Monday, February 14, 2011

Herbert: Lesson in democracy from Egyptians

If you've ever been witness to a massive protest gathering like the ones in Egypt over the past few weeks, then you understand how insane and cynically duplicitous are the conspiracy theories which charge that someone or some organization was "behind" it all. Nobody can force or snooker people into doing what millions of normal Egyptians did. Indeed their genuineness was what made their exploits so beautiful and inspiring.

When the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh see millions of people motivated to take to the streets for weeks on end, facing down tanks and police, and risking their lives and livelihoods, and winning, it scares the bejusus out of them, because their goal is to keep fed-up, average Americans convinced that organizing, protesting, getting angry, and risking one's reputation is never ever worth it, that it come to nothing, and what's worse, that it's anti-American and sinister. (Unless, of course, it's a bland, agendaless, made-for-FOX event for status-quo-supporting whites.)

The truth is that nothing will change unless normal people get angry, get organized, and start making life uncomfortable for the rich and powerful. Many of us, especially on the Left, were inspired but ultimately duped by Obama's hope for change. We thought he'd do the heavy lifting for us, despite the soul-crushing weight of a Wall Street cash machine on his back. We thought voting for him was an accomplishment. (Yeah, we did get our first black president, which meant something for all of a few weeks.) Well shame on us, shame on me. Turns out it wasn't nearly enough. It was only a start. We haven't held his comfortable Ivy League feet to the fire. And we haven't gotten out of our homes and cosy routines to do our part. Unforgivably, his top aide called us "f***ing retards" for demanding real health care reform; then the "vichy Left" snarkily, smugly excoriated those who do get angry, loud, and organized by organizing to denounce organizing. Those events were a real nadir. Let's hope we learn our lesson from Egypt and support each other instead of backstabbing.

But back to Egypt's inspiring optimism.... In a positive variation on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we can rejoice in Egypt because a victory for democracy and people power anywhere is a victory everywhere. Such achievements remind us not only what is at stake, but what is really possible.

(P.S. - I'm well aware that events in Egypt are touch-and-go, and real democracy and majority rule are by no means guaranteed there. However the possibility of bad outcomes does not negate the power and beauty of Egyptians' accomplishment in January-February 2011. Only in films and fairy tales does one seminal event turn the tide and guarantee a happily-ever-after. America's Revolution did not guarantee our democratic republic would survive or live up to its promise, nor did an Abolition Movement, Civil War, Progressive Movement, Women's Right's Movement, or Civil Rights Movement. Democracy is a work in progress. The monied elites are always trying to roll back the people's gains; and for the past 30 years in the U.S., they've been winning. Nevertheless, we draw inspiration from our and others' past accomplishments because they remind us that, together, we will prevail.)

By Bob Herbert
February 11, 2011 | New York Times

While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn't really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can't afford them. One state after another is reporting that it cannot pay its bills. Public employees across the country are walking the plank by the tens of thousands. Camden, N.J., a stricken city with a serious crime problem, laid off nearly half of its police force. Medicaid, the program that provides health benefits to the poor, is under savage assault from nearly all quarters.

The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president's re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won't be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They'll be genuflecting before the very rich.

In an Op-Ed article in The Times at the end of January, Senator John Kerry said that the Egyptian people "have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities." Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.

The corporate and financial elites threw astounding sums of money into campaign contributions and high-priced lobbyists and think tanks and media buys and anything else they could think of. They wined and dined powerful leaders of both parties. They flew them on private jets and wooed them with golf outings and lavish vacations and gave them high-paying jobs as lobbyists the moment they left the government. All that money was well spent. The investments paid off big time.

As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in their book, "Winner-Take-All Politics": "Step by step and debate by debate, America's public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefited the few at the expense of the many."

As if the corporate stranglehold on American democracy were not tight enough, the Supreme Court strengthened it immeasurably with its Citizens United decision, which greatly enhanced the already overwhelming power of corporate money in politics. Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.

When the game is rigged in your favor, you win. So despite the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the big corporations are sitting on mountains of cash, the stock markets are up and all is well among the plutocrats. The endlessly egregious Koch brothers, David and Charles, are worth an estimated $35 billion. Yet they seem to feel as though society has treated them unfairly.

As Jane Mayer pointed out in her celebrated New Yorker article, "The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation." (A good hard look at their air-pollution record would make you sick.)

It's a perversion of democracy, indeed, when individuals like the Kochs have so much clout while the many millions of ordinary Americans have so little. What the Kochs want is coming to pass. Extend the tax cuts for the rich? No problem. Cut services to the poor, the sick, the young and the disabled? Check. Can we get you anything else, gentlemen?

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that's a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. "If there is going to be change," he said, "real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves."

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.

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