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Voices / Viewpoint

When do we get our Awakening?

Arlene Distler works as a freelance writer and as founder of Write Action.


In the past weeks, we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people rise up in Arab nations across the Middle East, in what has been called The Awakening.

The people’s willingness to risk their lives to achieve democracy has inspired many of us. Their struggle has given me an acute appreciation for the freedoms that we tend to take for granted.

But The Awakening has also prompted me to look more closely and critically at what we do have, to think about democracy, and look at our system.

It’s not a pretty picture. As the debate about our budget goes on and on, grave problems with our democracy have become increasingly apparent.

The sad fact is the interests of corporations and the military have so distorted our system that we can barely call what we have a democracy, except at the local level, at least in Vermont. Time and again political actions, even from well-meaning “liberals” like Obama, have proved that the military-corporate nexus rules.

By his words and occasionally deeds, Obama indicates that he sees himself as a populist who is looking out for the have-nots. But how else can we explain a budget that increases military spending to historic heights, including billions for the increase and modernization of our nuclear arsenal?

And this increase comes while cutting heating funds and other help for low-income individuals.

If Obama thinks that he is signaling a willingness to compromise in hopes that the Republicans will then trust him and do likewise, he underestimates (once again) the mean-spiritedness and cynicism of the other party’s cohorts.

* * *

It seems that instead of Johnson’s War on Poverty, we have a War on Poor People.

A few nights ago, I stayed up into the wee hours watching C-SPAN, mesmerized by hearings in which Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, two representatives of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, were questioned by a group of senators.

There was much mutual back-slapping over what good hard work had been done, what a hard time Americans are having, and how hard the committee members were all working to cut the deficit.

Until, that is, it was Bernie Sanders’ turn.

At first I was taken aback by the invective of his statements and questions. He was almost shaking with anger. But, of course, he was right, and the good-ol’-boy, inside-the-Beltway modus operandi stood out in bold relief.

Bernie brought up his usual statistics about the inequality of wealth, the growing divide, and the reluctance on the part of those suggesting budgetary fixes to go anywhere near calling for increased taxes on the wealthy or corporations. He pointedly asked why commission members were not suggesting removing, or at least raising, the cap on taxable income.

One other senator, out of perhaps 12, called attention to the budget’s being balanced on the backs of the poor. He cited several ways in which health care costs could be lowered without cuts to Medicaid or other “entitlements.”

Simpson and Bowles simply stared back at them and said nothing in their defense.

And you say these legislators are not in the pocket of money interests?

At other points in the questioning, Simpson, Bowles, and some other senators proclaimed that keeping corporations “fluid” would mean more jobs.

A while back, this concept was called “trickle-down” with an emphasis on trickle. From the ’80s on, this theory has been discredited.

Greed breeds more greed — that’s the way it actually works, as psychological studies have confirmed. A look at our financial meltdown would certainly seem to put an exclamation point on the faulty reasoning behind “trickle-down” economics.

* * *

Alarm bells sound: about Social Security, about a sector of our governing bodies’ determination to take away the relatively small “safety net” of social services we do have, about the huge U.S. Debt. During questioning, it came to light that 40 cents of every dollar the U.S. spends is loaned, mostly by China.

There is an outrageous hijacking of our democratic institutions taking place. Instead of governance by and for the people, we have governance by those whose voice is loudest only by virtue of greater and greater amounts of money poured into the political system, and funneled toward political candidates.

Something is definitely awry when, in the name of free speech, right-wing fanatics are allowed to shout obscenities at families of fallen soldiers, while an NPR fundraising executive immediately resigns because he dared to disparage conservatives (in a sting operation that apparently is considered fair play, producing a video that is just now coming to light as having been edited out of context).

Conservative voters are courted along the dividing line of social issues, duped into thinking tea-partiers are their standard-bearers, only to discover, as in Wisconsin, that “shrinking government” means the interests of those citizens most in need of a voice are the most disposable.

All this begs the question: When do we have our Awakening?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #92 (Wednesday, March 16, 2011).

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