You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Big Picture

Middle Eastern upheaval and the promise of American life.

When the inspiring images of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian men and women demanding their freedom at enormous personal risk first appeared and everybody was talking about whether that revolution would spark similar revolutions in nearby countries, I found myself saying to friends, "What about here? Maybe the example of their courageous actions will shake the American people out of their long apathetic stupor." Inevitably I was met with laughter. Sometimes I felt a friend's laughter was conspiratorial—the exhilaration of imagining together that things could be different from what they are. Other times, I knew it was a response to what a friend found absurd, ridiculous, in my proposition. "We already had our revolution in 1776. Sure, things are bad, people are out of work, but we're not living in a police state like Egypt. I don't see you out on the street." And then there were the times when the laughter sounded nervous, a friend made uncomfortable by such talk, insisting that it couldn't happen here. I reminded these skeptical/cynical/realist friends (take your pick) that no one imagined that revolutions could happen in Tunisia or in Egypt and certainly not through the highly disciplined tactics of non-violent resistance. Or that the Soviet Union would collapse or that the Berlin Wall would be dismantled.

Then, as historical coincidence would have it, in mid February, the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, outrageously slandered teachers, nurses, social workers, bus drivers, road repairmen, sanitation workers, firemen, police—to name a few of the kinds of people who work for the good of us all and make life in our cities possible—as overpaid, pampered freeloaders. No matter that their unions made substantial concessions and sacrifices; the Republican propaganda machine continued to spread the lie that it is public workers' right to collective bargaining that is bankrupting Wisconsin. It has been this assault on the right to collective bargaining, the legal guarantor of decent wages, paid vacations and sick days, health insurance and retirement security—all previously considered normal "benefits" of any job, public or private—that has brought tens of thousands of people to Madison to protest day and night in sub-freezing weather. And when Republican lawmakers strong-armed a makeshift bill through a couple of weeks ago, 100,000 shocked dissenters immediately amassed in Madison—not only workers, but farmers too—with more protests promised to come nationwide.

So, last month, inspired by the heroes of Tahir Square and the protestors in Madison, I joined in a couple of rallies here in New York. They were spirited, but of course nothing like the scenes in Egypt. Their signs demanded freedom, dignity, the overthrow of the tyrant. As did their stirring chants. At our rally, I saw hand-written signs that read "We stand with Wisconsin Workers"; "Wall St. Banker $4447 per hr. My dad $12 per hr."; "We're fired up and ready to go. Where's Obama?"; "Tax the Rich." And I heard enthusiastic chanting: "I say people, you say power." "People!" "Power!" "I say union, you say power." "Union!" "Power!" "What's disgusting?!" "Union busting!" And so the chants went.

We listened to speeches by union officials and by some rabble-rousers, my favorite being a retired CUNY professor who introduced himself, "I am their 75-year-old nightmare." An occasional free spirit, unbidden, shouted from the crowd, "Class warfare!" "General Strike!" We also heard speeches by our elected officials, mostly platitudes: "Our values, our American dream, our American democracy, are under attack." This all-purpose line came from our newly disgraced congressman Charlie Rangel. He also dramatically recalled his participation in the Civil Rights movement and intoned that one day we would remember our fight today in the same way. Sadly, this sounded like a false note to me. As, I found, did any evocation of Tahir Square. There was a picture that circulated widely on the Internet of a young Egyptian man holding a sign that read "Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers. One World, One Pain." But there was something unearned, vain, when speakers that morning expressed that same sentiment. Many of us passionately wanted to act in concert with our fellow citizens, like the brave men and women at Tahir Square, but the truth is they stood up against tanks in the name of overthrowing a brutal regime and we were standing in the streets surrounding the wintry park at City Hall downtown on a bright, beautiful Saturday morning (our elected officials' day off) in the name of the worthy, though less heroic, cause of protecting workers' rights.

Of course, as the best of the speakers made clear, in showing our support for the workers of Wisconsin, we were engaged in a larger battle against powerful corporations and their Republican servants who want to balance both state and federal budgets on the back of those who are not responsible for the shortfalls and can least afford the cost—the middle class and the poor—when the budget crises were caused by the wild, even criminal, risk-taking actions of men and women who run the banks and Wall Street. This is economic justice turned upside down: Everyone is made to pay for the staggering losses of corporations on the Fortune 500 list, but when it comes to their equally staggering profits and obscene bonuses, they belong to them alone. Such is the logic of a society where the top wealthiest .001 percent of the population owns 976 times more than the entire bottom 90 percent and the salary and benefits of teachers and nurses and bus drivers are successfully used to stoke class resentment in the public at large.

I doubt that this was news to anyone in the crowd or, for that matter, to anyone who reads the Op-Ed page in The New York Times. These days, there is a great deal of information circulating about where all the money is, especially on the Internet—government bailouts to Wall Street and banks ($700 billion TARP); Fortune 500 corporations that do not pay their taxes (Bank of America operates 371 tax-sheltered subsidiaries and 204 in the Cayman Islands; 75 percent of Goldman Sachs's foreign subsidiaries are incorporated in offshore tax havens); the repeal of taxes on the extremely rich (recent tax cuts for millionaires' estates cost $11.5 billion; early childhood programs cost $11.2 billion; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (close to $700 billion for 2012, but a recent estimate for the total U.S. national security budget is more than $1.2 trillion a year).

On the Internet, I have also found new and interesting political associations like the "Coffee Party" with its rallying cry, "Wake Up and Stand Up." And then there are Make Wall Street Pay and U.S. Uncut. Both make the simple, compelling point and provide the statistics to support it that if the corporate tax-dodgers who benefit most from the system simply paid their taxes, the budget crises would cease to exist and programs that serve the public good would not have to be cut. And at the U.S. Uncut website, refreshingly, there are no appeals for donations, no petitions to sign and send (which gives us who send them the feeling that we are doing something until we receive an auto-reply from our representative that shows they will give the issue the same amount of attention that we did). U.S. Uncut is strictly an activist site. It supplies suggestions about how to organize a targeted protest against an egregious tax-dodger like Bank of America and lists local protests all over the country that one can join.

I am heartened by these new Internet organizations. They give me cause for hope. But the slogan, "Pay your taxes," also makes me recall the voice of the cashier sitting in the booth at a subway, yelling at a young man who is jumping the turnstile, "Pay your fare!" Which made me think of a bumper sticker I saw last summer on a lovely, remote country road: "Save What's Left." That sentiment made me laugh at the same time that it resonated deeply with me; but, more than anything, I found it dispiriting, for it spoke to the diminishment of our imagination for what is possible, let alone what is just and worth fighting for. The fight for workers' rights to collective bargaining, to decent salaries, to health insurance, to pensions—

these, too, it now occurred to me, are "save what's left" aspirations. Only three decades ago—before NAFTA; before our new era of deindustrialization, "downsizing," "outsourcing," and "temps"; before the emergence of our "service economy"—they were the givens of middle-class jobs, union and non-union, blue-collar and white-collar alike. Who then could have imagined that they were living in what now appears to be a golden age for the middle class?

Saving what is left is necessary and urgent, especially in the face of the outrageous lies and strong-arm tactics of Republicans these days. That is why I check my e-mails for announcements of rallies in New York City. Yet, as I reflect on our situation as an historian, I realize, with some embarrassment, that I have bought into the status quo. I have forgotten the larger, weightier issues that were at the heart of the nineteenth-century labor movement—the question of who would control the rhythms, pace, and content of the work process, and even more importantly, the question of what kind of work was worth doing, that is, challenging and meaningful in its own right and not just a means to making a living. That these concerns have long disappeared from our public discussions is no doubt a consequence of the lamentable fact that both our now-defunct industrial economy and our hobbled service economy have wiped out the great majority of skilled trades and crafts and practices. And with so little memory of work that is challenging and meaningful, most of us have bought into the promise of finding happiness through consumption in our leisure time. As an historian, I knew that this promise was always improbable at best, but now that there are fewer and fewer "good" jobs and ever-growing numbers of people without hope of any work at all, it seems incumbent on us to try to imagine a world different from—dare I say, with the brave Egyptians in mind, a world better than—the one in which we happen to find ourselves.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.