(Written in August, 2005) By Damian Ghigliotty
(Photo by Michael Hicks)
Robert Dylan Smith, a twenty-eight-year-old internet marketer living in Sacramento, epitomizes a body of America that continually shrugs its shoulders. Back in 1978, Smith’s parents choose the name Robert Dylan to instill a sense of righteousness in their future son—Janice in the event of a daughter. But, unlike his mother and father, who doggedly protested the Vietnam War, Smith has no interest in political activism. He sees himself as a regular, middle-class worker who likes to party with his friends, listen to Creed, and watch reality television. His one dream for the future, aside from buying a summer house on a marijuana grove, is to play as a quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. At the same time, Smith casually admits that he lost his ability to throw after graduating high school, and only dreams about playing again because in his mind: most dreams are fantasies, unless you’re that guy that married Britney Spears. Fantasies aside, Smith happily sees himself in the near future living a peaceful, everyday life on the West Coast, and vows to move to Vancouver if the situation in Iraq ever calls for a return of the draft.
Having been raised in a liberal household, Robert Smith is fully aware of the problems occurring in and beyond America, but refuses to ever protest out of a fear of legal repercussions. On the other hand, he argues that America’s youth as a whole have become too discouraged from making any real efforts, since a few drops in the bucket won’t ever amount to anything. Ultimately though, Smith has no problem openly admitting that if he really cared like his parents, he would be doing something to make a change.
It’s far too easy to blame young Americans like Smith alone for our country’s overall lack of political interest, unlike forty years ago when everyone was prepared for the next big revolution. The main reason: We still put our undivided trust in what we see, hear and read in the media, just like a lot of our parents did back then. While our country’s general attitude towards war, race, homosexuality, religion and politics has shifted from decade to decade, the fact that most of us are conditioned to act and think a specific way remains constant. The biggest difference between the 1960’s and now is how we’ve become so comfortable ignoring issues that don’t affect us directly.
On a daily basis, we’re being pressed by our schools and home communities to think about the world’s problems only a trivial amount. By our parents and extended families even less. The largest bulk of our awareness lies in the hands of MTV, AOL, FOX and every other media conglomerate that appeals to teenagers and young adults. Just as in the late sixties America’s youth were inspired by artists like Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin and the causes that gave birth to their views, today’s younger generations are being influenced by Nelly, Paris Hilton and Nike. This in turn transforms the idea of social activism into arbitrary, half-hearted movements; trends at best.
Why has Tibet been such a hot subject for young American activists over the past ten years? Not because the plight of the Tibetans is anymore important to the world than that of the Rwandans or Australia’s Aborigines, but because The Beastie Boys and other pop artists tell us that we need to urgently support Tibet first and foremost. And we follow without a second thought. Perhaps if they told us McDonalds was soon to be put out of business by the world’s mass vegan populations, the rest of our energy would go to saving America’s top fast food industry. The sad thing about such a thought is that regardless of how intelligent our country’s youth might be; intelligence becomes worthless when people choose not to think beyond their immediate surroundings. Just as dolphins are arguably as smart as humans, without the ability to organize movements on land, there’s only so much they can do to save the world. Or themselves.
One of the biggest social problems in America right now is that egotism and apathy are the ideas being spoken, sung, filmed and rapped about, and we gladly eat it up, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do for so long. Coincidentally, since 9/11 never have we been closer to the Red Scare of the fifties in terms of America struggling against an “invisible enemy.” Nor have we been closer to the Vietnam War in terms of giving up so many lives and resources to ensure “the world’s freedom.” Yet, instead of being urged by the media to educate ourselves and take a stance, we’re being pushed to look the other way. Or blindly join in on the fight.
Perhaps if the day to day programs we absorb began to spoon feed us the truth on what’s happening in the world– from Iraq, to Haiti, to Sudan, to North Korea –the average American wouldn’t be so indifferent. The underlying problem is that the average American isn’t properly trained in how to wade through channels, websites and pages of nonsense to get to the truth. And from 1965 to 2005, the amount of drivel in the media has increased tenfold. That’s why we now have large franchises producing Che Guevara shirts in Thailand, and people who consider themselves socially informed proudly wearing them. It’s also the reason why successful media icons can make dozens of statements about the condition of race and class in America, when poor teenagers are spending more money on Sean John jeans than they are on their weekly diets.
At the same time, it’s not our uninformed youth’s faults for following suit in these cases. Who can blame the ignorant when nobody’s making an effort to teach them? It’s also not our nation’s celebrities’ faults for getting paid to look informed, whether or not they truly are. The largest degree of fault lies with the media bigwigs, who determine what we watch, read, listen to, and purchase, for keeping us as distracted as possible in order to preserve their own interests. The rest lies with educated quasi-adults like Robert Smith, who are aware of the problem and do have the power to make a change, but repeatedly tell themselves that the bucket will always be half empty, no matter how many drops we add to it. If that were the case, all progress in America, from the Civil Rights Movement to Nixon’s eventual withdrawal from Vietnam, would be nothing but pure, random, dumb luck. And that’s pretty close to saying the generations before us accomplished no more than we do. Apathy then becomes complacency.
Until our country’s newest thinkers look at the bigger picture, apart from what writers, producers and celebrities tell us to fight for, activism will remain a raw commodity. Unfortunately, most commodities in the West sell at their appropriated values and the value of loose change is continually dropping. As much as major corporations would like to convince us that everything’s alright; that women in Somalia are partying harder than Courtney Love; that Palestine versus Israel isn’t nearly as important as Pepsi versus Coke; it’s our choice to buy into it all or question why we’ve become so apathetic.
[Robert Dylan Smith is a fictitious character]