All across Europe, thousands of people have been taking to the streets in angry protests against the “austerity measures” being imposed upon them by their governments. A general strike in Spain. Mass protests in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, France, Lithuania, Belgium and several other nations. Legislators in Iceland had to literally run and hide from their own citizens at the opening of the nation’s parliament this week.
Why, ask the outraged crowds, should our lives be degraded in order to pay for the crimes and follies of the financial elite –- who are richer, more powerful and more arrogant than ever today, despite having plunged the world into economic catastrophe?
The Europeans, forever cast in American myth as fey, feckless, wine-sipping weaklings, have roused themselves to such an extent that the UN is now warning of years of "social unrest" due to the policies of the austerity zealots -- policies which are greatly exacerbating unemployment (with all the inevitable knock-on effects throughout the economy), while severely corroding the physical and social infrastructure of whole nations. Although the European public might be compelled to submit in the end -- by brute force, if necessary, as governments call out club-wielding cops to put down dissent -- at least they are not going quietly.
The same can't be said for the big, bold, burly American public, who for years have meekly submitted to the ever-accelerating deterioration of their lives and communities with nary a peep of protest. Trillions of their dollars are spent on murderous, pointless, wasteful rampages of war-profiteering in foreign lands, on obscene handouts and "guarantees" for the silk-suited scamsters of Wall Street, and on the monstrous expansion of a covert security apparatus that is seeking to invade and control every aspect of their lives -- but the American people say nothing and do nothing.
But perhaps we are being unfair in such a harsh judgment. After all, it's not entirely true that Americans have completely eschewed protest, is it? In fact, the news has been filled with stories of mass protests across the United States for months on end, with angry citizens taking to the streets -- and the ballot boxes -- to register their stern displeasure.
And what has displeased them so, what has moved them from the quiet simmering of discontent to explosions of public protest? Is it those trillions spent on pointless wars? Is it the coddling of the super-rich? Is it the degradation of their daily lives, and the darkening of their children's future by endless war and lost opportunities in a system skewed sharply -- and punitively -- toward the needs and greeds of powerful elites? Is it the runaway encroachment of civil liberties? Is it mass unemployment, and the relentless rollback of public services essential to a dignified and civilized life?
No, it is none of these. While the Europeans protest for jobs and dignity, Americans pour out into the streets in angry demonstrations against the very idea of helping the poor and the economically devastated, or putting the slightest restraint on the rapacious super-rich. The Europeans protest actual policies, while our American "dissidents" froth and rant about a fantasy world of "socialist" programs that only benefit shiftless darkies and sneaky, border-crossing 'Messicans -- and, of course, the devil-worshiping Muslims, who are plotting every hour to poison the precious bodily fluids of real Americans and take over the country from within.
The American protestors vociferously denounce the healthcare "reform" bill -- not because it is actually a gargantuan corporate boondoggle deliberately crafted to kill off the chance for any genuine reform of the system for generations, but because they believe it is communist Muslim atheist Nazi socialism, and because a few slivers of the boondoggle might possibly trickle down to help a few of those darkies and Messicans. (Although in fact it will imprison them in an inhumane system of corporate control.) They protest against the laughably anemic "financial regulations" that the Administration has meekly proposed for its masters on Wall Street -- PR measures, tissue-paper thin, that fall miles short of the kind of mild regulations that operated during America's greatest periods of growth and broad-based prosperity.
Fantasy is a key component of this elite-funded "protest" movement, which relies strongly on "Big Lies" to stoke the fires of racism, resentment, victimhood and self-righteousness at its proto-fascist core. The primary example of this is of course the entirely manufactured controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque." The element of complete fabrication in this case has been overlooked to some extent. I think it is more portentous, and dangerous, than many have realized. Obviously, there have been elements of fantasy and/or exaggeration in almost all of the shibboleths that have fueled these right-wing eruptions over the years (not to mention bipartisan state policy: e.g., the Gulf of Tonkin, Saddam's phantom WMD, etc.); but few have involved lies that can be easily disproved in an instant, with plain, simple, indisputable facts, by anyone, requiring no specialist knowledge, no whistleblown secrets, no expert interpretation.
There is, of course, no mosque being built at the site of the 9/11 attacks. To say otherwise is a complete falsehood; it is a statement without the slightest element of truth or fact in it. It is the precise equivalent of saying that the moon fell down last night and landed on the Washington Monument. Yet this Big Lie has reverberated across the country like few others in recent years. Millions of people believe it, believe it fervently, and what's more, also believe that the "mosque" is being built there by Islamic extremists as a "trophy" to celebrate the 9/11 attacks.
This radical lie -- eagerly propagated by corporate chieftains like Rupert Murdoch and allowed to fester unchallenged for weeks by the establishment media -- has roused multitudes to angry protests, to attacks on mosques and Islamic centers, and to outpourings of open, unabashed ethnic hatred against Muslims that, yes, echo the anti-Semitism of Nazi-era Germany. (See the much-feted establishment grandee Martin Peretz for a prime example.) Muslim Americans who have lived happily integrated with their communities for decades now feel cast out, threatened by nationally-amplified voices accusing them of disloyalty, of sinister conspiracies to enslave and oppress their fellow citizens, to destroy America and turn it over to its enemies, etc. -- again, tropes which are instantly and alarmingly familiar to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the febrile hatreds that boiled and churned in Germany between the world wars.
Yet although the main engine currently stoking this hatred is a deliberate and transparent lie, there are people barreling into power on it. In North Carolina, the Republican candidate Ilario Pantano has made the lie a centerpiece of his campaign. As Justin Elliot reports at Salon.com, Pantano is a former Marine who became a "hero" to the militarist Right for killing two unarmed Iraqis in his charge, filling them with 60 rounds of lead. He boasted that he had intentionally shredded the unarmed men to pieces in order to terrorize Iraqis into compliance with the unprovoked American invasion and occupation of their country. Based on the testimony other Marines who saw the incident and felt the slaughter was unjustified, Pantano faced murder charges. But the top brass came to his rescue and dropped the charges.
Now Patano has seized on the "Ground Zero mosque" to push his campaign gainst a "conservative" Democrat -- the usual timeserver who is in thrall to the corporatism and militarism that his party fully shares with its opponents. In a conservative district, in an anti-incumbent year, Patano has a very good chance of riding the Big Lie -- and his thuggish rep for killing the unarmed -- into Congress.
These then are the issues -- or rather, the resentful fears and hateful fantasies -- that bring Americans out into the street these days. The wars that are devouring the lives of their children and the national treasury, and leading to an ever-more unstable world of violence and hatred -- such things don't move them. Torture, spying on citizens, death squads of American killers roaming the world, presidential assertions of a universal license to kill and incarcerate without due process -- these provoke no anger, no protest. States shutting down or sharply curtailing schools, parks, road programs, electricity and sewer services, garbage pick-up, aid to the sick and elderly -- they don't care. Greedy corporations utterly befouling the water and the air, poisoning the earth for generations to come -- no problem; in fact, we should champion these planet-rapers and protect them from all restraint.
But which, in the end, is worse: proto-fascist fantasy, or the reality of "savvy" progressives in power? Or rather: what, in the end, is the difference? This site has catalogued innumerable crimes committed -- knowingly, deliberately, realistically -- by the "most progressive administration in a generation": crimes against humanity, crimes against liberty. Many other sites have done the same, for more comprehensively. To support this administration is to countenance and collude in those crimes. It is to reward those crimes, and guarantee their continuance, no matter which faction of corporate-sponsored militarists and moral lunatics take power.
So what is the answer? I don't know if there is any "answer" to our plight. I have been following American politics for more than 40 years, and it has been a process of almost unremitting degeneration, punctuated by a very few isolated moments when it seemed a sliver of light was shining in the darkness, pointing toward the possibility of another, different path. But in truth, by the time I first became actively aware of the political process, in the presidential election of 1964, most of the bright, brief flashes had already come and gone, either killed outright or else deeply corrupted.
For example, one of brightest of those lights, the Civil Rights movement, had by then reached its high-water mark and was fragmenting under the covert assault of the national security apparatus, the intransigence of the power structure, the hostility of the white majority, and its own internal contradictions -- chiefly the attempt to find justice, equality and peace in a system that was inherently unjust, unequal and violent. Martin Luther King Jr. was coming to recognize those contradictions, broadening his critique of the system to include the elitist economic structure and the murderous violence of empire. He was also becoming a more and more isolated, death-haunted figure, as if he could see the cynosure closing -- although until the end he raged against the dying of the light.
The War on Poverty was another flash. Lyndon Johnson's speeches about lifting "our brothers and sisters" out of the endemic suffering of poverty sound today not only like oratory from another age but also from another planet. His rhetoric assumed a moral imperative of compassion toward our fellow human beings, a value to be placed at the very heart of our collective life and our instruments of governance. But Johnson, not only a product but the very quintessence of a deeply corrupt system of bribes, backroom deals and bullshit, never genuinely challenged the forces that engendered the suffering of poverty in the first place. And his total capitulation to the War Machine meant that even his weak and compromised stabs at building a "Great Society" were starved of funds, left to malfunction and deteriorate, tainting the ideals behind them in the minds of the public. He too ended his days isolated and death-haunted, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people killed in an imperial war -- which he himself admitted to intimates was pointless and unwinnable -- hounding him like furies to his grave.
There were other moments -- such as the Church Committee, hearing which for a time held out the possibility of reining in the murderous, liberty-devouring "national security" apparatus. But this too was swiftly quashed, and that same apparatus has metastasized into a monstrous cancer that has completely devoured the state, which now serves merely as its withered appendage and dogsbody. The impeachment of Richard Nixon -- for petty partisan sneakery, not the high war crimes of which he was manifestly, even proudly guilty -- seemed like another potential break in the gloom, but came to nothing; in just a few years time, he was a wealthy, respected elder statesman. And so it has gone with every such moment, although each has left some worthy fragments.
Now, I am no idealist. I don't long for cleansing fires to scour all evil from society, or for the imposition of grand schemes of human perfection or divine order. Like André Chénier, the poet-journalist who went down in the flood of the French Revolution, I aspire to be one of those "men upright and unvarying in their principles, who want to neither lead nor follow parties, and who abhor all intrigue." I would much rather not concern myself with politics at all. A well-turned phrase -- or a well-turned ankle -- holds immensely more meaning for me than the machinations of third-rate wretches splashing in the fetid pool of office-seeking. By "slivers of light" I mean only potential opportunities to arrest the pace of our degeneration, and get us to a place where the ordinary corruption endemic to human nature and every single political system devised by human nature operates on its usual vast scale.
In the face of the truly hideous reality of today, where murder, tyranny, war and injustice are the accepted, defended, lauded tools of the trade for "progressive" power-holders, and the only thing that rouses public outrage are proto-fascist fantasies, I don't see any glimpse of light anywhere. I can't even see a way to get to a place where we might see a glimpse of something that might point us to a path toward something different, something better. That could just be a failure of vision, and a lack of knowledge, on my part. I don't know. I hope so.
But for now, all I know to do is to fall back on the bedrock need to bear witness, to speak for the human and the humane in the midst of what seems to be implacable and unbreakable horror all around. To refuse cooperation with evil, in whatever partisan garb it wears. To shore one fragment after another against the ruins, and wait for a glint of broken light to appear.
UPDATE: A Saturday rally in Washington by unions and other groups did turn out several thousand people, calling for more jobs, tax hikes on the rich, immigration reform and defending public services. This, as they say, is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, although it falls far short of the angry, obstreperous crowds in Europe, who are not wanly supplicating their leaders for a few crumbs but demanding action to preserve their quality of life.
However, one's heart sinks to see the event's organizers, and some of the participants, describing it as a get-out-the-vote effort for the Democrats, and a show of support for Obama. Given the horrendous record of the president and his party in prosecuting savage and wasteful wars, overt and covert, all over the world; setting up unaccountable, "extrajudicial" death squads and hit lists; continuing and expanding Bush's assault on civil liberties; aiding and abetting the ever-widening disparity in wealth and opportunity between the sliverous elite and the collapsing middle class and the already poor -- not to mention the president's clear intent, with his stacked-deck "Catfood Commission," to gut Social Security, one of the last remaining shreds of America's never-robust or extensive "safety net," just as soon as the election is over -- what in God's name do they think the Democrats will actually do to advance the organizers' stated "core principles" of "jobs, justice and education," should the party manage to cling to Congressional power in November? There will be no money to support these principles, for one thing; it will all go to the wars, to the burgeoning security apparatus, and to the sacred goal of "deficit reduction." And Obama and the Democrats have already demonstrated, amply, that they have no will or desire to advance these principles or put them into action in any event.
I don't want to belittle the efforts and hopes of thousands of poor and working people who showed up at the rally to fight for a better life. In that, I wish them every success. And I'm glad to see some counterblast in the public square to the violent fantasies of the proto-fascists. But I believe that if your ultimate goal is simply to perpetuate the status quo of rule by two scarcely indistinguishable political factions, both deeply dedicated to militarist empire and the crushing dominance of financial elites, then you will not stop the accelerating degradation of American society or light a path to a genuinely new direction. Instead, the war, murder, chaos and decay will go on, breeding more blowback from abroad and instability at home, and thus giving more fuel to the proto-fascists and their paymasters.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on October 3, 2010.