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To the Barricades!

Wisconsin may be the first sign in America of direct action, Egypt-style.

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Well, it's about time! I wondered what it would take for Cairo-like demonstrations to break out on this side of the pond, and now, thanks to the folks in Madison, Wisconsin, we know the answer: It's the same as anywhere else — autocracy.

Scott Walker, the newly elected, Republican-cum-tea-party governor of that state mistook his election as a mandate to engage in another of the right wing's battles with the middle class by targeting one of the GOP's favorite bogeymen — labor unions. Walker wants to unilaterally terminate the rights of 175,000 state workers to collectively bargain (a right, by the way, the union movement originated in — you guessed it — Wisconsin). He even borrowed a page from the Middle Eastern despots' playbook by threatening to call out the National Guard to quell any protests.

But, unlike the rest of that socioeconomic class in this country who are under attack by conservatives but who have seemingly decided to shuffle off to the slaughter house in sheep-like obeisance to their corporatist overlords, these feisty laborers have intoned Peter Finch's famous movie line, telling their bully governor that they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. Now, how about the rest of us?

Americans are notoriously complacent. Ever noticed how, in so many other countries, in a matter of hours after something unpopular happens, thousands of people are marching in the street, with banners and signs already made, decrying the latest outrage du jour? In this country, not so much. The last time we had mass demonstrations of an equivalent magnitude to what we've seen in the Middle East was during the Vietnam War, and that was primarily because many of the demonstrators were at risk of becoming involuntary cannon fodder. 

Sure, Americans have lost trillions of dollars in their pension and retirement accounts as a result of the crimes committed by Wall Street investment banks, for which no one will ever be held accountable. Sure, millions of Americans have lost their homes as a result of fraudulent loans and foreclosures, for which no one will ever be held to account. And sure, the U.S. has even greater income inequality than many Middle Eastern countries (including Tunisia and Egypt). But in the U.S., members of the middle class are told to just get over it. Pay your taxes, even if the super-rich pay far less, proportionately, than you do, and STFU. Write a blog, or maybe even an opinion column for your local alternative paper, but whatever you do, don't put your bodies on the line, en masse, to express your disaffection or to demand your grievances be addressed and remedied. That would be so Third World.

Labor unions, of course, make a convenient target for the tea-and-no-sympathy crowd. It's much easier to blame public employee unions for the fiscal problems most states find themselves in than it is to take responsibility for policies that have caused those problems. In Wisconsin's case, this means the governor can bash unions as scapegoats for a budget deficit that he helped cause with a series of corporate tax reductions he promoted immediately following his election. 

The anti-union mantra is a familiar one here in the South, where the majority of "right-to-work" states are located. Unions are vilified here, perhaps as a remnant of a slavery-induced mentality that workers should be grateful, and even servile, to their employer/masters. Right here in River City, the hostility toward public employee unions was graphically displayed this past winter in the dustup that followed garbage workers' failure to report for work during a particularly cold stretch of weather. 

Maybe the demonstrations in Wisconsin are a function of the fact that, unlike the case in the rest of the country, the demonstrators were already organized, and maybe the public employee unions in Wisconsin are the ones that are really promoting the "don't tread on me" ethos the Tea Party disingenuously mouths as a subterfuge for its real, pro-corporatist agenda. But either way, we can all learn something from their resistance efforts (and, indeed, from the demonstrations in the Middle East) — namely, that there's something to be said not only for being mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore but in storming the barricades to do something about it.

Memphis attorney Marty Aussenberg writes the Flyer's online "Gadfly" column.

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