to make use of those skills, I have them here to offer, for whatever they're worth.

But as for the outrage over injustice and hate and sin -- I'm sorry. I'm just done out on that score. Outrage, disgust, dismay over the evil in the world is not worth the spit and the sputter. It also can put one in mortal danger of making claims of being more righteous and virtuous than the poor soul who is the object of all that wrath and indignation. I don't like what Rick Warren says and does about gays and lesbians. I believe he is deeply wrong. But I am also deeply suspicious of those who truly believe that others are more worthy to give prayers than he is, who are ready to make the judgment that all the work he has done to combat poverty and AIDs is overshadowed by the harm his homophobic views has caused, and that the importance of the prayer-giver is the group or causes he or she is perceived as representing, not the prayers themselves or the God who hears them. In the end, I wonder if there isn't more reason to distrust all those who claim to have God on their side, progressive and reactionary, than there is to distrust politicians. In any event, we'll all have to wait and see what happens. We live in interesting times.

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