Americans made free speech the cornerstone of our democracy, and yet after our deeply corrupted financial system nearly destroyed the global economy and caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs and homes, we are relatively quiet. (Wisconsin a rare show of outrage.)
Americans may feel voiceless unless supported by an institution or a hefty PAC. But elsewhere around the globe the flint of protest can be struck by anyone – even under a dictatorial regime where the cost of speaking freely can be costly, if not fatal. These people are yoga teachers, artists, bloggers and poets. But they are heard.
In Tunisia, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in frustration when red tape kept him from earning a living. His anguish smolders in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya and Asia. In Bahrain, 20-year old Ayat al-Ghermezi stood before thousands of cheering protestors and took direct aim at the king and prime minister — with a poem.
“We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice. Don’t you hear their cries, don’t you hear their screams?”
Family members told reporters that her father led security forces to her after they threatened the lives of his other children. She says she received electrical shocks to her face and was beaten with a hose while in detention.
Americans are not up against the kind of hardships that other places face. But for many Americans, the fall has been long and very hard. According to a Bureau of National Statistics survey, only 66.8% of American men had a job last year –the lowest level that has ever been recorded. Almost 25% of American families have no, or below zero, net worth.
So, is it worth rattling the cage in a democracy where an economic and judicial system benefits the rich while the standard of living declines for the rest?
Many in the largest democracy in the world thought so. In New Delhi recently, a yoga teacher with a massive following created havoc when he called for a mass sit-in. Some 5,000 people fed up with the country’s entrenched corruption were expected, but 40,000 set up tents before the police stepped in to rout them.
Greeks took to the streets to defend their jobs and pension. In Belarus, where the currency has been devalued by 36 percent and inflation is soaring, demonstrators defied the president’s “strike hard” threats. About a thousand people carried no slogans, but clapped rhythmically – their unspoken statement very clear.
We weren’t always so quiet. During the Great Depression, there were riots in the streets. When the jobless began to hit a critical mass during the 1980s, they descended on Washington.
I recently asked people randomly why there isn’t more grassroots agitation. I learned that we are complacent; we feel that we are better off than others; there are no longer enough unions to organize; we’re decentralized. All true. But those conditions exist in many other places where the match has been lit.
One clear voice with a singular message can make the difference. In fact, American artists and writers have stirred conscience at critical moments. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he is reported to have said: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”