I was watching the Beeb last night about the protests in Brazil, comparing them to the protests in Turkey, and wondering about my own country.
Because it seems to me that two far-distant places are experiencing much the same political problems; both are democratic republics, both have a legal system in place for the citizens to vote for change. But in both a substantial minority of the people believe that their "votes" are meaningless, and that the way the system of government is currently set up that they have no hope of bettering the lives (or affecting particular issues they see as worsening their lives) within the democratic process.
So they take to the streets.
We had that here, not so long ago, with the Occupy protests, and to my mind the only real difference was in the reaction of the governments. In Turkey and Brazil the police agencies had and have a long, ugly history of brutal reaction to public protest. The initial beatings and gassings had the effect of reminding Turks and Brazilians how much they reeeeeally hated the way their cops beat and gas them, and the protests became as much about that as about the initial grievances.
Here our coppers have learned to be crafty and patient. Protest met with a riot baton wrapped inside a comfy pillow is protest that gradually loses its vitality. If it doesn't lay you out cold a rap on the skull just pisses you off. But an indifferent stare is boring. The U.S. coppers knew that the way to defuse Occupy was to make it boring, and they did. The U.S. public lost interest, Occupy lost it's momentum and has already faded into insignificance.
Which in my opinion will be remembered as a tragedy. The Occupiers had one burning insight; that from the mildly benign oligarchy it had been from 1932 to the late 1970s the U.S. is rapidly becoming a predatory toxic oligarchy through the rapaciousness of its oligarchs. This insight was lost in the foolish cacophony of noise the Occupiers generated and the criminally negligent reportage of the courtier press. I believe that we will one day regret that we did not pay more attention to the rise of the modern aristos.
The result has been a continued slide back to the rampant inequality and social division of the Gilded Age, with the concurrent erosion of the sort of stodgy bourgeois middle-class attitude of the "rest" of the U.S. public as it sees it's decent-wage jobs, it's pensions, it's influence, and it's security ever more crammed down and eroded away. Combine that with the overwhelming sense that gold now makes the rules and that the reopening of government to massive inflows of cash has made individual voting almost meaningless and you get a public that seems to me daily more vulnerable to a demagogue, a "man on horseback" that promises to make those changes that they can't.
And that vulnerability makes me think of perhaps the saddest image I've seen from these recent protests:
This young woman was first said to be an Egyptian visiting Istanbul; since then the Egyptian embassy has devowed knowledge of her. So we have no idea of who she is - or was, since she must have suffered massive head trauma from the direct gas-canister hit and is very likely dead - or why she was there, or what she was doing and thinking at the time that the heavy metal can turned that day into endless night.
Whatever drove her into that street drove her to her own doom.
That seems to be pretty much what happens when desperate, vulnerable people take to the street. Few popular rebellions seem to end well; as bad as conditions were before the Revolution it seems hard to imagine that Napoleon is an upgrade over the Bourbons or Stalin over the Tsar. The defenestration of oligarchy usually seems to produce autocracy and war, not liberty and law.
The promise of the United States is the chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Not to win them, but to pursue them.
But it seems to me that that promise now stands in the street we've built to let some of us drive towards increased wealth and power.
Will they collide violently? Will the streets explode in anger, as they have in Brazil and in Instanbul?
Will the result be that promise ending up lying in the street as she lay, dazed and barefoot, dying?