Dw. Dunphy On… Ignorance as Defense Mechanism

Written by Current Events, Dw. Dunphy On...

We ’80s kids don’t have a lot to hang on to, so far as social achievements go. It was a difficult decade to grab a hold of. We had pop culture, and lots of it, but we were also afraid of being vaporized by nuclear war as we slept, the division between the races was as contentious as it had ever been, and there was this new mystery disease that was starting to make the headlines – Still, we always had Live Aid to stand up for our time. It was, in it’s way, an unprecedented act of human goodwill, a triumph of justice over fame, in many ways, and we could be proud it happened while we were the prime demographic. We always had Live Aid, but perhaps not so anymore.

I find it incredibly hard to be completely ignorant. I slip up occasionally, and usually at the most public, inopportune times, but I tend to be unfortunately well-read, sometimes masochistically so. I cannot stand the Sunday political chat shows with everyone shouting everyone else down and John McLaughlin essentially telling all of them they’re wrong, yet I watch them. I get stomach aches about our governing bodies and how nobody in Washington has the ability to work together. I have expressed how I feel the Republicans have adopted Surge-like tactics in their practices – capture and hold. If they maintain a unified front, no matter what piece of legislation is being debated, it is the Democrats’ game to lose. Regrettably, they don’t see how they’re being played, and so they splinter within and, yes, they lose.

My position is not universally agreed upon, not by a long shot. For every person like myself who cries foul for poor sportsmanship, there is another who claims that the Republicans are merely not being cowed, will not vote for legislation they don’t agree with, and if the Democrats can’t see it for what it is and must manufacture conspiracies to placate themselves, so be it. For every one of us on either side of the political fence, however, there are two with their eyes squeezed shut and their ears plugged and, you know what? They always seem happy. They never seem squelched by the existential angst of our times, never bothered by the flailing and flagellation happening all around them as they whistle a happy tune, and it makes me sick.

Of course, they’ll use that as their defense: If you stopped worrying about stuff, what the politicians are doing, what the priests are doing, my indifference to it all, you could be happy like me. It is a very tempting drug, this self-contained universe some people live in. It is a step beyond zen and, from the outside, it truly looks like nothing bad ever gets through their soap bubble of contentment, which  only serves to piss me off more, but I digress. One of the key tricks to disconnecting is literally disconnecting. Turn off the news, direct the web browser only to happy places, Farmville, OMG Catz, and the like. The less I know, the less I’ll kvetch, right?

The media has a vested interest in keeping us, and in this case me, connected. Outrage spikes viewership, viewership captures eyes, eyes take in advertising, advertising helps sell products, etc., etc. Rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts, most newscasts are also very concerned with exposing the things “they” didn’t want you to know, things you have very little control over, but still capture your undivided attention. They feed into the neuroses of the public, and so the concept of shutting down your exposure to it isn’t entirely a reactionary move. At the same time, this is our world/country/state/town we’re talking about and shouldn’t we at least have a clue about what is going on?

The happiest among us might say, “no.” The powers that be have always been, they always will, and our individual choice of falling as a martyr into their spiderweb has less to do with their dishonest inclinations than it does with our compulsions to be busybodies. Mind your own business and your business will be cheerier for it. Think about good things. Think about Live Aid.

Yes, Live Aid, that one day on July 13th, 1985, fast approaching the 25th anniversary this year, where nations came together via satellite, superstars of music and media converged and the goal was not some hollow, self-satisfying wank, but to raise money for the starving people of Ethiopia. Egos were checked, money was raised, the cause was just and for us 1980’s kids, a touchstone for our generation was raised for all to see. The ’60s had Woodstock. The ’70s had the No Nukes Concerts. We had Live Aid, and the scope of it, the goals it hoped to attain and the concept that, by the end, real strides could actually be made gave us a level of pride. This was more than a protest – this was a clear-cut act for change, an immutable good.

Hold on there, pardner, not so fast. If you stayed away from your computer this week, clicked off the cable news and didn’t check your newspapers (Just joshing – nobody checks papers anymore) you could still float by on that rose-colored scenario. If you are a current events perv that needs his or her daily discipline, well buddy, this week you got spanked. Here’s the excerpt that got me all worked up:

LONDON (March 3) — Amid an ongoing global effort to raise funds for earthquake-stricken Haiti, new allegations surfaced today that millions of dollars raised by the 1985 Live Aid concerts for the victims of the Ethiopian famine were actually spent on weapons. The charges offer a timely reminder that collecting money is the easy part of any relief effort; making sure it gets to the right people is often far more complex.

Former Ethiopian rebel leaders have told the BBC that they siphoned off hundreds of millions of aid dollars to buy guns. Some of the diverted funds allegedly came directly from Western governments, and some from money raised in ticket sales at the twin concerts in London and Philadelphia. A 1985 CIA assessment of the country uncovered by the broadcaster also acknowledges that money ending up in militants’ coffers. “Some funds that insurgent organizations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes,” it said.

Disappointing. Twenty-five years on, coup after coup after scandal after takedown, the grown-up in me always knew this kind of thing happened and should not be shocked that it happened in this circumstance too. The kid in me wants to believe there was a big mistake, this isn’t true, E.T. is real and the cereal with that sweet frosting is not actually good for me and, ultimately, won’t make me crap my brains out tomorrow morning. My inner child wants me to flip on ignorance as a defense mechanism and keep this myriad disillusionment from screwing with the historical record as I see it, or at least as I prefer to see it. I at least want to still feel like we got something right during that decade where so much was going wrong, just in case you forgot what it felt like being trickled down upon.

If you are unaware of what that means, essentially the ‘trickle-down theory’ of economics was put into place wherein tax breaks and cuts were directed not at those who simply couldn’t afford them, but to the highest earners of the country, those who could easily afford them. The concept was that the rich who had more discretionary funds at their disposal would spend more, presumably in stores run by the less wealthy, which employed even less well-off, who would then take their pay to businesses in their own financial bracket. It was a tiered system like a tower of champagne glasses, the champagne poured from the top and eventually trickled down to all the glasses as it overflowed from above.  On paper it looks like a feasible plan, but we live in the real world, not on paper. Theoretical economists failed to take fully into account the class war that was going on in the 1980s, foolishly believing these things only happened in Europe. The rich kept the money in their circle, or kept it stashed in off-shore accounts, or decided that instead of creating new wealth by promoting through the ranks, they’d hang onto their positions like grim death or just make sure that Junior knew enough about the family industry to keep from sinking the ship when they inherited it. What of junk bonds? What of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous?

We reap the results of those decisions and divisions today. The disparity between the nation’s highest earners and the supposed middle class has never been as starkly wide as it is right now. These are the rotten fruits whose vines were planted when we were kids, boom boxes on shoulders, Vans on our feet, color-change t-shirts on our backs and spiked hair climbing to the heavens (or at least the gymnasium girders) like cathedral spires, but at least we had Live Aid – the one time when we thought we got it right. In my disillusionment, as I attempted to reconcile that bitter piece of news, I put the information I had learned out to the Popdose Staff e-mail. I spoke of how it would be so easy to shut out the realities of charity, good intentions, and the revelation that perhaps ignorance was bliss, and in my zeal to stay connected to the world as it truly is, I’ve only brought harm to myself. Perhaps I finally needed to consider an interest in disinterest.

My colleague and all-around go-to guy on current events, Jon Cummings, responded with a carefully thought out reply:

When I worked at an NGO affiliated with the UN, we were always concerned with what’s often called “global chaos” theory. (As opposed to “chaos theory,” which you can get from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.) The idea of “global chaos” is that people in first-world nations are always reading about horrible things that are happening in the third world — wars (featuring ancillary wonderfulness like child soldiers and institutionalized rape), famines, massive destruction from earthquakes and typhoons and tsunamis, evil dictators who brutalize their own people, etc., etc.

And all that awful news encourages people to follow their natural instinct, which is to turn away from that information–and thus from the people and problems of the third world. It’s an inclination that often keeps charitable giving down, keeps citizens from pressing their governments to help other people, and (certainly in the case of the US) keeps our government’s foreign aid budget ridiculously low as a percentage of total spending, compared with other first-world nations. (Of course, if you consider the cost of our wars and military presences around the world as “foreign aid,” that percentage increases, but there’s often little actual benefit for the downtrodden in military spending.)

Revelations about spending inefficiencies at certain NGOs or resulting from certain spasms of charitable giving (bureaucracy, extravagant salaries, aid money diverted to dictators or gun-runners, etc.) are a huge problem for the fundraising efforts of aid groups. These groups almost always have the best intentions, but are hardly perfect themselves and often have to deal with far-from-perfect political situations in the countries they’re trying to serve. Supposedly the money from George Harrison’s Bangladesh concert & album got delayed for years and years; it’s no real surprise to hear that some Live Aid money got diverted into feeding the civil war that begat the famine in Ethiopia, rather than feeding the starving people themselves.

The buildup of news about such incidents adds to the flood of information that has undermined our faith in institutions of all kinds–which, of course, turns us inward even more to find solutions for our own lives, and to ignore the lives and troubles of others.

Getting on the soapbox for a moment, I think the Republican Party, in the wake of its own disasters of governance and electoral failure, has devoted itself to promoting its own sort of “domestic chaos theory” to undermine the citizenry’s belief that government can do anything positive to solve society’s problems. The more horror stories (bullshit or not bullshit) the Republicans can throw against the wall about politicians, government inefficiencies, or beneficiaries of government support (the poor, gays, immigrants, etc., etc.), the more people doubt the policies that might actually help various portions of the citizenry. And if government isn’t allowed to do anything, of course, conservatism wins.

Climbing down from the soapbox…the Live Aid story certainly is depressing, and a cautionary tale. But when you’re dealing with international charity, there’s a certain amount of such stuff that you have to deal with if you want to do ANYTHING for the actual people who need help.

You can’t hide under a rock, or stick fingers in ears or flip down the sunglasses if you have any interest in doing what’s right. Nor can you allow yourself to be dissuaded by the disappointing actions of profiteers and mercenaries – wherever the cash carcass is, they’re likely going to get there first to pick at the bones. In this world, that means you have to kill your darlings, all of them, including the illusions you had in your youth about the best of intentions. Not all the money raised at Live Aid got to the needy, but some did, and certainly the concert raised an unprecedented amount of awareness of the situation. Was it the shining success I always thought it was? No, but it may not be the failure that got me feeling so hopeless either. These are the small victories; take them when we can.

Passive ignorance is not a pathway to peace and the validity of one’s disappointment must be measured against one’s engagement in the process, I suppose. Like the old cliche keeps repeating, if you don’t vote, don’t complain – and if you’re not interested in helping, don’t get too depressed when others aren’t helping either. Bad news can still  “bring us down,” we’re still sentient beings capable of empathy (most of the time,) but if we were a society where none of us saw the problems, then none of us would be equipped to help. You only fight the fires you’re seeing, and if you don’t allow yourself to see them, everything burns. Ecclesiates 7:3 reads, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” While the text sounds dire, it essentially boils down to a realization of that which is wrong, which should stir our relationship to the circumstances and cause us to change them. Sorrow, while unpleasant, tells us something. It motivates us if we allow it, but rather than seeing it as an allowance to feel shame, embarrassment or sadness, it can allow us to hear a call to action.

These are hard lessons and I’m not the first to have to wrestle with them. If you’re not inclined to find parallels in Biblical study, try “Araby” from James Joyce’s Dubliners or William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Things aren’t the way we thought they were. The only question left is, what do we plan to do about that? For myself, I’m going to try, and if there is anything untarnished to take away from July 13th, 1985, it is that trying to make the world better is, in itself, an immutable good.

We can start here – To contribute to charitable services helping in the Haitian and Chilean relief efforts, please contact the following reputable organizations:

AmeriCaresDoctors Without Borders, USAHabitat for Humanity International,

Hope for HaitiAmerican Red Cross