Friday, May 04, 2007

Doing Nothing

I cannot call myself an activist. I never get off my ass if I can possibly help it. I never lift a delicate lady-like finger unless it's absolutely necessary, that is, unless I am out of cigarettes. Or coffee. Which reminds me, we only have one more pot's worth of coffee in the house!

Oh, damn. See? Tomorrow I am going to have to lift a finger. Already I am depressed just thinking about it.

So I suck at doing things (blogging doesn't count). But I was thinking about what motivates people to do or not do things and I was thinking, particularly, about how you get people to do things when the problem seems--no, is--really, really bad.

This weird thing happens sometimes at Pandagon: Someone will write a post about a problem and some commenter, sooner or later, will basically show up and say, "Quit telling me about this problem." Lest anyone think I am bashing a gig I love here, let me add that this isn't most commenters or even a good handful of 'em. But there are always one or two. Sometimes they say it nicely. Other times it's just "Chris Clark suxx." I had one commenter complain that I had merely lectured him about a problem (that he already knew all about, thank you!) without providing any ideas for solutions, and he did it in a post where I'd linked MULTIPLE (I hate this phrase) "action items" for solution-oriented hipsters like, you know, himself, to pursue if he desired. This proves that some people still (1) don't read and (2) love shooting the messenger.

What else is new.

But the anger surprises me. And I want to add that I think the other side to that coin, that "Quit Bumming Me Out with This Depressing Shit" coin, is, "Why Do You Post About Such Superficial/Trivial Stuff When Serious Problem No. 11,287 Is So Much More Important?" Let's clear that up right now: Because no one is ON all the time. No one. I don't care if you're scheduled for 37 super-important activist events in your 24-hour day--you're not on all the time. Sometimes, but especially if you're me, you are thinking about whether anything can be done to save Lindsay Lohan from herself, and does it seem sometimes like she doesn't really appreciate being a natural redhead? Because it seems like that sometimes to me. And then sometimes you're thinking about a loved one or a pet. Sometimes you're thinking about nothing in particular and sometimes you're thinking about nothing at all.

And sometimes you want people to think about a specific thing and you want to do your little bit to get them there, maybe even get them from thinking about it to doing something about it. Luckily, I can tell you all about how to do this, because I am a highly regarded and influential person.

No, I have no idea. But I think from reading some of these angry comments--you know, it's true: You learn as much from your critics as your fans. Doesn't mean I don't want to kick the critics in the pants on a daily basis, but I have to grudgingly acknowledge that they serve a good purpose sometimes.

(Please skip the rest of this post because it is all things everyone else already knows but I am just figuring out now. So it's interesting to me, but probably not to you.)

The critics seem to go gunning for the messenger when:

People feel they cannot contribute effectively to solving the problem.

There's a mentality I run across that's more common to left-leaning blogs than right-leaning ones, and it's this weird sort of Jesus mentality that says, people shouldn't do things because they enjoy them, they should do things because they're the right things to do.

(Remind me to write that post about how I still like Ayn Rand and I am probably never going to stop, and then remind me that I should write that post because I don't have enough people quarreling with me in my life; I need more.)

Anyway, that's a bullshit mentality and Rand did a good job of explaining why, but I don't even need Rand for this. You just have to look at the Great Blogroll Purge of 2007 to see it. And what you see is that an awful lot of people with impeccable leftist credentials went waaaaayyy Howard Roark when it was suggested to them that they owed anyone a blogroll link--that they should link smaller blogs because it was The Right Thing To Do.

"You mean I blog for some reason besides my own pleasure? I blog to help other bloggers? I have to put aside my own preferences for the greater good of the lefty blogging community? Well! That does it. I'm dynamiting this blog."

Sure, I'm exaggerating, but not by that much.

People aren't altruists by nature and, bad news here, they're never going to be. You can guilt 'em temporarily; you can nag one or two suckers into linking your small-but-deserving blog on their blogrolls. But most people want to own their efforts and they want to be rewarded for those efforts because they earned them, not because someone inspired them with the importance of blah-blah-community.

That's why the whole blogging-as-meritocracy thing won't die, even though there are times and situations in which it should, even though blogging clearly ISN'T a pure meritocracy: Because telling people "you didn't get here through merit; you got here through the grace of the almighty power law" devalues their work. So when you point out that blogging isn't a meritocracy, some douchebag like Kos gets all offended because he thinks you're telling him his work isn't all that--which it isn't, if you ask me, but let's not derail.

The point is, people want some fucking appreciation, they want to feel they've earned it justly, and where I agree with Rand still is that this is not a bad thing, and certainly nothing to run around trying to shame people out of. If you're gonna do that, just put your fundie clothes on and go whole hog and renounce all sin (except the sin you commit, because of course that is different). Don't go screaming at people that they should care about truth and justice. People already know this, that they should care about truth and justice! Now what they would very, very much like is to believe that their caring about truth and justice (1) will make one fuck of a difference and, yes, (2) will make them feel good.

People like to feel good and hate to feel bad. This is not difficult.

People are intimidated by the enormity or pervasiveness of the problem

Goes hand in hand with the one above, but--well, this is a perfect example:



"Oh, dear," you say, "That's ten minutes long." Let's see: Shall I lecture you that you should care and watch it anyway because it's the right thing to do? No, I think I won't do that. I think I'll say: Skip the first 3 minutes, or just slide the little scroller until a helicopter appears. If you skip to 5 minutes in I won't tell anybody, but definitely watch what happens when the people do as they're told by the riot police, and begin leaving MacArthur Park.

The police, you may note, keep advancing, and firing. That black line just keeps going, and going, and going, well out of the park, several blocks away from the park, meeting no real resistance, but firing at people all the same. In the Soviet Union? No. Here.

This is a despair-inducing, overwhelming problem, and I don't know about you, but I'll tell you what I'd much rather do with my time than contemplate this problem: I'd rather read TBogg's account of Ann Althouse's account of the Republican debates. That's some funny fucking shit! I love how she can scarcely be assed to name any of the participants.

What would I do without Ann Althouse? What would any of us do? If she didn't exist, someone would have to invent her.

So a problem being too big becomes a problem in itself: What the fuck do you do against riot police? Especially riot police going after people who weren't rioting in the first place? I mean, you can hardly decide to start rioting then:

"We were just hanging out, peaceful-like, but then you pigs had to show up in your riot gear with the tear gas--I think NOW we're gonna riot."

It sounds real noble, but you're not running towards a rubber bullet any more than I am. A handful of people might, but that handful of people, you know what's going to become of them. They're going to jail, the all-star package with special super-fun bonus FREE injuries besides.

Although, I have it on perfectly good, secondhand authority from some clown calling himself Jack Dunphy that--

. . . there are no broken bones or bleeding head gashes among the injuries, suggesting that the police might have been more retrained in their tactics than their critics are alleging


--so it's okay, and we should thank God that those brave, under-appreciated officers showed the restraint that they did (however did they manage it in the face of such horrific peaceful assembly? Truly Our Lord was with them that day), and graciously refrained from breaking bones or splitting any skulls open with an axe.

You see what I mean? It's overwhelming. But if I say it's overwhelmingly horrible, I'm the bad American, I'm the anti-authoritarian unpatriotic lefty loon; whereas if Dunphy writes that the press owes the LAPD hugs and kisses for not actually bashing any heads in, he gets whatever they're paying not-very-good freelancers at the National Review these days. Best of all, hardly anyone with any influence will stand up and say, "Great hairy goat balls, this Dunphy's a psychopath." Which you'd have to be, to suggest this nakedly that if people don't shut their complaining pieholes, next time they're gonna get worse. And, you're welcome, Angelenos!

A sternly-worded (but eminently civil) letter to William Bratton, or the LA Times, or your Congressional representatives, seems an anemic response, but what the hell else can you do? Call a general strike? Look: I'm not losing my job for truth and justice. I like eating and sleeping with a roof over my head and things of that nature. I can hold a red bell pepper in my hand; I can feel that I'm not sleeping in my car. Truth-n-justice, well, it does give me warm fuzzies and all, but if I want warm fuzzies I should probably mention that I'm also a huge fan of electricity, which powers this, which delivers way warmer fuzzies, if you know what I'm saying. Anyway electricity costs money, and for that I need a job, so I'll be clocking in as usual on August 1. Sorry.

I am sort of putting on a selfish-asshole persona here; I hope that's apparent but, you know, in case it isn't, there's your disclaimer. My points are (1) that persona is not entirely fabricated and (2) we're all both good people and selfish assholes, sometimes even at the same time. What I am trying to figure out is how to fix it so the good people win and the assholes lose, and that is not easy when the assholes are in riot gear, and the good people are in the park with their kids, and some piece of scratch paper we used to call "The Constitution" is apparently being used to make spitballs or something.

But I think the trick is to try to break the big problem down into several small ones because otherwise . . . otherwise, the good people feel helpless, and then they do nothing, because what's the point. And then, well. Like a broken bone with that tear gas? We're offering a discount, 2 for 1, on special this week only forever.

People think the proposed solution is imperfect.

Taken to extremes, all proposed solutions are imperfect; any solution less than "all creatures on earth have enough to eat, enjoy perfect health, live exactly as long as they want to (including forever) and die exactly when and how they'd like to (including never), and get along splendidly with each other, and spend every waking moment blissfully happy," is imperfect.

Who gives a fuck? If you don't like solution A, by all means, say so, but then one hopes you have somewhere in your back pocket a solution B or C or X or Q or whatever that is not completely at cross-purposes to A. Unless A sucks, of course; but I still think it's important to say something besides, "A sucks." It's fun to sit around bitching about A, and how it sucks, and how much it sucks, and what's wrong with the people who proposed it in the first place anyhow, do they suck too? But it doesn't get anything happening.

Naturally, I say all this as someone who loves to sit around complaining about how much things suck. What else can I say? It beats lifting a delicate, lady-like finger.

9 comments:

Chris said...

Didja know that today's the like umpteenth anniversary of Kent State, or something?

Anyway. Great post. Thanks for the vid, which was unsurprising given the LAPD.

And right now I feel like the "Chris Clark suxx" posters ARE the ones that are saying it nicely, because at least they aren't saying one of my beloved co-bloggers needs to be violently assaulted.

Amy's Brain Today said...

I too really appreciate the video, as my media condom sometimes prevents me from hearing about things like this. I also thought it was interesting that the modest clothing site you linked to has a banner ad for Chinese mail order brides. WTF?

Though I am going to, I think, disagree with your persona enough to say that doing stuff feels good. Every slice of middle-class patriarchal lifestyle that I strip away feels like a triumph. Resistance feels good, and I think people don't know that. You can feel good about being in the park on the side of right even if you run away from the rubber bullets. Look what those dudes with the camera did for everybody out here watching the video, and they were running just the same.

One thing to think about in considering solutions is to break through our individualist focus somehow. Because you're right, no one wants to starve. No one wants to be homeless. So how can we create a movement that takes care of its members? I'm a child of the unions and I remember when there was a strike and the unions made sure that strikers' families ate. Why can't we (the collective, movement we) do that? Figure out how to do that? Make that a priority for building a movement? And having said that, I will say that justice IS going to require those of us who are living all comfy here in amerika to give something up. You probably won't be able to hold a bell pepper in January in LC. But hopefully there will be compensations such as knowing that you're not willfully consuming someone else's life.

magickitty said...

:(

I like to think of political blogging (and I include in that anything to do with sexism, race, class, etc.) as a kind of artform. If it provokes a strong response, even a negative response, then its done its job.

Your ladylike fingers are strong and burly because you dare to write about what people don't want to know. You are already doing your part - you don't need to march, you don't need to wave flags, because people are already angry with you for making clear something they want to ignore. The violence of the response is in direct proportion to their need to ignore the problems... but they can't ignore it anymore, can they? You kicked the rocks out of the way, and the ants are running everywhere.

(Sorry, we currently have an ant problem in our kitchen and I can't seem to IGNORE THE PROBLEM.)

I'm sorry you're bummed. But please know that for every detractor, you've got a whack of (silent) supporters who appreciate your bravery.

ms. jared said...

excellent post.

i do think however, that talking about this stuff and bringing it to people's attention and discussing the implications of the things that are going on in our world *is* in fact, doing something.

some of us can afford to give money, some of us can afford to give time and some of us can afford to give "lip-service" but it's all important.

i think when people say, "all you do is talk and whine about shit but you never do anything." is really just a way of shutting down discussion and making people doubt themselves so they don't talk with other like minded people and strategize and organize and so on.

i learn a lot from you and a lot from other people i read and what i learn encourages and emboldens me and gives me courage and strength to stand up for what i believe in whenever i can.

this is a kind of weird example, but just today, a woman i work with forwarded an email from her husband about a cat they want to adopt and i (being the nosy nelly i am) read the whole string and found a part where he said, "yay! it's declawed!" and i was immediately all ZOINKS!

i sat here arguing with myself for 20 minutes before i finally decided that yes, there is a war going on and yes, there are more pressing abuses happening everywhere but goddammit, declawing is WRONG and i'm gonna say something about it!

and the reason i finally grew the courage to do so and to explain to her just exactly why declawing is horrible and inhumane was because of the strong and amazing and courageous women like you who i read and read about on the internets. even a little bit is still a little bit.

so yes, just blogging about it is in fact, lifting a ladylike finger (or ten) and doing something.

Joseph Kugelmass said...

Ilyka,

I had a lot of trouble understanding how these excellent sub-categories of frustration related to the content of the paragraphs tucked under them.

I agree with you that people who feel powerless tend to disconnect, as do people who can't accept the proposals they're being offered by seemingly more "powerful" bloggers like Kos or Pandagon (or MoveOn).

At the same time, there are a lot of references to personal pleasures here, such as coffee and the Magic Wand, and these are framed as problems for the political left. Neither coffee, nor the Magic Wand and the small amount of electricity it requires, nor cigarettes pose any significant threat to political organizing. Neither, for that matter, does Lindsay Lohan or thinking about her.

This post forces on us all of this cynical thinking about human nature, and encourages your readers to think of themselves as selfish assholes, without the slightest indication that the other things human beings do might be equally related to their nature -- including helping one another, and giving voice to political concerns.

There are lots of blogs out there that make space for a variety of topics; there are also lots of bloggers who write at a couple of different blogs because they have a variety of interests. I can't see how it is progressive, or even usefully honest, to oppose constructive political activism to the simple pleasures of life.

ilyka said...

I can't see how it is progressive, or even usefully honest, to oppose constructive political activism to the simple pleasures of life.

Exactly my point, which is why I find "you whine about [simple matter x] but don't whine enough about [complex matter y]" type criticisms unhelpful.

This post forces on us all of this cynical thinking about human nature, and encourages your readers to think of themselves as selfish assholes, without the slightest indication that the other things human beings do might be equally related to their nature -- including helping one another, and giving voice to political concerns.

1. A post cannot "force" anything on anyone.

2. My both/and construction regarding so-called "good people" and "selfish assholes" was deliberate. Both/and, not either/or. I am uninterested in advocating an "either you're a saint or a sinner" construction with regards to human nature.

Joseph Kugelmass said...

1. A post cannot "force" anything on anyone.

Yes it can. A post can make claims about human nature that include some or all of its readers. That doesn't mean that we have to agree with what we read, naturally. But this whole post could have been written without a single reference to some overarching and wretched "human nature."

For example, there are lots of good reasons for a meritocratic blogosphere that have nothing to do with pleasure. We just can't read but so many blogs per day, even if it were our job to do so, which for most of us it's not. So we have to find some ways of choosing our reading; that's not selfishness or sadism.

2. My both/and construction regarding so-called "good people" and "selfish assholes" was deliberate. Both/and, not either/or. I am uninterested in advocating an "either you're a saint or a sinner" construction with regards to human nature.

I'm uninterested in associating drinking coffee with sin or selfishness. Same with pleasure in general. Saying that we're both good people and selfish assholes is making us out to be both saints and sinners. I can't see the sin in any of this.

I know that you're writing in opposition to some people who might want to call Lindsay Lohan blogging, or coffee blogging, frivolous. I think it gives them way too much credit to respond by saying "yes" to their derogations.

ilyka said...

I know that you're writing in opposition to some people who might want to call Lindsay Lohan blogging, or coffee blogging, frivolous. I think it gives them way too much credit to respond by saying "yes" to their derogations.

Okay, tell me if I have this right:

In other words, by acknowledging the dichotomy to which some people clearly subscribe, I'm reinforcing that dichotomy, giving power to it that it doesn't deserve--yes?

If that's your point, well said, and to an extent I agree. I don't see the "sin" in coffee or Lohan either.

On the other hand, it's impossible to discuss a false dichotomy without acknowledging its existence in the first place, and I personally think it's effective use the lingo of those who subscribe to it, at least initially, before getting around to why and how that lingo perpetuates bad ideas. Especially if (as was the case here) one is not eager to launch a wonky and academic discussion of pleasure and self-sacrifice in human behavior.

As for "some overarching and wretched 'human nature'," I assume you mean my invocation and characterization of it is overarching and wretched, and not that human nature itself is so; or possibly you mean that the concept of "human nature" in and of itself is wretched nonsense. Can't really say anything there besides thanks, love you too.

Joseph Kugelmass said...

In other words, by acknowledging the dichotomy to which some people clearly subscribe, I'm reinforcing that dichotomy, giving power to it that it doesn't deserve--yes?

Right, exactly.

On the other hand, it's impossible to discuss a false dichotomy without acknowledging its existence in the first place, and I personally think it's effective use the lingo of those who subscribe to it, at least initially, before getting around to why and how that lingo perpetuates bad ideas. Especially if (as was the case here) one is not eager to launch a wonky and academic discussion of pleasure and self-sacrifice in human behavior.

It ought to be possible to write about these things without being painfully academic in tone. I agree with you that it can be worthwhile to accept the names you get called. The reason I'm not down with "selfish asshole" is that it actually fits some people, either because they put themselves first in their personal relations, or because they could care less about social issues.

As for a close examination of things like pleasure and self-sacrifice, well, I'm not sure I'd want to read a blog post by Schopenhauer either. Throwing Ayn Rand in there, though, to account for phenomena that have other explanations (i.e. why blogging is a meritocracy), raises questions including "what are human beings like?" Questions that, it seems to me, Rand did not answer in a way particularly compatible with Pandagon.