The remarkable passivity of Americans

The last couple of years have been quite turbulent in terms of public agitation and protests. Apart from the uprisings of the Arab Spring, more recently we have had the massive protests in Turkey over plans to develop a public park that have escalated into larger protests against the governments attempts to chip away at that country’s secular framework. Then we have the huge protests in Brazil that started in opposition to hikes in the cost of public transit but have also escalated into criticisms of corruption and of government policies that seem to emphasize spending on showy projects like hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 while money is needed for basic social services and infrastructure.

In both those countries, the sheer size of the public protests have forced the governments to respond but in different ways. In Turkey the government seems to have decided to crack down while in Brazil the government has already reversed the fare hikes, promised to invest in public infrastructure, and seems to be willing to negotiate on other issues such as increased spending for health services and education.

But compare this with what is happening in the US where there have also been great injustices perpetrated. Apart from the most recent revelations of the government spying on practically everyone on a massive scale, we have revelations of torture, cutting back on basic services and infrastructure while money is spent on the military and defense and private intelligence contractors on wars without end and which have no discernible benefits, we have a huge and growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, we have massive scandals in the financial sector that have ruined many people and yet not a single senior person in the financial world has been threatened with criminal prosecution and in fact continue to pay themselves huge salaries and bonuses, and clear evidence that the executive and the Congress are now entirely in the pockets of the oligarchy. Meanwhile the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the prisons overcrowded with people who commit petty crimes.

If one expected something in the US in proportion to the response to the provocations on the people in Turkey and Brazil, there should be tens of millions of people in the streets of every major American city demanding changes. But this is not happening.

For a country that prides itself on its fierce individuality and a spirit of belligerent resistance (as exemplified by the popularity of the ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ slogan and flags) it is a remarkable testimony to how much people here have been either beaten down or are passive or have been successfully distracted from seeing the depth of the corruption that is rotting its society.

Stephen Colbert talks about the Brazil situation with a reporter who has covered that country.

(This clip aired on June 25, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. machintelligence says

    The United States is the home of the “Silent Majority” (remember that phrase from the Nixon era?) As long as things are not too bad, they will remain silent.
    Actually that is not quite right. Revolutions don’t happen when things are terrible, but rather when things are starting to improve. Take Brazil, for example.

  2. dobby says

    There have been many protests in the United States. Remember the Occupy movement? More recently the protest against the anti-reproductive rights bill in Texas. Before that the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement,, the woman’s vote movement, etc.

  3. Pris P. says

    I completely agree and for me I think there are two reasons for this.

    1.) Remember Seattle? You can protest government legislation all you want but go after these large Corporations and their oligarchy and your asking for a fight. Since that protest, the US government, like other governments, have upped the ante and the military is now allowed to intervene without prior notification or presidential approval:

    2.) Most forms of legitimate protest have been muddled down by nonprofit organizations that have turned to lobbying and grappling with the very entity that is suppressing the populace. These organizations have reduced ‘movements’ into signing petitions and placating to the media all for political incentive.

    Money talks and whether people recognize it or not, in American the most capitalist (authoritarian) country in the world, everything is up for sale, even ideas, includig atheist. It’s sad.

  4. bruce says

    Maybe many Americans are implicitly intimidated by a government that lets citizens be threatened with prison terms for writing with chalk, as in San Diego currently.

  5. Sandy Small says

    I think this post makes an important point. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but it is important to bear in mind that we in the United States are the targets of ubiquitous propaganda from a very early age–we are the land of the free and the home of the brave, the melting pot, the shining city on a hill, the last best hope for mankind, and the greatest country in the world; we are the world’s preeminent force for freedom and democracy, the sole victors of WW2, and you’d better believe our excellence is ordained by God. It seems to me these sorts of attitudes instill in many people a tribal sense of identity and a reticence to change or even question the current system, as well as kind of a Manichaean paranoia (witness McCarthyism, “My country right or wrong”, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”, and American exceptionalism in general). Speaking personally, I try to do my bit, but it really is awfully difficult not to feel…if not apathetic per se, then certainly defeated, because there is so little will to change things for the better, and so much opposition from the beneficiaries of the status quo, which unfortunately constitutes most of our federal government.

  6. CaitieCat says

    a country that prides itself on its fierce individuality

    Maybe that’s the problem. Too much emphasis on the awfulness of collective action. Unions, scorned and destroyed. Occupy, reviled by the media and the oligarchs. Communism and socialism used as pejoratives.

    The average modern USan has not only no great urge to collective action, they’ve been inundated with the message that collectivity is near-treasonous, and haven’t yet noticed (on a grand scale, obviously some USans have this message clear) how intensely disempowering this is, because gas is still cheaper than anywhere else, and everyone (who matters) gets health care with expensive machines that go PING and freedom from unwarranted (pun intended) police attention and blah di blah…the oligarchs have beautifully lulled the populace to a daze.

    Why do I now feel like shouting “WAKE UP SHEEPLE!”?

    I think I need to go lie down.

  7. scottbelyea says

    I’m an outside observer (Canada), and I wonder if another factor is the attitude of “Amerian exceptionalism.” After all, how can things be that bad in the greatest, bestest, freest country in the history of the world? That’s approximately how many public figures characterize the US just about every chance they get.

    There is much to admire about the US, but I’ve wondered if “exceptionalism” has become a negative factor, and in some cases, a serious one.

  8. Chiroptera says

    And where are the NRA and the gun nuts? I don’t really want to see violence, but don’t the gun nuts keep telling us they need the right to bear arms in order to protect all of our other rights?

    I mean, it’s almost as if it isn’t about rights and freedom at all.

  9. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    For a little while the Occupy movements raised a frisson of that old 60s enthusiasm. I was young in that time and although mostly a bystander, can well remember the counter-culture and anti-establishment groundswell that more or less culminated in 1968 with the riots outside the Democratic Convention.

    But the Occupy movements simply petered out, I would say for lack of some key ingredients. One, no charismatic leader/spokesperson — no Abby Hoffman, no Bobby Seale, no Mario Savio — emerged to provide a media focus and sound-bite quotes that would articulate the movement’s positions. On the contrary, Occupy strived explicitly to not have leaders with the result that it got only the most vague coverage focussed, for lack of anything more photogenic, on its sanitation and dress styles.

    Two, no articulated position, no list of simple demands. Again, Occupy eschewed any such positioning, possibly for good reasons. But without them, Mister and Missus America, whose interests certainly were involved, never understood that they were.

    And finally, no martyrs — no Medgar Evers (or for a chilling but relevant other example, no Horst Wessel). The establishment played it very cagy, gave them their space until the public’s attention flagged, then swept them away with well-planned and well-executed police actions in the dawn hours. For a few nights in Oakland the protesters played cat-and-mouse games with the police evicting them from their camps, but nobody died.

  10. Mano Singham says

    All good points. However it did give us the powerful “We are the 99%” slogan which captured the issue nicely and can be turned into a powerful weapon,

  11. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    Researching my prior post I was reminded of Mario Savio’s great public moment, the Bodies upon the gears speech, with this peroration:

    There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

    It is just conceivable that the current NSA domestic spying scandal, if mishandled with enough blind arrogance, could generate feeling something like that.

  12. CaitieCat says

    I love that speech. One of the most inspiring I’ve ever heard, up there with the “I have a dream” and “fight them on the beaches”. I remember when they put the words in the mouth of the union/resistance leader (Chief Tyrol) in third season of the BSG remake. I literally got goosebumps, as I do whenever I hear any of those speeches.

    How do we throw our bodies on the Internet’s gears and levers, though? On the financial speculators who are destroying the world’s economy with greed and cheating? That’s the bit that’s tricky. Where do we start? There’s so much that’s so wrong.

  13. Mano Singham says

    I think that you are right. An emphasis on individualism takes you only so far against a massive state apparatus. It can work if the rule of law is operational because then you can get the courts on your side. But when the government seems to think it is above the law and the courts become subservient to them, as seems to be the case, then collective action becomes the only option.

  14. sailor1031 says

    In 2013 you can’t start. The government now has the means to prevent any movement from getting organized without its knowledge and tacit approval, and also has the means to eradicate it if it wishes by hunting down each and every participant. That’s why the NSA databases and data “agreements” the government has forced on communications companies are so dangerous.

  15. says

    Speaking as an aging hippie….

    COINTELPRO never went away. The last time I was involved in organizing a protest (some of the meetings that led to the Occupy! Seattle actions) we spent nearly an entire meeting discussing how best to include commentary about the plight of the Palestinians. At another meeting, we spent several hours arguing over which set of gender-neutral pronouns would be most inclusive.

    The vast majority of people who want to be involved against corporate ownership of the country, against the neverending war in the Middle East or against the violations of civil and human rights here in the US don’t give a rat’s ass about Palestinians or whether the singular “they/them” is proper grammar. But it has gotten to a point where even the rumor that someone might be organizing something always — ALWAYS — brings out people who will shriek at the top of their voices that these issues are paramount until everyone else is driven away and the planned action becomes a circle jerk.

    If anything manages to get organized despite the derailers, there is a backup plan: send in a few agents provocateurs to play smashy-smashy. The whole message gets drowned out by 24/7 media attention about the five people who broke the windows of banks and small businesses, with nothing about the five hundred people who marched peacefully. Seriously, it has gotten to the point where the only way to have an action that stays on message is to make absolutely sure no one knows it has happened. Which kind of defeats the purpose.

  16. Mano Singham says

    It is true that the desire to be accommodating and inclusive provides plenty of opportunities for disruptions. This is why I prefer trying to form broad coalitions around narrow issues. So if people get together to fight Wall Street corruption and dominance of government, we should not care what people’s opinions are on any other issue. If you agree on the narrow issue, you can believe whatever you like on anything else.

  17. Bhavik says

    I wonder if its not just a cultural artifact of the cold war, i.e. where dissent essentially made you a traitor. Might it have inspired a culture of “Well that’s not very nice but at least we’re not commies!”

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