February 27, 2011

Class Warfare Is Ugly but Necessary to Get Rid of the Bad Blood

Harvard University, my alma mater, has decided that students from low income families -- earning less than $60,000 a year -- will pay no tuition and have no student loan burden. This was a forward-thinking policy decision by a wealthy institution sitting on $27.6 billion, the largest university endowment in the land. Implicit in Harvard's decision is an acknowledgment that things are getting out of hand in higher education, and in society in general. A quality education, often prohibitively expensive and out of reach to many, should not be accessible solely to the wealthy or those who are able to afford it.

Harvard's spirit of equity and fairness should be shared around the country, in the Congress and in state houses throughout the wealthiest nation on earth. Despite what some people would tell you, America is a nation of plenty, the world's largest economy. The only problem is that in the so-called land of opportunity -- not unlike Egypt, Libya, and the various other unraveling countries in the Mideast -- only a few people are actually enjoying the wealth. Here, the bankers received their bailout, a reward for their greed, incompetence and inflated sense of self-worth. Meanwhile, the super duper-rich had their Bush-era tax breaks extended under a Democratic president whose idea of compromise has been to grant Republicans whatever they want.

The Obama budget reflects an acceptance of the conservative narrative that the poor must suffer in the name of austerity and balancing the budget. Wall Street enjoys record profits and bonuses, while the working poor must endure cuts to social programs, home heating assistance programs and access to graduate education. But the talk of deficit reduction is pure grandstanding. After all, the Bush tax cuts are driving the deficit, and significant cuts to America's bloated military behemoth are off the table.

In their quest to shrink government down to nothing, conservatives have found their new welfare queen in the form of public labor unions. Everyday people who are just trying to earn an honest living are suddenly scapegoated, blamed for the nation's financial and fiscal woes. Of course, there is a larger picture at play, which is why thousands of Wisconsin workers have protested against Gov. Scott Walker's plan to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. The Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state to deny Republicans the quorum to vote for the union-busting legislation, with Democrats in other states like Indiana following suit, and Republicans locking protestors out of the Ohio Statehouse. The Republican Party wants to remove all vestiges of union power in this country, so that corporations are allowed to roam, unfettered and unchallenged, and trample over the rights of American workers. The Supreme Court has allowed corporations to buy what was passing as democracy, and now Tea Party legislatures and governors would render this a full-fledged nation of serfs and sharecroppers.

In all manner of Talibanic extremism, the unhinged, lunatic rightward fringe is using this opportunity to push all of the foolishness they could imagine when they lived in the political wilderness and were jonesing for power. The lunatics are running the asylum, literally. It is a nasty little sideshow, and there would be some entertainment value in it all if actual lives were not at stake. Congress voted to defund Planned Parenthood. In South Dakota, a bill would sanction the murder of abortion providers as justifiable homicide. A bill in the Georgia legislature would punish miscarriages with the death penalty. A Missouri lawmaker wants to do away with those "over the top" labor laws that prohibit child labor. And Texas could allow college students to wear concealed weapons on campus. After all, what better way to deal with campus gun violence than to recreate the Wild West on campus, in Texas of all places? Meanwhile, the NRA, further revealing its kinship with rightwing extremist groups, advocates the formation of armed militias -- private police forces unanswerable to government authority.

In the midst of all of this, ordinary citizens are waking up, and thousands are taking to the streets in nonviolent protest. Although Glenn Beck would paint the workers marching in Wisconsin as anarchists, socialists and communists, not to mention allies of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, there is a thread which binds the protestors in the Middle East and the U.S. They all know authoritarianism when they see it, and they realize the government, reeking with oligarchy and plutocracy, is working to undermine their interests. As F.D.R. once said, in the words etched in his memorial, "They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers... call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order."

Class warfare is ugly, but sometimes it is necessary. It can be a liberating thing, and it is the best thing that can happen to a progressive movement that needs a president to "make me do it," as F.D.R. urged A. Philip Randolph. And as they said in The Godfather, "These things have to happen every five, ten years. Gets rid of the bad blood." Getting rid of the bad blood could also mean getting rid of an overreaching GOP living on borrowed time.

Playing both sides of the fence in the class wars, Democrats must choose a side, lest they get swept away, too.

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