Watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about the Irish fight for independence from the United Kingdom, I feel a sense of something missing from my life. These young men and women are almost rabid in their agitation for Irish independence, practically to the point of foaming at the mouth and biting strangers. They’ve dedicated their lives and souls to this cause, executing traitorous friends and stoically refusing to give in before a firing squad. I understand that these are fictionalized composites of varied Irish freedom fighters, and that the events of the film didn’t necessarily shake out similarly IRL, but it all still speaks to a class of core values held tight by individuals taking part in the fight. Namely, an absolute dedication to the cause. That’s what I’m missing, I think, a cause about which I feel so fiercely, so resonantly, that the thought of ever forsaking it sets my body to vibrating like a struck bell. As a male, middle-class American, perfectly white, comfortably well-off, superbly instructed and informed about the nature of the world, what issue is there for me to truly, deeply care about?
I can’t demand an end to white oppression or the callous disregard for the well-educated, since those issues have yet to arise. Down to the underprivileged – the middle class will rise again! Even real issues, those occurring in America that I’ve witnessed with my own eyes, I feel like I can’t argue passionately for. Improved health care for those who can’t afford it? Jobs for those who can’t find them? Women’s rights? Gay rights? Rights for those who haven’t even decided whether or not they’re a group that deserve special rights? I simply haven’t experienced these issues on a personal level. Seen them, sure. Heard about them from the close friends, of course. But felt a burning, tireless passion to lead the charge for their cause? Not at all.
I understand that just because I haven’t experienced hardship doesn’t mean I can’t support efforts to alleviate the hardships of others. I’m perfectly capable of donating time, money, and effort to any number of charitable organizations. It’s not impossible that I might even come to enjoy and eagerly anticipate charity work. But isn’t philanthropy just fulfilling a basic human desire to be kind to others? the act of giving hits the brain like drugs and success, slamming those dopamine receptors with good times feelings. Supporting the humane society, supporting malaria nets, supporting breast cancer research isn’t so much about furthering a cause as it is feeling good about ourselves and our society. Which is fine! And important! But I feel like a true cause should have elements of a vendetta, an uncontrollable, unquenchable desire to do something. Certainly, I think we should do something about cancer, but I simply can’t muster that do something level of passion that edges on rage.
I guess I want a cause like in the film, one built on historical injustices experienced over several generations. But I was born into a decent family in a decent society with decent privileges. I’d have to go pretty far back before any of my ancestors were oppressed, and even then, I don’t think the Welsh and Scots of the mid-1800’s had it that much worse than any other UK territory. I could certainly choose to back the fights against any number of the modern world’s injustices, but that doesn’t mean I can identify with the injustices. They’re not something hereditary, something I was born into and raised as. I might improve myself and society if I spent 100% of my time agitating for better educational opportunities for the underprivileged, but that just isn’t a cause I could announce that I would pursue “even if it kills me.” Perhaps I should just resign myself to the fact that, unless sectarian violence breaks out in central Wisconsin, I’m going to be stuck with this vague sense of missing a purpose, lacking a goal. Or maybe I should calm down and realize my good fortune in that I don’t have to give my life to achieve freedom from oppression. Being a white, middle-class American male is probably one of the world’s most optimal situations – it’s just kinda dull.