In the 1930s, Langston Hughes wrote a rather famous poem which has since been reprinted and discussed in numerous forums. I’ll go ahead and reprint it here for those of you who aren’t walking compendiums of American poetry:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it smell like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I’ve been thinking a great deal about this poem lately, especially when I Stumbled Upon an article in Dissent magazine asking why America’s cities aren’t on fire. The article looks at turbulent periods in American history marked by mass riotings and protests, and it asks why the same thing isn’t happening now. I think it’s a valid question, because we are definitely having some problems here in the good old US of A, and the populace seems to be rather alarmingly complacent about the whole thing.
Our economy is tanking, suspiciously fast, and the Fed is doing everything possible to keep it afloat. Some of the steps being taken are rather alarming for financial analysts, and yet consumers don’t seem to care. We have an upcoming Presidential election and a group composed primarily of prevaricating dunderheads is running, and no one appears to be unduly worried. Education funding is in the toilet. For Pete’s sake, we’ve been fighting a war for no apparent reason in one of the most volatile regions on Earth for four years and apparently we’re just peachy with that.
What is wrong with Americans?
Are we seriously so lazy and self indulgent that we are going to stand by and do nothing, allow the country to consume itself? I spent much of a recent year in the company of armchair revolutionaries who talked big words but failed to take action, and I’ve spent the last few years noting that this seems to be the new American way. We may stay up late discussing the human condition over vegan potlucks, but we sure as fuck don’t do shit about it. Me included, obviously, because I’m writing rather than taking it to the streets of the Capitol.
I was talking recently with my father about the protest fervor of the 1960s, and one of the things he pointed out is that the whole nation was not caught up in protests. Most people, in fact, lived ordinary, complacent lives, just like we all do now. It didn’t take much to set the nation on fire, and I mean that metaphorically as well as literally. The actions and words of a few could fire up a populace…if we still had charismatic protest leaders. If we could unite in a common cause for once. If we weren’t so goddamn afraid that we slink away from confrontation. I had high hopes after Seattle, but they petered out when it became readily apparent that Americans had no intention of growing a spine any time soon.
And it seems to be infectious. When I was at [famous university], I remember there was a major march against the Iraq war. Many of my friends that year were foreign students, and they all refused to go, even though they were opposed to the war. I asked them why they didn’t want to go, and they said that they were afraid. Afraid of being deported, of losing their student visas, of not being able to finish their studies, and I realized that, for guests in the United States, the first amendment is a polite fiction. Which was a sort of unsettling thing to think about, especially when we are allowing our Amendment Rights to be eroded slowly away, so that we stand on thin islands of desperation.
I wonder when we are going to realize, collectively, that the government has pulled the rug out from under us. When we have nowhere to stand, will we rise up?