Back home from days of wandering among the protesters at the Republican National Convention, I watched the speeches of Condoleezza Rice, Susana Martinez, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan Wednesday evening with particular interest. I had flown back that morning and had taught my classes on the first day of the semester. I had just gone over my freshman composition syllabus, so was struck by how much the speakers repeated the distinctly American themes expressed by such authors as Benjamin Franklin and Alexis de Tocqueville.
If I could have, I would have made the evening of speeches (on CSPAN, without the PBS spin) an assignment for my students.
Reviewing the syllabus, I waxed poetic about the readings we’d be doing and how they exemplify Americanism. I told students about my official immigrant status (at age two from the former Communist Yugoslavia) and how Tocqueville understood the distinctly American spirit.
One of the things he understood was that in America there was no such thing as a peasant, which I had to define for students. But I understand firsthand the attitudes — the resignation, the sense of inferiority — that come from being born into that class, for that was the class of my parents and of my Ukrainian friends.
And then on Wednesday night the speakers, one after the other, struck that same theme. “We built it” was the resounding refrain in response to President Obama’s recent assertion that government makes success possible. We can build it — and you can build it — was the optimistic message.
I thought back to the disenfranchised protesters in Tampa. The showing was pathetic; my friend and I counted 200 at the most for any given rally or march. Fifteen thousand reportedly were expected. Most news outlets reported a vague “hundreds” actually showing up.
The showing was a combination of professional activists, the homeless, the schizophrenic, the addicted, and the disenfranchised young. A Voice of America article that claimed “hundreds” of young people took to the streets of Tampa this week is true only if one holds a very loose definition of “young.”
These were the same kind of people who participated in the Occupy protests last fall. At Camp “Romneyville,” there was the feel of adolescent drama, with protesters wearing helmets and bandanas around their faces. “Medics” were marked by crosses made of red electrical tape on their clothes. Most of the women were tattooed. One svelte young woman hung out in a tent in nothing but a pair of low-cut shorts and a black bra. A man wandered around smoking a joint. A good number of people sucked desperately on cigarettes.