If They Can Do It, Why Can’t We?

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Egypt has given us the most persuasive reason to believe that peaceful – that is, non-violent – revolution is possible. But it’s not the only example. Last month there was Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution.” A 29-day protest movement overthrew Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, an autocrat who had ruled for 23 years with a hand so heavy with corruption that when he or his wife and her family saw something they wanted, they simply appropriated it, ultimately stealing billions of dollars from ordinary citizens, who had no avenue to seek recompense.

Surely Tunisia inspired the masses in Egypt, who last week overthrew Hosni Mubarak, their despot for 30 years. In addition, not that the US corporate media would tell you so, we have many examples – the Philippines “people power” revolution; the “singing revolution” that freed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; Indonesia‘s “quiet revolution;” Georgia‘s “revolution of roses’, and Ukraine‘s “orange revolution” among them – of non-violent working-class actions that have toppled dictatorial regimes.

If they can do it, why can’t we?

I’m not ready to chant “Obama has got to go” – unless someone like Bernie Sanders is ready to stand up with us. But I can give you good reasons why we should be talking about taking our government back from the corporatists who have, over the past 30 years, waged unremitting class warfare. They have redistributed the nation’s wealth such that the top 2% owns more than the bottom 50% of our population; destroyed the American dream; and now, given the economic disaster they have visited upon all but themselves, bid fair to destroy our education system, physical and communications infrastructure, and the social safety net of which we once were so proud.

We are approaching a T intersection where we will have no choice but to turn one way or the other. To the right is a fascist/corporatist government. Don’t get fascism and Nazism mixed up. The textbook definition of fascism is the merger of government and business in the interest of the corporation. What else do you call it when government officials are at work making it easier (and more inevitable) for states to declare bankruptcy so that they can vacate union contracts and pensions for people who worked their whole lives at inferior wages in the expectation that they might retire in safety and never fear poverty?

What do you call a government that plans to cut corporate taxes and make up for the reduced revenues by cutting benefits of food, shelter, and heat for individuals and families in the lowest income brackets?

We have to turn left.

Egypt probably won’t wind up with a democracy, but we don’t have one, either. How can you call it a democracy when the votes of five people with lifetime jobs gave the presidency to a man who then proceeded to spend the country – willfully, knowingly, purposely – into what would be frankly identified as bankruptcy if we didn’t spend on our military and spy functions many times what the rest of the world – combined – spends?

How can you call it a democracy when five people with lifetime jobs gave freedom of speech to billionaires, rendering inoperative the theoretical freedom of speech the US constitution grants to the rest of us?

If all those other countries can take back their self-determination, why can’t we?

There’s no reason why we can’t. We just have to care enough, press hard enough, and long enough.

In a compelling essay this past weekend, Bob Herbert tells of a lunch he had with the historian Howard Zinn a few weeks before his death in January 2010. Herbert says,

He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.

I’m not finished here, just taking the night off so I can come back stronger tomorrow. I’ve found what I think is a framework for action. Peaceful, non-violent action. The only kind I can advocate.

Stick with me for a while, and maybe we can get something going.

If they can do it, why can’t we?

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11 Responses to “If They Can Do It, Why Can’t We?”

  1. Hi Miryam: I agree with you in most part. I also think we whatever-we-ares who are moved and heartened by the student-led Egyptian revolution need to think carefully, NOW, how we can support the Egyptian people’s calls for economic equality (as reported in the NYT). Not economic freedom, not economic justice, but economic equality. They are looking for something very different than we have seen before. And the economic powers that enable every totalitarian autocrat and “democratic” leader to stay in power are mobilizing every tool they have right now to see that that will never happen. I ask people of conscience to ask themselves how they can support Egypt by withholding support from the multinational economic structures that are really behind the suppression of the polity for the benefit of the elites everywhere. In truth, we are all Egyptians. And if Egypt is going to “show us what democracy looks like” they are going to need all of our help and solidarity. You are right, we need to take a lesson from Tahrir Square, and begin organizing now.

  2. Yes, it’s past time for complacent Americans to get off their fat butts and become adult, responsible.informed, and “harrass their local politicians. I do, why not “you”?
    Thanks for the post.

  3. Sally, thank you for this. It’s clear you are ahead of me. I don’t know, for example, what you mean by the “multinational economic structures” from which we should withhold support, and how we can do that. If you’ve been visiting here, then you know that I believe economic equality is devoutly to be wished. But, I confess, I’m at a loss to imagine how it can be achieved without bloodshed. Help me to envision it, please.

  4. Thanks for the comment and challenge, Rick. Can you help us to focus more sharply on how to “harrass” our politicians? Are you talking about lobbying on specific pending legislation, or on something more broad and point to real change? I think most legislators need direction, but I’m not clear how we as individuals can provide a coherent message.

  5. Thank you, Miryam, for once more putting what I hope we’re all thinking so eloquently!

  6. Miryam, thanks for leading out on this.  I quail at the the scope of the task:  sisyphean rock, augean stables come to mind.  But then in this field of metaphor, there’s the basic choice:  curse the darkness, or light a candle.  I’d far rather the latter.  I just hope I have enough energy left to try to climb back up to the kind of hope we had in the ’60s and ’70s–when we imagined we were doing what the Egyptians have just done.

  7. Hosannah! I’m so glad you’ve begun this thread. Yes, this country is not a democracy and we need one desperately. One of my fellow travelers is currently in Wisconsin where the newly elected Republican governor plans to pass bills outlawing collective bargaining and has threatened to call out the state’s National Guard if unionists and their supporters raise rumpus and won’t go along with that. Sounds pretty damn fascist to me. Today there were 15,000 people demonstrating both inside and outside the state capitol. Stay tuned. Egypt may happen here sooner than you think.

  8. [...] is the sequel I promised to yesterday's post, "If They Can Do It, Why Can't We?" If you haven't read it, doing so will get you in the mood for what's to come.  Go check it out; [...]

  9. Steve, given the choice between action and despair, I’ll take action any day. In the 60s and 70s I expected to live long enough to see the results of my actions. This time I don’t, but I intend to plant all the seeds I can and let others enjoy the trees. If you take a look at the Progressive Strategy Handbook I wrote about the day after “If They Can Do It…” maybe you’ll find a seedling worth nurturing.

  10. [...] If They Can Do It, Why Can’t We? Share and Enjoy: [...]

  11. [...] intervention. Libya, in this regard, is not to be confused with Egypt, or Tunisia, or the nine other nations that have toppled tyrants in the recent past by means of non-violent [...]

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