Struggling Against Impotence

A friend of mine who lives in Wisconsin sent me a link to a story in his local paper, reporting on a study about hormone levels in the waterways. 

“All over the country, chemicals known to disrupt or act like hormones seem to have permeated the waters and may be harming wildlife — or people.

‘The more you know, the more scared you are,’ said Kimberlee Wright, executive director of the Wisconsin-based nonprofit law center Midwest Environmental Advocates.”

Just one more example of our human interdependence and individual powerlessness–an example to join with random terrorist attacks like the most recent example from Boston, industrial accidents like the one that leveled much of a small Texas town last week, the periodic outbreaks of e coli caused by contaminated foodstuffs….the list goes on.

In a country and culture that has always emphasized individual responsibility and self-determination, the increasing evidence of our individual impotence is particularly disorienting and destabilizing. We are forcibly reminded that we have few alternative to collective measures–government measures–to protect us. We have to trust that those we entrust with responsibility for public health and safety are doing their jobs properly–that police and OSHA investigators and FDA inspectors are well-trained and honest, and that there are enough of them.  In our complex modern world, the only alternative to that trust is withdrawal from the human “grid”–retreat into the woods somewhere, and a life without modern amenities.

No one likes feeling impotent. I have a hunch that much of the “crazy” we see around us–the anti-government “patriots,” the conspiracy theory wackos, the stereotypical angry old white guys–is a response to those feelings of impotence. The notion that we actually have to rely upon our common institutions, the constant reminders that our common lives are complicated and interwoven, and that we require a social infrastructure upon which to “stand on our own two feet” is particularly galling to people who grew up in a less interdependent time. It’s one more element of the dizzying change that confuses and infuriates them.

The reality is, in today’s world, we can’t afford to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub. As unwelcome as that truth is, we need agencies with the authority to require safe factories, to prevent harmful discharges in our waterways, to ensure the food at the supermarket is uncontaminated…Instead of starving government, we need to make sure that it is doing what it is supposed to do–and only those things–and doing them well.


  1. Along with the rage against impotence that causes such lashing out is that, when you don’t really matter, no one is holding you in either — your rage is unchecked because it’s not worth anyone’s effort to push back against you. (At least not individually — collectively, that kind of thing adds up.)

  2. I was reminded this week how WONDERFUL it is when government is competent. There was absolutely NO private sector activity at work in solving the crimes in Boston last week. It was all Government. Hard working, well trained government employees. Yes. We need a functional government if we are to succeed as a people.

  3. Sheila, the “conspiracy theory wacko” is in your mirror, so look out !

    To you, anyone who doesn’t want to live under the boot of Stalinism is a lunatic.

  4. Eugene,

    Are you dangerous? Are you aware that Stalin has been dead for decades? What in the hell are you talking about?

  5. I apologize if this seems as if I mince words—I am a lawyer, however, and that is part of what I do. Why is everything so male-centered? If someone has the courage of their convictions, people say that person has “balls,” whether the person is or is not male. When you describe people as powerless, you say they are “impotent.” I know the definition of “impotent” includes non-sexual application. Perhaps that word is relevant to this blog topic. Viagara, Cialiis, etc., undoubtedly are amongst the drugs dumped into our eco-system.

  6. patmcc; have you read President Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope”? He remembers, as do you and I, when Democrats and Republicans could sit together at the bargaining table an find solutions to our problems. He has the Audacidy to still Hope for this form of American government.

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