Monday, February 21, 2011

The People, My People: Who Are They?

Friends in Wisconsin have been daily attending the Madison demonstrations for the right of union workers to bargain collectively. They report spirited and witty placards: “The People’s Republic of Curdistan” for Wisconsin’s infamous snack food. People who were activists since the sixties and whose parents and grandparents fought for the right of unions to exist have been hailing each other via email and doubtless more sophisticated social media: All power to the people!

Popular revolution is clearly catching, as people from one Middle Eastern nation after another throng their public squares. The placards in Madison include “Walk like an Egyptian.” And Governor Walker has been called the Mubarak of the Midwest. It is an exciting, scary, encouraging time. Union workers and social activists in other states are taking note of—and maybe notes on—what is happening in Wisconsin.

I can’t help but ponder the differences between our Midwest and the Middle East. In Wisconsin, the tea partiers have jumped into the fray with counter demonstrations. My husband pointed out, they think they are The people, and theirs is the revolution. In most Middle Eastern nations there is no such confusion. A dictator is a dictator. He takes care of his people, a minuscule power elite, and The People en masse suffer, economically and politically. The young especially, with little prospect for employment, have nothing to lose and every reason to spend every day demanding change.

Our political system, born of a revolution, seems designed to prevent another. We have (in theory) free elections and term limits. We have (in theory) a free press and free speech (though we are manipulated by our media in ways far more subtle than government propaganda. We don’t need government censorship when we already have censorship of the marketplace.) We have had a middle and working class that believes in the American Dream of betterment for anyone honest and hardworking. Though in these times many hardworking people are falling into poverty through the gaping holes of a shredded economy and a fast disappearing safety net.

Maybe the difference between our people and the people in more desperate and oppressed nations is dwindling. But we still don’t agree on who the people are or what we need from our more or less freely elected government. The right and left hand of the body politic don’t do much of anything except point fingers. A friend of mine, who doesn’t fit neatly in any category, used to declare, with some frequency, that he would “do anything to defend his people.” I finally asked him: Who are your people? He looked flustered, and then said: “The people who think the way I do.” An honest and telling answer.

The people in the streets and squares of Wisconsin give me hope of another answer. The People don’t need to think alike but we do need to act together when our right to have a voice, to have place at the big messy table of this democracy is threatened. That right is what is at stake in Wisconsin. The outcome of this struggle will affect all the People regardless of what we think.