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Steph Thompson

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America Sits Idly By

Posted: 02/01/11 11:28 AM ET

"A fearful society is easier to govern," my friend said sadly one day over lunch recently, in town, in New York, from Cambodia. She has run free elections all over Asia, tried to instill democracy in places where there are dictatorships, tried to give voice to the voiceless.

I suppose this proclamation is an improvement over the last time I saw her when she said, even more sadly, "There is very little hope..."

It is hard to give people freedom and yet try to tell them what to do. I know because I try it every day with my own two children. One household is but a microcosm of greater society. Can you imagine trying to run a city, a state, a country?

That said, with all due respect, I think American society has gone more than a little astray. We are in a Catch-22 between fear and freedom that threatens to serve up a healthy dose of hopelessness to all.

While there have always been opposing interests -- pro- and anti-choice, pro- and anti-war, pro- and anti-gay rights -- right now we are neither pro nor anti. We are apathetic or, worse, the word without the "a" might better describe us as a country: pathetic.

We do not use and appreciate our freedoms. We sit idly by and watch things happen on larger and larger screens, screens so big the images on them seem almost real, seem almost as if we are players in an actual life, not just a virtual one.

We play out our emotions by watching characters on shows that over-dramatize what we fear and dread in our own lives. I realized this best when watching Mary Louise Parker's character on Weeds see her son get shot because of her intense love affair with a drug warlord.

"Phew," I thought, "I'm a bad mom, but I'm not that bad." What a cop out.

TV shows, the good ones, let us off the hook for our own negligence, our own transgressions. There is always someone doing something worse, something more stupid.

But we are just distracting ourselves by being so taken with these characters, especially when we don't stop to apply why they might resonate with us so much, what it is we do, want to do, have done or fear to do that their actions might trigger. It might be interesting to stop and pay attention to what we actually feel.

But, ah, there's the rub: feelings are scary, and might require medication.

Obama is said to have said in his State of the Union address -- a charade I don't watch because I don't have TV but probably wouldn't sit through anyway -- that we are lacking inventiveness in this country, that creativity is at a low. I wonder why? I run into brilliant artists and inventors every day in my little Brooklyn neighborhood, in Park Slope, and they have no idea what to do. They are torn between their fear of not making enough money for rent (or, as in my case, not contributing to significant others who pay the rent,) while at the same time trying to have the fearless freedom, the great feelings necessary to actually create something.

Fear kills freedom in one's mind. There is little creativity where fear lives strongest.

Mostly, in this country, we have become afraid to take a stand against the status quo. It has seemed unnecessary over the last few decades, I suppose, as a tiring uprising always does when we can instead sit by and complain when the people who promised easy "Hope" and "Change" in a jar shockingly don't provide it.

But complacency will no longer cut it. We have so many outlets now to speak our mind, so much supposed freedom to do so and yet we are cow-towed so often by fear of what people will think, by popular sentiment and by the resultant dollars that playing to popular sentiment can gain one. Now that the dollars have disappeared for writers, who are often paid only with publicity in kind, it seems true words are an even rarer commodity. Truth is nuanced and only strong convictions sell advertising.

It is, mercifully, not as necessary for us to take a stand as it is for those in Egypt and Tunisia, whom I applaud for finally taking their own freedom into their own hands despite great risk. But imagine what we might be able to do, what we might be able to achieve here in the good ol U.S. of A, if we took the opportunity to band together, to actually stand up for what we believe in? I guess we'd have to stop and figure that out first, though, what we believe in. Maybe if they told us on an upcoming episode of Mad Men it would make it easier. If only we would really pay attention and apply the themes to our selves.

 

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