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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Apathy & Cynicism: Diseases Whose Victims are Other People

First written & published in 2008, this is a slightly modified version.

Those on both the right and in the centrist parties that support the present economic system have won many victories over the last 25 years of capitalist retrenchment. They have convinced a large portion of the population that the expansion of the economy is the sole measure of our economic growth as a society despite the fact that it has resulted in virtually no increase in real wages for the bulk of citizens and a dramatic decline for those at the lower end of the income scale. They have managed to create the myth that labour unions are somehow akin in influence and power to the companies that the workers they represent work for. They have created broad resentment against the paltry sums handed out in social solidarity to those who have lost their jobs or who due to addiction, illness or other difficulties are unable to work. They have fundamentally realigned the power balance in our society between workers, the middle class and capital.

But perhaps the biggest victory they have won, the single greatest of their ideological achievements has been their creation of widespread feelings of apathy and cynicism among the population as a whole and youth in particular. This singular triumph is one of long-term consequence and significance and its effects have even yet to be fully felt. But their one true and clear result is the profoundly and dangerously anti-democratic idea that government does not matter and that despite who you elect or support the end result will always be the same.

The last two elections shows just how entrenched these views have become among our fellow citizens, fully 40% of whom stayed home and couldn't even be bothered to exercise a right that countless generations fought, suffered and died for.

It is very clear how this victory was achieved, both here and abroad. Governments of the left and centre-left were elected on broad mandates of social change (even if gradualist) and were felt by wide sectors of the population to be representative of them in either a class or a personalized way. These governments then went on, in varying degrees, to betray these promises and to turn against those who had elected them. In Canada the two clearest examples are the 1993 Liberal government (whose Red Book had to be the largest pack of lies to be put to press in Canadian political history ) and the Bob Rae NDP government of 1990 (though not to the same extent).

Now both parties largely run on nothing platforms that offer little other than good stewardship and the true, and yet uninspiring fact that they are better than the Tories. The NDP no longer offers programmes of vision to challange the system, (or even, like medicare, to make the lives of people fundamentally better) rather they offer tax cuts and claim that they will be slightly "fairer" yet very fiscally responsible managers of the capitalist economy.

This, and the accompanying capitulation of the press and the media pundits to the idea that history had ended in the inevitable and inexorable triumph of the unfettered market place, led to an intended and welcomed sense of apathy and cynicism among many. Both of these forces played into the forward march of the culture of selfishness and "individualism" that is the hallmark of the technological era. Self-gratification became the pulse of the materialist epoch.

"I'm Alright Jack" became a guiding principle and was reflected in the utter banality of the political maturity of many, such as a young man heard not long ago on the CBC bemoaning having to help pay for a universal health care system as he himself had never needed it! Others made self-interest a fine art, drawing a line between themselves, their home, their work and their cottages or places of leisure and caring little for those outside of this Ptolemaic universe except the privileged few that they deigned to shower attention upon.

Why bother? They are all the same. Nothing matters anyway. What difference does it make who I vote for? Why not just stay home and watch CSI or hockey instead?

The fallacy of this is manifest, to even the dimmest who seek to examine it and even within the limited options of our democracy at present. Take, as an interesting example, just two immediate results of the fall of the 2006 Martin government, a very centrist government at that, and its replacement by Harper. One was the end of the terribly important and significant day care programme proposed by the Liberals, the other the demise of the historic accord with Canada's native peoples. This is not a defence of Paul Martin per se. It is a fact.

Those who stayed home were in every respect just as responsible for this outcome as those who actually voted for Harper.

There is a direct path between apathy and cynicism and its victims; a straight line from the indifference that is at their root and the human suffering that results. On terrible occasion the results are cataclysmic, as when the people of the world and Canada turned their backs on Rwanda. More often the outcomes are more personalized as in the deaths in Walkerton, the increase in child poverty and its incumbent infliction of the violence of hunger and neglect upon our most innocent citizens, the demise of the broader sense of community and so many other, smaller and yet still truly sad human failures.

Beyond simply pointing out the error of these views, however, it is also important to attack their underpinnings.

The apathetic just don't care. The absolute elevation of the imbecility that stems from a pure love of self. Outraged at any slight that befalls them or those they chose to care about, oblivious to all else. Theirs is a world that might as well be ruled by Greek Gods in that events just seem to swirl around them as if forces of nature over which they chose not to exert control. It is the ultimate impotence; the death of yourself as an individual with free will and power, at least over your own actions, and your rebirth as some shadow of a person. The irony of those with the greatest sense of self-importance turning themselves into irrelevancies in the broader scheme.

In a way worse is the cynic. The cynic often feels above the fray, as if somehow their detachment makes theirs a philosophical position as opposed to the base rejection of solidarity with others bred of their own personal selfishness. Far from the world weary wisdom of those who "understand" the "real world" and how it supposedly works, cynicism is a sorry state of mental self-isolation that is, in reality, the easiest of choices to make. Unlike the apathetic, the cynic attempts some sense of justification. They feel they have made a choice, and they have...they have chosen to scorn those who seek a better future for others.

Apathy and cynicism must be confronted head on. They must be confronted as a personal philosophy by exposing the craven idiocy of seeking self-actualization by embracing a view that renders you a footnote in the margins of your own society. They must also be confronted by putting forward a vision of a better future that inspires and gives hope. And they must be confronted by exposing the lie that individualism and selfishness are synonymous.

This is important not only if we wish to put forward a new socialist vision, but also if we wish to preserve our democracy.

There can be no greater threat to our freedoms, as Canadians, men and women, gays and lesbians, people of colour and natives, regardless even of class, than the sense in 40% of the population that it isn't even worth voting and that the democratic process is irrelevant to their lives.

This is often the stuff that fascism is made of. And, now as we head into troubled times we must take heed.

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