Your privilege allows you to live a non-political existence. your wealth, your race, your abilities, or your gender allow you to live a life in which you will likely not be a target of bigotry, attacks, deportation, or genocide. You don’t want to get political, you don’t want to fight because your life and safety are not at stake.The assumption that privilege is behind disengagement has some salience, but it misses a much more important point - history repeats itself in predictable ways.
As long as a hardwired, innate human nature fuels human enterprise, how can we all not be as self-protective, territorial, ambitious, and aggressive as we and our animal ancestors have been for millions of years?
And if history is and will always be cyclical, repetitive, and entirely predictable, what is the point of engagement?
In a life that is ‘solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short’ such parochial concerns should be more than enough. Yet for many this concern over family integrity, economic well-being, and social welfare expands; and it doesn’t take long before such individual engagement in practical management becomes collective, determined, and aggressive.
At this moment personal integrity is subsumed within a larger group. Solidarity may produce temporal results but it compromises both one’s individuality and spiritual aspirations.
Traditional Hindus believe that since the world is illusion, then the only validation of existence is the individual soul and its only purpose spiritual evolution.
On other end of the philosophical spectrum Nietzsche wrote that the only validation of human experience in a meaningless world is the exercise of pure will. Nihilists like Tolstoy echoed these sentiments in his second Epilogue to War and Peace. Historical events are simply produced by the billions of purposeful and random actions that precede them.
Napoleon may have lost the Battle of Borodino because of a bad cold which was caused by the negligence of his valet who forgot to bring the Emperor’s gum boots to the battlefield. This negligence was caused by the valet’s obsession over his wife’s infidelity which was provoked by the valet’s absence and indifference.
Both schools of thought acknowledge the questionability of determined, purposeful engagement in social enterprise. Napoleon may have been a great general, but it was others and their purposeless actions which made him.
Sartre offered a middle ground. Human beings have no essence before their existence because there is no Creator. Thus "existence precedes essence". Since one cannot explain one's own actions and behavior by referencing any specific human nature, one is necessarily responsible for those actions. "We are left alone, without excuse”, he said. "We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us."
Sartre did not suggest activism or engagement; but insisted that there was a secular moral imperative – responsibility - which everyone must respect.
Wherever one falls on the spectrum there is no way to keep one’s mind focused on the kingdom of God, moksha, spiritual evolution, or even Existentialist responsibility, if one is consumed by secular, social, and idealistic concerns.
Americans find it particularly hard to retreat from the notion of progress and a better world. Can-do entrepreneurial individualism is what most describes us. There is no problem that cannot be solved nor none too big for resolution.
There are two ends to this spectrum like any other. On one end are progressives who, thanks to moderate wealth, education, and traditional religion, can afford to invest energy in ‘making the world a better place’. At the other are the working poor and marginalized for whom their might be a better place somewhere in the universe, but it surely is not here nor within reach.
In between are those who muddle through. They work hard, keep up with national and international affairs, have little faith in public institutions but are resigned to rely upon them.
All share one thing in common – growing disengagement with age. At some point both rich and poor and all those in the middle realize that activism, idealism, or just plain hope are self-imposed vanities. Life has has gone on, goes on, and will go on without them, as true to historical form as ever. Even when the world seems to be becoming more stable and less contentious, it doesn’t take long before such equanimity begins to crack and fall apart.
In perhaps the greatest intellectual vanity of the 20th century the historian and political philosopher Francis Fukuyama declared ‘the end of history’. The downfall of the Soviet Union would usher in a new world order of democratic enterprise and international harmony.
So as the years until one’s death grow fewer, there seems to be little utility in continuing to march, petition, debate, or even discuss national and world events. Not only do those who have lived long understand the inertia of history and the impossibility of changing its course; but they turn inevitably to personal, very individual matters.
Ivan Ilyich, the character in Tolstoy’s story of the same name, feels that he has life under control and to his measure. When he begins to suffer from an incurable disease he feels betrayed. How could it be, he wonders, that life has come to such a disappointing and frightening end? He was not counting on dying. Once he reluctantly faces the fact of his death, he can think of nothing but. His past has no relevance whatsoever as he faces eternity. “We all die alone”, he said.
There are those who deal with old age in denial. Like Ivan Ilyich, death cannot happen to them, and the years past retirement offer limitless possibilities for study, research, and personal development. For them it is an end in itself – keeping productively busy, maintaining the same self-image of intelligence and intellectual ambition of their younger years.
For others who do not deny death but are afraid of it, years with fewer responsibilities offer a chance, like Tolstoy’s (A Confession) to figure out being and meaning before it is too late.
Still others spend time with family and friends, enjoy whatever life remains to them. Why worry about the inevitable, they ask?
All of them, however, have disengaged to varying degrees from what appears more and more inevitable, but avoidable complexity. Debate holds no interest. If after 70, 80, or more years, what is there to learn. Better let younger, more impressionable, and more idealistic people pay attention.
Many older people stop reading newspapers and journals entirely. They no longer listen to NPR or even the BBC which they had faithfully followed for decades. The news was all so familiar, so expected.
What about civic responsibility? Doesn’t an American citizen have the duty to follow current affairs, to be informed about issues in order to vote and act responsibly? Regardless of age?
Continued engagement in civil affairs and performing the duties of a citizen implies a belief in positive change. One’s vote does count, because there are good outcomes and bad ones, and therefore voting, more than an obligation, is an execution of progressive choice.
For those who have never subscribed to this positivist philosophy, who have turned to more personal concerns, and who at best can hope that the cycles of history will always include filling potholes and public works, disengagement is not a big deal. In fact, it seems like the only reasonable option.
The recent (2016) presidential election has made it easy for those people on the fence – who cannot not decide between one final burst of progressive activism and unmooring the boat for final sail. The campaign was such a vaudevillian burlesque and a sideshow; and the first post-Inaugural months such a Fun House of suspicions, allegations, innuendos, and charges that it is hard to take any of it seriously. If there was ever a moment in modern history which illustrated the perpetual circus of politics, the self-interest, aggressive ambition, and petty territorialism of human nature, this was it.
So we float free. Not above it all by any means, just airy and unconcerned.