I was not shocked by the budget debacle in the United States last month: it seemed inevitable. Nor was I surprised that the stock market subsequently collapsed like a warm ice cream cone following Standard & Poor’s taking Congress and President Obama to the woodshed. (All right, I’m a bit concerned about my investments. But Chri$t on a Cracker, somebody had to put the hurt on our politicians in a way they could understand!) However, I could not believe my eyes when I saw, four days ago, that Londoners had begun to riot in Tottenham following the shooting of a black man by police. Live reports from the BBC are here, along with analysis by MPs, community activists and broadcasters who are dramatically smarter and more articulate than most of the television journalists that can be found on the 180+ cable channels that I receive courtesy of Comcast. As of today, rioting has spread to Bristol, Liverpool, and other cities. Buildings that survived the German Blitz in World War II are gutted; and Brits who are also old enough to have survived the Blitz are looking sadly at the burned-out shells of their little energy-efficient cars.
What commenters in the U.S. are not connecting to is that this is the second major riot in twelve months. The first was an attack on Tory headquarters by activist students after dramatic cuts made to the British university system that reduced access to higher education by raising fees and slashing programs. These riots included a well-publicized attack on Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall on December 9. It turned out that the attack was well-deserved too, since the royal family responded to the Tory austerity program by spending millions of pounds on Prince William’s wedding even as services available to ordinary working people were evaporating.
This has all caused me to reflect on the extraordinary passivity of Americans, and of American students, who respond to reduced access to education by studying harder, getting better grades, and stepping on the people who can’t — or aren’t in a position to –compete any longer. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch Waiting For Superman (Davis Guggenheim, 2010), a movie that promotes the idea that the problem with public education is that there just aren’t enough (privatized) charter schools. Furthermore, the tearjerker ending, where only two of the students who are trying to get into charter schools are chosen in the lottery, ends with everybody bursting into tears and going home to soldier on.
That seems to be the extent of what this movie offers: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade if you can — and if you can’t, cry bitter salt tears. If you think this is too judgmental, riddle me this: What have we done in the face of a government, a political class, and a monied class that is dismantling a country that prided itself (for what now seems like a shockingly short time, roughly 1933-1973) on its capacity to provide dignified lives for working and middle income citizens? Nothing. Nothing except elect a president whose capacity to give away the liberal store exceeds even that of the neoliberal Clintons.
I mean think about it. To take one example, over the course of the last twenty years, one of the finest educational systems in the world has been systematically dismantled and privatized with malice aforethought. The liberal and fine arts have been de-funded, degraded, mocked and reserved for a special few: shockingly, we are not even particularly interested in funding a proper science and math education in the vast majority of schools. Practical educations for the new economy — accounting, telemarketing, hotel management, home health aid — that will consign people to a life of service at a flat, non-negotiable wage, have taken the place of an education that allows all citizens to dream about transforming their own lives. Simultaneously, Americans have been asked to take on unreal amounts of debt to get the education and credentials that they need to acquire in order to even hope to have any job.
Assuming this country has any jobs left by Friday of this week, of course.
How do Americans respond to this? By having an orderly march on Washington, in August, so that nobody has to even strike a day of school to attend it and everyone is on vacation. Coverage of the march by Historiann is here, and by CatalystChicago here.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see cities burn. I lived through that once, and never want to watch it again. I also understand that Americans pride themselves on their capacity to find peaceful resolution of political issues. This belief about our essentially peaceful political culture flies in the face of the actual history of a country that has seen repeated epidemics of violence, and that continues to enforce its imperialist policies abroad with violence. But never mind: at some point Americans decided that the strategies of nonviolence espoused by radical activists like Barbara Deming, Bayard Rustin and (most famously) Martin Luther King, Jr., represented what the United States really was. To underline: these visionaries have been the exception, not the rule. Violence has almost always accompanied political change in this country, from the Revolution forward. Furthermore, while many conservative politicians continue to incite violence (in the form of strong rhetorical appeals to anti-statism, massive resistance to integration and abortion rights, and a citizenry armed to the teeth); and many liberals continue to authorize violence (in the form of criminalization, funding of the prison-industrial complex, and the impulse to follow the president — any president — to war), we go on imagining ourselves as a peaceful people.
We are not a peaceful people; but we are no longer an activist people either. Instead we go from door to door, registering people to vote, and sign up to have $30 a month charged to our Visa cards for an ACLU membership. Our failure to respond as a people to the current crisis stands in stark contrast to the capacity of other citizens around the globe to take to the streets and demand change. Until we remember how to do politics among the masses, and not leave our business to the political classes as if they had our best interests at heart — well, let’s hope that London isn’t calling yet.
But it might be.