(I wrote this column ten years ago. In the succeeding decade, the growing power of faceless corporations and the seeming ineptitude of government agencies have only increased the anger that all too many Americans are feeling. The field is ripe for charlatans, demagogues and scoundrels, and the country’s future is ever more in doubt.)
In a little-noted film from 1972 entitled “Rage,” George C. Scott (who also directed) stars as an ordinary guy who becomes homicidally enraged when he and his teenage son are subjected to lethal amounts of a poisonous gas that was being “tested” in a secluded area where the two happened to be camping one night. The tests, as Scott’s character ultimately discovers, were authorized by a secret government agency pursuant to vaguely worded legislation that provided no real accountability for the obviously-flawed testing procedures. (The film subtly presaged the concept of “plausible deniability” as developed in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra scandal, wherein if no one is ever completely aware of everything, everyone can claim to be “out of the loop” or otherwise uninformed and therefore not responsible.)
The film depicts this rancher’s progression from initial confusion when his son is first stricken (the youngster had slept out in the open, while his dad had slept under a tent) to frustration when he is unable to find anyone who can explain what has happened and finally to the aforementioned homicidal rage when he ultimately discovers that his son (whom he will soon follow) died because of untraceable decisions made by unidentifiable individuals acting under the unconfirmed aegis of unconcerned corporate and governmental entities. In his last days, the rancher (he survives about a week longer than his son) comes to the realization that no one can be held accountable because no one is in control. He dies in the midst of a wholly impotent attempt to destroy a chemical lab that probably wasn’t even involved in the testing that killed his son and himself.
The world has changed dramatically since Scott’s film debuted. Technological advances have made our lives easier, richer and more exciting. As the twenty-first century unfolds, we may well experience an average longevity of well over one hundred years while we engage regularly in interplanetary travel and develop forms of virtual reality that will enhance our sense of pleasure beyond anything currently imaginable.
Unfortunately, we are already seeing changes that suggest a less optimistic view of the future, and some of those changes deal with the same concept developed by Mr. Scott in his movie. There is what might be called a creeping depersonalization in the society of this new millennium, and people are becoming less significant and less noticed as a result. As if it were a requisite of a brave new world, human beings are being replaced with machines that parrot or carry out institutional regulations and procedures from which there is virtually no surcease.
Examples abound. Here is just one that is all too typical: You receive your credit card bill and find a charge that you don’t recall. You call the toll-free number and are immediately connected to a recorded voice that recites a long menu of options, none of which seem to address your concern.
After you choose an option just so you can move things along, another voice reads through another menu. Finally, you are told that if you wish to speak to a “customer service representative,” you should hold. You are then “entertained” with recorded music which is interrupted every thirty seconds by another recorded voice that apologizes for the delay, adding, “Your call is important to us, so please continue to hold.”
After no more than twenty minutes, if you are lucky, a real person gets on the line. This person listens to your problem, puts you on hold again, and then finally says, “Our records show that you made the purchase at the store indicated, but I don’t have the details available now. If you would like to make a request in writing, I can give you the address to send it to. Or if you think someone else has used your card, I can transfer you to our fraud division.” You quickly contemplate these options and decide to pay the charge rather than run the risk of spending any more time on this relatively trivial matter.
Note what has happened in this example. You have gone from confusion to frustration to something akin to rage. Okay, maybe rage is a stretch, but what about the tenth time you experience this type of situation, or the one-hundredth, or the one thousandth? And what if episodes all too similar to this one are repeated on a daily basis? And what if they do not only relate to minor expenses but instead concern matters of great import to you, such as airline tickets for your family’s vacation or a stock purchase you tried to make on-line or the dispute in which you are engaged with the Internal Revenue Service?
And what if the cumulative effect of all of these wholly unsatisfying impersonal contacts with highly structured institutional bureaucracies that never provide complete resolution to any problem is that you finally begin to consider that much of your effort is a gigantic waste of your precious time? What if, after repeatedly finding no “real people” who can address your needs, you are left with the sense that no one is responsible for the frustration you constantly feel, because everyone is “out of the loop?” What if, in other words, you ultimately confront the reality that you are no longer viewed as a unique individual with respect to many matters that represent a significant part of your life?
The answer, at that point, may well be a seething rage that is the consequence of feeling permanently wronged by decisions and actions by faceless entities that refuse to acknowledge their fallibility or responsibility. In an individual, this kind of rage can lead to all manner of unpleasant consequences. And when it is felt collectively by millions of individuals in an entire society, . . .