Last year I wrote a post about the devolution of the vocabulary we use to describe ourselves collectively, from citizens to voters to taxpayers to consumers. A similar impoverishment can be seen in the language of our political ideals. The only thing we seem to believe in anymore is freedom. Freedom has become the be-all and the end-all of our political expectation, the full meaning of the American experiment. Justice is gone, and even more conspicuously banished is that term of terms for movements from abolitionism to feminism, for Lincoln and King: equality. This is the doing of the Right, of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in their public rhetoric, but the rest of us have let ourselves be pulled along. Like good liberals, we’ve had too much decency to stand up for our own beliefs, so that by now we have forgotten what they are. Which has left us unequipped—left us all unequipped—to comprehend what’s going on around us.
Look at the Arab Spring, or to be precise, the way Americans have understood it. “They’re fighting for their freedom,” our journalists and pundits tell us. Well, yes, but they’re fighting for a lot of other things, as well, like dignity, and hope, and opportunity, and most of all, the things that guarantee these goods, including freedom: the rights of citizenship. They’re fighting for the right to vote, to hold office, to enjoy due process and equal protection, to live under a government of laws instead of men, of transparency and accountability. Our own revolution was about collective self-government even more than personal liberty (which is why the Bill of Rights was an afterthought to the Constitution). Collective self-government, or in other words, government, the very thing the Right is trying to discredit and dismantle. To see the Arab Spring as a desire for freedom, period, is to flatter ourselves into thinking that they want to be just like us, instead of recognizing that much of what they’re fighting for—dignity, opportunity, transparency, accountability—we also have to fight for, have to keep on fighting for.
Which brings us to the other signal political event of our time, the financial crisis and its aftermath. It took us three years, until the Occupy movement, to begin to articulate our rage about the present economic dispensation, and I think that is because we don’t have justice and equality to do it with. The best we could manage was greed (except there’s nothing wrong with greed, in the kingdom of freedom, as Mitt Romney’s Republican critics discovered), or better, fairness, a grope towards higher values that ends up sounding, nonetheless, like something that a second-grader would complain about. We Are the 99 percent: finally, a slogan with some resonance. But what does it mean? Many things to many people, it turns out: for some, a radical demand for social transformation; for others, merely a more even playing field; for others still, an expression of inchoate anger. That flexibility, indeed—or amorphousness—has been among the phrase’s strengths. It is, precisely, a slogan—not an idea or ideal or “demand,” still less a program or philosophy of government.
The phrases that we’re looking for, I think, are economic equality and social justice. (Occupy has enabled us to start criticizing economic inequality, but strangely, that isn’t the same as demanding its opposite, which still, like social justice, sounds too radical. People in the movement use those phrases, but they have not been taken up by the mainstream.) That means we not only have to reclaim equality and justice, we have to expand their definitions beyond the legal and juridical. Both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King took steps in that direction in the last years of their lives, Roosevelt with his Second Bill of Rights, King with his Poor People’s Campaign, but neither lived to make any progress. Since then, of course, we’ve gone backwards. But battles over language can be won, if only we’re willing to fight them.
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