A thought I’ve been having recently is mirrored in a New York Times commentary on the lack of riots in the face of the current financial mess:
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. [...] Today widespread anger and collective passivity exist side by side.
Where “passivity” means spending time with oneself and one’s internet/tv/radio/___________ (insert preferred form of media)?
After suggesting that at least one of the reasons that Americans are not acting out our anger is our personal shame about not being able to pay the mortgage or credit card bill, Sudhir Venkatesh ends with:
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, Professor of Sociology at Columbia, wrote the inticingly titled “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets”.