The United States: A Country Without a Revolution
These past weeks we have seen oppressed people in the Middle East and North Africa rise up against regimes that have held their citizens down for decades. Tunisia and Egypt have been the biggest success stories, pushing their dictators out with a peaceful hand. As battles rage in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and elsewhere, clashes are claiming the lives of those standing up for their rights. Last week the number of Libyan citizens slain jumped from 300 to 3,000 overnight, adults and children alike strafed indiscriminately in the capital of Tripoli, some while waiting in line for bread.
At the moment, Western nations are coming to the aid of Libya's opposition, denouncing Muammar Gaddafi, freezing billions in Libyan assets, imposing sanctions and considering a no-fly zone in the western part of the country where Gaddafi still has control. The United States is currently repositioning forces in the area, should action be necessary. Whereas the United States stood back and let the Egyptian revolution happen on its own, this time we may be called off the bench in the second half to make sure the good guys win.
In the given context, it looks like we still ride the white horse. But as filmmaker Tony Urgo told Worldpress.org, "The irony here is that the Middle East is seeing a surge of people and power and freedom as we in the West are suffering the erosion of the same principles and values that we all once stood for, and are now being pummeled by politicians as extremist in their own way as any insane jihadist."
The revolving door
The scary part is that the erosion of these principles happens almost silently, like a carbon monoxide leak. The financial crisis—both its cause and its aftermath—offers prime examples. The financial system had been undergoing a process of deregulation and increased risk taking since the late 1990s, leading to trillions of dollars in derivatives floating ominously in shadow markets. When the house of cards collapsed, there were plenty to blame. Goldman Sachs, it is well known by now, bundled derivatives they knew were toxic and bet against them. Yet nobody went to jail.
Matt Taibbi recently published an article in Rolling Stone titled "Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?" where he outlines how the perpetrators responsible for the financial crisis—executives who weren't just bad at gambling, but who committed fraud, lying to investors over and over—were able to not only escape prosecution, but also clean up in the bailouts. It's a simple explanation, really. These crooked executives and the agencies responsible for policing them, like the SEC, are all attending the same cocktail parties. Investigations get overlooked intentionally because the watchdogs don't want to ruin a chance to work at one of these very firms in the future. This revolving door, which links Washington to Wall Street, swishes soundlessly.
Sea life in the Gulf of Mexico can thank this same cronyism for allowing oil to be spewed into the heart of its food chain. The Minerals Management Service (now the Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement) skated over some paperwork, and that was all it took to poison the ocean. Naomi Klein wrote an illuminating piece in The Nation called "The Search for BP's Oil" about how little we know about the real damage of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Although BP's PR army cleaned up the beaches enough for photo opportunities, what Klein learned from scientists at the University of South Florida, who have been studying the phytoplankton and bottom dwellers that don't get camera time, is that "the oil and dispersants were not only toxic to these organisms but caused changes to their genetic makeup." While that kind of damage will take time to manifest, the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport has already reported that dead baby dolphins have been washing up on the shores of Mississippi and Alabama at more than 10 times the normal rate.
Fear and loathing
While the effects of the spill and the collapse of our capitalist edifice are still being sorted out, the cause of both is not hard to pinpoint. At least in the abstract, one need look no further than simple greed. As Michael Ruppert prophesies in the hair-raising documentary Collapse, "It is the love of money that has the potential to exterminate, to render extinct, the entire human race." (That may sound over-the-top, but when Ruppert expounds on the consequences that the human race will have to confront now that we have passed the point of peak oil—the point were petroleum extraction reaches its crest and enters terminal decline—doomsday scenarios no longer sound like science fiction.) The problem is, if we're so in love with money, why does there seem to be so little of it around these days?
Last week I traveled to Las Vegas for a conference. My company put me up in a nice hotel, and from my 34th-floor window I could see the Strip in all its ostentatious neon. But what was more interesting to me was the view the next morning, when the city was no longer veiled by its nighttime fluorescence. Beyond the Strip stretched drab gray lots of indistinguishable buildings, a dead zone that expands into the desert. Without its makeup, the place looked defeated.
Las Vegas currently leads the nation in both unemployment and foreclosures, which seems ironic, considering how much it supports itself on excess and luxury. In a way, that's exactly where we find ourselves as a country. A select few throw money around with abandon, taking drinks on the house, while the workers scramble to keep the operation going and keep the heat on. Meanwhile, a sea of slot machines rings in our ears, drowning out the latest projections on the national debt.
Murmurs of dissent
State governments are broke; the federal government is currently at risk of shutting down; and the carbon in our atmosphere is silently killing us. In a nation that prides itself on being a beacon of democracy, corporations have seen their powers and influence expand in recent years (see Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) while protective agencies like the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are under fire from right-wing agendas. As education goes, among 30 developed countries, we rank 25th in math and 21st in science. If the people of Egypt do in fact find a way to erect a democratic government, I wouldn't necessarily look to the United States as a template.
While Congress prepares to vote on a spending bill that would increase our already enormous defense budget, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is working to strip state employees of benefits and collective bargaining rights (and simultaneously pushing corporate tax cuts.) Police and firefighters were excluded from the proposed cuts, the two groups who, not coincidentally, backed Walker's campaign. Because of the expected resistance they faced, Republicans in the Wisconsin Lower House resorted to rushing a vote through in the middle of the night, effectively disallowing 28 Democrats from voting. The only upside in this disturbing saga has been the response from demonstrators, not only in Wisconsin but all across the country. On Saturday approximately 50,000 people took to the streets, with showings in every state capital, protesting the attack on public unions. Walker hasn't backed down on his proposals, but at least the people's fury is being heard.
The way of life that Americans enjoy is unequivocally more privileged than that of the average Egyptian or Tunisian. But it would be a dire mistake to think of that way of life as something indestructible. What we have seen in North Africa and the Middle East is that a dictatorship can be taken down. What we are seeing in the West is that a stable democracy can be chipped away at as well.
Joshua Pringle is a journalist and novelist living in New York City. His journalistic work has been published in several news publications, and he is the senior editor for Worldpress.org.
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