Friday, January 13, 2017

Nowhere to go but in

Arwa Mahdawi in the Guardian has an interesting piece on the "self-care" culture, and people's retreat into it from the harsh realities of the current political scene.

Near the end, she cites Jamie Kalven's comparison of self-care to the "internal migration" that characterized the behavior of money people in the Soviet bloc who were dissatisfied with the regimes under which they lived.

To the extent that there are similarities, it’s important to note a deep difference between communist-era internal migration and Western political disengagement.

The classic portrait of internal migration is someone who would like to live in an open society, where they can say what they want, criticize the government, read what they want, listen to what they want, go to movies that haven’t had to squeak past the government censor, etc.

Those things weren’t possible in the Soviet bloc. Calling for them was risky. Earlier in the communist period, the consequence could easily be jail, possibly execution. By the 1970s and 80s, a death sentence for illegal political or cultural activity was pretty much unheard-of, and jail might well be an off-and-on thing, but you could still lose the ability to work in your chosen profession while exposing your friends to risks as well.

A few people chose to speak out anyway. We called them “dissidents” and lionized them. Most people decided that the risks of engagement were too high, so they migrated inward. And while we can appreciate the courage and sacrifice of those who spoke out, if we haven’t ourselves been citizens of a repressive society, where we can endanger our well-being by voicing critical opinions, we should be slow to castigate those who chose internal migration. None of us knows what choice we would have made if we had been in their shoes.

I’d like to say that there are no dire consequences of speaking out in the U.S., but I’m not sure I can make that categorical a statement. We have the no-fly list, where you can land in response to relatively mild remarks that some government entity deems a threat, or through having a similar name to someone whom the government deems a threat. Still, I think it’s fair to say that you can pretty much say, write, blog, read, listen to what you like, without fear of negative consequences from the government. I’m quite confident that that holds up as a relative statement, compared to the experience in the communist bloc.

So what drives our disengagement must be different. I think it’s some mixture of resignation—reluctantly reaching the conclusion that political action is fruitless—and just plain not caring.

I have some sympathy for the resignation. In the wake of Sandy Hook, 90% of the public wanted some increased measure of gun control, and yet that got nowhere. Congress unanimously reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court threw out key provisions, allowing new measures in voter suppression that contributed to Trump’s victory. It can lead to a sense that it’s a fools’ game to try to work the political system. Your options are revolution or dropping out. If you’re not of a revolutionary temperament (or you're skeptical of revolution’s ability to actually bring net positive change), then your choice is clear.

I have less sympathy for just not caring. It’s true that some fans of the market imagine that success for a society means having the market take care of everything so that the citizenry can safely be disengaged, looking to their own prosperity and not thinking about the larger society and how it can be run.

But that’s simply a juvenile fantasy.

In the real world, government always plays an important role in how society works. And conditions are always changing, so government always has to change. There is no perfect system that we can set in motion and then ignore.

It’s true that our current efforts are not bearing very satisfying fruits, but that means we need new strategies. Other than more consistent engagement on the local level and building up from there, I’m drawing a blank.

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