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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 11/16/19

Why Aren't People in the US Rising Up Like Those Elsewhere in the World?

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The American Dream is not just elusive -- it's a complete fantasy. In reality, the U.S. has the greatest income inequality of any wealthy, developed country. Of the 39 developed countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only South Africa and Costa Rica exceed the U.S.'s 18% poverty rate. The United States is an anomaly: a very wealthy country suffering from exceptional poverty. To make matters worse, children born into poor families in the U.S. are more likely to remain poor as adults than poor children in other wealthy countries. But the American dream ideology keeps people struggling and competing to improve their lives on a strictly individual basis, instead of demanding a fairer society and the healthcare, education and public services we all need and deserve.

The corporate media keeps Americans uninformed and docile

The U.S.'s corporate media system is also unique, both in its consolidated corporate ownership and in its limited news coverage, endlessly downsized newsrooms and narrow range of viewpoints. Its economics reporting reflects the interests of its corporate owners and advertisers; its domestic reporting and debate is strictly framed and limited by the prevailing rhetoric of Democratic and Republican leaders; its anemic foreign policy coverage is editorially dictated by the State Department and Pentagon.

This closed media system wraps the public in a cocoon of myths, euphemisms and propaganda to leave us exceptionally ignorant about our own country and the world we live in. Reporters Without Borders ranks the U.S. 48th out of 180 countries on its Press Freedom Index, once again making the U.S. an exceptional outlier among wealthy countries.

It's true people can search for their own truth on social media to counter the corporate babble, but social media is itself a distraction. People spend countless hours on facebook, twitter, instagram and other platforms venting their anger and frustration without getting up off the couch to actually do something -- except perhaps sign a petition. "Clicktivism" will not change the world.

Add to this the endless distractions of Hollywood, video games, sports and consumerism, and the exhaustion that comes with working several jobs to make ends meet. The resulting political passivity of Americans is not some strange accident of American culture but the intended product of a mutually reinforcing web of economic, political and media systems that keep the American public confused, distracted and convinced of our own powerlessness.

The political docility of the American public does not mean that Americans are happy with the way things are, and the unique challenges this induced docility poses for American political activists and organizers surely cannot be more daunting than the life-threatening repression faced by activists in Chile, Haiti or Iraq.

So how can we liberate ourselves from our assigned roles as passive spectators and mindless cheerleaders for a venal ruling class that is laughing all the way to the bank and through the halls of power as it grabs ever more concentrated wealth and power at our expense?

Few expected a year ago that 2019 would be a year of global uprising against the neoliberal economic and political system that has dominated the world for 40 years. Few predicted new revolutions in Chile or Iraq or Algeria. But popular uprisings have a way of confounding conventional wisdom.

The catalysts for each of these uprisings have also been surprising. The protests in Chile began over an increase in subway fares. In Lebanon, the spark was a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other social media accounts. Hikes in fuel tax triggered the yellow vest protests in France, while the ending of fuel subsidies was a catalyst in both Ecuador and Sudan.

The common factor in all these movements is the outrage of ordinary people at systems and laws that reward corruption, oligarchy and plutocracy at the expense of their own quality of life. In each country, these catalysts were the final straws that broke the camel's back, but once people were in the street, protests quickly turned into more general uprisings demanding the resignation of leaders and governments.

They have the guns but we have the numbers

State repression and violence have only fueled greater popular demands for more fundamental change, and millions of protesters in country after country have remained committed to non-violence and peaceful protest -- in stark contrast to the rampant violence of the right-wing coup in Bolivia.

While these uprisings seem spontaneous, in every country where ordinary people have risen up in 2019, activists have been working for years to build the movements that eventually brought large numbers of people onto the streets and into the headlines.

Erica Chenoweth's research on the history of nonviolent protest movements found that whenever at least 3.5% of a population have taken to the streets to demand political change, governments have been unable to resist their demands. Here in the U.S., Transparency International found that the number of Americans who see "direct action," including street protests, as the antidote to our corrupt political system has risen from 17% to 25% since Trump took office, far more than Chenoweth's 3.5%. Only 28% still see simply "voting for a clean candidate" as the answer. So maybe we are just waiting for the right catalyst to strike a chord with the American public.

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Medea Benjamin Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace and author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection. 

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