By Dow Marmur
The Arab Spring that turned into a bloody summer; protests in Europe culminating in riots in London and elsewhere in Britain; demonstrations across Israel; unrest even in faraway Chile and India. Though it’s possible to point to causes unique to each country, they all seem to have in common a revolt against the ever-growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. As Thomas Friedman put it in a recent New York Times column, anger is being globalized.
Those who fight for freedom in the Arab world believe that exposing the powerful elites and their ill-gotten gains is essential to the success of the revolution. Commentators about the looters in London have pointed to the massive wealth of the few and the growing needs of the many. Israelis are rebelling against the high prices of food and housing, against the dozen families that own most of the country’s wealth and against the disproportionately high subsidies for the Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Though the latest twists to the ongoing economic crisis in the United States haven’t yet led to demonstrations, the frustration is palpable there, too. Unemployment and the volatile stock market are ominous manifestations. Don Peck, a features editor of The Atlantic, has adapted his new book into an article in the journal’s September issue in which he cites some alarming statistics:
“All the action of the American economy was at the top; the richest 1 per cent of households earned as much each year as the bottom 60 per cent put together; they possessed as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent; and with each passing year, a greater share of the nation’s treasure was flowing through their hands and into their pockets.”
The countries in turmoil are ruled either by ruthless dictators or governed by conservative politicians. Even the United States, despite its Democratic president, is at the mercy of the Tea Party-dominated House of Representatives. The evasions of conservative governments, tellingly articulated by Britain’s prime minister, include ascribing the unrest to greed, gangs and the failure of parents to control their children.
Merlin Emanuel, a black British social activist, has another take: “We call them criminals and they look at the bankers. We call them violent murderers and they look at the police. We say they are void of morals and integrity, they look at the politicians.” His references are, of course, to the money managers who’ve misappropriated billions entrusted to them yet only occasionally ended up in jail, to instances of police brutality and to the British MPs who cheated on their expenses.
As blacks are often among the angriest, also in Britain, Emanuel writes magnanimously that he understands the fears articulated by the far right. But then he asks: “Do blacks own poppy fields and gun factories?” And later: “Is it black people who outsource your jobs to foreign territories and then open up borders to immigrants who will compromise your right to earn a decent living by working for peanuts?”
Mercifully, Canada has so far been spared much of the unrest that has bedevilled other countries. It may even escape much of the economic upheaval that continues to threaten the United States and Europe. But we’re by no means immune to their problems. The gap between rich and poor is not diminishing here and the continuous onslaught by all levels of government on the funding of welfare agencies is bound to punish those most in need.
Prudence, humility and social responsibility, not smugness, are called for as we think of our own vulnerability manifest in the unrest in Toronto a year ago and in Vancouver last June.
Sometimes a riot is the ‘language of the unheard’.