It is said that only a third of Americans supported the Revolution in 1776. Another third opposed it, and yet another third was indifferent. Those indifferent masses are the enduring historical nightmare of all who care about the future of the nation. They are those who care little about first order affairs; their days are spent, as is the case with multitudes of youth, in hedonistic pursuits: the latest tunes, fashion, entertainment and self-absorbed pastimes of many sorts.
Older such pococurantes become obsessed with hobbies, golf or tennis, pornography, travel or sports, and other secondary and tertiary matters more in line with affluence and leisure. Innumerable churches promote this head-in-the-sand posture towards history by purveying an inner-directed, happy-clappy religion with no public dimension.
The late, and great, Vaclav Havel spoke of “the attractions of mass indifference and the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.” He considered undisciplined passion one of the greatest dangers to civilization, but indifference to be an even greater danger.
It is not a bomb-throwing anarchist who endangers democracy so much as it is the lotus eater. We often think that youthful nonchalance and irony derive from postmodern sabotage of our schools, when we might rather trace much of it back to Winnie-the-Pooh: “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.”
Tyrannies always depend on the vast mushy middle to remain complacent and pliable. Compliance can, after all, be bought by welfare handouts, by rewards for not working, and by the demagoguery that appeals to the populist urge to blame others for one’s own problems. Those in the mushy middle are easily swayed by images of cool, by prefab gestures of compassion, and gauzy public pieties such as diversity and multiculturalism. Their votes are guaranteed by more food stamps, by a few more months of unemployment compensation, or by a late-in-the-game, well-produced TV commercial. Millions of people go to the polls and decide on the basis of hair style, skin color, high-sounding platitudes, the last TV ad they saw, or the alleged sins of this or that candidate.
How ironic it is that most elections come down to winning the momentary and fickle allegiance of great numbers of people who ultimately care little for either the freedom or tyranny their casual votes ensure.