APRIL 21, 2012 8:36PM

Where's the Outrage?!

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                  A good argument for the "interrobang" mark of punctuation is the sentence, "Where's the outrage?!"

                  It's not a question, really, maybe not even a rhetorical question; it's more of a demand for an emotional response.

                  Well, I'm going to understand "Where's the outrage?" as a question and answer it, at least for me.

                  Off and on over forty years I taught Eric Hoffer's book The True Believer (1951) and studied some of the bloodier results of fanaticism over the last few millennia; and I once taught a course entitled "Massacres," which started from the fanaticism of the Hitlerian Holocaust and its eleven-million body count and worked back to Jericho through the slaughters in the Belgian Congo and up to the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War.

                  The murders under the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia were too recent for us to study in the Massacres course, but were there, constantly, in the background.

                  In my academic career I also worked with an expert in 20th-century assassinations and another working on the deaths during the Terror, purges, forced relocations, outright murders, and famines under Stalin.

                  And for a couple or three years I wrote letters for Amnesty International.

                  One set of letters was to the leaders of a regime that tortured children in front of their parents in order to break the parents.

                  And what do you call men who torture children in cold blood, as a matter of policy, as a rational technique to achieve a goal?

                  You address your letters to "Your Excellency."

                  I was not outraged here; I was enraged at these criminals. Given the opportunity, if it would have brought down their regime, if my courage held and my strength was sufficient — I would have broken their right honourable necks or shot them.

                  What I could do and did do was joining hundreds of people writing letters to "Their Excellencies" and very politely asking them to stop committing atrocities.

                  It wasn't much, but those letters had the subtext, "We know what you're doing," and public exposure useful.

                  My rage was not useful, or useful only when controlled and used for motivation. Venting that rage in one of the letters would have been worse than useless.

                  There's much to be said for a sense of proportion, and I've sometimes told people waxing emotional against a bad movie or poor coaching, "You should write some letters for Amnesty International."

                  I'll work up outrage for the governments of the world holding enough nuclear warheads to end human civilization and even the human species. Hey, guys — you don't have to get down to zero nukes; just reduce the world-wide number to below the level where nuclear warfare would bring on nuclear winter.

                  The risk of nuclear annihilation is fairly small, but the justification for all those nukes is nonexistent.

                  And I've got some outrage for the old and middle-aged ruling generations who won't make minor sacrifices now so that future generations will have clean water, fish, breathable air, a fairly stable climate, and a functioning economy.

                  I may not like most kids, but I guess I save outrage for when kids are messed over: tortured now, or have their futures put at risk by the selfishness of their elders.

                  But John McCain's inability to remember how many houses he owns or whether or not well-to-do stay-at-home moms really work or a scandal in the US Secret Service or Government Services Administration or a Texas Republican frames his useful warning to insurance companies in terms of the useless formulation, "Don't try to jew [sic] them down"?

                  Well, I get angry, annoyed, pissed off, bemused, amused, disgusted, and such, but outrage? No. Outrage I'm saving.

                  You should as well.

                  Think about workers in emergency rooms. You don't want to go in there and be told, "I feel your pain." You don't want them feeling your pain; that would make them less effective relieving yours. Some tenderness is nice, but you most want hard-nosed, hard-assed folk in there coolly doing their jobs.

                  Think about the old fad for "The Man of Sentiment": the guy who felt all the right feelings and went on about his sensitivity, but wasn't too big on actually helping.

                  And think about all those people out there asking "Where's the outrage?!" because they want to get you scared and angry recruited to The War on Whatever (or War Against the War on Whatever) or Crusade for — and therefore easier to manipulate.

                  I'm going to be a conscientious objector in these outraged, hyperbolic conflicts; I'll save real rage for something appropriately evil.


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