May 25, 2007

We can make a difference—and we should

Recently, I had the pleasure of watching Network, one of my all-time favorite movies. When I first saw the movie, I was drawn to its absurdist black humor, but the movie has become less and less funny with each viewing. The main character in the film, Howard Beale, was the television anchor everyone wanted in 1976: an anchor who “was not gonna leave you alone, daring complacent viewers to get off their couches and get mad. (Bealeís rallying cries, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” are some of the most memorable lines in movie history.) The focus of Network, however, is not on Beale’s message, but on how it’s used. Beale’s anger is taken over by a communications conglomerate as nothing more than a ratings vehicle. Network is a cautionary tale about how even pure rebelliousness can be turned into mindless noise.

Yet today, we’ve accepted the commercialization of rebellion, and challenging it seems old-fashioned. “Image is nothing” sells Sprite, “Just do it” sells sneakers, and even the term “indie,” which in the ’80s represented a radical network of youths committed to change, has come to represent a look more than a set of ideas (a look that is defined by American Apparel, a company that has an extensive history of sexual harassment and union busting). Howard Beale seems like a voice we left behind long ago. In his place, we have Jon Stewart.

It’s not a knock on Stewart himself, as he’s one of the few television anchors who will point out the absurdity and outrageousness of our government and our media. Yet while Beale compelled us to get mad, Stewart simply wants us to laugh. Instead of trying to change the things we see on The Daily Show, we laugh, roll over, and go to sleep. Our generation has been the victim of one of the most destructive forces our nation has ever seen: irony. Our age has been labeled the age of irony, and though Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair declared irony to be dead after 9/11, it’s a force powerful enough to overcome even the worst tragedy in our nation’s history. Instead of addressing our problems, we sarcastically joke about them and dismiss them, with Stewart as the voice of the ironic generation.

When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, instead of trying to prevent him from being as destructive in his second term as he was in his first, we came up with the slogan “George W. Bush is not my president.” Actually, he is our president, yet all the energy people put in around the country to address our problems suddenly disappeared on November 3, 2004. People I’ve talked to usually say that their effort doesn’t matter. It’s a frustrating response that is reflective of the age-old paradox of voter participation: 20 million people who think their votes don’t matter actually do matter. Yet, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and if we applied the same energy that was put into the 2004 election to ending wiretapping, addressing global warming, and developing the brain power to figure out what the hell to do with Iraq, Jon Stewart would have a lot less material to work with.

What’s particularly frustrating is how little effort it takes someone on an individual level to make a substantial contribution. If we took the money we spend on irony (which, judging from my last paragraph, ranges in the billions) and donated it to a cause we believed in, we’d see a lot of the world’s problems (and our own) get much smaller rather quickly. In March, Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times advocated a website called kiva.org, in which you can loan however much money you want to struggling businesses in developing nations to help push them out of poverty. I loaned $25 to Hin Them, a Cambodian farmer who needs to upgrade his tools and buy additional seeds for planting. My loan will be returned in the next year, so at literally no cost to me I’ve helped fight poverty. Call me crazy, but I feel it was a better use of my $25 than on a handle of vodka for the GOP debate drinking game.

Not coincidentally, the issues that I’m most interested in fighting for—Obama’s presidential campaign, fixing American science education, and supporting the arts—are not the material you usually see on The Daily Show. My vehicle for addressing this is my studies, the small amount of money I make at my part-time job, and my writing. I constantly argue with people and try to confront their opinions in the hope that they will learn to come up with justifications for what they believe instead of causally accepting those beliefs. It may not be much, but at least I’m trying—what have you done?