One of the most astonishing and demoralizing comments I ever heard was in response to Cindy Sheehan’s August, 2005, anti-war demonstrations outside George W. Bush’s Prarie Chapel Ranch (near Crawford, Texas). A commentator declared that, by protesting in so public and defiant a fashion, Sheehan had, in fact, “embarrassed” herself.
Sheehan’s son, Casey, joined the U.S. Marines because he was a patriot, because he wanted to do something meaningful in response to 9-11, because he believed the White House’s accounts of WMD and Saddam Hussein’s role in the attack, and because he believed that by enlisting in the military he’d be helping the fight against terrorism. He got sent to Iraq and, on April 4, 2004, was killed.
After his death, Sheehan learned that WMD didn’t exist, that Saddam Hussein had no role in 9-11 (and that the White House knew he didn’t), that post-Saddam Iraq is a country defined by duplicity, confusion, blood feuds and corruption, and that, as American soldiers continued to die and American taxpayers continued to foot the bill, the contractors, private security firms and military ordnance corporations continued to rake in their blood money, hand over fist.
Feeling betrayed and angry, Sheehan attempted to draw attention to the debacle by doing more than simply writing letters to the editor or starting her own vanity blog. She put herself on the line. And for this—for a mother’s loss of a son and a woman’s courage to defy authority—people looked at her askance and accused her of embarrassing herself? Sweet Baby Jesus…..how cynical and distracted have we become?
Unfortunately, a similar sense of “embarrassment” infects America’s working class. A century ago, workers weren’t ashamed to hit the streets and take on those who ran the country’s industry and financial institutions. We don’t do that today because workers don’t recognize the fundamental tension between the privileged rich and the lower class and the rapidly dwindling middle-class, and because workers have a negative self-image.
Given that sports’ metaphors have permeated virtually every aspect of our society, we now see things only in terms of winners and losers. As a consequence, working people have come to regard themselves as “losers.” Who among them is willing to engage in civil disobedience? Who wants to publicly identify himself—to draw attention to himself by marching in the streets or occupying a building—as a loser?
As the old adage goes, no parent hopes that their babies grow up to be forklift drivers. Broad generalization or not, it’s a valid observation. Even if driving a forklift is a vocation you wind up doing your entire working life, it’s still a “job,” and not a “career.” Realistically, it’s something you fall into, not something you plan for or actively pursue from childhood.
But the difference between the working class a century ago and workers today, is that the former hadn’t yet been “domesticated.” They hadn’t yet been co-opted by the Establishment. They were still filled with a working man’s piss and vinegar. Indeed, they believed you could bring self-respect to any task, even a mundane one, and that any job—no matter how crude or “low”—could be performed with pride and dignity.
Accordingly, their socio-economic antennae were a mile long and hyper sensitive. Having not yet been brainwashed into denying the existence of class warfare, these workers had a healthy resentment for the fat cats—the ones who controlled the work, manipulated the system, reaped the profits, and were committed to keeping the workers down. But unlike the bulk of today’s workers, they were willing to push back.
Instead of seeing themselves as “losers,” they saw themselves as “takers.” Not only were they not embarrassed to hit the streets and demand their fair share, they were proud of it; they flaunted it, they rejoiced in it. They regarded the streets as their turf and themselves as the economy’s foot soldiers—the one segment of society with the de facto power to equalize what needed equalizing. And they reveled in it. Losers? Never!
And guess what happened when these people poured into the streets, stopped traffic, shut down businesses, and mixed it up with the police? They found that by making a goddamn bloody nuisance of themselves they got what they wanted. Only by “embarrassing” themselves were they reckoned with.
Of course, those in authority will always tell you that ugly demonstrations don’t work. They’ll tell you that demonstrations are, in fact, counterproductive, that the only tactics that can be relied upon to get the dirty job done are rational discourse and the free but orderly exchange of ideas.
This is a myth. The authorities tell workers that because they want to control them. They want workers to believe it because the bosses have no fear of rational discourse, and no dread of the free exchange of ideas. What they do fear are massive protests. What they do dread are ugly demonstrations. Which is why they work.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org