the socioeconomics of the quiet


There are more of us (ordinary people) than there are of them (banksters, currency manipulators, outsourcers of jobs, etc.) Yet the American people remain strangely passive, especially compared to workers in other countries. Why is that?

Part of the answer may lie in the way our communities have grown up since the end of World War II. With the majority of Americans living in suburbia, we no longer have natural gathering places, natural hangouts, natural venues where we can interact with our neighbors. Instead, we have strip malls, megamalls, big box stores, and chains of coffee shops and bars that are all owned by large corporations and look identical whether you're in Miami or Seattle. The main sources of community are high school sports (another mindless distraction) and megachurches (sources of distorted versions of Christianity and right-wing political propaganda). We spend hours a day in our cars, and some people travel from a garage at home to a garage at work, never interacting with another human being as they are subjected to radio-based indoctrination in trivia (the typical pop music station), right-wing politics (AM radio), or Beltway conventional wisdom (NPR). If this nation ever had a tradition of sitting around with one's neighbors and talking seriously and non-polemically about the state of the country, it is long lost.

So each discontented person thinks that he or she is alone. Back in 1991, I was on a plane to Hawaii when I overheard a flight attendant talking to the Middle Eastern couple in the row in front of me. "I wasn't for that Gulf War," she said, "but everyone else was, so I kept my mouth shut."

"I wasn't for that war," I said. Other people seated around us also spoke up and said that they had opposed the Gulf War. It was striking. About eight people, randomly seated in one section of a plane bound for Hawaii, were all saying that they had disagreed with what the media were telling us (the official story being that 90% of the public supported the Gulf War).

I can't help comparing my hometown of Minneapolis, a typically sprawling American city with suburbs proliferating dozens of miles out, with Portland, Oregon, where I lived for 10 years. Portland is rather left-leaning politically, and I participated in two different 30,000-person demonstrations while I lived there. Minneapolis is also left-leaning (Dennis Kucinich won 27% of the Democratic caucus vote in 2004), but it seems incapable of putting on an impressive demonstration. The best it can do are sad-looking gatherings of 500 people.

Upon reflection, I blame the layout of the cities for the difference. Portland has one central downtown with superb transit leading to it, lots of distinct neighborhoods, and lots of locally owned businesses. Minneapolis's downtown is fragmented, there's another complete city (St. Paul) across the river, public transit is mediocre, and neighborhoods seem more exclusively residential than they do in Portland. Information doesn't get out and apathy reigns.

Right now there are millions of unemployed Americans. Why aren't they marching on their own state capitals, if not on Washington? Why not? Because they're all suffering alone. Because the way our cities have grown in the past 60 years has destroyed much of our former social fabric. Because the right-wing and even the establishment press has made "union" a dirty word.

I'm reminded of a woman who was interviewed after the Ceausescu regime fell in Romania. (If you'll recall, the revolution began when people heckled one of the dictator's speeches.) "We could have done this at any time," she mused. "Why did we wait?"

Unemployed Americans could and should be in the streets, demanding to receive as much consideration as the banksters, the military-industrial complex, and the health insurance companies. I wonder how many of them have even considered the possibility or talked it over with other unemployed people.

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