In a recent radio interview, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out that the U.S. has the widest gap between rich and poor of any country except Mexico and Russia. A huge pool of capital wealth is being amassed by 1% or less of the population while economic decline, in real dollars, is being felt by the majority. This economic injustice is our Berlin Wall. It separates us more concretely than racial, political or religious differences.
Currently, like the Soviets under Brezhnev, the administration mirrors the middle-class reaction of fear, defensiveness, and selfishness when it builds the wall higher. It does everything to protect the status quo of the privileged, which is outright injustice, but in addition it blocks any hope for a different future for the poor (or for anyone outside the country club wall, like gays and people of color) by the simple tactic of ignoring them.
Reich warns that economics has strong political consequences; in this case, the squeezed middle class is fearful of losing its status and therefore is more reluctant to help the underprivileged. Farther down the ladder, the lower middle class has to compete for jobs with the poor, giving rise to antagonism and more self-defensive fear of losing out. We all feel how insidious this trend has become. The politics of altruism that gave rise to social welfare and civil rights has turned around to the politics of corruption and "Me First".
A former moderate who's a friend of mine recently shocked me by saying, "I used to want to help the blacks, but they hate us for trying to help, and there's nothing anybody can do about these religious fanatics. So I'm building my wall and hiding behind it." This is Berlin Wall thinking at the grass roots level.
You'd think that somebody would want to fill this political vacuum. Why are there some 1,800 radio outlets along the lines of Rush Limbaugh but only one Air America? Our idealism is exhausted. The baby boomer generation had its anti-war movement forty years ago, and the experience was so demoralizing that few want to repeat it. Democratic politicians are stymied because they belong to the same privileged cabal as the Republicans. There was a time when a rich white male like Robert Kennedy would personally, physically stand in a crowd and expose himself to the poor as their standard bearer. No more. The tactics of fear are powerful, while the tactics of hope are fragile.
The best hope we have is that the "silent majority," Nixon's famous term for disgruntled white conservatives in the Seventies, has now reversed itself. The silent majority consists of citizens white and black who are totally opposed to the right-wing agenda. How did a right-wing coalition come to power? By organizing at the level of town meetings, city government, school boards, churches, and political action committees. Silence only ends when individual citizens stop being silent.
Goethe said that when you take your first step toward a difficult goal, unknown powers come to your aid. I think the Berlin Wall demonstrated that when a society deeply believes it's time to change, the agents of change will appear. Right now, the resolve of the silent majority is weak, but one day people will look at each other, and just as they said, "It's time to end racial discrimination," they will end the trend toward social injustice in its new economic guise.