By William Pfaff
The obvious is not easily seen when you don’t want to see it. The Wall Street sitdown, and the copycat sitdowns elsewhere in the U.S., were suddenly discovered by the mainstream press last weekend (rather against its own inclinations, it seems, since the uprising of “Indignation”—“los indignados” in Spain where it all started—has in one way or another been going on in Spain, Portugal, France and Israel since the summer began).
The Wall Street affair was initially ignored by press and politicians for two reasons, so far as I can see. The first is that Americans assume that the U.S. is best, and if it is bad there, it must be worse everywhere else.
Thus the habit of the mainstream press to ignore “left-wing” issues in Europe, and in the U.S. to report only on what Washington political players do and say: meaning the president, his administration, the candidates, Congress and K street (whence the millions in lobbyist money comes from to keep all the rest of them comfortably in charge of the United States).
If political news doesn’t have to do with the presidential race and Barack Obama’s war with Congress, it’s not important. Popular demonstrations are unimportant almost by definition. Wall Street sitdowns are not considered news but rather distractions by troublemakers, cranks, radicals, college students, junior professors and other powerless people. Serious people, who run the country, appear on Sunday morning talk shows and write newspaper columns, look on popular movements as political background noise.
The only popular movements of modern times that made any difference to the United States were the civil rights campaign and the anti-Vietnam-War demonstrations of the 1960s. While neither of them had mass popular support, both succeeded in morally blackmailing the Johnson administration (which then left Richard Nixon with the unwinnable war).
Not even the Great Depression produced a mass popular protest that changed anything. The unemployed begged on street corners; families had to move in on one another; farms and small businesses were foreclosed; and the Dust Bowl confirmed that something like a biblical curse had struck the country.
People loaded up and started out for California, somehow the “promised land,” or for the towns and cities where rumor said there might be jobs. People didn’t hang any politicians before they started out (although Sen. Huey Long got shot, but that was a personal matter). They didn’t shoot any bankers along the way (although John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker and Pretty Boy Floyd did, to a certain popular satisfaction).
Fatalism was not the only reason the country failed to revolt. They had Franklin Delano Roosevelt talking to them on the radio and telling them that the government was doing something.
Whatever it did, it was doing something—WPA, CCC, NRA, Tennessee Valley Authority, paved roads, rural mail delivery, farm electrification. But the Depression went on.
FDR seemed reassuring. He was a good talker, as they said—like Barack Obama. Also, the bankers hated him (That Man! Damned Socialist! And that Eleanor! ...). And then the war came along.
The Great Depression, from the crash to the beginnings of industrial recovery from European war orders, lasted only a decade. Today’s depression has lasted for only half that, but there are no European arms orders coming, and the American defense industry is already running at full speed.
An earlier American crisis did produce action. The Populist movement at the end of the 19th century, inspired by agrarian distress, produced popular uproar in the South and West, political organization (“Produce less corn and more hell!”), a national convention in Omaha, and an unsuccessful presidential challenge by William Jennings Bryan in 1896 (the first of three failed tries). But the movement faded and Bryan became Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, resigning in 1916 to protest intervention in the World War.
In short, Americans are not much good at successful popular protest. The mass of people think that’s what Europeans do, like the French. In America, “the system works.”
Today, the trouble is that it is working less and less because the machinery of politics is now all but completely controlled by business interests, thanks largely to the Supreme Court and the pressure of lobbyists. The Reagan administration killed equal treatment on political radio and television. The Supreme Court ruled that even under the American system of paid political advertising, spending money on ads is free speech, so the millionaire has a million times more free speech than the ordinary citizen. And now citizenship has been bestowed on business corporations, which can spend as much money as they want to elect a political candidate who will effectively be on the corporation payroll.
Can the Wall Street sitdowners inspire a national popular rising to throw today’s rascals out? I don’t think so. Therefore, the bankers and brokers and their employees will have to go on stepping over the popular rabble camped out in their way to and from their gilded counting houses. That seems to be the way it is in the USA today, and for a long time to come.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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