A Series Of Misleading Comparisons

by Conor Friedersdorf

I'm more puzzled than anything by this Barbara Ehrenreich op-ed:

Why are Americans such wusses? Threaten the Greeks with job losses and benefit cuts and they tie up Athens, but take away Americans' jobs, 401(k)s, even their homes, and they pretty much roll over. 

Is someone taking away the 401(k)s of Americans? Would street protests somehow salvage the jobs of those who've lost them in the recession? For that matter, have street protests done anything to improve the lives of the Greeks engaged in them?

Here is Michael Lewis describing the economic situation in Greece:

In addition to its roughly $400 billion (and growing) of outstanding government debt, the Greek number crunchers had just figured out that their government owed another $800 billion or more in pensions. Add it all up and you got about $1.2 trillion, or more than a quarter-million dollars for every working Greek. Against $1.2 trillion in debts, a $145 billion bailout was clearly more of a gesture than a solution. And those were just the official numbers; the truth is surely worse. “Our people went in and couldn’t believe what they found,” a senior I.M.F. official told me, not long after he’d returned from the I.M.F.’s first Greek mission. “The way they were keeping track of their financesthey knew how much they had agreed to spend, but no one was keeping track of what he had actually spent. It wasn’t even what you would call an emerging economy. It was a Third World country.”

I invite you to read the rest. It's as good as everything Lewis writes, and sufficient to show why it is lazy, amateurish journalism to act as though our countries are in analogous situations right now – as if the fact that Greeks are protesting in the streets and Americans aren't shows that our people are wusses (or anything else).

The piece proceeds to bash Glenn Beck and the commenters at his Web magazine. I can't disagree there, but again, you're drawing sweeping conclusions about America as a whole from a fever swamp Web comments section?

And then we come to the main argument:

During the depression of 1892 to 1896, unemployed workers marched to Washington by the thousands in what was then the largest mass protest this country had seen. In 1932, even more jobless people -- 25,000 -- staged what was, at that time, the largest march on Washington, demanding public works jobs and a hike in the inheritance tax. From the '60s to the '80s, Americans marched again and again -- peacefully, nonviolently and by the hundreds of thousands -- for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, economic justice and against wars. In fact, this has been a major focus of Piven's scholarly work over the years the American tradition of protest and resistance to economic injustice -- and it's a big enough subject to keep hundreds of academics busy for life.

There are all kinds of explanations for how Americans lost their grass-roots political mojo: iPods have been invoked, along with computer games and anti-depressants. And of course much of the credit goes to the so-called populist right of the Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck persuasion, which argues that the real enemy of the down-and-out is not the boss or the bank but the "liberal elite" represented by people like Piven.

But at least part of the explanation is guns themselves -- or, more specifically, the recent and uniquely American addiction to high-powered personal weaponry. Although ropes and bombs are also mentioned, most of the people threatening Piven on Beck's website referred lovingly to their guns, often by caliber and number of available rounds. As Joan Burbick, author of the 2006 book, "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy," has observed, "The act of buying a gun can mimic political action. It makes people feel as if they are engaging in politics of political protest."

Where to begin?

– The subset of Glenn Beck Web commenters who issue threats is perhaps the shoddiest data set in the history of bullshit extrapolation. Really, this is embarassing.

– Decades later, it's easy to romanticize protests where American laborers took to the streets in times of economic turmoil. But as I well know from reading up on Depression-era labor strikes in California alone, those events were often driven by the desperation of people without anything resembling the safety net Americans enjoy today, and they often turned violent, sometimes due to rabble rousing protestors, other times because of overzealous riot police. Street protests themselves signal a failure of politics and policy, not a triumph.

– Say what you will about Glenn Beck, but it's odd to criticize him for lessening the grass-roots mojo of Americans: he's the guy who filled the national mall with his fans, a huge backer of Tea Party rallies all over the United States, and the inspiration for the Jon Stewart counter-rally for that matter. What a weird moment to write a long piece about how Americans aren't taking to the streets anymore.

– Given the membership of the NRA and the profile of Tea Party demonstrators, it sure seems to me like gun owners are more likely to engage in politics in addition to buying guns, not less likely because they feel as if they've already said their piece by arming up.

In conclusion, Ehrenreich writes:

...there is one thing you can accomplish with guns and coarse threats about using them: You can make people think twice before disagreeing with you. When a congresswoman can be shot in a parking lot and a professor who falls short of Glenn Beck's standards of political correctness can be, however anonymously, targeted for execution, we have moved well beyond democracy -- to a tyranny of the heavily armed.

What nonsense. An American street protestor today, whether on the right or left, is significantly safer from physical violence than the Civil Rights era protestors or the kids at Kent State or the San Francisco dockworkers or Salinas lettuce strikers of the Great Depression. Then there's the invocation of the 1890s.

Here's a description of that protest:

Although Coxey’s Army was only one of more than forty different armies of the unemployed that headed for Washington, D.C., in 1894 to seek relief from their plight, it was by far the best known. Its leader was the colorful Jacob S. Coxey, a wealthy Populist who owned a sand quarry, bred horses, and wore hand-tailored suits. The publicity that preceded the arrival of the “armies” apparently frightened authorities. Fifteen hundred soldiers were stationed in Washington to meet the army; thousands more were available in Baltimore, Annapolis, and Philadelphia in anticipation of further trouble. But the army that arrived on May 1, 1894, numbered only 500. When Coxey tried to speak at the U.S. Capitol, police arrested him for walking on the grass.

Ah, the good old days before Glenn Beck and his coterie of armed Internet commenters scared us into submission.