Quiet Desperation Getting Less Quiet and More Desperate

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden in 1854: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Lately that desperation has become less quiet. Places and names tell the whole story, over and over again.

Ferguson, Missouri: Michael Brown. Staten Island, New York: Eric Garner. North Charleston, South Carolina: Walter Scott. Baltimore, Maryland: Freddie Gray.

And now Eugene, Oregon: Brian Babb.

Babb differs from the others in two ways that shouldn’t be important, but are. First, he had a gun. Second, he’s white.

Babb fired a shot into the floor of his room almost an hour before police arrived. He told his therapist he wanted “to see how it sounded.” He drew his gun again when confronted by police, prompting a fatal bullet in response.

If only one detail had differed, a thousand other details would then be changed, followed by a thousand more and another thousand after that. Life would have gone on. Instead, there’s an end, but only for him. Others must go on, hoping to find the tiniest shred of sense in what remains. Quiet desperation becomes contagious.

Our nation seems to go through spates of tragedies that echo each other, amplifying our collective pain. Shootings go from schools to shopping centers to movie theaters. Epidemics spread from ebola in Brooklyn and New Hampshire to measles at Disneyland.

The latest pattern shows the troubled and defenseless, losing their lives to police who are trying to maintain order. With each successive instance, the pressure mounts for charges to be filed against the police, as if that will somehow even the ledger.

It’s horrifically sad that retribution so often equates with justice. People exult in bloodlusty victory when police are charged with criminal intent, as if two lives shortened is somehow better than one. Often it’s the people closest to the victim who are the ones begging protesters to settle themselves down.

This is not an unimportant detail.

Those who knew the victim cannot readily embrace the cause. The grief about what happened comes first.

Never confuse the map with the territory. Only they have actually been to the place that others describe so well. If only we could listen first to those who have earned the right to speak, but our media are less discriminating or follow different rules than you and me.

They talk as if directly to us. They speak as if they knew the man. Neither is true, but our mental filters can’t quite keep up with what we already know. Like 1960s housewives afraid to offend the Fuller Brush salesman at the door — we let them in, knowing that we shouldn’t.

The desperation drama blares before us. The places and names change, but the story stays the same. Police seek to maintain order. Operation fails. R.I.P., the disaffected and disempowered. If only things were different.

African Americans have a special burden. For a century and a half, we’ve conflated race and class, performing an emotional shell game, hiding the pea under the complaint not given. If race is the obstacle, then it would go away with economic improvement. If poverty is the root, well, there are plenty of poor whites who don’t take to the streets. Each solution is designed to mismatch the problem.

But now the President and First Lady have self-identified as Black, even if it’s only literally three-quarters true. Class doesn’t reach any higher than the White House, so the desperation has a new clarity. The ache has become a pierce — an entirely different kind of pain.

On the other side of the scrimmage, police must keep order against two adversaries in unwitting cahoots. The disaffected are actively opposing with rocks held by nothing-to-lose fists, while the unenthused are holding their phones, wishing only for peace and quiet — but mostly quiet — so they can finish their business at hand.

Strategic asymmetry has been studied only in warfare, so it’s off to war they go, in armored vehicles, using military formations, dressed in battle fatigues. It looks like war.

Another Thoreau adage from Walden comes to mind: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs