by Udi Pladott
On October 6th, 2011, ten years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, and as the 2012 federal budget goes into effect with its brutal austerity measures, I will join thousands of people who will converge on Freedom Plaza, just a few blocks away from the White House in Washington, DC. We will mount a deliberate, prolonged, nonviolent protest. We will congregate there because we have no other choice. On sundown on our second day there, I will begin my Yom Kippur fast, only this time it will mean so much more to me than it has before.
I am an Israeli American. I moved from Israel to the United States almost ten years ago – in October 2001 – and was very eager to get naturalized and participate in American democracy by voting here. I felt that this is going to be where votes count the most, because U.S. policy affects each and every corner of the world. Most importantly, I felt that United States has the political clout to bring about a peace in Israel and Palestine. I believed in American democracy even after watching with bated breath the 2000 election recount, and I thought that if only the “good” party holds on to power, then U.S. policy will be good. That was ten years ago. By the time I became a U.S. citizen five years later I took upon myself the civic and moral responsibility for a second sovereign government that flaunts international law, one which is embroiled in two horrific wars, with no end in sight. By then I had also lived in this country long enough to get better acquainted with the bleeding internal wounds that slash through this nation. As I became increasingly informed, I became increasingly vocal, and increasingly angry. Initially, in 2006 I was eager to vote, but was thoroughly frustrated at getting naturalized just a few weeks too late for the registration deadlines; by 2008 I voted begrudgingly, without much faith in the promised “Change.” And by 2010, I voted with contempt, knowing that my vote for a Democratic member of congress is a wasted vote. Next time, I will not vote for Democrats with the hope that they will represent me any more. I know better.
I, along with the rest of the American people, have both passively and actively lent my consent to a government that has proven time and again that it will not look out for our values or our interests. In fact, regardless of which of the two parties is in power, we have seen one president after another, and one congress after another, enact policies that directly undermine our individual and collective well-being. As a result, the very same popular consent that powers the democracy that we ostensibly enjoy has been continuously eroding. More and more Americans realize that they are not only ill-served by their elected officials, but also that they do not truly have a choice in the matter. We are presented with two parties on the ballot, neither of which is beholden to its voters. They share a common allegiance to the money—the inordinate amount of money that is necessary for winning a modern electoral campaign. The comprehensive control of moneyed interests over our political power structure guarantees that decisions at all levels of government are made at the service of those individuals, groups and corporations who control the nation’s wealth—a steadily diminishing sliver of the general public—rather than the people who actually cast the votes on election day; rather than the people whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness the government is supposed to serve.
Those interests are as diverse as they are all-encompassing: from the military-industrial complex that president Eisenhower warned us about over 50 years ago, to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries that effectively ensure that the U.S. maintain the most expensive, inefficient and inhumane health care system in the developed world. From the large energy multi-nationals that pollute our waters while enjoying lavish tax breaks, to the Wall Street bankers whose reckless gambling brought about a world-wide financial crisis. They are all very well regarded in the American corridors of power, because they fund American electoral campaigns.
We the people are left to suffer the fallout:
- War: A prolonged state of war, war with all its attendant atrocities and horrors, war with no regard for congressional (or popular) approval, war with dubious benefits to our national security, war by varied contrived names that drains our national treasury and swells our national debt. War is the hallmark of American foreign policy, whether it is our own troops carrying it out or, or our allies.
- Economy: Unemployment, poverty, homelessness, hunger. Decades of deregulation, “free trade” and other “pro-business” fiscal policies have rendered large swaths of our workforce idle. Entire industries have moved abroad, and in those that still offer some measure of domestic employment, workers often face a race to the bottom of the pay scale. The middle class—the bedrock of our economy—is gradually evaporating, as more and more of its former members find themselves among the ranks of the poor, even if they still have a job. Multitudes lose their homes to unscrupulous bankers, who then go on to receive taxpayer-funded bonuses. At every turn, the working poor and middle class are asked to “tighten their belts” as the rich get richer.
- Health care: Immense disparities in access to care, skyrocketing healthcare costs, mediocre public health outcomes. American health care providers offer the best care and medical services that money can buy, but more and more Americans can no longer afford the costs. Our society as a whole suffers from clinical outcomes comparable to those in developing countries, and among our peers, we are one of the only nations that does not regard health care as a fundamental individual right. We are still the wealthiest nation in the world, and we allow 45,000 of our fellow Americans to die every year because they could not get the medical care that could save their lives.
- Education: Immense disparities in access to education, ignorance, illiteracy. Government budgets consistently underfund our primary education teachers, ensuring that our children are undereducated. After that weak start, at early adulthood they have a choice of either saddling themselves with insurmountable college debt, or forgoing higher education and taking their chances in the inhospitable economy.
- Environment: Pollution, droughts, floods, famine, disease, mass extinctions. We are compelled to continue to rely on fossil fuels, barrelling down the road to catastrophic climate change, despite wide-reaching scientific consensus about our role in our own imminent demise. The relentless pursuit of more and more oil and coal obliterates our oceans and mountaintops. Despite the recent disaster in Japan, the government still support expansion of nuclear power plants. Like in so many other large-scale enterprises, risk is socialized, while profits are privatized.
It goes on. This list of oppressions is long and familiar, and both reason and compassion call us to respond to them. A free and sovereign people should be able to petition their government for redress of grievances. It is both our right, and our civic duty, and we are told that we can do just that in each election cycle. But after many changes of personnel in elected offices that have failed to deliver the necessary remedies, many of us have resigned to accept these hemorrhaging wounds in our communities. Some of us accept them explicitly by avoiding the ballot box when election time comes around. Some of us accept them implicitly – we continue voting for the candidate or party we consider “the lesser evil,” clinging onto the hope that this one will be different. But change does not come. Incumbents and challengers, legislators and executives, Democrats and Republicans—they all stock their campaign “war chests” with funds that flow in from the wealthy and pay for ads targeted at the poor. As electoral pundits will invariably tell us, in the swing districts, it’s all about getting out the vote. It’s pulling the merely downtrodden out from the ranks of the decimated, and getting them to participate in their own bludgeoning.
We are told that if we do not participate, everything will get much worse. Institutionally, the Democratic Party knows that progressive Americans are terrified of having another Republican president, or Senate. They only really compete for people who might vote Republican, so they ignore the left. Progressive slogans that are thrown around during the campaign season are quickly diluted into “centrist” legislation, which in most cases is pulled directly out of Republican bills. This is how we got a Republican health care reform package under a Democratic president with Democratic control of both houses of Congress. This is how we got the extension of the egregious Bush tax cuts, measures that were the bane of most Democratic voters. This is how our entire government got hijacked into a deceptive debate about the deficit and national debt. The previous Democratic president dismantled welfare, and the current one is proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The Democrats blame Republican intransigence for their legislative failures, but many congressional matches are lost without a single political punch being thrown. As long as the prevailing Democratic political strategy is to hew as far toward the “center” as possible and the party continues to preemptively abandon their progressive constituents, they can never honestly claim defeat at the hands of their opposition. They are responsible for their own undoing.
And still – we are called to go out and vote. Not only that – we are expected to go out and vote unquestioningly. We are expected to vote and then go home and acquiesce, until the next cycle.
But this year is special. This year we have seen people all around the world rise up and take a strong nonviolent stand against governments that have failed them. In the Middle East they did so after decades of oppression. In Europe we are seeing masses congregate in the streets and city squares to protest economic austerity measures foisted down upon them. In Wisconsin the state capitol was taken over by the people, shining a bright light on the Republican campaign against workers’ rights. We have seen examples of homegrown, democratically organized movements sprouting up spontaneously. These are responses to government systems that grew so divorced from their citizens that they left the people no other choice. They were compelled to take a step beyond the mechanics of their current systems, be it despotic or electoral. These popular struggles are still unfolding, but regardless of their eventual achievements, they can serve to inspire the American body politic. They can wake us from our slumber and show us another way. Whether we like it or not, we have reached that very same point of no return. It is up to us to acknowledge the predicament that we are in, and to recognize that our elected “leaders” will not save us. It is not on their agenda because it does not serve their funders’ interests. We have no time for petitioning through “the proper channels,” or to wait for the next election cycle and voice our protest at the ballot box. We need to make our voice heard.
It is up to us to reclaim our rights as individuals and as a people. It is up to us to serve as an example to others and to educate. To that end, we too, will congregate peacefully and establish our popular assembly in Freedom Plaza. We will demonstrate that there is political power in the hands of the people. At the core of our demands will be the dismantling of the stranglehold that money has on the power structure. We will demand a focus on people and their lives, instead of on corporations and their profits. The specific demands that follow will inevitably include an end to war, socially-motivated fiscal policies, universal health care and education, responsible and effective environmental regulation and a genuine investment in renewable energy sources, to name a few. The details will be discussed and developed in assembly meetings on the ground.
Americans who can no longer tolerate their oppression will come to Freedom Plaza on October 6th, 2011. We will stay there; we will recreate our democracy.
As the sun sets this eve of Yom Kippur, I will fast and take stock. With eyes wide open, I will reflect on what I’ve done and what I have failed to do. I will cease to participate in the American electoral farce and I will instead take part in the most important movement of our generation. This is my tikkun olam. Will you join me?