October 13, 2011
One versus fifty-three versus ninety-nine
There’s a photo being shared around Facebook (I tried to find a version I could link to, but wasn’t able to); I’ve now seen it twice on my feed. In the photo, what appears to be a young woman holds a hand-written note up in front of her face. In that note, she tells her audience that she is a senior in college and will soon graduate debt-free. She has worked hard and lived within her means, eschewing luxuries like a new car or an iPad, and is thus able to live comfortably. “I expect nothing handed to me,” she says, “and will continue working my ass off for everything I have.” She goes on to say, “That’s how it’s supposed to work,” and concludes, “I am NOT part of the 99 percent and whether you are or not is YOUR decision.”
I have a problem with this narrative. First of all, that last part appears to be based on a misunderstanding of what “we are the 99%” actually means. That statement is based on the distribution of wealth in the United States, i.e. the fact that the top 1% of the population control a sizeable chunk of the country’s wealth. The 1% is made up of the billionaires, the CEOs on Wall Street, the rich folks, the ones who use “vacation” as a verb, and so on and so forth. The 99% is the rest of us, the workaday folks, the ones who are really only one major accident or illness or layoff away from losing everything, no matter how much we believe that if we follow all the rules (don’t spend more than you earn, neither a borrower nor a lender be, keep your nose to the grindstone, etc.), we’ll always be able to live comfortably. And many of the 99% will indeed always be able to live comfortably, especially the middle class white folks. For many others, though, things don’t always turn out so rosy.
Secondly, here’s the thing: I understand how reasonable people can disagree on the efficacy and nature of the Occupy Wall Street protests. What I don’t understand is a) how and why people translate “hold Wall Street accountable for its actions” into “by demanding the aforesaid, I abdicate any and all responsibility for the decisions I myself have made,” and b) how, when faced with a choice between sympathizing with the “unwashed masses” of the 99% and the Wall Street CEOs, people who are in similar income brackets to my own would choose to sympathize with the CEOs. Sure, I’m in debt because I made some arguably questionable decisions—decisions that I nevertheless stand by today. But you know who helped me back up when I was at my lowest? It sure as hell wasn’t Bank of America. It was my friends and family—again, members of the 99%. We, i.e. the American people, bailed Wall Street out; they’ll only return the favor if they deem us an acceptable risk based on our credit scores, income, and other assests. How does that not strike more people as fucked up?
I guess people repost pictures like the one I describe above because they want to believe that’s true—again, that if you follow the rules, you’ll be okay. It actually reminds me of a certain variety of rape apologism, the one that appears to buy into the idea that if you follow a particular set of rules (this time it’s be a “good girl,” don’t drink or do drugs, don’t go places with strange men and DEFINITELY don’t have sex with them!, don’t dress in any way that could be termed indecent, etc.), you won’t get raped. Nevermind that people are often (usually?) raped by someone they know. Nevermind the innumerable survivors who’ve been raped in their own homes. Nevermind that both sets of rules rely on a fair amount of denial and magical thinking (child abuse? sudden catastrophic illness? whuzzat?). This is what we’re told, and what many people choose to believe: follow the rules, and you’ll be safe from harm.
And if you truly believe that, I’ve got a bridge or two you might be interested in.