Occupy Your Conscience: A Rumpus Exaltation

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When I was four or five years old, my mom and dad called me and my brothers into the living room. I can’t remember what they said exactly, but the gist was that dad might be going to jail for a few days. He was going to protest the war by joining hands with other people at the gates to a nearby air force base.

I thought the situation strange. Why would the police send you to jail for holding hands?

***

Activists weren’t some fringe element back then. They had defeated the naked bigotry of the Jim Crow south. They had waged a war on poverty. Now they wanted to end a senseless war. People believed that taking to the streets could change the moral condition of the country. There weren’t nearly as many screens in our lives; we hadn’t begun pouring so much of ourselves into them. Idealism wasn’t an object of ridicule. It was a legitimate, even laudable, belief system.

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The Occupy Wall Street movement is now entering its fifth week. It has spread from a few hundred protestors in downtown Manhattan to most major cities in the country. The mainstream media, ravenous for conflicts that excite passion without invoking morality, initially ignored the protests, then attempted to dismiss them. They are now, reluctantly, having to reckon with the notion that genuine activism is not dead in this country, that American citizens – faced with a vacuum of responsible leadership – are capable of demanding an end to the economic corruption initiated by our richest citizens and upheld by the elected officials who serve at their behest.

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As the weeks drag on, we will be treated to another one of those false equivalencies that our feeble Fourth Estate faithfully manufactures. We will hear the Occupy Wall Street movement compared to the Tea Party, over and over.

The individual citizens who show up for Tea Party events are, by their own reckoning, activists seeking to make their voices heard in our democracy. They deserve our respect, if not our support.

But you would have to be willfully blind to ignore the corporate lucre that helped forge and sustain the Tea Party “movement.” Its history is utterly transparent: corporations paid lobbyists to gin up grassroots support for their interests. The Tea Party reflects a genuine disillusionment with the status quo in Washington. But its amorphous goals boil down to preserving the status quo, to vilifying government so as to keep corporate power intact.

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This, after all, is the Great Con of the conservative movement: to redirect the anger of the mob away from the wizards of Wall Street and the lobbyists of K Street (who abscond an ever greater share of this country’s wealth into their coffers) and toward “the government.”

The government, in this case, is a term of convenience. It doesn’t consist of firemen or policemen or soldiers or the people who build our highways or inspect our food or battle our plagues. Government is, instead, a golem – a dark figment borne of our civic paranoia and economic grievance. It’s some fat faceless Orwellian bureaucrat lounging in an office somewhere, dreaming up mindless regulations, skimming the cream from your paycheck, laughing quietly at your anguish.

The working and middle classes of this country know they got mugged. They just can’t identify the perpetrators.

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The Occupy Wall Street movement is an effort to identify the perpetrators. It takes direct aim at the financial speculators and corporations who caused the economic implosion of 2008, the corrosive influence of money in our political system, and the obscene economic inequality this influence has wrought.

It consists of citizens – mostly progressives, but also independents and conservatives – who decided spontaneously to take to the streets. They were not exhorted by for-profit demagogues, or chauffeured to the site in luxury buses airbrushed with focus-grouped slogans.

They take their inspiration, at least in part, from the protests of the Arab Spring. They are not seeking to overthrow the government. They are simply tired of listening to politicians parrot the sick myth that unfettered greed will lead to shared prosperity. Their prospectus is that of Jesus of Nazareth, not Karl Marx.

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Mitt Romney, the multi-millionaire businessman who is the likely Republican nominee for President, branded the protests “dangerous” and “class warfare.”

He did not explain, nor was he asked to explain, why the protests were dangerous, or to whom. His hysterical assertion of “class warfare” can be taken to mean that Romney fears his taxes may be raised by a few percentage points.

House majority leader Eric Cantor referred to the peaceful protesters as “growing mobs.” He blamed President Obama for “condoning the pitting of Americans against Americans.”

***

The movement is called Occupy Wall Street. It’s not called  Destroy Wall Street. Or Burn Wall Street. The protestors want to be physically present. They want the traders who work on Wall Street to face the human consequences of their machinations. And they, the protesters, also want the chance to gaze upon the traders:

As in Psalm 52:

Behold the man! He did not take God as his refuge, but he trusted in the abundance of his wealth, and grew powerful through his wickedness.

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Socio-economic mobility has always been central to the American dream. But our civic culture is actually carefully structured to keep us segregated. The wealthy lock themselves away in luxury vehicles and gated suburbs. The impoverished remain in blighted areas, obediently out of view.

The system is self-reinforcing. As the money concentrates at the top, less is devoted to those resources that are shared by all of us – parks, schools, community centers, subway trains – the very places where people of different classes might peaceably mingle.

The wealthy hire lobbyists and tax lawyers to game the system. They remove themselves, physically and psychically, from their duties to the poor. In this way, the interests of the few crush the interests of the many.

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If it was up to me, America would be a socialist democracy. The unforgivable crime of socialism is that it asks people to share. It puts the interests of the many before the interests of the few.

But most of the protestors aren’t advocating for socialism. They just want to see the government put an end to the cruel and disastrous excesses of capitalism.

Something worth remembering: during the Eisenhower administration, the tax rate on the richest Americans was 91 percent. Because they knew the government would get their dough if they tried to sock it away, the wealthy built factories and bought new equipment and hired workers instead. The economy boomed. High tax rates on the wealthy, it turns out, makes them better job creators.

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The protestors don’t just want to be seen by Wall Street traders. They want to be seen by the politicians in Washington, and by their fellow citizens. They want their individual stories told. They are trying to rouse a great nation from its moral slumber. Look, they are saying: the era of passive complaint might still give way to collective action.

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The response from most Democratic politicians has been tepid support. Many of them seem caught off guard, as if the sudden appearance of a national conscience were a chimerical beast bent on upsetting the natural order.

But it’s really not that hard to explain. Americans do, eventually, get fed up when they feel their values and interests are being ignored. They are capable of following the money. The great tragedy of the democratic party is that it has moved so far to the right that it no longer recognizes the protesters for what they are: agents of moral progress. Versions of who they used to be.

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There is a history of activism in this country. When faced with atrocity, Americans don’t just sit around. They demand moral improvement: suffrage, abolition, the labor movement, civil rights. They come together in public spaces to consecrate the possible.

Imagine what happens if the protests get larger: ten thousand people, a hundred thousand, a million? The media can only ignore the underlying message for so long. Eventually, they will have to start to talk about economic injustice. The discourse will shift away from the failed catechism of tax cuts and deregulation, and toward the question of how much avarice we, as a people, will tolerate.

The real question is: what are we going to do? Are we going to do the inconvenient thing and turn off the computer and join the movement? Are we going to be counted by history? Are we going to consecrate the possible?

***

My father was arrested for protesting the war. He didn’t spend long in jail. That same afternoon he appeared at the end of our street. He was wearing a suit and tie. My twin brother Mike and I were on the sidewalk pretending to make pancakes, pretending we weren’t waiting for him. We ran to hug him.

Years later I would learn that my dad, who was at this time a junior faculty member at Stanford, had organized student protests against the war. His activism was frowned upon by the administration, and he was not asked to stay on. He was counted by history.

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Update: After reading this piece, my father emailed me the following:

For the record book, your Mom and I picketed Woolworths in downtown New Haven during our first year of med school after a southern Woolworth’s refused to seat blacks at the lunch counter.  This was one of the first actions of the civil rights movement.


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →