Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On the margin of the margins?

How does one reconcile public optimism and private despair, or general disbelief and personal ambition?

It is easy to be concerned with whatever other people are concerned with, out of a sense of community or duty. It is easy to give one’s attention and energy to family, religion, sports. After all, many people only respect individual intelligence as a tool, as a tool of deception and manipulation. It is easy to give attention and energy to ordinary work or indulgence in common pleasures. Who wants to be on the margins of the social world? Who wants to be on the margin of the margins? It is easy to find solace in distraction, in simple escapes. It is easy to spend time wondering about the latest episode of television programs such as “CSI” and “Law and Order” and “Without a Trace,” programs that show transgression, and its trace, and its termination in punishment (programs that can be embodiments not simply of moral lessons but of the pornography of violence: many of these programs show bruised and battered bodies, and one program showed recently the beginning of an autopsy of a murdered man, in which a Y was cut into his chest and his skin and flesh peeled back to show his internal organs). On the other hand, some television programs—especially the comedies, such as “Will and Grace” and “Two and a Half Men” and “New Adventures of Old Christine”—offer reflections of the different formations present among current social relations (as they focus on friends, unusual intimate relationships, broken marriages, etc.). It is easy to listen to radio programs that encourage fear, and the demonization of people whose politics are different from our own. (There are southern, conservative radio programs that offer emphatic statements about Senator Obama’s ideas that are, actually, the exact opposite of what he has believed and done.) It is easy to belittle and dismiss and gossip about others. If you do not take a man seriously, you do not have to take his ideas, his demands, or his needs seriously. It is easy, also, to ridicule what is idiosyncratic. How could one not laugh at a television news story that profiles a snack vendor who sells deep-fried Snickers bars, to first skeptical then enthusiastic customers, as occurred here just days ago? It is harder to take a comprehensive look at one’s self and at others and to be honest about one’s genuine feelings, one’s most persistent ideas, one’s deepest hopes, one’s greatest ambition. It is more difficult to be an individual, to be rigorously intelligently, honestly sensitive, whether or not that puts one with others or apart from others. Often we do not have the courage to die—but what is worse is not to have the courage to live.