Another R-word: Revolution. Is that what we’re seeing down on Wall Street? The 2011 version of Lexington & Concord? Is it France 1788 or Russia 1916? Are we on the brink of something like that, where the impossible becomes inevitable and the system we can’t live without becomes, just like that, the system we can’t live with at all?
Time will tell on that, but it is true that tempers are getting frayed all over the place as the recession (certainly psychological if not technically economically accurate) begins its fourth year. Most popular revolutions happen when the system no longer works for enough people. Put another way, if you take and take and take from people until they have nothing left to lose, they’ll try to take it back, maybe with the ballot box, maybe with guns. What the people down in lower Manhattan are trying to express is that the system just doesn’t work for them anymore. Maybe it’s their own fault or maybe it’s someone else’s fault, but they’ve been left behind, excluded, marginalized. It used to be in this country that if you worked hard and did the right thing, everything would be OK. That’s not how it is anymore — people who worked their butts off and thought they were making wise choices woke up back in 2008 to find themselves jobless, or in danger of becoming so, and with houses worth far less than they paid. Their plans in ruin, their sure thing and secure future gone, just like that. That’d make me mad. Wouldn’t that make you mad? Not having a job for years and seeing more and more help wanted ads saying the unemployed need not apply — wouldn’t that make you really mad? Wouldn’t you start to really resent how the people at the top of the food chain got bailed out by your tax dollars, when all you get is judgments for unpaid bills, foreclosure notices and sleeping in the back of your car?
But let’s turn it around. True story: I was in the supermarket about a month or so ago, doing math in my head so I wouldn’t be embarrassed by not having enough money to pay for my groceries. Two women, both not looking particularly handicapped or otherwise unable to fend for themselves and one of them pushing a cart full of brand-name items, come down the aisle. One says to the other, and I quote: “I want to get a job, but I don’t want to get too good of a job, because then my benefits will go [sound to indicate something being sucked away] and my Medicaid will go [same sound to indicate something being sucked away].” In that moment, right or wrong, cruel or no, I regretted every time I ever voted for anyone who advocated helping the poor. I understood in a visceral sense the rage some people who work hard and just barely scrape by feel at those who don’t, yet still somehow have good clothes, cell phones and Hawaiian Punch.
I have spent a long time since that moment thinking about that feeling. It’s the same feeling I get when I get stopped on the street Uptown and someone gives me some kind of a story about how they need five or six bucks for a bus ticket to Catskill (is that what they call meth these days?) or some similar tale of woe. I work. Work my ass off, actually. Why can’t you? Why won’t you? Why the hell are you hassling me on the street? Is hitting me up for money somehow easier than getting a job, showing up at a job and continuing to show up? Why can’t you do what I do?
Yet another R-word: Reality. There are a lot of people who just can’t. This city has plenty of them, living the most marginal lives you could imagine. A lot of them are mentally ill, have rap sheets. Broken from their families, broken from their friends, broken from themselves — in a real sense, refugees in their own country. Some of us have the vast compassion needed to care about the uncouth and irksome in more than a vaguely theoretical sense. Most of us, once they get in our faces, we get mad at them and wish they would go away from our sidewalks, our neighboring yards, our lives. But where are they going to go? Just die? Are people even allowed to hop freight trains anymore to seek their fortunes elsewhere? Is this not their home too? Their reality — unless they get help, and a lot of it, every day, they’re going to be cold, hungry, homeless, hopeless.
In better times, when middle-class people are not living under the fear of being poor, it’s easier to care about the poor. Security breeds generosity. When the fear comes, when the scarcity comes and seems like it’s here for good, that’s when wallets close and lips get pursed and good intentions forgotten. Resentment arises, and it’s easier to get angry at and be mean to someone weaker than we than to challenge the strong to share more.
So, maybe that’s what we’re seeing on Wall Street. A challenge to those at the top who will never have to worry about not having enough to cut a break to those on the bottom who worry about not having enough every day of their lives. To un-rig, even just a little bit, a system rigged for a long time to make the rich richer. Occupy Wall Street might not be pretty, might not always be coherent (just like this editorial!) and might not succeed in any measurable way. But the challenge needs to be made. It needs to be pointed out that for too many, the system is a bucket of spit and the social contract the rawest of deals, and something needs to change.