Out of Step and Enraged

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My car is from 1996. My favorite band stopped touring in 1995. The acoustic guitar I bought a few months ago is from the late 60’s, early 70’s at the latest. I don’t have a smartphone and I still read newspapers. But, beyond these somewhat superficial items, there are other reasons I find myself feeling out of step with the times in which we’re living.

A couple of weeks ago, on one of the first truly perfect mid-70 degree days of the summer, I was walking back to my house from the Charles River and I heard someone from across the street yelling. They were saying “Hi neighbor!” I walked over to meet the neighbors and their friends, all of whom were in their late 20’s and whom I’d only seen leaving or entering their house. They were on the stoop, about 7 good-looking people just hanging out. One of the skinny girls offered me a beer. How neighborly, I thought, as I accepted it. We chatted, exchanged the usual pleasantries, “How long have you lived here? Where are you from? What do you do?”

And then, as seems inevitable these days, the conversation turned to Game of Thrones and I was completely out of the loop. Of course, I stood there pleasantly enough, sipping on my beer, nodding silently, pretending I could follow the conversation about medieval midgets, dragons and power-hungry monarchs. Or whatever. But the point is, more often than not, the fact that I don’t follow popular series on cable channels leaves me out of the conversation entirely. And while I can see why so many love the historical soap operas, it’s not for me.

As I’ve mentioned in nearly all my articles, I’m a news junkie at heart. This is worth mentioning yet again because it goes to the heart of the issue. I care about what our actual government is doing as opposed to a fictional kingdom on TV.

On a personal level, I’m outraged by Barack Obama’s illegal drone war, his Justice Department seizing phone records from The Associated Press to find a leak and his failure to close Guantanamo Bay, despite the fact that many in custody haven’t been charged with a crime. I’m outraged that for all his talk of holding Wall Street accountable, he’s appointed the people who created the problems to positions of power.

But, I’m no activist. I’m an observer, a journalist and a student of history.

As someone who’s studied the great movements in the history, I look at how change actually occurred. In most cases, the problems that were happening were considered too large to ignore and they impacted too many people to put action off.

The Freedom Riders and others’ bold attempts to desegregate public establishments in the South, the rallies against the war in Vietnam that were against drafting young men to fight a war that didn’t concern them and many other acts of protest – these were powerful statements. Most importantly, it was images on TV, music festivals with a political purpose and articles in newspapers that got people talking.

When Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, showing how the government had systematically lied to the public about the Vietnam War, it drew outrage.

The fact that all the news outlets were reporting on this and other stories made it part of the national dialogue. The fact that musicians were talking about ending the war and freeing political prisoners made a difference. We went from having John Lennon holding rallies to free John Sinclair to watching Jay-Z celebrating his own “swag” and appearing in Bud Light commercials.

Today, with everyone not only choosing what they see, but also becoming commentators, the major problems we’re dealing with are rarely mentioned. Instead, the media we consume consists of what’s going on with your small circle of friends’ reactions to TV dramas or sports.

We have become consumed with creating and appearing in media ourselves. Why would we care about anyone or anything else?

This revelation came to life when I was at a friend’s going-away party last weekend.  The festivities had begun in the afternoon and by the time I got there at around 8pm, the guest of honor, a poker buddy named Jacob, was in rare, hilarious form. The whole party gathered to watch him belt out Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which was blasting from the speakers. As people joined in for the chorus, a sea of smartphones emerged and captured video and photos of my friend putting on quite a great performance. Almost immediately after it happened, there was talk about making sure it was immediately posted on Facebook. “Make sure you tag me,” people were saying – translated as, “make sure that my physical presence here is reflected in our increasingly digitized world.”

About 10 minutes later, another large group gathered. This time, it was not to watch anything happen, but rather to look over the shoulder of the girl who had video footage of what had just happened. I think I made some sarcastic remark like, “Whoa, when did this happen?” but no one acknowledged it. To everyone else, the behavior was normal and I was the weird one. It’s these moments – which feel surreal to me – that make me feel most out of step and it’s depressing.

Beyond the annoyance of having people texting, checking email and generally disregarding their physical surroundings, we are facing a larger issue here. When subjects affecting all of us go unnoticed or viewed for 10 seconds on a tiny screen, nothing changes. And the way things are going, nothing will.

Those who have focused on some of the larger issues have gone about it all wrong. When the Occupy movement started and people started camping out in public squares, demanding an end to Wall Street greed, I was rooting for success, while remaining skeptical.

I even took part in one of the marches, not because I’m an activist, but because I happened to be on my way to lunch and they were passing by where I worked. But, day after day of watching people sit in those parks and hoping that bankers would change their ways based on their public sit-ins seemed pretty laughable. And it was.

The Occupy movement failed because it was everyone’s personal soapbox. There was no real plan for direct action beyond putting efforts into maintaining the tent cities, getting enough food and providing care to the sick or injured occupiers.

Creating tent cities didn’t end Wall Street greed, but it did give police officers a whole lot of overtime. At least somebody benefited.

I don’t pretend to know how we can stop our government from launching illegal wars or prevent Wall Street from influencing and often writing legislation. Maybe I’ll start writing more of these blogs on friends’ sites. Maybe I’ll start petitions online to free Bradley Manning and ask Facebook friends to sign it. Maybe I’ll camp out in Dewey Square and start demanding social justice with a bullhorn.

But I’ll probably just try to catch up on Game of Thrones, I’ve heard it’s really good.

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  • “Creating tent cities didn’t end Wall Street greed, but it did give police officers a whole lot of overtime. At least somebody benefited.” – Amazing

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