The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) or 99% Movement continues to be something of an oddity. A lot of people are worked up enough to sleep in tents and be pepper sprayed by police. But a lot of different reasons – ranging from the haphazard to the self-serving — have been offered as to why this is.
It appears, though, to be a protest against the increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth and resulting economic and social problems that are the result. A recent report suggests nearly 1 in 3 children are living in poverty in many places. Chronic unemployment continues with no end in sight and the housing market, which many economists feel could help the economy recover, remains cold. The protestors cite these and a host of other issues when explaining why they’re protesting.
Chris Hedges, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, author and long-time foreign correspondent for the New York Times, may have expressed the factors that would inspire the OWS movement in a speech given last April outside a branch of Bank of America. And while one may disagree with his views, they make it easier to understand what lies behind the protests.
He framed the problems of today as moral and even spiritual issues, likening today’s financial titans to the Biblical Pharisees. He began his speech with some very strong words:
“We stand today before the gates of one of our temples of finance. It is a temple where greed and profit are the highest good, where self-worth is determined by the ability to amass wealth and power at the expense of others, where laws are manipulated, rewritten and broken, where the endless treadmill of consumption defines human progress, where fraud and crimes are the tools of business.
“The two most destructive forces of human nature—greed and envy—drive the financiers, the bankers, the corporate mandarins and the leaders of our two major political parties, all of whom profit from this system. They place themselves at the center of creation. They disdain or ignore the cries of those below them. They take from us our rights, our dignity and thwart our capacity for resistance. …They view human beings and the natural world as mere commodities to exploit until exhaustion or collapse. Human suffering, wars, climate change, poverty, it is all the price of business. Nothing is sacred.”
Hedges says these people “…demand that we tolerate a permanent underclass that will leave one in six workers without jobs, that condemns tens of millions of Americans to poverty and tosses our mentally ill onto heating grates. Those without power, those whom these corporations deem to be ordinary, are cast aside like human refuse. It is what the god of the market demands.”
Hedges’ words are as pessimistic as they are powerful, but seem to express the fears of many on both the Left and the Right. He maintains “the president has failed us. The Congress has failed us. The courts have failed us. The press has failed us. The universities have failed us. Our process of electoral democracy has failed us. There are no structures or institutions left that have not been contaminated or destroyed by corporations.”
To whatever degree this is or isn’t true, it begs the question — what can be done about it? So far, ideas range from non-violent civil disobedience to policies which would, in effect, give even more control over the government to the super rich. As a result, it’s hard to see a viable solution emerging any time soon…
“All forms of totalitarianism try to avoid the strange, the problematic, the critical, the rational.” – Theologian Paul Tillich
The above quote from one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th Century was used against me recently in a rather spirited discussion about rural development.
Generally, whether they live there or not, people tend to see helping struggling rural communities as a good thing. But not in this instance. In discussing the subject with an individual who had grown up in a small town but then led a successful life in a city, it became clear that he had strong opinions about what’s wrong with rural communities.
The “totalitarianism” he mentioned was not communism or radical Islam – ideologies we tend to associate with that word – but instead the “tyranny of the small mind.” He said that while there are exceptions, people in small towns are slaves to their self-imposed limitations. He said they are “conservative to a fault” and, using the above quote, argued that they are opposed to anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their ‘backward and largely fanciful’ world view. He pointed out that only a few years agoNebraska’s Third District was home to some of the poorest counties in the nation (though this is hopefully changing as land and crop prices rise). Despite this, the people here overwhelmingly embrace pro big-business Republicans whose policies favoring industrialized agriculture have for decades been destroying the viability of small farms and small towns.
He cited research that I’ve touched on in past columns, research that purports to show that there are distinct personality differences between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives are said to be very orderly and very good at staying their course, but also easily frightened. Liberals, it is said, are better at managing – and less afraid of – change. He said people in small towns are afraid to grow and thus hostile to new ideas and new approaches. As a result, they’ve driven off the people who could have done the most to help them evolve (“brain drain”).
He was adamant about his position. Though I offered a number of examples of rural innovation, including Boone County’s progress in developing renewable energy, he dismissed such efforts as too small to have a widespread impact and years behind what people in other places are already doing.
I then made the mistake of pointing out that rural Nebraska has produced a Pulitzer-winning national poet laureate, Ted Kooser. He countered with Kooser’s own observations about small town residents, recalling that Kooser had likened them to wolves in his book Local Wonders, wolves who are always on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Kooser, he reminded me, had explained how one gets around the “wolf senses” of a small mind by making little changes that over time add up to big changes. Close a few country schools and pretty soon they’re all gone. Let people spray animal waste through a center pivot here and there and in time they’ll be doing it everywhere. Small town residents oppose change, but only when it’s rapid enough that it penetrates their consciousness.
This man was a true zealot in his antagonism towards small towns and the ‘tyrannical small minds’ that stifle their growth. So there wasn’t much point to arguing with him.
It was a stark reminder, though, that along with a lot of very real problems, rural communities are also battling some very ugly stereotypes…