Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Reductionist Game

I just got another of those letters from a cousin whom I hold in great esteem. She’s a dear lady. Only today, unlike on many days when she reveals her warm and gentle nature, she has her head where the sun don't shine.

Here’s the letter she sent me, with the one-line comment, “I have to agree with this!”
Some Belated Parental Advice to Protesters

Call it an occupational hazard but I can’t look at the Occupy Wall Street protesters without thinking, “Who parented these people?”

As a culture columnist, I’ve commented on the social and political ramifications of the “movement” – now known as “OWS” – whose fairyland agenda can be summarized by one of their placards: “Everything for everybody.”

Thanks to their pipe-dream platform, it’s clear there are people with serious designs on “transformational” change in America who are using the protesters like bedsprings in a brothel.

Yet it’s not my role as a commentator that prompts my parenting question but rather the fact that I’m the mother of four teens and young adults. There are some crucial life lessons that the protesters’ moms clearly have not passed along.

Here, then, are five things the OWS protesters’ mothers should have taught their children but obviously didn’t, so I will:

• Life isn’t fair. The concept of justice – that everyone should be treated fairly – is a worthy and worthwhile moral imperative on which our nation was founded. But justice and economic equality are not the same. Or, as Mick Jagger [2] said, “You can’t always get what you want.”

No matter how you try to “level the playing field,” some people have better luck, skills, talents or connections that land them in better places. Some seem to have all the advantages in life but squander them, others play the modest hand they’re dealt and make up the difference in hard work and perseverance and some find jobs on Wall Street and eventually buy houses in the Hamptons. Is it fair? Stupid question.

• Nothing is “free.” Protesting with signs that seek “free” college degrees and “free” health care make you look like idiots because colleges and hospitals don’t operate on rainbows and sunshine. There is no magic money machine to tap for your meandering educational careers and “slow paths” to adulthood and the 53 percent of taxpaying Americans owe you neither a degree nor an annual physical.

While I’m pointing out this obvious fact, here are a few other things that are not free: overtime for police officers and municipal workers, trash hauling, repairs to fixtures and property, condoms, Band-Aids and the food that inexplicably appears on the tables in your makeshift protest kitchens. Real people with real dollars are underwriting your civic temper tantrum.

• Your word is your bond. When you demonstrate to eliminate student loan debt, you are advocating precisely the lack of integrity you decry in others. Loans are made based on solemn promises to repay them. No one forces you to borrow money; you are free to choose educational pursuits that don’t require loans or to seek technical or vocational training that allows you to support yourself and your ongoing educational goals. Also, for the record, being a college student is not a state of victimization. It’s a privilege that billions of young people around the globe would die for – literally.

• A protest is not a party. On Saturday in New York, while making a mad dash from my cab to the door of my hotel to avoid you, I saw what isn’t evident in the newsreel footage of your demonstrations: Most of you are doing this only for attention and fun. Serious people in a sober pursuit of social and political change don’t dance jigs down Sixth Avenue like attendees of a Renaissance festival. You look foolish, you smell gross, you are clearly high and you don’t seem to realize that all around you are people who deem you irrelevant.

• There are reasons you haven’t found jobs. The truth? Your tattooed necks, gauged ears, facial piercings and dirty dreadlocks are off-putting. Nonconformity for the sake of nonconformity isn’t a virtue. Occupy reality: Only 4 percent of college graduates are out of work. If you are among that 4 percent, find a mirror and face the problem. It’s not them. It’s you.

I wrote back.

Dear [name deleted]:

You say you agree with this article by Mary Beth Hicks of the Washington Times. I don’t. Let me tell you why.

It’s one of the best examples of missing the woods for the trees I’ve seen in a long time.

To start with, look what she’s done with this now global phenomenon called “Occupy Wall Street” – she has reduced it to the worst features of some of its least representative members – the whining self-centered smelly folk who provide the media, always looking for the outrageous and the controversial, with a demon to glom onto. The thousands of people protesting the abuse of power in the United States are reduced to people with “tattooed necks, gauged ears, facial piercings and dirty dreadlocks.”

Where in this “report” is the big picture, the full extent of what the movement represents and who all is involved?

I won’t pick apart her arguments one by one. Others have already done it in the commentary to her article.

But just let me say this. Ms. Hicks’ putdown of this cry for help in America is no different from watching a power-hungry bureaucrat turn back an application for food stamps because, contrary to the rules, it was filled out in pencil. Or a plea from a mother wanting her child out of jail because her English is ungrammatical. We often miss the injustices done by people claiming the high ground because they know how to make reasonable arguments and focus the story on the mud on a fireman’s boots while he tries to keep your house from burning down.

The right wing in America is pulling out all the stops trying to discredit the OWS movement, to hide the fact that money has so thoroughly corrupted our political system that there is widespread and increasing consensus that there is no reason anymore to work within the system. To help the democrats and work within the system, they believe, is no longer a viable option. Democrats too, they say - and I think the evidence isn't hard to find - write legislation on the basis of who pays them, not on what is good for the country.

Life isn’t fair, says Ms. Hicks. Kids should accept that. Really? We should accept without a whimper that between 1979 and 2007 the wealth of the richest 1% of Americans increased by 275% at the same time as the bottom 80% saw their wealth decline? And since the Supreme Court has decided there can be no limit to secret contributions to officials by wealthy corporations, we no longer have recourse to the usual channels to fix this inequity. Banging pots and pans (what Ms. Hicks dismisses as a “civic temper tantrum”) has become all that’s left.

It’s true that ultimately one cannot make changes just by making noises. Ultimately these cries of protest will have to be translated into action. The cries are not the solution. But they are the wake-up call. Ms. Hicks is blaming the alarm clock for not getting out of bed and going to work. She’s blaming the young for not being clean and polite. Fine, but while you're nodding your head in agreement, be careful you're not still nodding when she blames the unemployed in a time of 10% inflation, for not working. And when she ignores the 10-12% figures when stressing on the 4% figure for college graduates, as if college kids should take their money and run and not see the plight of those is worse shape. One wonders why she would go to this length to twist and filter facts to make an argument.

I wondered why, until I realized she was writing for the Washington Times, the right wing Washington newspaper, which historian Thomas Frank of Harper's has called "a propaganda sheet whose distortions are so obvious and so alien that it puts one in mind of those official party organs one encounters when traveling in authoritarian countries." Hicks is endorsed by the likes of Michelle Malkin and touted for being on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.

Mary Beth Hicks is the voice of the folks interested in keeping the wealth in the hands of America’s superwealthy, the republic of the people, by the people, for the people, be damned.

Hope you’re well,

Your cousin,



1 comment:

William D. Lindsey said...

Alan, your response to these arguments is brilliant.

I particularly like your insistence that the life-isn't-fair idea is absolutely doltish, given the extremes of wealth distribution in the U.S. today. And the effects of the maldistribution of wealth on the generation now coming of age: it's entirely to their credit that they're organizing, some of them, to protest.

They want to have a future, after all. And who can blame them>