Like many Americans who consider themselves social justice activists, I am alarmed by the erosion of civil liberties in our country. From the insertion of a provision in the new Defense Act calling for preventive detention of suspected terrorists, to racial profiling in communities of color, to the use of Patriot Act protocols and overwhelming force to clear peaceful Occupy protesters, to massive government surveillance of private communications, I see the US moving rapidly toward a police/surveillance state where the liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights are becoming a dead letter.
But unlike my libertarian friends, I do not consider government itself the enemy, not does the thought of the United States becoming more socialist alarm me. I see government as a powerful force for good in people’s lives if it is deployed properly, and is imbued with a democratic spirit, rather than used to protect the privileges of elites. Some of my reasons for appreciating the potentially liberating, as well as repressive, aspects of government action, come from my historical studies, especially those focusing on grass roots activism and government intervention during the Great Depression.
But some of it derives from the very positive experiences I had growing up in a socialist, or at least a social democratic society. This was not in Sweden, or Denmark, or Finland,. It was in Brooklyn in the 1950’s!
Brooklyn? Socialist? Are you kidding?
Well, consider this. Imagine a place where no one was very rich or very poor, where the majority of people in the labor force were members of unions, where museums and zoos were free, where colleges and universities were free, where all public schools were open 3-5 and 7-9 for sports and arts and music, where subways and buses cost 15 cents, where public libraries in every neighborhood were open 9 AM to 9 PM, where public hospitals offered medical care for a nominal fee, where every public park had recreation supervisors as well as cleaners, and where public schools had hundreds of musical instruments that any child who made the band or the orchestra could take home.
This is the world I grew up in. And it was a great way to grow up.
Here we were, all children of minorities, Jewish and Italian for the most part, with a small number of African Americans, whose parents and grandparents had gone through unspeakable hardships,who felt that the world was ours for the taking. Because of the public resources that surrounded us, we not only had a security in terms of food, clothing, housing and medical care, we had educational opportunities that left ample room for recreation, sports, science and the arts. School for me was not only about learning geography and math, it was punch ball games and school plays, science fairs and trips to museums, punctuated by an occasional fist fight.
And the result of this security was not stagnation, but creativity. Everybody I knew played a musical instrument, danced or tried to sing. When rock and roll hit our neighborhood, it swept all of us into its aura, as we learned all the dances, formed singing groups, and dreamed we would be performing at the Brooklyn Paramount or on American Bandstand.
The guys in the neighborhood (this was a heavily gendered world) played sports constantly, not only the sports we saw on television, but street games we made up, and as we got older,we began playing on teams for our high schools, churches and synagogues, and eventually for colleges, all the time dreaming of making it to the pros.
This wasn’t utopia. Gender barriers were powerful and omnipresent, keeping girls out of the sports activities that were the obsession of most boys. There was an undercurrent of racism in white families that rose powerfully to the surface when blacks began moving to the neighborhood in large numbers, leading to dramatic “white flight” in the mid 1960’s. There was alcoholism, domestic violence, and depression, most of it swept under the rug by a strong code of silence about personal problems. And working class solidarity, though it lived on the neighborhood code that you never crossed a picket line, was less powerful than the striving for upward mobility. Most people dreamed of moving into the middle class and getting a house with a lawn or renting an apartment with a terrace overlooking the water.
But though the experience I am describing was relatively circumscribed in time, lasting no more than 10 or 12 years, and confined largely to New York City ( see Josh Freeman’s Working Class New York for more about New York’s experiment in “Social Democracy”) it may hold some lessons for people today grappling with the consequences of extreme economic inequality and the proper role of government in finding a balance between liberty and democracy.
My own experience, and that of friends of mine who grew up in the Bronx at the same time, is that there are extraordinary benefits to living in a society where the good things in life --decent housing, medical care, sports, the arts, education, science and culture- are not only reserved for those who have money. ‘
As the child of two parents who grew up in desperate poverty, and made very modest incomes, I had access, free or nearly free, to things which today young people have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get. No one going to the most expensive private school in the country had a better exposure to sports or music or science than me or my friends did.
What did this mean? It meant when I went to Columbia in the early 60’s I could end up as captain of the tennis team even though I learned tennis in a public park from a mailman who charged $3.50 an hour. It meant that almost all top math and science students at the school were graduates of New York City public high schools, along with virtually all the stars of the basketball team, and many of the folk and classical musicians.
With inequality reaching unimaginable proportions- the top 1 percent of earners how make 44 percent of the city income rather than 9 percent during the 1950’s- and the public sector having shrunk, young people in working class and middle class neighborhoods no longer have the opportunities I had growing up.
I think that is a both a shame and a challenge. We can and should do better. And if that means becoming more socialist, well, based on my experience, that may not be the worst thing in the world
December 31, 2011