The soliloquy Paddy Chayefsky wrote for the character Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network still resonates today:
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad…Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter, punks are running wild in the street, and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do…We know things are bad—worse than bad; they’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house…and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad!…I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’
Chayefsky wrote those words before 9/11, before the war in Iraq, before the collapse of the US housing market, before the financial meltdown on Wall Street, before the near-deaths of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, before the Gulf oil spill, before Fox News, the Tea Party, and WikiLeaks. So how, one wonders, would a contemporary Howard Beale express his rage? Perhaps like Walter Berglund, the disillusioned environmentalist in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, which the New York Times calls “a masterly portrait of a nuclear family in turmoil, with…a majestic sweep that seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.” The datum that obsesses Walter Berglund is population growth. He tells anyone who will listen that most of the world’s problems could be solved, or at least alleviated, if there were fewer human beings—and yet the number increases by 13 million every month.
“It’s like the internet, or cable TV,” he says. “There’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.”
Howard Beale and Walter Berglund are surrogates for those of us frustrated by our collective inability to address the problems of the day. On such issues as clean energy, decaying urban infrastructure, declining educational standards, and rising health care costs, we walk when we should be running. In Ottawa, as in Washington, there is gridlock: too many competing issues, too many vested interests, too much shouting, too little informed debate. Politics trumps policy development. Our leaders are hostages to opinion polls. In such an atmosphere, a truly national conversation is impossible. Could the noise of which Walter Berglund speaks be the sound of democracy grinding to a messy halt?
The underlying problem, on both sides of the border, is sloth. We seem to have forgotten that the freedom afforded by democracy comes at a price: the best and brightest have a responsibility to lead; the electorate has a responsibility to at least try to understand the issues; and the press has a responsibility to make the issues understandable. Would anyone argue that the men and women running Canada today are our best and brightest? And unless we are willing to step into the public arena ourselves, do we have the right to complain? How many of us think we have discharged our responsibility as citizens simply by casting a ballot? How many Canadians could name their member of Parliament, much less articulate an informed argument about, say, Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan? As for the press, how can the public possibly understand the issues of the day if its primary sources of information are, in troubling numbers, dumbing down?
Am I crying wolf? I hope so, but a disturbing new book entitled The Death of the Liberal Class, by Pulitzer Prize−winning journalist Chris Hedges, warns that democracy in America is, if not grinding to a halt, certainly on a slippery slope. In the face of egregious corporate excess, he writes, the impotence of liberal institutions—the press, universities, unions, the liberal church—“ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and middle classes will find expression outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.” He foresees an America in which Howard Beale and Walter Berglund are driven to fascism.
Getting mad isn’t the answer—for them or for us. The answer is getting involved.
This appeared in the March 2011 issue.
John Macfarlane is the editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.
Chris Kuzma, an award-winning artist, has contributed to The New York Times Magazine and American Illustration.