Every day brings some new alarm

But will we wake up?

LINNEA STRID

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Every day brings some new alarm . . . an earthquake or a hurricane, a terrorist attack or a war – new reports about which chemicals and which products are now known to cause cancer, what factories are to be closed and which workers to be laid off, what bank bailout and excessive corporate bonuses are to be paid from the public purse, what new spate of home foreclosures is enforced, what new genetic experiment is finding its way into our food supply, what new last vestige of ancient forest is to be cut, what species gone extinct, what river polluted by the latest oil spill from a ruptured pipeline, what gulf filling with clouds of petroleum as its last large fish die in drift nets …

And at each new announcement of the destruction of individuals, communities, and ecologies – the sudden intervention of an exciting and slick new gadget that will make our lives so much easier and richer, a new celebrity scandal, a blockbuster movie, a new drug or product that will keep us balanced on the knife edge of health and dependence, a new mega-project to deliver jobs and prosperity to communities and economies on the edge of collapse.

It’s as though these two moments – of despair and hope, of impending doom and instant mind- and soul-numbing gratification – were artfully planned for us, carefully coordinated or scripted, like a film taking us through emotional highs, lows, and highs again as it progresses through its three acts, our hearts in the director’s hands throughout.

We want, above all else, to change. To be different and to make a difference. To be better. Healthier. Smarter. Richer. More beautiful. More loving and loved. If only we tried a little harder, worked a little harder, we seem to think. Change – a new self, a new world – is always just there, dangling tantalizingly in front of us, just out of reach. A new, more creative, more connected, more fulfilling life. A new health regimen. A world saved for art and beauty. We think, it’s just a matter of our purchasing power. The corporations tell us they are ready to help: growth is the answer; buy their products and you change the world. They are “innovators,” after all – change makers. They can help unveil the new you. They can in fact help you be a new and better you. At least, every advertisement is there to tell us this is so, to lull, soothe, calm, coerce, and cajole us between the shock and awe of “news” and “entertainment,” every day harder to distinguish.

We push on. We strive – using ourselves up, year after year. Socioeconomic prospects diminish, and our personal and national debt rises. Struggling, we console ourselves with the many available distractions. Alcohol and drugs. Food and sex. Money. Sporting events. TV. The Internet. Facebook and Twitter swallow us up into a monetized simulacrum of “the social.” We forget the horrors, and the hours slip by …

But the world of frights comes back again when the distractions wear thin. Unemployment. Austerity. Environmental calamity. A seemingly unresponsive, arrogant, and inadequate judicial and political system. Something nefarious, coercive, must be at work, stacking the deck and tilting the playing field. It all seems too large and complex for any one of us to “change,” despite how much we would like to change ourselves and the suffering world around us. And then the fields of distraction are there again, beckoning. We could eat. We could shop. We could go online, check our friends’ status updates, their amusing and ironic posts. Anger is available, too, and there are those who readily distract us by telling us where to channel our anger, at which group, who to exclude, whose inhuman fault all this is …

Of course, the consequences of this society – environmental destruction, chemical and electromagnetic poisoning of our bodies and minds, alienation, wasted time and lives, poverty and marginalization, violence and outright exploitation – are more than overlooked: they are depended upon, the very method of turning a profit and keeping the machinery going. Of course, that the judicial and political system only really serves the interests of capital accumulation and the 1% who run and benefit from this accumulation is simply apropos. What can you – the coerced and complacent 99% – possibly do about this all-pervasive system? Just do your job and enjoy your entertainment. Leave the big questions to the rich and powerful, the experts, and the “leaders.”

Stephen Collis is a poet, occupier and social critic. This essay is adapted from his latest book, Dispatches from the Occupation. Collis teaches contemporary poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University in British Colubmia, Canada.