Traveling through China several years ago, I had a driver whose traffic etiquette routinely left me in awe. Road shoulders were passing lanes, and so were exit ramps. Bicyclists he treated more or less like squirrels-regrettable to squash under tire but not really swerve-worthy. He taught me a lot. I even tried out some of his exit-ramp techniques back in Southern California, but somehow the practice didn’t travel well.
But what struck me as much as the brazenness of my Chinese driver’s efforts to speed his path was the reaction of others on the road. I suppose I expected people to shake their fists or shout; maybe even throw the occasional tomato from their bikes.
Instead, all we got was resignation.
Of course, driving in China is customarily frightening, so some passivity was to be expected. But this driver was particularly brash. It struck me then that China is a place of low outrage. Well, no, let me be more precise: China is a place where the outrage-triggering bar is set quite high. Misbehavior and injustice permeate nearly every facet of life, so people cannot afford to get worked up about every quotidian wrong. They’d go mad if they did. Not to mention that they might get killed.
Such passivity isn’t unique to China, of course. Russia, India, Argentina, Italy–most of the world lives tolerantly with daily injustice. For decades, Sicilians accepted the unfair rules made by the Mafia, and Mexicans today have become used to the news that yet another journalist is assassinated by drug cartels for reporting on local crime. Pervasive corruption breeds despair and resignation, which in turn breeds more corruption.
But outrage has long been a staple of American life. (For the researcher who unlocks the formula that inversely correlates socio-economic development with the height of the outrage-triggering bar I have two words: Nobel Prize.) This is a country in which obsessives go to small claims court over melted ice cream because of that defective cooler they were sold on Craigslist. It’s often silly–but not in a terrible way. Outrage is a luxury born of high expectations of fairness.
And what happens when those expectations change? It’s a timely question, I fear, because over the last decade Americans have developed outrage fatigue. There has been too much to get worked up about: crazy terrorists, a dumb war, fiscal insolvency, Leno over Conan. And if we had any capacity for indignation left, the Great Bailout of 2008 finished it off. That’s when you and I to had to fork over our hard-earned money to rescue the casino-loving financial titans who’d wrecked the economy so that they might go on living in the style to which they were accustomed. It wasn’t just that it was a great injustice; it was such an obviously great injustice.
The fix, we saw, was in.
This just in: Last week, newspapers reported on the salaries of the top six executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two insolvent entities that have been propped up by taxpayer money. (To be specific, they’ve received over $150 billion in federal taxpayer funds so far, which could have covered all the state budget shortfalls in the United States for 2012, with plenty left over.) Over the past two years, these executives managed collectively to get over $35 million in pay. Fannie Mae’s current chief, Michael J. Williams, so helpful in steering the company into the ditch during the housing bubble, earned over $9.3 million. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), overseer of Fannie and Freddie, offered an explanation for this generosity: “We believe that employing the level of talent available at private-sector pay scale is the most efficient way to provide the mortgage market services that are required.”
Reading about this tricky and nuanced problem, the policy wonk in me has been moved to pray that we raze Freddie and Fannie to the ground, see them driven before us, and hear the lamentation of their women. But no one seems to be with me. Were Americans as outraged as I was by news that wards of the state should consider themselves talented to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars? Not really. We shrugged. We’re used to this now.
This is the trouble, you see–this outrage thing. Those of us who still occasionally feel it miss it in others. When Jon Stewart held a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” attendees carried signs like “Jesus Says Relax” and “I Already Regret Choosing to Carry a Sign Around All Day.” The joke was supposedly on all the overheated partisans of America. Well, I’ve spoken to many partisans, especially those in the Tea Party, and, yes, I do find many of them to be poorly informed. Some are even batty. But I find their anger understandable and, well, American. It’s needed. When outrage dies, cynicism sets in, and so does decay.
Of course, I try to curb my soapboxing. One must get by, just like the drivers and bicyclists who were unfortunate enough to share a roadway with my driver in China. No use getting oneself worked up into an early grave. Take it easy and keep down your blood pressure. You’ll get more dinner invitations, too. Sure, I can worry about injustice worming its way into a society, about the outrageous becoming the new normal. I can. But I won’t. I’ll do my laundry. I’ll enjoy my dinner. And Fannie and Freddie can enjoy my money. Jesus says relax.
T.A. Frank is editor of Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo courtesy of joshjanssen.