SYNDICATED COLUMN: Get Pissed Off and Break Things



Why Are Americans So Passive?

There’s a reason “Keep Calm and Carry On” is everywhere. When people lose everything — their economic aspirations, their freedom, their privacy — when there’s nothing they can do to restore what they’ve lost — all they have left is dignity.

Remember Saddam? Seconds before he was hanged, disheveled and disrespected, the deposed dictator held his head high, his eyes blazing with contempt as he spat sarcastic insults at his executioners. He “faced death like a lion,” said his supposed body double, Latif Yahia, and no one could argue. He left this life with the one thing he could control intact.

Dignity. That’s what “Keep Calm and Carry On” is all about. That’s what we think of when we think of the Battle of Britain. As German bombs rained down, the English went about their business. Like the iconic photo of the milkman tiptoeing over rubble. Like the bomb-damaged stores whose shopkeepers posted signs that read “We are still open — more open than usual.”

Man, that is so not us.

You’ve seen the T-shirts, with their clean Gill Sans-esque lettering and iconic crown. There are mugs, postcards and posters. Of course. It’s a reproduction of a propaganda poster from World War II, an (unsuccessful, because it wasn’t distributed) attempt by the British government to steel jittery citizens during the Blitz.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” merch dates to 2000 but really took off after 9/11; the popularity of the image, the stoicism of its call to stiffen upper lips everywhere, and numerous parodies (“Stay Alive and Kill Zombies”) has generated millions of dollars of profits, inevitably sparking lawsuits and inspiring a song by John Nolan.

Why is a meme originally prepared for a possible German invasion of the UK (which is why it wasn’t released) popular now? Zizi Papacharissi, communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, points to the crappy economy. “We are undergoing a profound and fairly global economic crisis, so it is natural to revisit the saying: Keep calm and carry on. It reminds us of courage shown back then, and how courage shown helped people pluck through a crisis.”

It’s also a reaction to terrorism — or more accurately a reaction to the initial reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: hysteria, jingoism, multiple wars of choice, all doomed. More than any other factor, Obama owed his 2008 victory to his (Maureen Dowd called him) Vulcan personality: cool, implacable, possibly non-sentient, the anti-Dubya.

What wouldn’t we give for a 2001 do-over? No invasions, no Patriot Act, no Gitmo, no “extraordinary renditions,” no New York Times op-ed pieces arguing in favor of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Treat 9/11 like a crime, let the FBI go after the perps. Reach out to Muslims, reconsider our carte blanche to Israel, and most of all: go slow. Don’t freak out.

Perspective: 3,000 deaths is awful. 9/11 was shocking. We killed 2 million Vietnamese people, yet they’re going strong. With a minimum of whining.

And yet…

Sometimes you need some perspective to your perspective.

There are times when it’s appropriate to freak out. When, in fact, it’s downright weird and unhealthy and wrong not to flip your lid. For example, when you get diagnosed with a terrible disease. When someone you love dies.

There are also times when big-picture, impersonal stuff, including politics and the economy, ought to make you crazy with rage or grief or…something. Not nothing. Not just keeping calm and carrying on.

Keeping calm and carrying on was an appropriate response to the Blitz.  Short of moving away from the targeted area, there’s nothing you can do about bombs. Living or dying is a matter of happenstance. Keeping calm might help you make smart decisions. Panic is usually more dangerous than self-control.

The same is true of terrorism. Terrorists will kill you, or not — probably not. You can’t fix your fate.

But that is decidedly not true about the economy. Not when what is wrong with the economy is not something no one can control — a giant meteor, bad weather, panic in the markets — but something that most assuredly can and indeed should be, like the systemic transfer of wealth from the poor and middle-class to the rich that has characterized the class divide in Western nations since the 1970s. The appropriate, intelligent and self-preserving response to mass theft is rage, demands for action, and decisive punishment of political and economic leaders who refuse to change things.

As one revelation about the National Security Agency’s spying follows another, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme seems less like an appeal to dignity and calm reserve than the much older, classic response of the power elite to their oppressed subjects: Shut the Fuck Up.

(Ted Rall’s website is His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in March 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)



  • It’s too perfect that there are no comments (yet) on this most excellent column. The only sane response is outlined by Robert Henlein’s saying, “Better to be a live fox than a dead lion. But better still to be a live lion.” ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is the flag of surrender, of the learned helplessness of the freest people that Jesus and Milton Friedman ever dreamed up. (And let’s don’t get started on how Winston Churchill got England into a position to need such propaganda – enjoying Hitler’s indie label years ’cause he was so tough on socialists, labor unions, and democracy.)

    Driving Idiot Liberals Crazy Dept: This morning I had a vision of a blaxploitation marquee called “Black Nixon.” But searching DuckDuckGo, I see Red State had a column May 13th entitled “Black Nixon.” Tomjeffersonsghost is ahead by five weeks, so better ask him before charging ahead with that marquee. But I still call dibs on a film short! LOL

  • “Why Are Americans So Passive?”

    I’ve explained this several times already. Does Ted not get it, or is he not reading my comments?

    The Big Gimme.

    What do you think Ted? That Americans are like the handful of 70’s faux-punk revolutionaries that sit around the East Village pondering “Why Are Americans So Passive?”

    Look at the NBA finals. Packed arena. Millions watching on TV. Do you think ANY of them are sitting around wondering “Why Are Americans So Passive?”

    The Big Gimme explains all. Until you realize that, you’ll just be living in a fantasyland. In short, I know why Occupy was a failure and knew it from the start — you don’t. If you DID, you wouldn’t be writing these articles over and over and over and over, asking the same damn question as if you’re going to someday get the answer you want. You won’t.

  • alex_the_tired
    June 22, 2013 11:05 AM


    You mention getting pissed off and breaking things. Ask someone who knows how to get revenge. Yes, get pissed off. As the Klingons say, “Piss is very cold in space.” (It loses in the translation, just like Hamlet.)

    So when you get angry, you don’t run around throwing things and screaming. You don’t join up for idiotic and pointless marches in which you’re coupled with a bunch of guitarists and people who play drums for 15 hours a day. You organize. You plan. And the march is just one part of the strategy.

    The other part? The breakage. But you don’t break things because broken things can be fixed. The people who break them can be put in jail and — worst of all — made to pay (at the court’s determination of cost) the repair cost. So you “break” things creatively by misusing the system against itself. If the OWSers had each directly engaged their elected officials, writing actual letters, phoning the offices, showing up at events, the politicians would have snapped to.

  • exkiodexian
    June 23, 2013 9:40 AM

    I’ll also add this:

    It’s obvious that Snowden has taken a great risk and made a large sacrifice. Glenn Greenwald has also taken a big risk, especially since people — many on the left — are calling for HIS prosecution as well.

    If Greenwald were arrested, I would suggest this is what the citizens on the left will do: Nothing.

    Why? For the same reasons they always do nothing. The Big Gimme. As long as they have theirs, it’s all good. Everything else is secondary.

    Think about that. Greenwald has actually DONE SOMETHING! He has worked his butt off, taken great risk, and advocated for holding power accountable — very publicly and very tenaciously. Yet, large numbers of people (on the LEFT) are actually calling for him to be arrested.

    If that were to happen, what would all these “OWS” types on the left do? I’ll tell you what they would do. They’d chant “Hey Hey Ho Ho The NSA Must Go!”, while Greenwald went to prison — for doing nothing more than being a journalist.

    This whole episode demonstrates EXACTLY why people in this country are not worth sacrificing for. For years on end the left complains that no one DOES anything, that it’s all talk no action. Now Greenwald DOES something (Snowden too), and what’s happening to support their efforts? Blogging. Tweeting. A bunch of sad-ass nothing. And if Greenwald ends up arrested, you can bet it will be more of the same.

    Some movement. Some principles. Worth defending? No.

  • Susan Stark
    June 24, 2013 3:03 PM


    But how long is the Big Gimme going to last? The people going to MBA finals are blissfully unaware that our society is now kept going with credit cards and printed Fed notes. How long before that collapses?

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