An intellectual grapples with his lack of political involvement
I'm forced to face a difficult fact: I will do nothing overt—nothing political—to further causes I believe in. An awful admission. Certainly there is no dearth of causes, all asking for our most committed support. What is wrong with me that I cannot bestir myself to do anything more than sign an occasional petition, write out a small check?
Somewhere not all that deep within, I know—or suspect—that the blockage represents a failing. And I would like to—I think—change myself, to think my way through to an understanding of things out of which action would result naturally.
But how? I am not apathetic. I admire those who feel the compulsion to act out their beliefs and find meaningful ways to do so—but I do not join. The obvious defense is that these activities are useless, that they will not stay the course of the world or stop the powers that be from enacting their schemes. But such an argument is beside the point. Protest and activism have hastened the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam; brought about important legislative victories for blacks; pressured the South African government to end apartheid policies; forced the shutdown of flawed nuclear facilities. The charge of uselessness will not stick.
What stops me is, in part, the sheer complexity of offenses. A total situation—a mesh of social and economic components, a labyrinth congruent with society's deeper structure—begs a total response. And a total response is impossible. Logic, of course, protests—one cannot do everything; one should not therefore do nothing. I could put my voice and body on the line on behalf of some small part of the web. Others would be doing the same for other parts. Perhaps some collective results could be achieved.
The logic is incontestable, but I remain inert. Maybe the culprit is laziness; or, to raise it to a Deadly Sin, sloth. But sloth is a disease of the will, and when I will something, I can be tirelessly active.
Selfishness? The belief that I will be giving more than I get back? Maybe. It's not as though I haven't made those calculations, balancing the time and caloric output required to swell the ranks of a demonstration by my humble numerical presence. I have to deem what I do—think, read, write—to be part of the struggle: the larger one, which works to ensure the survival of spirit, free inquiry, humanness in a world where these qualities are threatened. I am not greedy of the time because I want to work on my stamp collection. The heavenly powers could grant me bonus days with the stipulation that they not be used for reading or writing, and I still would not hasten to the march.
Why, then, am I paralyzed? Because I do not believe there is a division between the political sphere of life and the others. I see the various levels of perception, action, and consequence as interfused, a continuum. It is therefore fundamentally false to mark out one such area as requiring us especially.
This sounds as though I claim for myself some exalted private agenda and urge on others the tasks I cannot bring myself to do. I do not mean it this way. My point is that some people are bent in a certain way; they feel a call to do the obscure labor of perceiving and processing the larger current shifts. It does not seem possible to do both—to pursue a clear picture of these inchoate weather patterns and to engage in specified, directed activity. The continuum, the psyche's economy, will not allow it.
My place, then, is at the desk with my books and thoughts. I hope that my words promote the humane values, that they exert some small influence on people who do act. But who can say how these indeterminate forces move through the world?
Sven Birkerts teaches at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Excerpted with permission from Readings (Graywolf Press).