Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anger and Angst

Flickr photos by Michael Barkson, Boston protest signs; bottom right, by "Virginia Organizing."

There is real pain and anger in America. The Occupy Wall Street protests, spreading like wildfire across the land, from New York to LA, embody it. The issues are varied, but the anger unites. The protests are harnessing the rage, grew out of it, and sustain it.

It’s the Tunisia effect in America, criss-crossing patches of anger and powerlessness exploding in all the places they have been simmering for a long time.

It's not at all like the Tea Party movement, contrary to what the president and vice-president have declared. It's about powerlessness and loss--loss of jobs, hope, the American Dream. I find it appalling that Obama equates a movement for economic justice with a movement for "me first, and the rest of you, forget it, get over it, tax the middle class not the rich, government of, by, and for the rich, not the poor, take care of yourself and I'll take care of me." Has Obama really lost touch with the anger and frustration that is driving new protests? Does he really believe it's like the Tea Party, "not that different"?

Hopelessness either drives you inward, to despair and depression, or it pulls you out, to the streets, in search of kindred spirits who understand. It's disenchantment exposed. It's private angst finding a public outlet.

"The American dream is under assault,” Bill Clinton said recently. I think he's right. This is the common theme of middle America today. I feel it myself, and so do many people I know. Workers used to dream of good-paying jobs, stability, home ownership, a better life for their kids, some security in retirement.

No more. And what’s worse, nothing seems to have taken it's place. What dreams? It's dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest.

It’s no fun living in survival mode, and that’s what too many Americans are experiencing now. It drives you to a lower level of existence, takes precedence over spiritual growth and
the soul. If you’re in survival mode, surviving is all that matters.

If you have nothing to gain and nothing to lose, why not take it to the streets, shout out the rage, ease the pain, and see what happens. There are no other options in a "survival of the fittest” social fabric where a sense of “the common good” no longer exists, has been intentionally, deliberately undermined and shoved to the margins.

Paul Krugman, my favorite economist, calls it "the financialization of America," and reminds us that "it wasn't dictated by the invisibile hand of the market. What caused the financial industry to grow much faster than the rest of the economy starting in 1980 was a series of deliberate policy choices, in particular a process of deregulation, that continued right up to the eve of the 2008 crisis" ("Losing their Immunity," NYT, 16 October 2011, about the "whining" Wall Street financial industry).

And "not coincidentially," Krugman continues, "the era of an ever-growing financial industry was also an era of ever-growing inequality of income and wealth. Wall Street [buttressed by federal government policies including reduction of taxes on the wealthy] made a large direct contribution to economic polarization...." Government "bail outs" saved Wall Street, but there are no "bail-outs' for ordinary Americans, for those losing their homes, losing their jobs, losing their shirts; not even jobs for people who want to work, who don't want "hand outs." And so the anger mounts.

In another interesting NYT article (17 October 2011), journalist Mark Lacey reported from the field about protests in Los Angeles:
“There may be no common manifesto or list of goals — something that has drawn criticism from both inside and outside the movement — but there is one common thread: anger. Some have looked for jobs for months; others have lost their homes to foreclosure. Angry; they are all angry. 'What brings me out here? Outrage — outrage with what’s going on in this country,' said Lucy Horwitz, 79, who participated in Occupy Los Angeles. 'Right now, the first issue on my mind is that corporations can buy congressmen.'"

Many Americans can't buy food, let alone congressmen. I know several hard-working people, single moms in particular, who put in over 40 hours a week for minimum wage or just a little over that, and have to do what they hate most, get food stamps to feed their families. After rent, utilities, car gas, daycare, medical care, and student loans or other obligations, there's nothing left. The working poor. The food stamp nation. No wonder "outrage has found resonance with millions of Americans," Krugman concludes.

Where will it lead? I don't think anyone knows for sure. The protests offer an option to doing nothing. They offer a glimmer of hope, maybe, for economic justice in the face of enormous odds and insatiable corporate greed. But they seem to be more about "hear our anger" and "let's seen what happens," than about lofty expectations. Great expectations, afterall, lead to great disappointments. This is what the protestors know, this is what drives them.

It's a David and Goliath story. It's captured our imagination, if not our dreams, and that seems to be the only certainty for now.
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