An Equal and Opposite Reaction?

It’s called cognitive dissonance – the confusion you experience when you try to hold two contradictory ideas at once.

One of them?  That despite the financial meltdown, everything’s going to be all right. Why? Because many of the same Wall Street financiers responsible for most serious economic depression since the 1930s are now working in the halls of government to do – well – to do exactly what?  

That’s where the contradiction comes in. The lobbyists and the White House advisors are there to make sure that they and their cronies won’t get caught or punished, that deregulation will prevail, and that there will be no end to the bonuses paid to themselves and their unindicted co-conspirators back on Wall Street.       

You keep hearing and being told one thing – recovery is just around the corner – and yet the reality seems quite different. People are out of work and jobs are scarce. Foreclosures mount, savings dwindle, school budgets are slashed. It’s a continuing crisis, and it’s not happening in some other country, it’s happening here.

There were several additional jolts to this dissonance during the past week. Tuesday night I attended a private showing of Inside Job, the new Academy-Award-winning film about the financial meltdown. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema, one of the best-made documentaries I have ever seen.

But more than that, it shows that independent media – and I include digital and electronic media in this category – have immense power to illuminate the contradictions of the current economic crisis. Other reviewers have already summed up the film’s argument – go here and here – so I won’t go into details, but I urge you to see the film and tell others about it.

And I want to mention a moment toward the end that seemed to sum up the entire film. A housing-rights advocate who appears throughout the interviews is asked why it all happened – the deregulation of banking, the formation of financial giants, the dishonesty of trading in derivatives, the housing bubble, the coverups of the rating agencies, the sleaziness of the academic economists, the revolving-door lobbyists-cum-politicians working in Washington – how on earth did this entire mess ever come about?

“It’s government by Wall Street,” the advocate replies. Which just about sums it up.

We learned in physics class that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That comes straight from the arch-conservative Isaac Newton. On the following day, Wednesday, Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature pushed through a bill ending collective bargaining in that state. Today, at a huge pro-labor rally in downtown Indianapolis, the opposite reaction was instantaneous.

At first the thousands of working men and women standing in the cold and the snow flurries in front of the Statehouse seemed willing to listen patiently during the songs and preliminary announcements.  They removed their caps when three local ministers were introduced and took turns offering their prayers.

But the third minister, perhaps sensing the mood of the crowd, immediately began to pray in the rhythms of the traditional black church and the cadences of the work gang. In fiery terms he denounced the recent outrages against organized labor in Wisconsin, and the crowd let out a full-throated roar that must have rattled the chains on the desks of the legislators inside the Statehouse. 

It was supposed to be a prayer, but the crowd was with him, and thousands called back with a force equal in intensity to his pleas for economic justice. I knew then that the compassion and spirit of Martin Luther King had descended upon the gathering, and that the vision and eloquence of Eugene Debs had returned and was once again moving hearts and minds. 

The noise was tumultous. The preacher could barely make himself heard. “Y’all shut up,” he said humorously at one point, “and let me pray!” But the crowd was thoroughly roused, and it stayed that way for the rest of the rally. The solidarity was tangible. It was not going to go away, as the conservative legislators and the right-wing media channels might wish.

A cold wind whirled the flakes of snow over the workers’ heads and the sea of bobbing signs and American flags. The people had gathered from all over the Midwest, and they stayed to the end, singing, chanting, applauding, waving their signs and banners.

There were teachers and roofers and janitors and bricklayers in the crowd. I saw gray-haired elders who were old enough to have marched against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. I saw young people barely old enough to vote, in their Teamster jackets. I talked with ex-air-traffic-controllers who had been fired by Reagan in 1981, and steelworkers from Chicago who had been locked out last year. 

When I was a young man I had worked as a metal fabricator and been a member of the steelworkers’ union, and more recently I had taught as an “part-timer” in a sold-out, corporatized “university” where I observed wage exploitation and intellectual bigotry first-hand. 

But in that rally at the Indiana Statehouse, my cognitive dissonance began to melt away. There was no more contradiction between what I been told by the corporate media, and what I began to realize while standing there with the Midwestern workers. Things had become much clearer.

The greed and arrogance of the bankers and the Wall Street manipulators would not last. Something that was happening at that very moment, in other countries already in the headlines, was also beginning to happen here in the United States.

A countervailing force was rising up against the power of privilege and wealth, and against the hegemony of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower had warned us about.  

But a politics of resentment cannot succeed, anymore than an aesthetics of disparagement.  There must be renewed vision and a new sense of unity. It remains to be seen if organized labor, suddenly re-energized by this crisis, can reach out to the workers of America in an inclusive, constructive way.  

We can only hope that Newton was right, and that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

4 comments to An Equal and Opposite Reaction?

  • Gregg

    These topics are on many people’s minds. For me, I see people walking past on the way to a shelter. They are real. They are the salt of the earth. Many have hit a wall, but you can see in the way they carry themselves that they have led productive, okay lives I think, until now. There is a surreal disconnect between our everyday people and the moneyed class, the corporate soldiers, the suits driving by in their dark-tinted windshielded BMWs and Mercedes. But you are right. This is not going anywhere fast if resentment and disparagement inform us. For me personally, Barack Obama diluted the meaning of a politics of Hope, the politics of Yes We Can, the politics of Change We Can Believe In. Anyway, I am looking for ways to join the battle. Just like some in Libya tonight.

  • traveled and seasoned

    We live in the age of the new “golden rule”-Those with the gold, rule. It is a sick season of greed and the division deepens.

    Do you think there could be a jar of air, breathed by Teddy Roosevelt, in the back shelves of the Smithsonian? Could it breed a sense of reason? Is there a glimmer of reform, anywhere?

    The modern Republican Party was first hijacked by those who began the unraveling spiral by way of deregulation. It was then inherited by air the air bosses of greed from the very military industrial alliance Eisenhower warned of. The result was two wars, a financial collapse and a cascading deficit. Now the party watches its few brains being eaten by the jackal spawn of John Birchers.

    And while those with the gold, get more gold, the great commonsense center, seems missing. Why are investment bankers not jailed but public employees are being pummeled? Why are the super rich being given another tax pass and education is being stripped, again? How long before America wakes up?

    There is a shadow demon who feeds on my frustration. He whispers another how long? How long before there are a few disappeared investment bankers, lobbyists, media gas bags? How long before the greedy and the fixers feel the chill? How long before those with the gold feel the refining fire of justice or maybe just the alchemy of revenge? How long?

  • misch

    Thank you. It is somewhat difficult here in the retirement state [Florida] to get a sense of how others are responding to this crisis.

  • The next election will tell whether or not the assault on basic workers’ rights by Republican governors will reverse the steady migration of the working classes into the Republican party of recent decades. American workers in the 1930s (and well back into the 19th century) had a very clear idea who their friends and who their enemies were, and Republican administrations had never been their friends. The lines were clearly drawn and apparent to everyone, and they remained so well into the 1970s. But from the early ’80s on– for a whole host of reasons– the old issues were lost sight of, and workers seemed to lose their sense of identity and their own history. Perhaps recent events will help clarify the old issues that have never really gone away.

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