Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Other 1%

I have been, at best, ambivalent about Occupy Wall Street and its various iterations around the country and Western world. I certainly understand that they are having a hard time in life right now and have legitimate grievances against a system that is clearly unfair. That said,

Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.

I'm very much on board with Matt Welch's piece at H&R the other day. (I'm not sure Alex Pareene's take is any more accurate in describing what #OWS is about than the litany of other "concrete ideas," but it's as good as any.):
Who are these wise men, and what are these rules, these promises, this ticket to class mobility, or at least a secure career, this singular notion of the one "right" way to do things? At the risk of going all "Generation X is sick of your bullshit" here, count me as one Gen Xer who does not recognize the world that Alex Pareene and the Salon staff (many of whom are even older than me!) have sketched out here.

Cradle-to-grave employment (at least outside the public sector) has been dead since at least the end of the Cold War. Undergraduate degrees in English and Film and Sociology and Philosophy (and a thousand other subjects) have had debatable workplace utility for as long as I've been alive. There have even been previous housing bubbles and busts in Alex Pareene's lifetime.
I don't recall anything like the promises so cruelly unkept in Salon's list. I do remember my father warning me that an engineering degree would be much more useful in the workplace than English, to which I uttered a phrase available to 18-year-olds everywhere: Thanks, Dad; not your call. Ditto for the legions of well-meaning adults urging me to finish my undergraduate degree, to sign up for the Selective Service, and even (when I finally attained a decent living in the second half of my 30s) to pay a mortgage instead of paying rent. One of the best perks about being a grown-up is that you get to make your own choices, and to own the results, good and ill.
Matt's rant, at the bottom of it, is about the "poor me" complex that infects #OWS at the core. I've heard varying defenses of them and their plight, but let's be real: nearly more than 90% of the protesters have been to college. A majority are under 34, white, and presumably able-bodied. (How many sick people do you know can sit out in the elements for days on end?) That they, of all people, have it bad is notable, but hardly compelling enough for me to break out my not-exactly-full wallet and call the telethon phone bank. Indeed, these are nearly the last demographic ON THE PLANET that most people would feel sorry for. (The last group would be the so-called 1% at which this youthful bedraggled horde is aiming their incoherent angst.) It's not that they have it easy--but some perspective would be nice.

There is a 1% that is getting ignored in all of this please-pay-off-my-art-school-loans self-pity: the 1 in 100 Americans currently incarcerated in our own country. Indeed, they're only getting attention now because apparently the NYPD is allegedly directing the recently released down to Zuccotti Park because of the free grub and/or to stir up trouble. And if it's true, I don't condone such action, but the resentment of the #OWS is telling: "We are the 99%" is a catchy little slogan, but it's not true.

When I think of the people in our society who need the most help, I think of the mentally ill, the homeless, the illiterate and uneducated, the multi-generationally impoverished, and the victims of our criminal justice system--not coincidentally, a system that overwhelmingly picks on these very same groups. (In fairness, it has been noted that #OWS has begun to incorporate some of the needs of the homeless whom they've taken among their ranks into their nebulous demands, but given their proximity to one another, one would hope so.) If it's hard for a college grad or drop-out to get a job, how hard do you suppose it is for an uneducated ex-con? One in 31 Americans is at some point within the correctional system--incarcerated, on probation, or paroled--and a conviction is an easy way for Human Resources manager to automatically thin the application pile in a time of high unemployment. They don't have the time or inclination to inquire the circumstances about the crime--let alone whether the "crime" was itself just. If these issues have been brought up by #OWS, they haven't been brought to the fore either by their detractors or supporters.

In fact, like the Tea Party and its relationship to/co-opting by the conservative base before it, most of the "concrete ideas" are Progressive talking points or Democratic politicking. And, given that an election year is coming up and that guy down on 1600 Pennsylvania is relying on young, relatively affluent, educated Progs to help him win reelection, it should have been no surprise whatever that he threw a bone to one of the consistent "demands" of #OWS: college loan debt assistance.

Stepping out of the libertarian shell for a moment here, it doesn't matter what I think about the program in a vacuum: in times like this, the people who need help the most are being overshadowed because they either don't or can't vote--thanks felony disfranchisement!--or they can't give money to that end. The purported voice of the 99% is the voice of the disaffected middle class, which may be a lot, but certainly not 99%. For all their talk about unity and The People and other fairy tale claptrap, it's just more people with their hands out:  young, privileged, educated people who have it a lot better than people who need it more. 

At this point, they're just like any other special interest or lobby: they're just not as well dressed. But the Dems, the unions and the Left are paying attention and they thank #OWS for their support.

bellum medicamenti delenda est