Silence Harms Us All

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

Although reasonable people can disagree regarding the extent, we are certainly a fractured nation moving in two directions at once.  There are individuals living in our country who enjoy personal fortunes that in times past would have been more associated with a Pharaoh or an Emperor, but we also have such an extraordinary degree of poverty that a record number of Americans need food stamps to survive.  We enjoy more personal freedom than at any time in the history of civilization, but we are also subject to more government surveillance than the old Soviet KGB or East German Stasi could have imagined possible.  We have more information at our fingertips than ever before, but we seem to be ever more ignorant of the basic facts of our history, the world around us, and how both bear upon our own lives.

Charles Dickens was, of course, writing of a time immediately prior to revolution, a time when so many were so dissatisfied with the status quo that they violently overthrew the established order and beheaded their leaders in the public square.  I do not believe we are ready to bring back the guillotine, but we do have to recognize the extraordinary discontent that runs like the water beneath the bedrock throughout our land.   Given the surpassingly low percentage of Americans who are satisfied with our legislative branch, the surprising percentage of citizens who now seem to believe we are not likely to remain a unified nation, and the daily vitriol that now passes for public discourse, one has to wonder where all this is leading us.

Perhaps as a consequence, there does also seem to be a certain degree of learned helplessness that now underlies our national existence.  We see injustice, we see cupidity, and we see daily disregard for human decency—but we rarely protest beyond growling at the television.   Maybe we are simply scared; I have more than once been advised to stop publishing commentaries because “they’ll find a way to get you” in the end.  Maybe “they” will.  However, one of my central precepts is that I have an eternity to be silent after I am dead—we all, in fact, have an obligation to use our brief lifetimes to speak out and promote positive change.

Of course, the truly incredible aspect of all this discontent is how little is actually done to address it or remedy its causes.  We are, instead, routinely assured that we are living in some Panglossian best all possible worlds—or at least a world not so awful as is to be found in the rest of the scary, stupid, and strange nations around us.  It is, to be frank, quite amazing how routinely American rate their education, healthcare, and financial systems as the best in the world when, if bald statistics are to be believed, nothing could be further from the truth.  Whether our natural patriotism is our own worst enemy or we are simply the victims of stupendously effective misinformation, it is difficult to say.  Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to consider the daily implications of the misperceptions that inform our lives and buy our silence.

However, to be fair, there is also a certain good sense to our silence.   If you have the reasonable belief that the only person who will be punished if you speak up is you, why would you bother?  We have already seen—far too many times in far too many circumstances—that those who have friends in high places are immune from punishment beyond the merest slap on the wrist.   If you know the business where you work is padding the bills, if you know a questionable quid pro quo is necessary to obtain a contract, or if you are aware that the job you are being paid to do is not being done at all—and speaking up is apt to change nothing but cost you a needed paycheck—you indeed would be a fool to open your mouth.

Those who complain that we ruthlessly punish those who steal little because they are easy targets that make nice headlines but allow those who steal much to hide behind a phalanx of sweet-talking lawyers certainly have a point.  Very rarely do you hear about someone who robbed with a pen or computer sitting in a grimy cell alongside someone who robbed with a gun or a knife.  We are content to hook the minnows and allow the sharks to go on their merry way, untouched by the harm they cause to others, or allow them to serve out their meager sentences in some penal country club where they will be the least inconvenienced.

In addition, even if you had the urge to speak up regarding some wrongdoing you have seen, there is the additional problem of knowing who to tell.  Local prosecutors typically have little appetite for throwing the locally powerful in jail; state officials are often beholden to the very businesses they are charged with regulating for the campaign cash that keeps them in office; our federal government has, whether Republican or Democrat, compiled quite a sorry record of allowing the biggest crooks to pay the smallest penalties.  Skillful evasion is business as usual in the corridors of power.

Therefore, perhaps silent acquiescence is not such a bad strategy at all.

However, our failure to punish white-collar crime and official misconduct has a cost.  It corrodes our faith in our public institutions and elected representatives, which hands even more power to those with cash in hand because everyone else already has gone home in utter disgust.   It means that, when an honest call to meet an urgent national need is sent forth, many fewer will respond because they will cynically—and likely reasonably—question the motives of those who call for everyone to sacrifice.  Worst of all, it drives citizens away from active engagement with our democratic processes and leads to government that is more likely to view itself as detached  from those it is meant to serve.

In its final manifestation our collective silence breeds a professional class of politicians whose highest loyalty is to those who get them re-elected through means fair and foul.   When we reach this point, if we have not already, we can practically taste the bile of our own powerlessness—our learned helplessness—and we are left only to grumble, sulk, and find a million little ways to focus ourselves away from the public square in order to distract ourselves from our anger.

What will happen when something arouses us from our slumber—and what will it be that actually has the power to do so?  It will be exciting to see what event or confluence of events will prompt us to action.  However, this point will not come until those who know the truth find within themselves—contrary to all common sense—the strength to speak publicly about the malfeasance they have seen, the willingness to bear the consequences of their “disloyalty” to the powerful whom they serve, and the resolve to devote their energy and knowledge to making changes that will better our nation for the many instead of the few.

Until this happens, we will wait… and wait… and wait—until we can wait now longer.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( July 28, 2013

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