Now This Is Malaise

MY roommate has a bumper sticker on her wall. "I used to be apathetic, but now I just don't care," it says. Not only has this malaise hit Harvard, but it seems to be endemic around the country as well.

The common theme that ran through the recent campaign for Undergraduate Council Chairman was that the Council has to start taking a stand on tough issues. Kenneth E. Lee '89 claimed during a debate last week that the student government has to do more than make decisions on milk in the dining halls.

But on important issues such as finals clubs, the council has refused to take a strong stance on either side. Its schizophrenia is apparent--while it has refused to condemn the clubs or ask that they admit women, the council has twice voted to give funds to Lisa Schkolnick '88 for her lawsuit against the Fly Club. This inability to follow a consistent policy shows, more than anything else, a general, debilitating moral lethargy.

American society as a whole seems unable or unwilling to make hard decisions on pressing moral dilemmas. We live in a complex society and many controversial issues confront us every day. But instead of choosing to help in a real and meaningful way, we throw up our hands in despair and do nothing at all.

Witness New York City Mayor Ed Koch's remarks to the press about the problem of begging in urban America. He said that instead of giving to beggars on the street, people should donate to their favorite charity. He was, legitimately enough, trying to protect people from being swindled. But by telling people to close their hearts and minds to the needy, Koch is providing us with an excuse to stand aside while the poor and homeless starve.

What is the cause of this new callousness? Perhaps the fault lies with the media. By watching so many disturbing images of catastrophe and disaster, we have become a hardened nation. Our minds have been over-saturated with images of man's savageness.

In the sixties, Eddie Adams photographed Nguyen Ngoc Loan as he pulled a trigger inches from a Vietcong prisoner's head. Images of war's ravages in the Middle East, the deadly effects of the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India, and the Challenger explosion have all been presented to the public eye. Our heart strings have been pulled, but our limits may have been reached. Larry Burrows, a war photographer who covered the Vietnam War, said it best: "What's the hardest thing of all? It's to keep feeling. Yet if you feel too much... you'd crack."

THE power of the media is immense. Yet it is disturbing to think that the press has the power to manipulate our personal moral consciousnesses. A few years ago, the news broadcasts were filled with haunting clips of sick, starving Ethiopians. The outpouring of aid at the time was tremendous, mostly due to the massive amounts of publicity the famine received.

But later, when drought and famine were again ravaging this small African country, the aid was not nearly as generous nor as widespread. The only difference was that the second time, famine was not a "hot" news item and received almost no media attention. It's hard to decide where the fault lies, with the media for being too worried about attracting readers with hot news, or with society for not being consistent in its attention.

The current generation has not had, as previous generations had, a collective experience that molds the public spirit. The Depression in the '30s, WW II in the '40s. Vietnam and the civil rights movements in the '60s, all have contributed to national bonding of the type that can only result from a baptism by fire.

The late seventies and eighties have not seen the emergence of a situation which demands a demonstration of moral strength, which unites everyone with a sense of pride, strength, or even outrage. Our generation has never confronted a reality harsher than Reaganism. We no longer have that common depth of emotion that used to shake up and move the world. Vice President George Bush claims we have to focus on values. I claim we have to rediscover our national feeling, and our collective moral conscious.