Friday, August 27, 2010

Glenn Beck, Howard Zinn and middle-class discontent

One of my co-workers is getting on a plane tonight and flying to Washington, D.C. for the big Glenn Beck "Restoring Honor" rally tomorrow at the Lincoln Memorial. It just so happens that tomorrow is the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, which interestingly enough, was delivered at what was billed as the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." I have to say it takes a lot of chutzpah to cast oneself in the role of MLK, but hey, it's a free country.

I'll be too busy doing yardwork, daddy duties, and other weekend tasks to watch the proceedings on TV, but I'm guessing there will be a lot of talk about the evils of Big Government. There may even be talk of the "s word", the one that ends in "ist" or "ism." I'm as leery of big government as the next guy, but I hope the speakers -- which include the ex-governor of Alaska -- acknowledge that Big Government didn't begin with Obama -- or even FDR. Howard Zinn, who I've become fond of quoting, explains:

"Big government" had, in fact, begun with the Founding Fathers, who deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.

It was only in the twentieth century, especially in the thirties and sixties, when the government, besieged by protests and fearful of the stability of the system, passed social legislation for the poor, that political leaders and business executives complained about "big government."

The point is that the virtue or evil of "big government" is in the eye of the beholder. I'm more concerned with who Big Government benefits -- the rich and powerful? Or the poor and struggling -- especially those trying to play by the rules of the system only to discover that the system is rigged? I'd prefer it benefit the latter, though if I were rich and powerful I'd probably give a different answer.

To be fair to Mr. Beck he taps into a legitimate and widespread disillusionment that's no longer just the province of the obviously disenfranchised (like those who flocked to the Mall on August 28, 1963). In the same book quoted from above Zinn predicted that "We may, in the coming years, be in a race for the mobilization of middle-class discontent." Right now Beck and the quite diverse coalition he speaks for is winning that race. Whether the answers put forward by Beck & Co. will solve the problems driving that discontent is less clear. And if Obama is thrown out on his ear in 2012 will we see a left wing version of tea party populism arise? Clearly, Howard Zinn was writing from a different ideological perspective than Beck or Palin are coming from, but read the following and see if it doesn't describe a lot of what's driving the Tea Party movement.

The surveys since the early seventies show 70 to 80 percent of Americans distrustful of government, business, the military. This means the distrust goes beyond blacks, the poor, the radicals. It has spread among skilled workers, white-collar workers, professionals; for the first time in the nation's history, perhaps, both the lower classes and the middle classes, the prisoners and the guards, were disillusioned with the system. . . . Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from the world, from their work, from themselves. . . . It is as if a whole nation were going through a critical point in its middle age, a life crisis of self-doubt, self-examination.

All this, at a time when the middle class is increasingly insecure economically. . . . Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.

The threat of unemployment, always inside the homes of the poor, has spread to white-collar workers, professionals. A college education is no longer a guarantee against joblessness, and a system that cannot offer a future to the young coming out of school is in deep trouble. If it happens only to the children of the poor, the problem is manageable; there are the jails. If it happens to the children of the middle class, things may get out of hand.

Was Howard Zinn a prophet? Keep in mind he wrote all that in the 1980's. Will things "get out of hand"? We shall see.

Quotes from A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present (pp. 636-7, 650-1)

No comments: