American Rage and the Day I Was Tear Gassed

Canadians are nice. We seem to revel in our reputation as being so nice that when bumped we say sorry or when queue-jumped we say nothing. A problem, of course, is that a slight scratch beneath of the surface reveals that we are really not that nice at all. And that’s what scares me about the American election.

Fifteen years ago, in April 2001, after reading about the 1999 troubles in Seattle and with Horton Hears a Who in our minds – I swear – my dear wife and I left our little Ontario village and headed to Quebec City. We were ready to add our little yop to voices being raised in concern over cascading corporate power and shrinking concentrations of wealth at the third Summit of the Americas conference. As a historian and with my wife’s degree in political science, we were curious about being witness to the making of history and a political point.

We joined a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, strumming guitars and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. Most of the signs were serious and many were good natured. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too seriously.

The world leaders discussing the possibility of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, of course, didn’t see the parade. They were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind the 4 km fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end, most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t go home without venturing up to see the so-called red zone, the area closest to the fence, where the streets were blocked and businesses shuttered.

I walked slowly up the hill and then slower still. At red zone’s outer perimeter it was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. The world had morphed to black and white. It was eerily quiet. The parade had been a party but this was a war. The air reeked of gasoline. The streets were littered and dirty. Everything seemed wet. Everyone seemed sweaty. People wore varieties of battle fatigues and many wore bandanas and had ski-goggles dangling on their chests. No one smiled.

Down a narrow street, I watched a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3-meter high chain-link fence. Behind the silver fence was a row of police officers. They were in black riot gear and faceless with face guards down. They looked every bit like a row of Darth Vaders. Each officer held a club and each smacked it onto their left palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

I swallowed the metallic taste of adrenaline. Around the corner, I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of police officers behind it but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our right. No one else was near. We discovered that curiosity had drawn us both from Ontario to the parade and then up the hill and that we were both shocked by the incredibly tense atmosphere. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged guys in shorts and golf shirts, obviously tourists not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us spewing white-gray tear gas. We instinctively pivoted away and blindly careened smack into the fence. The line of cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We spun and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then was gone. I have no idea what happened to my companion. I staggered dazed and bewildered as people ran past in both directions shouting that crazy Canadian jumble of English, French, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the street and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of storm troopers. I turned and yelled every ugly epithet my years of school yards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I snapped awake. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that every ounce of anger I had imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and at the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

The Day I Was Tear Gassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk and watched two groups of Canadians – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence that I was suddenly glad was there. My youngest brother was one of the helmeted cops assembled in Quebec City that day. He may have been among those standing in silence before me now; perhaps he was the target of my flash of crazy abuse. I needed to get out of there.

The day I was tear gassed did not rob me of my optimism for Canada, pride in being Canadian, or my respect for those who legally and reasonably protest or those who reasonably and legally keep law and order. However, I am little less sanguine about the unwritten social contract that binds us and the thin veneer of civility that protects us.

Reflecting on that day and upon how that veneer has become even thinner makes me tremble a little as I watch Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeal to the rage that roils beneath it. How much longer can our niceness be sustained when the globalization of power and wealth in the hands of a shrinking few – the point of the Quebec protest and core of the Sanders/Trump appeal – has shrunk even further. What happens if the fraying social contract snaps? What happens when voting for change is no longer seen as enough? What happens if the police change sides?

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The Third American Revolution

Let’s forget Donald Trump’s bragging about things better left personal and insults masquerading as debates and consider instead what is really going on. We are witnessing the third American Revolution.

The first began in the 1760s with rival Boston street gangs joining to challenge the authority of a British governor. Unrest spread and years of requests were ignored and demands snubbed until the government’s legitimacy was lost. Only a third of the colonists supported the rebels but in any revolution that’s plenty. By 1787, a new state was in place.

The second revolution was also a slow-motioned affair. It began with the constitutional compromise that allowed southerners to keep their slaves. The deal was torn asunder as every new state sparked arguments regarding slave or free. Lincoln’s election was the last straw for those fighting to protect their economic and social structure from a government that threatened both. Over 600,000 Americans died in the ensuing struggle and many old wounds are yet to heal.

The roots of the third American Revolution lay in Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. In 1968, the wily presidential candidate determined that white middle and working class southerners were angry about the Civil Rights movement that was desegregating their schools, the Women’s movement that was tempting their daughters, social policies that were increasing their taxes, and longhaired students who were insulting their beliefs. Nixon welcomed white segregationists and blue-collar workers to what he called his “silent majority” that would “win back America.”

Ronald Reagan expanded Nixon’s constituency to white, God-fearing Christians who feared the widening gulf between what they saw on their televisions and heard from their pulpits. Rights to abortionists, then gays, then immigrants, signalled the road to perdition with the government doing nothing to stop it.

The shift from all in which they had once believed became more disturbing when the fading industrial revolution closed factories and real wages stagnated or fell. Debt rose to desperately hold lifestyles that had before been assumed. Then the World Trade Centre fell with the government having failed to prevent it. Iraq became a debacle with sons and daughters arriving home in flag-draped caskets amid government lies about why. Finally, in 2008, homes were taken along with jobs and savings while people watched their tax money bail out those who caused the crisis. People recalled Reagan’s exhortation that government was not the solution but the problem itself.

Fox News and radio screamers fanned the flames of discontent and the donor elite, epitomized by the Koch Brothers, tried to convince the Nixon-Reagan folks to continue to vote against their interests. The Tea Party gave voice to the angry and cheated who increasingly rejected those claiming to speak for the little guys but once in Washington voted with and for the one percent. The Tea Party, and to a lesser extent the Occupy Movement with whom it shared enemies, was Toto who drew back the curtain to reveal the rigged game.

As in the first revolutions, the elite has lost control of the narrative. Mitt Romney’s recent speech attacking Trump showed the old oligarchy playing the old game but Trump’s supporters listened to him like the colonists heard the King or the Confederates heeded Lincoln. Equally dismissive of the DC elite are those “Feeling the Bern.” Of course Trump spouts nonsense and many of Sander’s ideas are impractical. It doesn’t matter. While Hillary Clinton offers the old world view, Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz, Sanders, and Trump speak to the same rage; to the same people with nothing to lose who gathered on Boston streets and Gettysburg fields.

The Third American Revolution

(Photo: http://www.breitbart.com)

America’s third revolution has arrived. We can look back at the slow progress of the first two and identify tipping points where power shifted and a new order was born. Let’s consider now if the current nomination races represent a new tipping point or, perhaps, if that point is already behind us.

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The Power of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

It was a word salad. Ms. Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidacy last week did something few could imagine. It outdid even her past performances in presenting a rambling exhortation as bereft of grammar and sentence structure as it was a cogent argument. She had valid points to make but even Mr. Trump appeared embarrassed at her inability to make them.

Plenty of people laughed. Tina Fey revved up her spot-on impersonation for Saturday Night Live. Others were outraged at the depths to which political discourse has sunk and by the fact that her speech garnered applause at the time and, from the predictable quarters, praise afterwards. I, however, was sad.

I was sad for all those young people with good teachers who are learning the power and beauty of the spoken word. In classrooms across North America, good teachers are encouraging an appreciation for poetry, Shakespeare, and stirring speeches. Students are learning that the more they read, the better they can write, and the better they write, the deeper they are encouraged to think. They are learning that to be articulate is a good thing. And yet, there was Ms. Palin addressing a serious matter, the presidency, with profane and made up words more akin to a drunken karaoke rap than reasoned prose.

I was also sad for students learning the precision of a well-defined argument. They are being taught to dismiss false dichotomies that present either/or options that don’t really exist. Students are learning to begin the evaluation of an argument by exploring its premise and to be unfooled by straw men foisted as false foils. If nothing else, they are learning that arguments must at least be arguments, that is, they must state a point of view and defend it with demonstrably valid evidence. They learn that truth matters and that one can have one’s own opinion but not one’s own facts. And yet, there was Ms. Palin presenting not an argument as to why Mr. Trump should be president with but, rather, nonsensical assertions, jumbled phrases, insults, non-sequiturs, and even goofy rhymes.

If you missed it, all twenty minutes, here is part of what Ms. Palin had to say:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CubzfKS5yQk

Let’s pause for a moment to consider two examples that demonstrate the way things used to be and can and should still be today. First, in about two minutes Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address stated the reason for the gathering, the value of the sacrifice of those lost in the recent battle, established the Civil War’s global and moral purpose, and affirmed the legitimacy of the fight. And he did it all in words he wrote himself and with the grace of a poet.

Take a moment to read what Lincoln said that afternoon in Pennsylvania with consideration for the value of marrying diction and argument.

http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp

There is another example among many that could be chosen. On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was running for President. A crowd in the predominately Black section of Indianapolis had been waiting for a long while and was growing restless. It was dark. Just as he was ascending the stairs to speak, Kennedy was told that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His handlers ordered him back to the car. He refused.

Instead, Kennedy looked into the sea of Black faces and asked them to lower their campaign signs. This would not be about his campaign. He said that their hero and inspirational leader had been killed and that a White man had done it. There were gasps. But Kennedy went on. He gently interpreted the murder in a personal context and then as a national, existential challenge. He quoted several lines from the Greek poet Aeschylus. That’s right, a man running for president extemporaneously quoted a Greek poet.

Value of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

(Photo: http://www.peacebuttons.info)

In cities across America that night there were riots in Black neighbourhoods with grief expressed as rage. That is, in every major city except one: Indianapolis.

Allow yourself the gift to be moved by Robert Kennedy and the power of elegant, graceful  words and a genuine, cogent argument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCrx_u3825g

I refuse to believe that Ms. Palin’s ramblings and Mr. Trump’s rants are cause for despair. It is just as I refused to be disheartened when in the recent Canadian election the prime minister embarrassed himself and disgraced the office by abandoning reasoned arguments to instead, day after day, present a sophomoric, faux game show complete with buzzers and bells.

Palin, Trump, Harper, and for that matter Mr. Cruz and Mr. Sanders, have their audiences and I think I understand them. They are angry. They are angry that the rules they have followed and thought they understood are changing. The bad guys have been winning on Baghdad’s Main Street and New York’s Wall Street. They are angry that the elite, donor class sold them on voting against their interests to support people, policies, and programs that have widened gulfs and strangled mobility. Their anger is palpable. Their anger is justified.

Unjustified, however, is meeting anger with bombast. Insults are not arguments. Beliefs are not policies. Prejudices are not facts. Biases are not opinions. We deserve better. All of us deserve better, even, or perhaps especially those angry folks attracted to Mr. Trump on one side and Mr. Sanders on the other.

Leaders and those who seek to lead should elevate and not stoop. They should inspire and not conspire. They should speak not to our inner demons but, as Lincoln called them, our better angels. And they should present themselves in ways that encourage calm reason over empty passion and articulate debate rather than spewed slogans. Like Kennedy, they should cool the embers of justifiable anger rather than stoke infernos. Picture Palin or Trump in Indianapolis that night.

For the sake of the children learning to speak, write, and present persuasive arguments as part of their becoming engaged citizens and whose world will be shaped by our decisions, let us demand more. Let us refuse to support those who’s jumbled words and absent arguments suggest we settle for less.

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