Why are Americans such wusses? Threaten the Greeks with job losses and benefit cuts and they tie up Athens, but take away Americans' jobs, 401(k)s, even their homes, and they pretty much roll over. Tell British students that their tuition is about to go up and they take to the streets; American students just amp up their doses of Prozac.
The question has been raised many times in the last few years, by a variety of scholars and commentators -- this one included -- but when the eminent social scientist Frances Fox Piven brought it up at the end of December in an essay titled "Mobilizing the Jobless," all hell broke loose. An editor of Glenn Beck's website, theblaze.com, posted a piece sporting the specious headline "Frances Fox Piven Rings in the New Year by Calling for Violent Revolution," and, just two weeks before the Tucson shootings, the death threats started flying. Many of the most provocative comments have been removed from the site's comment section, but at one time they included such charming posts as: "Bring it on biotch [sic]. we're armed to the teeth." Or: "We're all for violence and change, Francis [sic]. Where do your loved ones live?"
If the dozens of Beck fans rhetorically brandishing their weapons at Piven were all CEOs, bankers, hedge fund operators and so forth -- i.e., the kind of people who have the most to lose from mass protests by the unemployed -- all this might make more sense. But somehow, and I may be naive about these things, it's hard to imagine a multimillionaire suggesting that "folks buy battle carbines with folding or collapseable [sic] stocks and 16[-inch] barrels so they can be more easily hidden under jackets and such. Also, buy in NATO-approved calibers (5.56/.223, 7.62/.308) so you can resupply ammo from the bodies of your enemies too." One of Piven's would-be assassins even admits to being out of work, a condition he or she blames, oddly enough, on Piven herself, adding that "we should blowup [her] office and home."
So perhaps economically hard-pressed Americans aren't wusses after all. They may not have the courage or the know-how to organize a protest at the local unemployment office, which is the kind of action Piven urged in her December essay, but they stand ready to shoot the first 78-year-old social scientist who suggests that they do so.
Americans were not always so myopic that they saw the world through the cross-hairs of their rifle sights. During the depression of 1892 to 1896, unemployed workers marched to Washington by the thousands in what was then the largest mass protest this country had seen. In 1932, even more jobless people -- 25,000 -- staged what was, at that time, the largest march on Washington, demanding public works jobs and a hike in the inheritance tax. From the '60s to the '80s, Americans marched again and again -- peacefully, nonviolently and by the hundreds of thousands -- for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, economic justice and against wars. In fact, this has been a major focus of Piven's scholarly work over the years — the American tradition of protest and resistance to economic injustice -- and it's a big enough subject to keep hundreds of academics busy for life.
There are all kinds of explanations for how Americans lost their grass-roots political mojo: iPods have been invoked, along with computer games and anti-depressants. And of course much of the credit goes to the so-called populist right of the Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck persuasion, which argues that the real enemy of the down-and-out is not the boss or the bank but the "liberal elite" represented by people like Piven.
But at least part of the explanation is guns themselves -- or, more specifically, the recent and uniquely American addiction to high-powered personal weaponry. Although ropes and bombs are also mentioned, most of the people threatening Piven on Beck's website referred lovingly to their guns, often by caliber and number of available rounds. As Joan Burbick, author of the 2006 book, "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy," has observed, "The act of buying a gun can mimic political action. It makes people feel as if they are engaging in politics of political protest." She quotes one gun enthusiast: "Whenever I get mad at the government, I go out and buy a gun." Jobless and overwhelmed by bills? Hunker down in the basement and polish your Glock.
Never mind that there are only a few ways you can use a gun to improve your economic situation: You can hock it. You can deploy it in an armed robbery. Or you can use it to shoot raccoons for dinner.
But there is one thing you can accomplish with guns and coarse threats about using them: You can make people think twice before disagreeing with you. When a congresswoman can be shot in a parking lot and a professor who falls short of Glenn Beck's standards of political correctness can be, however anonymously, targeted for execution, we have moved well beyond democracy -- to a tyranny of the heavily armed.
Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book is "Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America."