which ends like this

I asked Lynda Hiller if she felt generally optimistic or pessimistic. She was quiet for a moment, then said: “I don’t think things are going to get any better. I think we’re going to hit rock bottom. The big shots are in charge, and they just don’t give a darn about the little person.”

Bob Herbert has a column titled Absorbing the Pain. He attended a small gathering in North Philadelphia organized by Working America, an effort of the AFL-CIO. The people gathered were not union members, simply those coming together to share the pain.

Things are bad in America. Herbert’s column reminds us how bad:

after telling us the specifics of some of the people at that meeting, he offers four powerful paragraphs, too much to quote here without exceeding fair use, then concludes with the words with which I began.

In the first of these four Herbert reminds us that the people around that table in Philadelphia do not represent extraordinary cases, and that they sound as if they came from a nation in a deep depression.

He says one benefit of the turmoil in Wisconsin and elsewhere is that it puts a

spotlight that is being thrown on the contemptuous attitude of the corporate elite and their handmaidens in government toward ordinary working Americans: police officers and firefighters, teachers, truck drivers, janitors, health care aides, and so on. These are the people who do the daily grunt work of America. How dare we treat them with contempt.

Let me reflect on this point for a moment. In theory we believe in the dignity of work. That is part of the reasoning of some for their opposition to welfare. And yet, are not our tax breaks for the wealthy and for corporations and our refusal to impose appropriate fines for illegal and destructive corporate behavior a form of welfare for the corporations and the rich? If the actions we do not sanction are destructive of the possibility of work for the ordinary people do not we demean the dignity of the work they had been doing? Or is it our attitude going to be that only the work of some matters and to hell with the rest of us?

Herbert tells us that this not just about the right of public workers to be in unions:

As important as that issue is, it’s just one skirmish in what’s shaping up as a long, bitter campaign to keep ordinary workers, whether union members or not, from being completely overwhelmed by the forces of unrestrained greed in this society.

The predators at the top, billionaires and millionaires, are pitting ordinary workers against one another. So we’re left with the bizarre situation of unionized workers with a pension being resented by nonunion workers without one. The swells are in the background, having a good laugh.

That laugh sounds familiar to this student of history. It reminds me of the powerful who pitted poor whites against blacks in the South and elsewhere in order to maintain power over both, to depress the wages of both while maximizing their own profits. It is the cackle of those folks at the notion they should care about working conditions that maim and murder as if the broken lives and families should somehow matter more than their ability to consume conspicuously, to buy more expensive toys, to act as if their shit didn’t stink.

Too many who should know better have allied themselves with the wealthy and the powerful against the rest of us – they may not be part of the elite but they hope to benefit personally from the work they do that is destructive of hope to millions. We find such folks in Congress and state legislatures, in governor’s mansions and in positions supposed to regulate to protect all of us. We find far too many in the organs of media that should be exposing the corruption and greed and telling us truth rather than seeking to indoctrinate us on behalf of their puppetmasters.

Herbert writes about ordinary, hard-working people. The rhetoric that the wealthy and powerful like the Koch brothers have funded and promoted is about to hit the middle class. It is not only teachers like me, and government workers of all stripes in states with governors like that idiot in Wisconsin. By this time next week it may well be most of the federal civilian work force.

We live in the DC Metro area. At the time of the last shutdown, the Congress eventually provided the federal workforce with back pay for the time workers were locked out. That was a total of several weeks. This time? It is not clear that the Republicans in House would offer any back pay to federal workers.

Our household is not unique. As a teacher my pay this year has been cut more than 10%. My federal employee wife makes more than I do. Were we to go a month without her income, we might well be in danger of losing our home of 27 years: we have no reserves.

But we are better off than many: think of the ordinary folks working in coffee shops living on tips who will have no customers if the government shuts down. Even if the government workers get back pay after the shutdown ends, they have lost that income forever.

This country is at serious risk. Our GINI coefficient, indicating our economic inequality, is going up even as we sit here. The stock market may have recovered, but people still lack jobs, and many jobs that exist or are being created at a snail’s pace pay less with fewer benefits than those that were lost. Wealth continues to be shifted into the pockets of those who already have too much.

We cannot afford our military-industrial-congressional complex. That is how Eisenhower wanted to describe it.

Our endeavors in Afghanistan are not only killing and destroying lives, of Afghans far more than of Americans, it is using up scarce funds that are desperately needed to help the American people.

Our tax policies are destroying what is left of the ability of the government to intervene on behalf of those in or approaching desperation.

It is early morning on a Saturday. Today’s New York Times contains yet another must read from Bob Herbert. I read it. I wrote about it, and more.

And now? Today there are demonstrations all around the nation.

Today we have an opportunity to try to take back our nation.

Today we should remind ourselves that we need to be vigilant and active, to ensure that our government is of the people, by the people, and for the people, not – as I wrote in this piece for CNN a government of the corporations, by the already powerful, for the wealthy.

If it is not already too late.

About the Author

Kenneth Bernstein

Kenneth Bernstein is a National Board certified social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he serves as the lead union representative for the teachers. He blogs as "teacherken" at Daily Kos and has written for The New York Times, Teacher, CNN.Com, and Huffington Post. He is a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher.

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