What Would It Take for Americans to React Like “Gaza Youth Breaks Out”?

Gaza Youth Breaks Out(Pictured: Gaza Youth Breaks Out’s logo.)

“F**k Hamas. F**k Israel. F**k Fatah. F**k UN. F**k UNWRA. F**k USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!” Thus begins the Gaza Youth’s Manifesto for Change, as posted on Gaza Youth Breaks Out Facebook page, which over 8,000 Facebook users “like.” As the Guardian reports, the document details “the daily humiliations and frustrations that constitute everyday life in the Gaza Strip.”

Equal-opportunity dissidents, the members of Gaza Youth Breaks Out are almost as outraged by the heavy hand of Hamas as by Israeli oppression.

We barely survived the Operation Cast Lead. . . . During the last years, Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations. Here in Gaza we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed. We cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want.

Recent months have seen the emergence of another unlikely source of outrage: 93-year-old former French Resistance fighter and Buchenwald survivor Stéphane Hessel. His slim volume — actually a long essay — Indignez-vous! (Get indignant!) has spent two months atop French bestseller lists. Another Guardian article reports:

Hessel’s book argues that French people should re-embrace the values of the French resistance, which have been lost, which was driven by indignation, and French people need to get outraged again.

Among his personal hot-button issues:

. . . the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor, France’s shocking treatment of its illegal immigrants, the need to re-establish a free press, protecting the environment, the plight of Palestinians and the importance of protecting the French welfare system.

It’s easy to lament how sad it is that Western public needs to be told to become indignant. But one might look at someone in Hessel’s position — not exactly the French Michael Moore, he once served as his country’s ambassador to the United Nations — as providing the populace with the permission it subconsciously feels it needs to express outrage.

Allow me to qualify that by explaining that the disinclination of 90% of the population to refrain from rebellion does not make them sheep. They may just be hard-wired to support the society and government into which they’re born. In his version of the the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, nutritionist and renaissance man Gary Null called them “adaptive-supportives.” That’s not so bad, is it? (For more, see my January 2010 piece for Scholars & Rogues Is apathy socially redeeming?)

But do Westerners, Americans especially, and not just youth, but adults, need to be reduced to straits as dire as the Palestinians in Gaza before they react as Gaza Youth Speak Out did?

One-time neocon Francis Fukuyama, the celebrated political economist who has since turned his attention to the subject of wealth inequality, wrestles with why Americans endure what we do without fighting back in the January-February issue of the American Interest. Note that, in the passage that follows, when he refers to the left he means moderates such as Obama supporters, not true progressives. Here is, to Fukuyama, the “paramount puzzle.”

Why has a significant increase in income inequality in recent decades failed to generate political pressure from the left for redistributional redress, as similar trends did in earlier times? Instead, insofar as there is any populism bubbling from below in America today it comes from the Right, and its target is not just the “undeserving rich”—Wall Street “flip-it” shysters and their ilk—but, even more so, government policies intended to protect Americans from their predations. . . . Within a year of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the most energized and angry people on the American political scene were not the homeowners with subprime mortgages who faced foreclosure as a result of the crisis, but rather those who faulted the government for taking steps to protect those homeowners, and to prevent the crisis from deepening. It was a strange phenomenon that saw many of those most deeply injured by the crisis become, in effect, objective allies of those who caused it.

This, then, is the contemporary context in which we raise the question of plutocracy in America: Why, given the economic history of the past thirty years, have we not seen the emergence of a powerful left-wing political movement seeking fairer distribution of growth? [Operative word: powerful. -- RW] . . . How can it be that large numbers of congressional Democrats and arguably the most socially liberal President in American history are now seriously considering extending, and even making permanent, the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003? Is this not prima facie evidence of plutocracy?

In an outstanding article at Huffington Post titled The Poorhouse: Aunt Winnie, Glenn Beck, And The Politics Of The New Deal, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim provide a clue. (Emphasis added.)

[President Franklin] Roosevelt came into office a deficit hawk, pushed to balance the budget and cut federal worker pay. He quickly realized his error and turned around. He had the room to maneuver, however, because poverty had become so widespread that it lost its stigma. It could finally be addressed with a level head rather than a wag of the finger.

Before then, however, the nation was just prosperous enough for those with a little to look down upon those with less.

In other words, the United States hasn’t been reduced to the circumstances that many lived under during the Depression, nor under which the elderly once routinely lived. Delaney and Grim again.

Though there were no national measurements, in surveys taken between 1925 and 1932 in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin, nearly half of elderly people lived on less than $25 per month, which survey administrators deemed “insufficient subsistence income.” A third in Connecticut had no income at all. An attempt to quantify elderly poverty in 1939, deep into the depression, using census data, found the rate may have been close to 80 percent.

The day that poverty loses its stigma doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s become acceptable. It’s just that it’s become pervasive to the point we can no longer indulge in denial that we’re about to be overtaken by it too. It’s the same with, say, warrantless surveillance. Until the day comes when many of us are actually dragged from our homes and taken into custody, we’ll remain in denial that our rights are being systematically abrogated. However tired, the metaphor of the boiling frog demands to be trotted out again: by the time we decide we’ve had enough, it’s too late.