The Language of the Unheard
“You have a lot of kids graduating college can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here.”
-- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, quoted in Kate Taylor, "Bloomberg, on Radio, Raises Specter of Riots by Jobless," New York Times, September 17, 2011, p. A19. [Photo credit: Craig Ruttle/Associated Press]
Internal Links Within This Blog Entry
Poor People's Movements
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Iowa Democratic Party
Golden Rules and Revolutions
Reich Robert Reich and "The Truth About the Economy"
Trudeau Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury"
Bloomberg In 2011 our media have enabled us to focus upon, and cheer on, the rising tsunami of mass protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. We have seen that, while messy and usually disorganized, the ability of such movements to bring about change.
"The Arab Spring (Arabic: الربيع العربي; also known as the Arabic Rebellions or the Arab Revolutions) is a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Arab world. Since 18 December 2010 there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; a civil war in Libya resulting in the fall of its regime; civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen; major protests in Israel, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, and minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara. Clashes at the borders of Israel in May 2011 have also been inspired by the regional Arab Spring. The protests have shared techniques of civil resistance in sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies, as well as the use of social media to organize, communicate, and raise awareness in the face of state attempts at repression and internet censorship." "Arab Spring," Wikipedia.org.For this week's update see, Laura Kasinof, "Fighting Erupts for Second Day in Yemeni Capital," New York Times, September 19, 2011.
Although Michael Bloomberg did not expand on his comment, he provided a pin prick of a reminder that such things could happen here -- although he limited the protesters to unemployed college graduates, and one senses he clearly views it as an option to be avoided. Not incidentally, if the Mayor hasn't noticed, "Occupy Wall Street" is already active. It's not one of "those kinds of riots" -- yet -- but it is getting close, very unambiguous in word and deed, and being subjected to a similar form of oppression, in this instance by New York City police:
And meanwhile, . . .
[Photo credit: Indigene editions La Voix de l'Enfant and NPR.] . . . WWII hero Stephane Hessel has titled his book Time for Outrage. See Eleanor Beardsley, "WWII Survivor Stirs Literary World With 'Outrage,'" NPR, September 22, 2011 (now two million copies in 30 languages) ("'If you want to be a real human being — a real woman, a real man — you cannot tolerate things which put you to indignation, to outrage. You must stand up. I always say to people, 'Look around; look at what makes you unhappy, what makes you furious, and then engage yourself in some action.''").
Poor People's Movements Had Bloomberg continued to speak on the subject it would have been necessary for him to acknowledge that such mass protest movements not only could happen here, they have happened here. And when they have happened here they have often proven to be very similar in effect to those we have cheered in the Arab spring -- a messy, disorganized way to produce change.
But they have been not just a way to produce change, for the working class and poor, many observers have concluded they are the only way to create progress.
Among such observers are Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, authors of Poor People's Movements (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1977, paperback 1979). Tim Haight and I used it as one of the readings in a course we co-taught at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the spring of 1980. Piven and Cloward challenge many of the assumptions of America's Left as a result of their study of what is embodied in chapters titled, "The Unemployed Workers' Movement," "The Industrial Workers' Movement," "The Civil Rights movement," and "The Welfare Rights Movement."
They argue, for example, that efforts to "organize" the working poor actually tend to be self-defeating, for a variety of reasons, and what they say is "the obvious fact that whatever the people won was a response to their turbulence and not to their organized members." Introduction, first edition, p. xxiii. In the introduction to the paperback edition they take on their critics:
Some critics were dissatisfied, for example, with the various expressions of the post-World War II black movement: with the civil rights struggle in the South, or the riots in the North, or the surging demand for public welfare benefits that produced a welfare explosion in the 1960s. . . . But popular insurgency does not proceed by someone else's rules or hopes: it has its own logic and direction. It flows from historically specific circumstances: it is a reaction against those circumstances, and it is also limited by them.Introduction, paperback, p. xi.
(Not incidentally, since welfare is mentioned, the authors observe, "Nor did the participants in the relief movement of the 1960s prefer welfare; together with Harrington, they plainly preferred decent jobs at decent wages. But they understood the political facts of their lives rather more clearly than Harrington: the unemployed poor in this period lacked the power to force programs of full employment." pp. xiii-xiv.)
Please understand, if it is not obvious, that I am not advocating "those kinds of riots here." What I am advocating is that those in a position to respond to legitimate demands from the unemployed and working poor not leave them with no option but the only one they have found to work in the past.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Iowa Democratic Party Recently we have even seen leaders of the Iowa Democratic Party complain about citizen action that, by all accounts, fell far short of "those kinds of riots." Matt Kearney and Sarah Clark, "CCI's Tactics Are Appropriate," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 15, 2011. For more detail see, Trish Nelson, "Brouhaha Over Grassley Town Hall," Blog for Iowa, September 6, 2011.
Let me make clear, I am not taking sides in this fight. There are reasons why the Iowa Democratic Party would want to distance itself from any group's behavior that was characterized as something other than "Iowa nice" -- however valid, or invalid, you might think its reasons. But in the context of this blog entry, the point is that there are also reasons why citizens who have been consistently ignored or rebuffed in their efforts to politely exercise their First Amendment right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances" might ultimately choose other tactics rather than give up entirely on what they consider legitimate, reasonable demands.
Here is an excerpt from the opinion piece:
Recent strong criticisms of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement by Sue Dvorsky (the chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party) and John Deeth (a local Democrat and blogger) warrant a reply.As you see, ICCI is learning from, and applying, the lessons Piven and Cloward passed along in Poor People's Movements -- albeit with tactics (and dare I say, results) far less than those the authors examine.
Both Dvorsky and Deeth take ICCI members to task for their confrontational conduct at a recent town hall meeting with Sen. Chuck Grassley in Carroll -- an event where neither Dvorsky or Deeth was present. Although a video record of the event is on the Internet, both seem to base their version of events on reportage from Douglas Burns of the Daily Times Herald, who claims CCI members "hurled insults" during the forum, then became "a mob" blocking Grassley from a subsequent media interview, and finally, used "physicality" to prevent the senator's clear passage to his car.
Watch the video and judge for yourself if any of this took place.
Deeth finds all of this "shameful, hateful and dangerous" -- especially considering Grassley is such a "venerable public servant and exceedingly decent man," as Burns put it. As a partisan Democrat, Deeth says that the only real way to change Grassley's vote is by beating him in an election and then chastises CCI members for not working for Democrat Roxanne Conlin.
There's only one problem with this. CCI is not a partisan political party. It is an issue-oriented, grassroots community organization working for change. Our members are Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and independents. We don't have any political litmus test for participation in CCI.
A lot of the frustration people are feeling in this country is with a two-party "system" that seems to constantly shape-shift to serve the interests of corporations rather than people. People elect candidates who promise "change" then get no change at all.
Former Gov. Chet Culver [a Democrat] promised local control of hog lots and promptly changed his tune after the election. He promised his strong supporters in the union movement improvements to Iowa's collective bargaining process and then vetoed the bill. Is it any wonder that people get angry and discouraged?
Deeth and Dvorsky are unhappy with the way thousands of CCI members express this anger. They ridicule our "trite chants" and "demands" and ask that we abide by their version of civility. But history teaches us something different.
Women did not receive equal rights or suffrage by being nice. The civil rights struggle was not won by sitting quietly in the back of the bus. And the many victories of the labor movement were not won without noisy and sometimes bloody -- picket lines and strike actions.
Golden Rules and Revolutions Two and one-half years ago I wrote an eight-part blog entry series here on this theme, "Golden Rules and Revolutions." (That link goes to Part VIII, which opens with links to the prior seven in the series.)
The reference to "Golden Rules," of course, is to both the Biblical reference and the take-off, "S/he who has the gold makes the rules."
A European lecturer at the law school the other day took questions following a talk on controlling health care costs. In the course of the talk he blithely mentioned that, of course, all the EU countries have universal, single-payer health care systems. I asked,"How do you explain that European countries accept as a matter of course that citizens should be taxed to provide health care for all, while we're not even debating the issue any longer in the U.S.?" He replied, "I guess we just have more of a sense of solidarity."
He's right. The problem, of course, is that as the gap between our rich and poor continues to widen, as increasing hostility is driven by lack of jobs and social services, so long as we refuse to institute federal-government-as-employer-of-last-resort jobs programs and as a result our consumer-driven economy fails to recover, we are increasing the risk of "those kinds of riots here."
Here is an excerpt from the opening blog essay in that eight-part series, "Income Disparity & Revolution":
Increasing income disparity, despair. . . I am not a conspiratorial theorist, nor am I charging that anyone truly desires to turn the United States into a third world country, in which the top 1% of super rich rule over a 90% in abject poverty. All I would observe is that what is happening -- as a result of what will be spelled out in this series -- is not that different from what would be happening if that were the goal of government officials and the ruling elite."Golden Rules & Revolutions: A Series - I," April 12, 2008.[F]rom the late 1980s to the mid-2000s . . . inequality increased across the country. . . . No state has seen a significant decline in inequality during this period. . . .Pulling Apart: A State-by-State Analysis of Income Trends, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 9, 2008.
On average, incomes have declined by 2.5 percent among the bottom fifth of families since the late 1990s, while increasing by 9.1 percent among the top fifth.
And see, for Iowa data, David DeWitte, "Report finds income gap growing in Iowa," GazetteOnline, April 9, 2008, 11:40 a.m. ("The income gap between rich and poor is growing faster in Iowa than in most other states, according to a new report, which found a 49.3 percent average income growth in the wealthiest Iowa households over the past two decades. . . .")
. . . and Revolution. I recall reading many years ago -- where it was I would have no way of recalling now -- that there is a rough mathematical formula for predicting the point at which a growing income disparity will ultimately produce a revolution.
No, I don't think we're yet there in the United States.
But I am one of those who thinks Senator Obama was right when he said, "Lately, there has been a little, typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania, in towns right here in Indiana, in my home town in Illinois who are bitter. . . . They are angry. They feel like they have been left behind. They feel like nobody is paying attention to what they're going through." Perry Bacon Jr. and Shailagh Murray,"'Bitter' Is a Hard Pill For Obama to Swallow; He Stands by Sentiment as Clinton Pounces," Washington Post, April 13, 2008, p. A6. . . .
It's reminiscent of Ben Stein's story about his visit with Warren Buffett.It turned out that Mr. Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. . . . “How can this be fair?” he asked . . ..Ben Stein, "In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning," New York Times, November 26, 2006.
Even though I agreed with him, I warned that whenever someone tried to raise the issue, he or she was accused of fomenting class warfare.
“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Those who refuse to acknowledge what's happening in America can charge those who do with being "elitist," or fomenting "class warfare." But that does little to assuage the anger of those on the losing side of this warfare.
And when that anger is permitted to seethe long enough the news from elsewhere can serve as a reminder of the limits that ultimately come to constrain the greed of oppressive governments and the super rich elite.Barbara J. Fraser, "As Economy Grows, Income Disparity in Latin America Widens," Catholic News Service, August 3, 2007 ("a two-day general strike in the region was called to protest government economic policies. . . . The incident was one of many around Peru in mid-July, as teachers, farmers and others took their discontent to the streets . . .. ")No, I don't think we need fear imminent revolution in America.
Thu-Trang Tran, "A new peasant revolution – is China learning from its past?" Inside Asia, June 1, 2006 (". . . The government is concerned about the simmering social tension resulting from the widening wealth gap as the giant economy powers its way to the top spot.")
Associated Press, "Egypt: American freelance photojournalist and translator detained while covering riots," International Herald Tribune, April 10, 2008 ("Thousands of Egyptians angry over high food prices and low wages have been rioting this week in Mahallah . . . in Egypt, a U.S. ally where 40 percent of the people live in or near poverty.")
And no, I don't think the declining dollar, the $40 trillion in unfunded federal debt we're leaving to our great-grandchildren, our multi-billion-dollar negative trade balance, and recession mean we're on the precipice of third-world status.
But I do think we need to take the impact of our economy and governmental policies on ordinary Americans much more seriously than I sense our leaders and media are willing to do. Why? For starters, because I think it is the decent, just and humane thing to do.
But also for all the reasons I have laid out here and will in the rest of the series to come.
Robert Reich and "The Truth About the Economy" In a recent blog entry, in another context, I had occasion to share Robert Reich's two-minute explanation of the problem, "The Truth About the Economy." "Why Iowa? Chase Garrett and Robert Reich," September 8, 2011. It is even more relevant here:
We usually find ourselves in agreement, and certainly did on that one.
See also "Robert Reich Debunks 6 Big GOP Lies about the Economy" video, for related material:
Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" Finally, I conclude (did you think I never would?), with this morning's Doonesbury, from Garry Trudeau:
[With credit, and daily thanks and applause, to Garry B. Trudeau, Doonesbury.]
When you find Michael Bloomberg, Stephane Hessel, Frances Fox Piven & Richard A. Cloward, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Robert Reich, and Garry Trudeau in agreement, it might just be a good time to rethink where we are going with America and why.