Saturday, April 01, 2006

Apathy: The “enemy” that threatens us all

It is relatively easy for American working people to identify our major adversary. We all can see that Corporate America has betrayed our contributions to the strength of our nation by throwing us into direct competition with low paid foreign workers. After the hard fought gains won for America’s working class by the once proud American Labor Movement, it has by now become painfully clear to us that the Corporate Elite has mounted a relentless major offensive to push working people out of the middle class, after so much sacrifice was made to win this measure of dignity in our lives, and back into poverty.

It is easy to point at the Corporate Elite as they grovel in their naked Greed, as yet unsatisfied with a degree of wealth and luxury incomprehensible to us, but there is another “enemy” we all must confront that does not stand so clearly in front of us. We cannot so easily point to it and say, “that is what we must fight". It rather lurks all around us in a pervasive shadowy presence, threatening to engulf us in its eerie unspoken ennui. It thrives on discouragement. It feeds on hopelessness. It is fueled by a sense of futility. That “enemy” is Apathy.

Those of us actively engaged in this struggle to retain some measure of dignity in our lives, those willing and ready to do battle with the devil himself to protect our children’s hopes and dreams, grab at handfuls of our hair in maddening frustration when we see so many of our fellow workers blandly accept the loss of what their ancestors fought so hard to gain for them. Why won’t they “wake up?” How can they not feel the same anger and determination that we feel? Don’t they understand what is happening to them?

And all too often our anger becomes focused on them. We resent their fall to this fearsome enemy, Apathy.

But surely we all have an innate instinctual sense of how they feel. Surely we understand that it is powerlessness in the face of fear and anger that leads to Apathy. Even as we use our own spirit of courageous determination to hack away at the insidiously pervasive tendrils of Apathy as they try to grow into our own hearts, surely we all can understand how so many other hearts have been overgrown and overcome.

Which of us has not at times felt discouraged and defeated? What’s the use? Why bother? Why be involved? Why write? Why speak out? Nothing works. Why vote? The people we vote for only betray us once they get a taste of power. Which of us has not in our darkest hours thought these very thoughts ourselves?

We see that all our institutions are run by people so corrupted with greed for their own position, wealth, and power that they have lost concern for the purpose that the institutions were created to accomplish. In government, in business, even in churches, and certainly in our unions, our leaders lie, cheat, and steal from us without regret or shame. “Honor” is a concept all but completely lost in this corruption. We watch helplessly as Orwell’s predictions unfold before our very eyes. Up is down. Hate is love. War is peace. We drop bombs on people’s heads to “liberate” them. We cut funding for schools as we talk of our concern for education. We rob from the poor to give to the rich, as we talk about creating “opportunity” for all. And….ah yes….. NAFTA, “free trade,” and the holy grail of the “free market,” will bring prosperity to working people everywhere.

Caught within this maelstrom of corruption, unable any longer to tell truth from lies, to sort fact from fiction, unable to make sense anymore of anything at all, people are completely overwhelmed. Those in desperate circumstances may rise up in riot or revolt, but those who yet enjoy a degree of comfort will simply seek retreat from it all. Have another beer or wine cooler. Turn on the ballgame, or the soap opera, or the latest reality show. Pursue gratification of our carnal appetites. Look for happiness in food, and sex. Convince ourselves that our possessions can satisfy us. Try to believe that free indulgence of Desire can take the place of Honor, and that Justice and Freedom can exist nonetheless.

Those of us not yet consumed by Apathy are often tempted to regard those who are apathetic with contempt. We are tempted to turn our own frustration on them. “THEY are the problem,” we are tempted to conclude. “If only they would join with us, we could win,” we accurately observe. “It’s THEIR fault,” we decide, in our human need to assign “blame” where it belongs.

And that is the first stage of our own defeat at the cruel and insidious hands of Apathy. As we decide to blame its victims, as we come to resent our apathetic brothers and sisters, we are then set one against the other, brothers and sisters against our own, and we lose our focus on our real enemies, which are not our fellow workers who have fallen to Apathy, but rather are those who would take the sustenance from our families” tables in their greed to have more opulent luxury at theirs. Soon we lose our focus on “the real problem” itself, which is not Apathy, but the overpowering degree of Corruption and Injustice that gave rise to it, and as those tendrils of apathy continue to grow insistently around our own hearts, our will to resist them, the power and focus of our own Spirit to hack away at them, will be weakened. Apathy begets more apathy, not in a dramatic frontal assault, but rather in a slow oozing envelopment of our will.

I am not an autoworker. I am a carpenter. I therefore lack the proper credentials to discuss this buyout offer, or any other specific aspect of your contract. I cannot help autoworkers make the difficult decisions you now face. But Apathy is an “enemy” that is common to us ALL. All of us who struggle for Justice in America in these times struggle to awaken people from their apathetic trance, and as we do, we also struggle against discouragement and hopelessness in our own hearts.

I was talking to a fellow carpenter up in Washington State just yesterday, (I’m down in Kansas City), about this very thing. We were talking about how those of us who have not yet fallen to Apathy must join together in Common Cause. We must find the way to UNITE our efforts.

He was talking about the “enclaves of resistance” all over the country. SOS is NOT alone. In virtually every union there is a group very much like SOS. In every union there is a group of “dissidents” who understand that the House of Labor has been betrayed by its own leaders, and that it is up to us, as “rank-and-file” working people to renew a legacy that has been lost. The very comfort and complacency that now threatens us was won by the bone and blood of our ancestors. It was only three generations back, in the times of our own grandparents” parents, that working people faced up to clubs with bare fists. And then when they took up clubs to protect themselves, it was guns that cut them down. But they had the courage and determination to face down all these odds and prevail.

Solidarity was their weapon. They joined together in Common Cause. Now, only three generations later, “solidarity” has become something we talk about incessantly, but in our comfort and complacency, and all too often in our Apathy, it has become something we only rarely ever actually “do”.

These disconnected “enclaves of resistance” must find a way to conSOLIDATE. We must find a way to UNITE our efforts. Carpenter with autoworker, laborer with teacher, janitor with truck driver, dock worker with plumber, electrician with office worker, these enclaves of Progressive Labor must find the means to work together in united resolve. As isolated enclaves we remain relatively powerless, and as we recognize instinctively that it is powerlessness that gives rise to Apathy, we must join in common cause to gain the power to resist it in ourselves, and then to banish it from the hearts of our brothers and sisters. Show them the path to power, and they will cast out Apathy. Show them the way that they can seize control of their own fate, and their faces will harden with new determination. Show them the path to Power, and they will rise up and walk down that path.

No one is going to re-invent the wheel. Solidarity is STILL, and always will be, the ONLY path to power for working people. We must reach out to each other. We must join together in Common Cause. Isolated “enclaves of resistance” are brave, but they are weak. It is in a United Progressive Labor that these isolated enclaves will find Power.

Ray Zwarich

Guest Essayist