OCCUPYING A VOID
Let me begin my making a statement that is long overdue in this portion of cyberspace: I wholeheartedly support the Occupy movement. That is not to say I applaud everything each demonstrator has said or done in connection with this movement. What I do applaud is the central goal of calling attention to the fundamental economic inequality in our society, and announcing that such inequality is flat out unacceptable.
When he campaigned for President, Barack Obama led us all to believe that he intended to address the inequality issue. He took a significant step in the right direction insofar as he worked for universal health care. But in other critical respects, our President flat out blew it. And none of his omissions is more critical than his unwillingness to increase the marginal tax rate on the most affluent members of our society. (Of course, now he is pretending to care about that issue again, but he also knows that the votes are no longer there to enact this change; when he seemingly had the votes, he lacked the spine.)
The Occupy movement does reflect a certain type of class warfare. But it’s not a war of the “99%” against the “1%.” The war is, in fact, being initiated by the uber-rich patrons of the Republican party, and the foot-soldiers are the rank-and-file of that increasingly reactionary party, many of whom are neither affluent nor well-educated, but who have been taught by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to despise government, taxes, economic redistribution and anything remotely resembling the New Deal. The Occupy movement is merely a reaction to the war that Limbaugh, Hannity, and such behind-the-scenes puppeteers as Grover Norquist have been waging for years. Theirs is a battle against the sane idea that government can play constructive non-military roles in a capitalist society.
Well, I’ve had enough of the extremist ideology that is strangling the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. And I’m not alone. Channeling the immortal words of Howard Beale in the movie Network, many Americans are finally saying “I am mad as hell and am not going to take this anymore!” The real question is what took us so long?
This past Tuesday, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that had an interesting perspective on the Occupy protests. He set up a dichotomy involving two types of inequalities: (a) the one between the 99% and the 1%, and (b) the one within the 99% -- specifically, between those who have college degrees and those who don’t. Brooks’ point was that the former may be the one garnering all the media attention, but the latter inequality is the one that is most devastating to our society.
Is he correct? Well, yes and no. What Brooks is really asking us to focus on is not so much the war that the 1% is now waging against the so-called “middle class,” but the war that both the rich AND the middle class have been waging for decades against the poor. He’s absolutely right that this is being completely ignored by the politicians and the media, and that this is a national tragedy. In fact, it has gotten to the point where whenever inequality is raised in the media, the victim is almost always identified as the “middle class” rather than the “poor,” since the audience is presumed to be so much better able to relate to the former than the latter. In other words, the middle class has now come to represent a more sympathetic group of victims than the poor. This is, indeed, a sad development.
But it begs the question of what to do to solve the problem. What I want to hear from Mr. Brooks and any other limousine-moderates who share his perspective is how they plan on calling attention to the plight of the poor if not by supporting the Occupy movement. From where I’m sitting, this has got to be a two-step process. First, the Howard Beales among us must rage against the rapacity of the Gordon Gekkos. (Hell, if we turn away from Hollywood and back toward history, we can find an even better example of the real villains here. Our nation’s 1% may best be compared to Marie Antoinette, whose immortal response to the underclass -- “let them eat cake” – is a perfect summary of the Herman Cain and Rick Perry tax plans.) Only by pointing out that even that great engine of capitalism – greed -- can be taken too far can we focus the attention of the American public on the issue of economic inequality and convince the public that too much inequality must not be tolerated. Full stop.
Then, and only then, will we be able to take on what Brooks views as the more pernicious type of inequality than the hoarding of wealth by the 1% -- namely, such problems as the “inequalities of family structure, child rearing patterns and educational attainment” that so defeat the aspirations of our nation’s underclass. Brooks went on to lament the “nation’s stagnant human capital, its stagnant social mobility and the disorganized social fabric for the bottom 50 percent.” And he announced his “ultimate goal” as the need to “expand opportunity.” I share his view that those problems and that goal should be front and center in our minds. And that is why, in my first novel, I called for a national war on poverty, which would need to be fought by all able-bodied people in both the public and private sectors and which would address both cultural and economic concerns.
Yet after I wrote that book, do you know what happened? I opened my eyes and ears to anyone who placed fighting poverty at the top of their agenda, but heard hardly a whisper. The silence was especially noteworthy when it comes to the world of politics – big time, national politics. In that domain, the only spokesman was good ol’ John Edwards. You know him well. He’s the slick attorney with the flowing hair. The one who loved to talk about the “two Americas.” The guy who hated poverty so much that he built a 30,000 square foot house for himself, and then took it upon himself to destroy his own marriage – no doubt, in order to demonstrate the tragedy of out-of-wedlock births. That, my fellow poverty haters, is our patron saint. That is our voice in the wilderness. The rest of the politicians – indeed, the rest of the chattering class generally – said nary a word about the plight of the poor.
It’s a basic law of nature that you’ve got to walk before you can run. And that principle applies just as much to the political marketplace of ideas. Prior to the commencement of the Occupy movement, the poor simply had no real voices in Washington, other than a few relatively powerless members of the House of Representatives. And yes, even now, the anti-poverty voices are muted. But at least now the issue of economic inequality has entered the national consciousness, and the need to do something about it is gaining traction. The only way this could have happened is for a group of young disaffected Americans to identify a group of villains and shine a bright light on their faces. Fortunately, with limited exceptions, events have not gotten violent, and I pray with all my heart that the protests remain peaceful. An America without the respect for law and order would cease to be America. We must keep things safe, legal, and orderly. But we must not stop the protests.
Is there any doubt that our system currently caters more to the 1% than the 99%? Is there any doubt that we are evolving into the type of capitalism excoriated by Dickens and Marx, each in their own unique ways? Those like me who actually believe in capitalism but see it as a means, not an end in itself, recognize the need to right this ship. And aside from the Occupiers, there are no other hands on deck.
What is the old Biblical expression? And the children shall lead? In this case, I think it’s not so much the children, but the unemployed young adults. Occupy away!