Guest Post: America, Long On Indifference, Short On Indignation

Via Ben Tanosburn of,

A friend who teaches history in one of the area’s community colleges cynically told me a dozen years ago, shortly after the September 11 attack, that the upcoming writing of American history would be done not by historians, but by economists.  He contended that American military spending had brought the Soviet empire to its knees a generation before, now (in 2001) Osama bin Laden was lighting what he called the “slow wick-fuse” that would have the US implode as the ruling empire within a couple of decades.

My young friend then proceeded to draw economic curves on the un-rationed napkins made available with our overpriced Starbucks coffee.  His extrapolation of expenditures for components and subcomponents of the GDP might have appeared pessimistic then, but there was unquestionable rationality in his overall treatment.  Fear-triggered added government expenditures, whether via National Defense or some new domestic super-agency, would end up impoverishing the country; and, as he put it, “if fear expenditures don’t bury us, healthcare costs will.”  And all this history in front of us, we both agreed, was happening because of our blatant civic indifference to how our nation was being governed; or, rather, how the people had forfeited their duty to govern themselves.

The Boston Marathon terror incident made me revisit that extended coffee break with my friend, and what has happened in the twelve years hence.  We now have Homeland Security “defending” us – from little, other than fear – at a total budget authority which approaches $60 billion annually.  Two wars and more than a trillion dollars later, we have raised our chances for fear possibly ten, maybe even a hundred-fold… something which will eventually mature in terror to be perpetrated by those who’ll try to avenge the long line of victims the US has left behind in its imperial quest.

And added to the grievous vice of our indifference is our lack of indignation in watching ourselves being marched to the slaughter house and not showing an ounce of courage, a legitimate cry of indignation.  It became evident, if only in the economic arena, when the Occupy Movement made an attempt to pinpoint blame for the nation’s economic ills.  Indignation never materialized… indifference quickly suffocating the cries of a few.  As for any questioning by Americans of the seeds which grow terror; that will never happen while the empire continues waving its flags from hundreds of enclaves all over the world.  Unfortunately, most Americans find pride in that, not indignation.  

Anton Chekhov in his Gooseberries could just as easily have been writing about life a century later in this America of ours:

“I look at this life and see the arrogance and the idleness of the strong, the ignorance and bestiality of the weak, the horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, drunkenness, hypocrisy, falsehood. . . . Meanwhile in all the houses, all the streets, there is peace; out of fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one to kick against it all. Think of the people who go to the market for food: during the day they eat; at night they sleep, talk nonsense, marry, grow old, piously follow their dead to the cemetery; one never sees or hears those who suffer, and all the horror of life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is quiet, peaceful, and against it all there is only the silent protest of statistics…”

So much for indignation, the silent protest of statistics!  Whether Chekhov’s town of 50,000 or today’s US of 315+ million people, we are all immersed in our selfish little lives proudly displaying what could be society’s worst vice: indifference… indifference to “all the horror of life [that] goes on somewhere behind the scenes.”

Indifference has historically been accepted by multiple cultures and religions as a vice.  Isn’t it about time, in an era where democracy appears to be slowly gaining ground, that we successfully battle such vice with its corresponding virtue: indignation?  After all, indignation is not just anger, but righteous anger at people or situations that are truly offensive or unjust to the better nature of humankind.

As we look at the arrogance of the strong, and the ignorance of the weak, we can’t help but recognize that at least for now… vice rules over virtue and our country will continue to remain long on indifference and short on indignation.  And that’s not a prescription to cure us from terrorism… or, what’s even worse, the fear of terrorism.


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