Waking From A Thirty Year Sleep?

Ferguson.  Staten Island.  Michael Brown. Eric Garner.  Demonstrations in 100 cities.

Are “the times, they a’chagin” as Bob Dylan sang to the country in 1964?  Dylan was right 50 years ago.  The times, as chaotic as they were then and would be for a decade and more, were poised on the crest of a series of watershed social movements that rolled through American society like a tsunami.  And with just about the same level of destruction, all told. In the end, however, people did change or at least they were forced to. By the end of those “changin’ times” Blacks no longer had to sit at he back of public busses.  Could no longer be refused service in restaurants or hotels.  The environment and women’s rights emerged as potent societal game changers to say nothing of the anti-Viet Nam War protests.  

But what about today? What about in 2014?   Are we witnessing the beginning of another game changing era or is it just a one-off eruption of off-keyboard frustration that will fade once all the protestors get hooked up to the internet again?  Who knows?  I certainly don’t.  But I have to say that after all the conservative blather about how “we now live in a post-racial society” after Obama’s election in 2008, recent events – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and now Eric Garner – have blown that little fiction to smithereens like a terrorist bomb exploding in a crowded market.  And rightly so.  The right wing’s penchant for denial is a powerful force that we don’t seem able to counter without such explosions.

The young, mixed, nature of the protests against police brutality around the country have given me some hope.  Other than the Occupy Wall Street folks and the earlier protests against the IMF and the World Bank (eminently justified to my mind) the youngsters have been relatively silent; except on their keyboards of course.  Although I’m not a fan of violence, throughout our history I have argued that significant change in America has always been accompanied by death, destruction and violence.  Consider the decade leading up to the Civil War and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  If you consider the late 19th and early 20th Century push toward unionization – or more simply eliminating child labor, the 40 hour workweek, pay for all work done, worksite safety – thousands of men, women and children were killed before all these work-related laws and regulations we now take for granted (or used to until recently, anyway, with the rise of Koch/ALEC sponsored anti-worker legislation) were enacted.  Same with the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement where both blacks and whites were murdered trying to ensure that all citizens of the United States were granted the right to vote and be counted as human beings with unalienable rights.  

As Americans, we tend to think of ourselves as a peace loving, altruistic, accepting and egalitarian society although historical facts do tell a different story.  But the fictions we create about ourselves and the society we create and participate in are ultimately beneficial.  No matter how discrodant from reality they might be, they do serve the purpose of defining in an ideal sense what and where we see ourselves as a people; as a society.  They give us something to strive for; something to hold out as worthy of pursuit; a shining city on the hill we all wish to inhabit.   It is for this reason that, finally, the great Civil Rights Movement and its resultant legislation fundamentally changed the course of America.  Without our created fiction about who we are and who we want to be this profound shift in American culture would not have taken place.

And that’s why I’m skeptical of the protesters and demonstrations that are occurring around the country.  Don’t get me wrong; I fully and wholeheartedly endorse them. (It’s about time.)  They are a breath of fresh air, a sign of movement and change long overdue.  But I have to confess that I’m skeptical because I have the feeling that too many young people have simply accepted the “personal responsibility” “individual initiative” “government is the problem” “you too can achieve the American Dream through hard work” and all the other pabulum and propaganda the conservatives have been tossing about for three decades now.  Sadly, I realize that they have no other paradigm to inform them of other possibilities as folks of my generation do to compare with.  If any significant change to our three decades long conservative social and economic experiment is to take place, then our young citizens must come to the realization that part-time, $8 an hour jobs, with no benefits and no job security is not some sort of fundamental economic truth, but the result of economic policies that both Republicans and Democrats alike have slavishly honored since 1980.  That income inequality is not some sort of “natural” phenomenon but the result of policies enacted by our legislative leaders.  That the “nanny state” is about protecting the least among us from devastation as opposed to a government run amok.  

Until this realization takes hold as the social inequity revelations and the myth busting the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties revealed for all to see, I don’t see us making the kind of progress we need to make in order to redress the destruction of America’s working and middle classes that we’ve been subjected to for over thirty years now.  While I applaud the protesters, I have to think that unless there is a paradigm shift in the thinking of our youth, nothing will change.  

As Bob Dylan so poignantly informed us Baby Boomers in 1963, without this realization our young American’s efforts are just so much “blowing in the wind.”

Significant change in America has always been accompanied by violence, destruction and death.  

Thank you.


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