The short answer is, because we’re sheep. Most notably here in Indiana, where sheepishness and passivity are widespread cultural traits that Hoosierdom demands conformance to, along with the demand of not expressing “negativity.” Passivity, provincialism, smugness, complacency, conformity, cliquishness—these common Hoosier cultural traits make acceptance even of the most outrageous and injustice a “way of life” to be responded to with unbridled optimism that “things are bound to get better,” and a direct silencing of the “negative” critic who just won’t shut up—and thus disturbs everyone else!
(While I write directly of Hoosiers below because I live in Indiana, and thus see the types I’m delineating all around me, I also consider what I write is generalizable, that the types, political positions and mindsets I examine and explore in this article are evident across the U.S. as well and can be found everywhere, not just in Indiana.)
But surely there’s enough going on that’s just plain wrong and wrongheaded that such passivity must become counterproductive. And so it does, and it gets harder and harder to just shrug it off.
Which creates the bind of becoming “too negative,” fuels the admonition of “You’d better watch yourself,” and outrages those who would rather “go along to get along” than to stand up—even against the worst of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” “It’ll get better, don’t you see? Just go shopping, get your mind off it.” Just like George W. Bush comforting us after 9/11 with the advice of “Go to Disneyland.” Put your mind at ease, because if you do, it’ll all go away.
But it’s not going away, and deep inside we know it, even as we lack the nerve to confront it. The economy continues to lag and only sputter along, unemployment remains a seemingly intractable problem, wages stagnate and personal debt grows, Tea Party zealots force the House Republican majority to shut down the government on the fool’s errand of defunding Obamacare, something that had no chance whatsoever of happening; and while these selfsame zealots crow about their “success” even as they had to surrender in the end, their shenanigans cost the still-reeling economy an additional $24 billion. [John W. Schoen, CNBC, “Government shutdown: Cost could be up to $24 billion,” October 17, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/business/budget-battles-bite-out-economy-will-be-billions-8C11409508.] It seems indeed that our contemporary world is but a nightmarish fantasy play or movie scripted by Franz Kafka in collaboration with both Groucho Marx and George Orwell! For truly, we can’t even trust our own language anymore to inform us, as euphemisms abound and words no longer mean what they’re supposed to, or what they once meant. We are in an Alice-in-Wonderland world transmogrified into the lowest rungs of Dante’s hell.
So what is there to do? For one thing, there is the crying need now to simply stand up and bitch! Shout from the open window as Howard Beale did in the iconic 1970s film Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But too often we do take it some more, even as we are mad as hell—and justifiably so. That is why we are sheep—bleating to ourselves “It’s all going to be all right” even as we’re led off to the slaughterhouse to be made into lamb chops. We simply have failed to grasp the elemental truth of left-wing British historian E.P. Thompson when he declaimed, “Protest—and survive!” (For more information on Thompson and his pamphlet Protest and Survive see Wikipedia, “E.P. Thompson,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._P._Thompson.)
For the rebellious life is worth living—and necessary. Without it we merely exist in a semi-comatose, vegetative, state, even as we go around with the exterior trappings of a human existence, but without the internal substance such a life really demands. We become as deceptively human-appearing bipedal apes, some forlorn species of australopithecine. And, of course, sheep. Off to the slaughter, beguiled by untrustworthy leaders who soothe “Trust me,” and we believe them, for not believing would be to succumb to—horrors!—“negativity.” Most especially in Indiana.
So we must fight, and fight back. We are called to, even as it disquiets and discomfits us—for the world we are in should disquiet and discomfit us more, and there is no panacea in ignoring it or trying to escape it, numb ourselves to it. Passivity is not the answer.
Nor is fighting back incoherently and inchoately. Fight back, protest, we must, but we must do it intelligently. And that is where so much of Indiana protest, as well as protest elsewhere, fundamentally fails—by not recognizing who our real allies are, and who are only protesting ersatz. Especially an issue here in Indiana, where the general ignorance of the population (after all, this state does rank a mere 41st in educational achievement [U.S. Census, “Educational Attainment by State, 1990-2009,” http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0233.pdf]) means that people are angry but ill-informed, unread and uneducated, and their beliefs an incoherent, inchoate amalgam of contradictory elements drawn from the left and the right, with no rationale for accepting either, other than it sounds right. Hoosiers especially like to think of themselves as anti-government libertarians, sounding “Don’t Tread on Me” at the very thought of utilizing government intervention for the “just redress of grievances,” and often given to vast, overarching conspiracy theories; thus, for many of the activists I know here, they embrace both Occupy movements and the Tea Party, not realizing that they are antithetical to each other and that embracing both is contradictory.
So let us plainly state the difference. Occupy, while limited, while now more a fading memory than an active movement, and wrongheaded in not raising demands, is generally positive; it has drawn much-needed attention to the massive inequalities of wealth and power that work against us, the 99%, and the harm done to us by the 1% in whom the wealth and power are concentrated inordinately. The Tea Party, on the other hand, has lots of demands, virtually all of them negative, virtually all of them of direct benefit only to the 1% they also decry, but falsely; Tea Party resentment of the 1% is due solely to the fact that the Tea Partiers are themselves not of the 1%, but would like to be, as Michael Lind has shown perceptively in a number of articles published in Salon [Lind’s articles for Salon on the Tea Party can be found at http://www.salon.com/writer/michael_lind/].
Tea Partiers are most likely to be local and regional notables, millionaires rather than billionaires or multimillionaires, and are heavily concentrated in, and draw their political inspiration from, the Confederate South, with all its racism and elitist xenophobia; and as elites with power, influence and authority, as social “betters,” beguile others not nearly so well-off. Thus do the Tea Partiers instinctively distrust “change” from whatever direction which does not enhance their traditional white race/white male relative superiority—which have been, and continue to be, under frontal attack, often successfully, by antiwar, civil rights, feminist and gay liberation movements, and which shifting U.S. demographics is further undermining. The Tea Party is but a movement of resentful, backward-looking nostalgia for an essentially rural, small-town America which never really existed, and has long ceased to even remotely resemble the reality that America actually is, and has been ever since the mid-20th Century. So apropos of this was Sarah Palin at the 2008 Republican convention quoting a paean to rural, small-town America that came from—inveterate right-wing bigot Westbrook Pegler, someone whose political views, writings and outlook embarrassed mainstream Republicans! [Wikipedia, “Westbrook Pegler,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westbrook_Pegler; Huffington Post, “Palin Quoted Anti-Semite in Convention Speech,” October 11, 2008, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/09/10/palin-quoted-anti-semite_n_125429.html.]
Yet in Indiana the Tea Party is considered legitimate and appropriate protest, and to many Hoosiers, even those of education and intelligence, its rabidly anti-government message is but a libertarian call for individual freedom. This directly in the face of social opprobrium and bigoted harm these pot-smoking, sexually unorthodox Hoosier libertarians would be given by the Christian Conservatives who rally ‘round the Tea Party in Indiana in far greater numbers than the small but confused coterie of libertarians who somehow think they too belong under the Tea Party umbrella.
I myself have heard and read such libertarian activists say that Occupy represented “unlimited freedom,” and thus had the same message as the Tea Party. That the “right” to carry a firearm anywhere and everywhere is such an “inalienable right” that it trumps even “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Yes, your right to kill your neighbor with a gun is really that fundamental to many of these folks!) That the crony capitalism of Wall Street is but a manifestation of “oligarchical socialism,” Karl Marx was a propagandist for the financial elites of his time, Lenin adopted “communism” only to control people, and that quintessential outsider, Barack Obama—he of the funny name, the non-white skin pigmentation, and a constitutional lawyer from Harvard to boot—is a totally illegitimate President despite being elected by clear majorities twice! And, of course, that anyone who voted for him was but one of the 47% who just want to mooch off the producers, just want government handouts, be on the dole, and live their lives in utter dependency. (Even though Obama got 51% of the vote in 2012 while it was Mitt Romney himself who got 47%. See Wikipedia, “United States presidential election, 2012,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2012.) And, yes, I have heard all these claims uttered by self-styled libertarians who claim to oppose Wall Street as much as do those Occupy protesters clearly of the political left. But isn’t someone indulging in a little too much Koch here?! [The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, as is well-known, are long-time financial contributors to a variety of right-wing causes, including Tea Party and climate change-denial organizations. For an overview see Wikipedia, “Political activities of the Koch brothers,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_activities_of_the_Koch_brothers.]
Further, for all its fulminations, when it comes to the actual politics of protest all the Tea Party can do is foment inaction and passivity, achieve solely in negative terms. This became so clear in the aftermath of the Tea Party-forced 16-day shutdown of the federal government by the House of Representatives over its demand that Obamacare be defunded, something which had no actual possibility of ever passing. Forcing John Boehner and the Republican Party in the House and among several Republicans in the Senate to go along with this, all the Tea Party could engineer in the final analysis was the overwhelming defeat and surrender of the Republicans on the Obamacare issue, as finally, the government reopened with bipartisan support after the shutdown had caused the already fragile economy $24 billion in lost economic activity—which meant, simply and plainly, Republicans caving in to Democrats. Moreover, not only was the Republican Party forced to surrender without gaining anything in both the House and Senate, it tanked in a major way in the eyes of the public, sinking down to a 20-28% approval rating in the polls, its lowest showing ever. [Dan Balz and Scott Clement, “Poll: Major damage to GOP after shutdown, and broad dissatisfaction with government,” Washington Post, October 22, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-major-damage-to-gop-after-shutdown-and-broad-dissatisfaction-with-government/2013/10/21/dae5c062-3a84-11e3-b7ba-503fb5822c3e_story.html; Gallup Politics, “Republican Party Favorability Sinks to Record Low,” October 9, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/165317/republican-party-favorability-sinks-record-low.aspx; PollingReport.com, on poll for Fox News conducted October 20-22, 2013, http://www.pollingreport.com/cong_rep.htm.] Yet, Tea Party ideological stalwarts such as Senator Ted Cruz and others kept crowing about this fiasco somehow being a “success,” and threatening to make this fiasco recur all over again in just a few months, when, once again, the federal debt limit will be reached. In with a loudmouthed bang, out with a sniveling whimper!
So it won’t be from the Tea Party right that needed movements of protest will emerge. And needless to say, not from the center, those “moderate” and “mainstream” voices so beloved by Beltway pundits and exemplified in the actual practice and policies of the Obama Administration: its waffling, rotten compromises; substitution of the Audacity of Rhetoric for the Audacity of Hope (Obama’s campaign slogan from 2008); its admiration for and cozying up to the Wall Street moguls, as exemplified in the original nomination of Larry Summers, a Wall Street insider’s Wall Street insider, to head the Federal Reserve. All this and more makes the Obama Administration a just target of dissent and protest, not a harbinger of needed change, except accidentally.
So where can we, where do we, turn? To the traditional wellspring of protest, dissent and grassroots activism for social and political change, the traditional unruly challenger to an unacceptable status quo—the left. But honestly, not to the organized left of today, fall 2013, which is for the most part overwhelmingly insular, marginalized, small in numbers and influence, dogmatic and sectarian, and without a mass following—this last element a most disquieting historical anomaly in a time of still-continuing economic recession, where it is precisely ordinary working people who are not facing left! (Which the left needs badly to address; but despite this need, so far refuses to address.)
Yet the left vision remains in all its inspirational glory, a glory evinced even in the political postures of the Tea Party, which appropriates some of the trappings of traditional left protest—populism, standing up for the “little guy,” demands for justice for Main Street against the depredations of Wall Street. In short, that very confused, addled ersatz we delineated above. But while the left vision remains as vital as ever, the organizational and political means to put this vitality into practice, unfortunately, do not. More than ever we have a crying need for a broadly inclusive, democratic, wide-ranging, tolerant, anti-authoritarian, and intellectually rigorous and questioning left, though such has not existed organizationally since the collapse of SDS in 1969 [SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, the leading New Left group of the 1960s; for a brief history see Wikipedia, “Students for a Democratic Society,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Students_for_a_Democratic_Society.] and the disappearance of the mass antiwar movements against the Vietnam imbroglio a few years later. So our task will be to rebuild just such this left, this left so vitally needed—for now more than ever it’s time to take to the streets, exercise the ballot box for electing politicians who really listen and respond to the people’s needs, and to stand out, stand forth, in decrying, “We’re not going to take it anymore!”
But as a matter of practical course, we can, indeed must, do what we can wherever we can. In small groups; in already-organized left groups as encouraging, correcting critics who are also good activists; in single-issue organizations; even in talking up ideas among friends and on social media sites. And hope for the best, as things getting worse will only make our problems more intractable, and obviously the status quo is not acceptable. It all goes back to Lenin’s pointed question of 1903, “What is to be done?” and the answer must be, “Whatever we can do wherever we can do it.” For passivity, for silence, for giddy pursuit of hedonistic pleasure to take our minds off the troubles all around us—these are all the things we cannot do, which we must no longer do. We can no longer continue to take it, we cannot continue to accept the way things are any longer. We must protest, we must fight back, we must say “No!” in a very big way.
Are we up to it? Only time will tell, but I believe we are, and can be, at least partially up to it. And the first step is to stand out and cry to all who will hear, “I’m just mad as hell, and I, for one, am not going to take it anymore!” And from one comes two, from two comes three, maybe four or five, and beyond that…who knows? But it all depends on us; always has, always will. To hearken back to E.P. Thompson, we must protest, so that we can survive. And not take it anymore—at least we can live the life of satisfaction that comes from speaking out and saying to ourselves and others, “At least as far as I’m concerned, I will not take it anymore, and I will speak out about it. Even if change comes very little, or even not at all, I at least can live in uncompromised peace knowing that I am a rebel and a protester, and not a sheep willingly allowing myself to be herded and slaughtered. At least I will always have that—and by speaking out, maybe someday much more. What about you?”