Adam Mansbach 2008

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A hypothetical question: what would make citizens of the United States take to the streets in outrage, in protest, in a sweeping enough-is-enough refusal to allow business to continue as usual? 

I’m not talking about the people who are out there already, marching for the rights of immigrants or patrolling the borders against them.  I’m not talking about the folks who storm Washington in support of women’s right to choose, or picket abortion clinics on behalf of the unborn.  I’m talking about the essentially disinterested folks who make up the true majority in this country: not just the non-activists, but the non-voters. Lest we forget, there are more of them than there are Republicans or Democrats.  An excellent national voter turnout is in the realm of 40-plus percent.  And that’s of the registered voters, not the population as a whole.

We’re living through a time of massive deception and venality, and we’ve barely roused ourselves in protest, so apparently it will take more than being taken to war under utterly false pretenses, more than massive corruption at the highest levels of the administration, more than government-sanctioned corporate fraud.  The rollback of civil rights hasn’t fazed us; nor have the moral outrages of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.  The collapse of the housing market has engendered panic, but not action.

As recently as last week, the president unveiled a plan to end the increase of carbon emissions by 2025 -- a plan that represents a stupefying level of environmental irresponsibility.  Last I checked, nobody really seemed to be tripping.  I’ve heard speculation that five-dollar-a-gallon gasoline would have folks in the streets.   I’m unconvinced.

A friend of mine mused – as we wracked our brains for an incident that might provoke massive unrest – that it would take the assassination of Barack Obama.  Both of us paused, unsettled by the thought.  And then we concluded that no, not even the murder of the man so many have come to see as an avatar of hope would get the country off its collective sofa.

Perhaps protest requires shock, disbelief, and we’re so beaten down by the dishonesty and ineptitude of our leaders that nothing they do can stun us.

We are afflicted with a different kind of disbelief.  With media overkill comes a lack of authority: Americans in the internet-age have hundreds of channels and millions of viral videos to choose from, and thus we believe nothing. It was the relentless nightly news footage of American soldiers coming home in body bags that made TV-age Americans take to the streets and end the Vietnam War.  Today, governmental control ensures that we see no such footage.  But we might not believe it if we did.

Then there’s the fact that we’re in no shape for rioting, or even strenuous walking: sixty percent of American adults are obese.  We also watch an average of eight hours of television a day, so the kind of interpersonal relations and exposure to the outdoors that taking to the streets entails could be problematic, if not fatal. 

Finally, there’s the matter of the streets themselves.  We don’t really have streets anymore, at least not in the sense of ‘public spaces in which the citizenry can gather en masse.’   We have suburbs and exurbs, planned communities and housing projects.  We live increasingly behind bars: the two fastest growing communities in the country are prisons and gates communities. 

By choice and by force, we are tuning out the clamor of a world gone wrong, closing our eyes to problems we intuit we cannot fix, and lack the courage to address.  And so we wait: for a wake-up call we know is coming but cannot imagine, and whatever comes after it sounds.

Adam Mansbach is the author of the novels The End of the Jews and Angry Black White Boy.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing