How I stopped whining and learned to be an adult

"There's a saying over at Treasury: 'No peacocks, no jerks, no whiners'."

—President Barack Obama, speaking at the announcement of Jack Lew's nomination as new Treasury Secretary
I hope you will indulge me in sharing one of my occasional personal essays on this blog, but I think it is germane to the current political culture in which we find ourselves.

While I never had anything on the likes of FireDogLake or Huffington Post, throughout my 20s I subsisted on a regular diet of outrage and victimization. I listened to Pacifica, read Chomsky and Parenti, and believed that the world ran on hidden conspiracies designed to subjugate us. I was in a state of perpetual anger.

But the thing is, I never did anything about it. All the talks I went to never did a thing to change how my community operated. I would read Chomsky et al, and feel like I had an insight that the majority of my fellow citizens lacked. But all that reading and listening never spurred me to action. Because the corollary to being in a state of perpetual outrage is that, often, one is in a state of feeling perpetually powerless. The lights of the Left might say that the power is with us; but more often than not they spend the majority of the time expounding on the vast forces arrayed against us, and little on what concrete actions we can take to fight those forces.

And outrage is exhausting. Eventually, the combination of anger and helplessness is enough to drive most people to eschew politics, and just turn inward. I know I did. (I had other things going on in my life to drive me inward as well, but that's an essay for my other blog.) For most of my thirties I just resigned myself to the fact that the world was an unjust place, and I merely tried to get along as best I could in it. I went to grad school, became a librarian, and things were looking up personally. Yes, I loathed Bush Jr., and still followed politics, with a bit of that outrage simmering in me. But, again, aside from discovering the liberal blogosphere and communing with like-minded souls, I wasn't spurred to take any action.

I'm not going to claim that Barack Obama's first run for President was an instant Damscene conversion for me. I supported him, voted for him, but I didn't take an active part in the campaign. But a seed was planted, and as I followed the struggles he faced to, more or less, undo thirty years of conservative misgovernment, I sensed for the first time that this is what one should do when operating from a sense of injustice.

He knew that it was unjust that millions of people were being thrown out of work due to the malfeasance of the Lords of the Universe; so he shepherded the country's biggest ever stimulus package to stanch the bleeding. He knew that it was unjust that millions of people couldn't afford basic health care; so he got passed the biggest social insurance program since Johnson's Great Society. He turned the outrage he felt towards the unjust aspects of our commonwealth into tangible, revolutionary actions.

As I said, Jesus didn't stun me with power on the road to Damascus. I'd been on the road my entire life, more often loafing by the side. It merely took Obama to show me—slowly, painstakingly—there there was a destination. I finally realized that if you want change, you have to work for it; it won't drop into your lap as manna. I learned to stop whining and love being an adult.

Which brings us to our current politics.

I believe that the broad middle of the country realizes that change is not easy, and doesn't come quickly. We live that truth in our daily lives. And Obama's job approval numbers indicate that we realize that he is the one trying to look out for our interests, in the face of powerful opposition.

But the political culture as lived out on cable news and in our legislative process has devolved to a state which is perilous to democracy. Both the Right and the Left thrive on outrage, as I did in my callow twenties. And much like my immature anger, it is an end in itself. It serves no larger purpose. It certainly offers no achievable prescriptions. It's an outrage which posits that if we merely believe enough, as in Tinkerbell, then the country will magically shift one way or the other. It is politics as "Snow White": the Prince will come, the curse will be lifted, and not much work will need to be done, all wrapped up in the time it takes to screen a movie.

Why doesn't the Left direct its outrage at those who truly do want to gut the social compact, the House Republicans? Because Congress, despite its unpopularity, provides an amorphous target. It requires work to focus on 230 or so individual GOP representatives. Much easier to aim at the big red target of President Obama for perceived sins, regardless of his actions.

The major media organs of Left and Right don't exist to inform, but to stoke outrage. The Right has an obvious target in Obama. But, oddly enough, the Left's target is Obama as well. Having one big bogeyman to focus rage upon is easier for their followers to understand than to try and come to grips with the complexities of the real world. In my own life, the easy analyses which I had fed myself eventually didn't jibe with how I observed the world to actually work. At some point I left Plato's cave, and realized that human reality didn't quite fall neatly into ideological constructs. But these constructs are all that the screechers on both sides offer; it's all they know how to offer, because it's what keeps the world's messiness at bay.

There are many things to be outraged about in this country and the world. Righteously outraged. The careers of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Cesar Chavez were driven by outrage at injustice. But outrage without precise focus is less than useful; it's counterproductive to effect the change you claim to want. Focus requires patient work, diligence, a clear analysis of the drivers of injustice, and a formulation of the best way to combat it, so that the change sought is permanent and doesn't create more problems.

The loudest voices in our political culture are the peacocks, jerks, and whiners of whom President Obama spoke. But they also have feet of clay; they operate in a bubble in which their truths are self-evident, their solutions the only possibilities. And then they're shocked when they're ignored.

Outrage without an understanding about the complexities of injustice, and a plan of action, is mere, yes, whining. Complexity frightens those who trade in indignation. Complexity is the realm we have to inhabit and embrace, if we are to have any hope of shaping it.