It's said that those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it. I think of this while watching the Occupy Wall Street protests. My mind goes back to the French Revolution. It was the obscene disparity between the haves and have-nots that finally led to that blood bath. If you don't think that can happen here, I'd suggest you consider that at some point the have-nots will realize they have nothing left to lose because the "haves" control it all. Why not get extreme?
Interestingly, some bankers are now changing their tune and saying that even though they aren't sure what the protesters hope to accomplish by their methods, they understand the frustration. It seems that even those on the inside can now grasp how angry the 99 percent are at the dismal future they face, even as those who caused this economic catastrophe find themselves significantly better off now than before the crash. It doesn't take a genius to understand how wrong that seems.
As the movement spreads, I must admit that I am somewhat thrilled that this generation knows how to protest and sit in. I'd feared those skills were lost forever when Dubya took us on a war of choice and the campuses and streets of America didn't erupt with protest. Now I understand that the war didn't affect anyone but the military and their families so there was no need to get all riled up. Without the draft, college kids were safe and the only people suffering were people who volunteered for the job. So the massive protests of the '60s over an unjust war just never materialized.
It's kind of sad if you think about it. An unjust, unprovoked war of choice is a horrible, horrible thing to do in and of itself. But so long as the middle class wasn't overly burdened with carrying the weight and pain of it, we stayed silent.
Now, poverty being an equal opportunity employer, people are freaked by a future in which they feel they have precious little stake. The middle class finds itself being squeezed out of existence and suddenly staying silent is not an option. While we may express sympathy, love and patriotism toward those being blown apart in the Mideast, our anger only erupts when we ourselves are threatened. And boy do most of us feel threatened.
Those commentators who mock the crowds in these protests claiming they have no validity because they are using iPhones to spread the word are ostriches with their heads fully engulfed in the sand. They mock this process and the people committed to it at their own risk. Because no matter how garbled the message, no matter how badly expressed the frustration, no matter if the people in the street are holding iPhones or bullhorns, the bottom line is that the great American middle has been roused and is in no mood for either condescension or placation.
I remember the '60s. I remember the protests -- both those in which I participated and those I saw on TV. I remember my parents shaking their heads at the pictures on the news and wondering what had become of civility in public discourse. They did not believe a group of raggedy, over privileged, frequently stoned individuals could achieve anything. But we did. It wasn't pretty. And maybe everyone didn't agree with what was done. But it was from those streets that a presidency was overthrown, Jim Crow laws became publicly acknowledged as obscene and a war ended.
I'm well aware that a lot of other things happened in those streets, many of them not good. Members of my generation who would never come back from the bad acid trip to live a full and fulfilled life. Free love that would turn into an epidemic of STDs. Protests that turned violent and left innocent people dead.
But that's just the point. We should never have to go back down that road and yet here we are with a generation feeling disenfranchised, disowned and facing what they perceive as a hopeless future. In France, they beheaded the rich and took their lands and home by force. If we are smart enough to learn from history, we can avoid repeating that, either actually or metaphorically. If not, then God help America because it's only going to get worse.
Elise Patkotak is a writer who lives in Anchorage. Read her blog at www.elisepatkotak.com.