To Madison And Beyond!
Copyright © by Len Holman, 2/23/11
There is anger in the Wisconsin capitol. There is suspicion, and crowds with signs and people hiding out and it’s really a zoo, while the President of the U.S. wades into a pool he needs to stay out of or be sucked down into the muck. The Democrats are hiding, which in this case is not a metaphor, but actually hiding, so that a quorum will not be formed and a bill they don’t like won’t be debated, which is a swell example for students in civics classes across the land. The unions say Governor Scott Walker is trying to bust them, and the governor says it’s about saving money, and the chattering classes are predictably lining up according to their labels as “conservative” or “liberal” or “tea party” or whatever box a particular commentator lives in. It’s not so much the legislation that should interest anyone very much because it’ll all work out eventually, with rancor and grudges held—nothing new there; it’s the signpost up ahead (cue “Twilight Zone” music): This Is The New and Pervasive Politics.
We have already seen what aroused citizens can do, and how fearful governments are with such an agitated populace, and how reactive and violent such leaders can get when someone says, “Hey, 40 years is enough,” as witness the uproar and corresponding brutal crackdown in Libya. We have seen the Bahrain government set upon protestors with clubs and tear gas and real bullets. We’ve seen Egypt and Tunisia, and we’re waiting on Yemen, Jordan, and maybe even Iran—while the royal House of Saud holds its collective breath. But through it all, we Americans know that it’s those people Over There, the ones with the dark skin, funny clothes, and some kind of non-English language who do these things. We applaud their actions and smile contentedly because they are going to build democracy. We also smile contentedly because we know that kind of civil breakdown can’t happen here. Or can it?
In 1791, an excise tax on whiskey was passed, which Alexander Hamilton wanted, to centralize and fund the debt (sound familiar?), and which irritated people living a marginal existence in the west (which, in those days, was still east of the Mississippi), and though President Washington had his peace commissioners calm things down, he also had a militia ready, just in case. This is called the Whiskey Rebellion or the Whiskey Insurrection in the history books, but it shows that some Americans didn’t want governments to interfere with their commerce or their lives. It could have gotten ugly, but it didn’t. In July of 1863, there were draft riots in New York City. Fires were set and about 50 buildings were burned, people were killed and thousands of troops were used to put the riots down. After several days, there was an uneasy and disgruntled peace restored. Support for the draft and the war was still there, even as 10 percent of enlisted New Yorkers died in the war. This was the largest civil disturbance in U.S. history (except for the Civil War, itself), but even after that, normalcy (more or less) returned—even though wealthy men could pay a $300 “commutation fee” to keep from getting their hair mussed by flying lead. In 1931, encouraged by retired Marine Corps legend Smedley Butler, veterans descended on Washington to get paid. They had certificates which would get them their money—but not until 1945. President Hoover ordered Army chief of staff Douglas MacArthur to use deadly force to break up the mob, which he did with dispatch. But no public riots, no social unrest. It was the beginning of the Depression and people had other things to worry about. And of course there was Kent State (we all remember that iconic photo of the young woman with terror and anguish on her face crouched next to a body on the pavement), college sit-ins, Vietnam angst on the streets and in American homes, but contrary to the wisdom of the experts, there was no mass movement toward anarchy. Speaking of the Depression—with 25% of the population out of work, food shortages, and general deprivation, one would have thought, “This Is It.” But it wasn’t. We’ve had Presidents killed, congress people caught with strippers, pages of the same sex, caught with greasy hands in the public till, and all manner of impropriety, lack of integrity, and just plain greed and stupidity. We had internment of American citizens of Japanese descent and the realization the government was listening to our phone calls, but no real sign of anything like mass demonstrations of public anger or the hint or some seismic civil disruption. But now, we have another shot at blood in the streets—or at least, blood on the ballots, if ballots remain a part of the New Democracy.
The Madison uproar is just the tip of a monstrous iceberg. We, as a nation, are in the throes of a national social and political re-alignment (don’t ask me where one starts and the other ends), and the result will be…uh, interesting, terrifying, frustrating, angrifying, heartbreaking and history-making (as in making the history books). Yes, all that has been said before, but what makes this time different is that the President of the United States was the primary catalyst for it all. Sure, there was Roosevelt, who was most roundly hated by a lot of folks, but then that war started and we had a lot of other things to deal with. There was Nixon and all that bombing of Cambodia stuff, and there was Bush and all the ingenious, “enhanced” water-drinking, but none of them evoked such widespread bitterness, revenge-seeking, and outright hatred that Obama has. I’m not saying it has anything to do solely with the color of his skin, so much as the fear his election provoked. It was fear that the way things were, the comfort we had—even in the face of a lot of problems we ignored—was a thing of the past. Fear is a primary motivator, and those who fear, lash out—for fear is reactionary, and reactionary behavior in the body politic is bad for business; it’s bad for the democracy business because it’s not “healthy” debate, it’s jumping at shadows and being frightened out of your wits that the landscape is dissolving and there is nothing to do but jump out of bed with the cold sweat still clinging to you and strike out at the shadows. This activity will produce a backlash and the next thing you know, we have a state capitol filled with protesters beating drums and issuing dire warnings about the end of unions, while the other side shudders at the passion and insists it’s about saving money by budgeting, just like regular folks have to do—but at bottom, it’s about fear. If someone would just turn on the light, everyone would see those shadows are just tables and chairs, that there is no monster, and that taking a deep breaths and getting your bearings in the bedroom would help. You’d see the furniture has been re-arranged and some shelves and a new closet have been added. Maybe the window curtains are different, too. But it’s still your bedroom. If politicians can’t even SAY what’s really going on, if they hide it in jargon and slogans, then one side will only be happy when we elect a man with the complexion of a polar bear and the politics of Barry Goldwater, and the opposite side will only be happy if every conservative gets a virus that turns him or her into Eugene Debs. Not gonna happen. So far, no riots in the streets of D.C., no strafing of crowds, no tear gassing of the demonstrators in Wisconsin’s capitol—just the riotous fever that fears causes in the mind, just the hint that if no one turns on the light, we’ll all be in darkness. And yes, it CAN happen here.
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