Monday, April 28, 2008

“If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention”

So goes the slogan a few months before the end of the Bush presidency. People should get worked up about the news – Iraq, Afghanistan, taxpayer ripoffs by defense contractors, sex trafficking in Thailand, the abuse of animals. But somehow, people don’t seem to get too excited about all that much.

Today’s New York Post splashes “Miley’s Shame,” a headline about Miley Cyrus, tween sensation, who got photographed in what the Post calls a revealing outfit, but which hardly seems even risqué to me. The Star is talking about Britney’s new bikini body. And that sex scandal with Elliot Spitzer – that certainly took up a lot of column inches. Is it as important as the genocide in Darfur, the plight of the Palestinians, or the ongoing decimation of so many species of plants and animals? Does it carry as much weight as important scientific news, such as the funding struggles over the large supercollider which may reveal fundamental facts about the universe?

Why doesn’t the news seem to matter much, and why is entertainment so easily substituted for it?

Here’s a handy definition: to radicalize: to make radical, especially in politics. If something or someone blows in and opens your eyes to something that was staring you in the face all along, it might make you care. Let’s say you find out your Grandfather was Jewish – it might make you care about the fate of people in death camps. Or that beautiful woman you aspire to date is into fighting nuclear power. You might find yourself heading in that direction.

But if one is not radicalized, one has only ones own internal moral resources to fall back on – and often they’re not that compelling, especially if the crowd is going the other way.

We have all seen those shameful pictures of white people grinning at a lynching, and wondered if we could have been one of that crowd. When Nazi papers published blatantly false characterizations of Jews, most people looked the other way, especially when the truncheons started falling. And was it so hard in Rwanda to look the other way when your Hutu neighbors started coming for the Tutsi friend across the road?

Humanity, we must conclude, is afflicted with indifference and inertia. We tend to go along to get along. But there’s more to it than that.

The news does not spur us to act, unless we’ve either been radicalized, or we’ve developed a moral sense that urges action as a lifestyle. But most of us are content to sit silent and take the entertainment we can get.

There’s even more to it: Somewhere, deep inside, we know that outer events don’t really matter – that it’s only the inner struggle that matters. In fact, the inner struggle controls and forms the outer events. Whatever we do on the inner level changes our circumstances, makes other things possible. While our society believes and fosters the myth that outer events are everything, in our heart of hearts, we know differently. We know that a change of heart means everything: it affects who we love, who we spend time with, the jobs we get, how we cope with crises. In contrast, who becomes Mayor or President, or which Wall Street trader earns a billion has little effect on our lives.

The suffering in Darfur only weighs on us if we have adopted moral action as a part of our lifestyle. Bush’s crimes don’t excite us to anger – if we haven’t been radicalized – because we know that whatever Bush does, does not affect our inner struggle to understand and transform ourselves. A radical political agenda may be part and parcel of who we are – but not in most cases.

TV and the news are, to a great extent, about what could kill us – be afraid, be very afraid! But, deep inside, we know that nothing outside kills us. The only real death is spiritual death, ourselves abandoning ourselves. This reduces news to entertainment, even the “watch out, it could be you” type of news. Deadly toxins are seeping into our water supply, terrorists are sneaking in nukes, Bush is getting away with torture. You see, those things don’t really matter to the inner struggle, which is the center of human life. So we ignore them. But this is not to put down or diminish the need for radical struggle. Please follow me in the paradox.

If people really acted in their “rational self-interest,” acting on the news they received, the world would certainly be a very different place. But I must caution my radical friends that “rational self interest” doesn’t exist. The only true interest is the imperative of spiritual growth.

The impulse to create order and beauty in one’s own life, by facing the evil within and transforming it, is the only great motivator. If unrecognized, the evil comes out with a vengeance – and that’s what we see in so many of the news stories. But only by facing our own evil through the inner struggle can we prevail – not by taking arms against a sea of troubles and leaving our inner landscape undisturbed.


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