Today my thoughts are in Tunisia. And Egypt. And Wisconsin. And Blacksburg.
Several weeks ago, an angry fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself afire. Within just a few weeks, the country’s ruling dictator fled for Saudi Arabia.
Not long thereafter, the people of Egypt arose in anger and kicked out Hosni Mubarak, a virtual monarch who had ruled the country for 30 years.
These events have us considering several societal trends and asking ourselves several questions, which are either exciting or disquieting, depending upon the lens through which they are viewed.
First, it is undeniable that social media played a huge part in this and the current state of upheaval in the Arab world. The ability of sites like Facebook to connect, commiserate, and organize played a significant role in the success of these social movements. In fact, some people are calling this the Facebook Revolution.
Second, people are angry at declining standards of living. With the advent of peak oil, the inevitable, predicted rise in prices of just about everything is now underway. In the United States, people typically pay around 10% of their income on food. But in many other places elsewhere around the world, people may pay upwards of 50%. So even small increases in the prices of food can have dramatic negative impacts and push many families into malnutrition. When they see their leaders basking in wealth and privilege while they starve, it is a recipe for discontent and mayhem.
Can this happen here in America? Are people angry enough here to take to the streets in protest? If so, who or what are they angry at or about? And if they did go to the streets and demand change, in what form would that change occur? And if change did occur, would it really improve things?
Today in Wisconsin people are protesting the state capital over proposed cuts to the compensation package of state employees. There is a general strike of teachers, policemen, and public safety professionals. The Republican governor is determined to cripple their union.
I remember a defining moment from my teen years. I lived in Christiansburg. On the campus of Virginia Tech nearby in Blacksburg, students had taken over some academic buildings in active protests of the Vietnam War. Classmates were being sent off to die in the jungles of Southeast Asia for no apparent defense purpose. I rode in our car as my mother drove past a motel on the south end of town whose parking lot was filled with scores with state police cars. These troopers were in town to contain the rioting students. I assumed at the time that college campuses always had riots and that scores of policemen were routinely assigned to monitor them. I grew up believing civil disobedience was an acceptable and common means for balancing corporate and governmental power.
Contrary to the views of many of my countrymen, I don't believe that America is exceptional or that Americans are different in their core needs and values from most people around the world. All of us want to live with health, security, and the opportunity to achieve prosperity. We like to live peacefully but we get riled up when pushed too far.
There seems to be plenty of anger in America today. People in the tea party movement seem to have made a lifestyle of their anger. A bumper sticker says, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” But somehow I think many Americans are angry over the wrong things.
In short order it seems as though the United States Supreme Court will make a decision about the legality of the health care plan many people are calling Obamacare. A socialist takeover to some and a reasonable attempt to provide health healthcare security to others, this legislation has become a flashpoint for anger. However, the real issue in this country, like in many other countries, seems to stem from the fact that there has been a decades-long transfer of wealth and power from the bottom and middle of the economic food chain to the very wealthiest. Decades of public policies and laws have made it easier for the uber-rich to prosper at the expense of everyone else. “Everyone else” may not take it much longer.
According to Georg Lakoff, writing on the Common Dreams website, says Conservatives want to change the basis of American life, where people take care of themselves rather than each other. He says, “The individual issues are all too real: assaults on unions, public employees, women's rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting, and on and on.” He continues, “Taxation is thus seen as taking money away from those who have earned it and giving it to people who don't deserve it. Taxation cannot be seen as providing the necessities of life, a civilized society, and as necessary for business to prosper.”
Liberals (lest I even use that word, a word so vilified that the politically correct version is now “progressives”) believe that not everyone gets a fair shake or opportunity for prosperity, accidents (both personal and widespread) do happen, corporations won’t regulate themselves, and people have a right to organize to share their grievances publicly and take action against those who would subjugate them.
It seems clear that with the end of cheap energy, worldwide standards of living are at peak. Cheap and abundant energy allowed the population of the world to increase from 1 billion 200 years ago to 7 billion now. As energy scarcity ripples through worldwide markets, everyone will have to pay more for everything. How will declining resources, monetary and conventional, be shared amongst rich and poor, black and white and yellow? Things are about to get really interesting.