“Many hands make work light.” — Old Chinese proverb
I saw and heard an interview of Adam Curtis, my favorite documentary film maker, who insisted that the beginning of the end of civilized society in the United States didn’t begin with Reagan in 1981, but actually in 1970 with the death of the civil rights and Vietnam protests movements.
Curtis maintained that when the socially conscious “change the world” approaches of the youth of the 1960s just didn’t seem to make headway and four were killed in a protest at Kent State in May 1970, the activism began to withdraw into a “save yourself” mentality. It was the birth of the “Me Generation.”
Evidence of this development appeared in music almost right away. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died and gave way to Carole King and James Taylor, who emphasized the interpersonal rather than the international.
Not long afterward, the U.S. got out of Vietnam and somehow racial issues slowed into the background.
About seven years after that Ronald Reagan was swept into office with an attitude that government doesn’t solve problems, government is the problem He was backed heavily by fundamentalist and evangelical Christians in defeating perhaps the most religious man ever to serve in the White House.
I have called it the most transforming political event of my lifetime.
But another result of the death of youth activism of the ‘60s and the Reagan revolution was the gradual but persistent loss of community, eloquently outlined by Prof. Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone.” It was a time when too many people stopped working together to get things done or solve problems. Instead, rugged individualism was promoted and Reagan and George W. Bush successfully projected strong male “git ‘er done” qualities by splitting wood and hauling brush, being pseudo-cowboys.
Nowadays, it seems as though the only times the people are encouraged to gather is when they are being entertained and spending money. And some business leaders and politicians have been damn good at characterizing communal efforts on social and political issues as examples of communism and socialism.
So when some outrageous and anti-democratic things are done in the open, too many passive people withdraw into their cocoons and fail to rise up in righteous indignation. It doesn’t help at all that the Coronavirus has been hanging around for more than a year.
The United States over the last half century has gone from being a country that gets things done to a country that only creates problems, but doesn’t solve them.
Our inertia very well could cost us in dealing effectively with very serious issues such as climate change, systemic racism, voter suppression, wealth inequality. Perhaps there are some folks out there who want to keep it that way. They are politicians heavily financed by business interests that do not look on proposed change favorably.
It’s like that sign I saw about a decade ago, that said, “Welcome to Grand Rapids. We like the way things are around here. Let’s keep it that way. Vote Republican.”
And the vast majority of those who bother to vote have done just that over the past century.
As long as we tolerate a system of legalized bribery and continue to enjoy being manipulated by savvy marketing and advertising, we’re going there in a handbasket.