Watching the diverse groups engaged in the Occupy Wall Street protests and seeing the range of issues around which the movements in Manhattan and other cities are galvanizing, one cannot but be reminded of the bestselling little French pamphlet now translated into English: Time for Outrage (indignez-Vous)!, Stephane Hessel, Quartet Books, 2010 (with foreword by Charles Glass). We purchased the little pamphlet about a month ago, but my attention was called back to it when the 94-year-old Hessel was interviewed on the PBS NewsHour on Tuesday night (Oct. 11). (You can catch the interview on an i-tunes podcast, available at this link; video and transcript on the PBS website, here.)
Hessel was born in Germany but emigrated with his family to France in 1924 (at age 7). Germany, of course, invaded France in 1940 and Hessel was in the French army during the Battle of France. He escaped from a POW camp, taking 6 months to reach London, where he joined de Gaulle's resistance movement. He parachuted into France in 1944 to work with the Resistance there. He was captured and tortured (waterboarded) before managing to switch identities with a dead prisoner and then escape on the way to Bergen-Belsen. After the war, he was a diplomat and writer, working with Eleanor Roosevelt on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and with the Association for Training in Africa and Madagascar, among other things. He has been active in the Collegium International and the Commission Nationale Consultative des droits de l'Homme (a post-war French government organization created to ensure the protection of human rights). (This biographical sketch is based on the forward to the pamphlet written by Charles Glass and on the wikipedia entry for Hessel).
Hessel, in other words, has the creds to talk to us about the importance of human rights and the role of governments in ensuring their protection. And he says that became his mission--"the need to give a sense to my life by defending the values that the Nazis had scorned." Id. at
As Glass says in the foreword,
"[The pamphlet] answered a public need for a voice to articulate popular resentment of ruling-class ruthlessness, police brutality, stark income disparities, banking and political corruption and victimisation of the poor and the immigrant." Id. at 10.
In the text, Hessel proclaims his luck in being able to draw on his experience with the Resistance. The wartime National Council of the Resistance's Programme (set forth on March 15, 1944) made clear that ending the reign of the Nazis was only the first stage towards establishing "a true social and economic democracy." Franklin Delano Roosevelt enunciated the "Four Freedoms" for which the allies were fighting--freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. And so Hessel says:
"We need these principles and values more than ever today. It is up to us, to all of us together, to ensure that our society remains one to be proud of: not this society of undocumented workers and deportations, of being suspicious of immigrants; not this society where our retirement pensions and other gains in social security are being called into question; not this society where the media is in the hands of the rich. These are all things that we would refuse to countenance if we were the true heirs of the National Council of the Resistance." Id. at 19-20.
Today's Occupy Wall Street movement may have uncertain goals and disparate interests. But likely all would agree that it is important to rise up in indignity in response to the erosion of those values and freedoms that underlay our involvement in World War II--especially the freedom from want that was the cornerstone of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.
There is much to protest--from the so-called "Patriot Act" to the Bush wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, from Obama's decision that a President can take out an American citizen without any due process of law to the Congress's plan to decimate the earned benefits programs that are so important for the middle and lower classes while continuing or even enhancing (zero taxation being proposed by those on the right) the largesse of extremely preferential taxation for the capital gains that form 63% of the income of the top 1% of the country. There is widespread indignity in response to the rampant banking speculation that socializes losses while privatizing gains, the political corruption that leads Congress to pay more attention to the organized and well-funded lobbyists of Big Money while ignoring the clear wishes of a majority of the citizens it represents, the ruthlessness of the corporate and wealthy elite in constantly cutting jobs in order to secure ever more riches for the upper crust, and the use of the meme of "personal responsibility" to suggest that it is just fine to leave the poor, the vulnerable, the elderly, the sick to fend for themselves.
Keeping silent merely affirms what our elected government officials are doing, which is to follow the guidance of the wealthiest people and the biggest banks and multinational corporations in permitting the erosion of those human rights that inspired us in World War II. We can pay for the infrastructure and social programs that are needed--we merely have to have the will to do it. The way we set our tax policy, the way we pay for Social Security, whether we move to a single payer, Medicare-for-all system that will permit us to meet the basic health care needs of our society while tamping down costs through negotiating from a position of power--all of these things will determine whether we allow these fought-for goals to fall by the wayside or once more stand for the rights listed in the Universal Declaration.