Ira Chernus  


What You Can Learn On Your Summer Vacation

Since you are reading, you are probably a news junkie. You probably feel a civic duty to know as much as you can about whatís going on all the time, everywhere in the world.

But every responsible citizen deserves a summer vacation. This year, Iím taking mine early. So I donít know much about whatís been going on in the world lately. I did hear that Ronald Reagan died, and they made an awfully big fuss about it. But I donít know the latest on the plans for a new government in Iraq, or Ariel Sharonís Gaza policy, or the Kerry campaignís strategic maneuvers, or anything like that.

Hereís what Iíve been paying attention to instead. I got my first debit card and learned how it works. I learned how to make a call on my cell phone just by saying someoneís name out loud. I saw a Tom Cruise movie and figured out why is such a big sex symbol. I went shopping at Home Depot for the first time. Stuff like that.

In other words, Iíve been living the way we imagine that mythical beast, "the average American," lives, thinking mostly about shopping and money and cell phones and movie stars and such. Like "the average American," Iíve paid only vague attention to politics and world affairs, sort of the way you vaguely notice the background landscape in a Renaissance painting.

Most Americans experience places like the Middle East or North Korea, issues like the military budget or health care reform, even the presidential campaign, as background in their lives. On the rare occasion that an issue really hits home, like pollution in the local river or changes in the local zoning laws, average Americans can show plenty of political consciousness and work hard for social change.

They donít especially oppose left-wing progressive political positions. They donít especially support them either. They just donít think about them very much one way or the other. Usually, it just doesnít seem worth the effort to develop an informed opinion. What they see on the national news is too distant to seem as important as shopping and money and cell phones and movie stars.

Most people think of themselves as spectators, not participants, in political affairs. The play is being staged so far away from them, they canít imagine that their opinions could make any difference anyway. So they see no reason to pay very close attention to the details.

The great anthropologist Clifford Geertz once described the government of medieval Indonesia as a "theater state." Whatever policies the government pursued, he said, they always had the same ultimate purpose. They always gave the government a way to act out dramas that sent the same symbolic message: someone is in charge here; the old familiar way of life is still working; there is a basic order in our lives that never really changes.

That may be all that people generally want from the government in any place, at any time. Our own government may be mostly a theater state, too. When most folks turn on the TV news, they may want, more than anything else, reassurance that the someone is in charge and the world is going on as usual. Politicians are still debating arcane points of policy, the president is still smiling, soldiers and youths in T-shirts are still shooting at each otherósame as it ever was, so allís right with the world.

These TV-watchers do have an important role to play. As audience, they get to criticize, make cynical remarks, yawn, boo, and even cheer occasionally. But thatís all part of the reassuring drama, too. And they can play that part without really understanding what the talking heads are talking about.

If they started paying attention to the details, they would realize that nothing is ever the same as it ever was. Everything is always changing, because people are making it change. We donít all have an equal chance to shape the direction of change. But any of us can be agents of change, if we really want to.

Most people just donít want to. Itís too much trouble, and itís too troubling to acknowledge that things can never stay the same.

Itís not a bad idea to live for a few weeks the way most people live, just to see what it feels like. It might suggest that, when we work for social change, our main challenge is not to get people to change their views about the issue. They probably havenít thought much about the issue, whatever it is, anyway.

Our main challenge is to persuade them that their views can matter, that there is some reason to pay close attention and develop informed opinions. And to persuade them that change can be good for them. If we manage to do that, we might be surprised how fast the changes can happen.