All Ye Good Citizens of America

When I heard, via Democracy Now, that a group of New Yorkers slept outside City Hall for a week, calling their camp “Bloombergville” to protest the proposed budget cuts for social services, and then physically blocked the council from meeting, my first thought was: Who has that kind of time?

People might be out in the streets in Athens and Madrid, but despite the beautiful ruckus in Wisconsin, American apathy is still at an all-time high. Our finances are just as dicey as some of the countries going bankrupt (though we have the luxury of controlling the world’s reserve currency), and our leaders are trying to push the same “austerity” plans on us, but for the children of the Baby Boomers, it’s hard to “care” or “do something” about it. It’s much easier to sink into the couch with a couple of beers than to call senators and attend rallies. Besides, every Jon Stewart fan knows it’s way cooler to laugh at protesters than it is to join them.

Less condescendingly, we’d rather spend our free time with our kids. But the larger issue is that each of us has less and less free time to spend on anything. Increasingly, the dominant portion of our lives is spent slaving for pay, and for many of us, there’s barely time left to sleep.

The average American worker’s wage, in real terms, has gone steadily down as he’s been asked to work more hours. When you hear that American workers (and everyone from factory floors to corporate cubicles is a worker) are some of the most productive in the world, this is what it means: companies lay off staff and ask remaining employees to pick up the extra work. People are being pushed. Every worker knows, especially in the recession, she’s being asked to do more, without being paid more.

A little further up the ladder, work consumes us; its technology invades our private lives and we are compelled to “check in” during off hours. We dare not resist, for fear of losing what are, after all, enviable positions – there are many others ready to replace us. Instead, we take pride in “working hard” as personal wealth creation machines (never mind the debt we’re racking up), and allow our natural human desires and instincts to be suppressed through massive propaganda systems of our own creation.

Bright, shining pictures all around us project fear – of unemployment, war, the deficit, loneliness – and constantly provoke our sexual desire. These pictures have gone from black and white to full color, from still to moving, from our living rooms to our bedrooms to our pockets. Beneath the veneer of sex and terror, a deep well of violence fouls the air. Not even the hamburgers and hot dogs we’ll barbeque this weekend are free from the violence that taints American culture. It is too much to face, and too difficult, so we avert our eyes, ignore it, and busy ourselves with getting and spending.

The competent systems managers who went to the good schools, those of us now so consumed by our busy lives, are responsible for maintaining the panopticon of modern American culture, in which we can all see the goal, but we can’t see each other. There is a giant elephant standing in the modern office. You may have seen him by the paper shredder, or heard him whisper something about one seventh of the population receiving food stamps.

The best and brightest of my parents’ generation (the Boomers) conceived and sold the idea of globalization, and what has it wrought? Outsourced jobs and lower wages, financial conglomeration, the abandonment of any human, social, or environmental protections, cheaply produced goods that don’t last, industrial agriculture covering the earth, the loss of indigenous ways of life…

As we learned to scar the earth with our great machines, and poison our own water supplies in the name of “resource extraction”, great wealth was amassed. Only most of it stayed in a few, concentrated hands, and it continues to flow to those centers of economic power, even as the destruction of our environment continues, and the benefits that we, the people, see from these activities declines.

When the transit workers of New York went on strike six years ago, did the office workers of New York have their back? Hardly, in my experience. It was all grumbles about MTA employees retiring young and having pensions; jealousy, in other words – yet no one I know quit his cubicle to go drive a bus. If the teachers or the sanitation crews struck today, would we sympathize with them? Of course not. We’re too busy with ourselves to sympathize.

The Bloombergville protesters delayed the budget vote, but it passed the following day (behind a heavier police presence, no doubt). Many would draw the lesson that therefore these men and women wasted their time – it isn’t true. Every action we take in defiance of the system, no matter how small, is a valuable one. Every little splash creates a ripple. No matter how tired we are, no matter how busy or beaten down, we must resist the reduction of our human selves to mere units. You are not a consumer. You are not a resource. You are a human being. Act like one.