I’ve seen the bumper sticker often; the other day it was on the back of an SUV: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” The slogan usually makes me feel bad. It tells me that I’m ignorant and inattentive, because I’m rarely outraged.
Don’t get me wrong: I have known outrage in my life — over personal, social and political matters. I know from experience that outrage is intense and furious, and that, as such, it can’t be sustained or it will drain and exhaust the soul. So perhaps the slogan refers to a milder, more sustainable form of outrage — or a genuine, furious outrage that flares up only occasionally. But if so, it should more accurately read, “If you’re not kind of outraged sometimes, you’re not paying attention.” Admittedly, that lacks the rhetorical punch of the original.
Here’s what I see: You or I want a banana or a camera or a computer — the usual things many of us have come to expect of life. We’ve also come to expect that such things will be immediately available (and at prices we can afford). These expectations set a whole series of events under way — events that have consequences around the globe. Entrepreneurs quickly begin competing to meet that demand; the most ambitious ones consolidate their resources, dominate the market, and purchase governmental representation to push international trade agreements that enhance their position and profitability.
Then, it can turn nasty. Often, when people in smaller nations don’t want to surrender their labor and resources to meet our demands, the United States goes to war with them — knowing that consumer goods must be as affordable as possible or the American public will complain (as it is now about the price of gasoline). That’s why we’ve been to war in Iraq, Central America and Vietnam — to name but a few of our recent military excursions abroad.
In 1950 — during the consumer explosion after World War II — we became involved in Vietnam because we wanted access to its acreage, labor and markets. That rationale committed us to a war that would kill 1.3 million people, create another 9 million refugees, wound 3 million civilians, cripple a half-million American men, and defoliate more than 5 million acres.
In a single day in March of 1969, hundreds of men, women and children were mowed down in cold blood at My Lai — with American guns and ammunition, by American boys who were just following orders.
Those orders were ours.
Flash-forward to Asheville, circa 2000: You or I — anyone, really — sits at the breakfast table eating bananas from El Salvador, drinking coffee from Nicaragua, reading a paper made from forests, then driving to work thanks to OPEC.
Being in the Belly of the Beast, I am the beast.
In a downtown-Asheville coffee shop, they keep an informal guest book on the table in which customers write and draw as they sip their coffee. Reading through it, I came across this outrageous assertion: “All our lives will be better when the rich are dead.” Perhaps, but I wouldn’t spread it around: The world’s poor don’t sit in a coffee shop doodling in a book over a $2 cup of organic Peruvian decaffeinated. We are rich as Romans, but too blind and sated to even see it.
As we consume and stare at screens, outrage can be our excuse. We think that if we occasionally get our dander up about social-justice issues, we are somehow righteous and justified. At the same time, it’s our exorbitant and unabating material expectations that generate and perpetuate most of the injustice that outrages us. In 1990, we got so angry that 100,000 of us drove to Washington, D.C., to protest a war over petroleum.
It’s much tougher to sit still and pay attention to what’s in the mirror. Driving to the store for a six-pack of Seattle beer for a party across town, lunching out, cell phones, computers, movies, commuting, bumper stickers: These are the privileges that the Empire has purchased for us, whether we’re outraged or not.
Considering all the ghosts we’ve left in our wake, consciously consuming much less might be a more accurate measure of our attentiveness.