Don’t call us, we’ll call you

December 7, 2011

The Occupy movement, part II

You didn’t really think I was just, like, never going to offer any opinions about the Occupy movement, did you?  No, I didn’t either.

Of course, there’s too much to say to cover it all, but probably a good place to start is to tell you something that my brother-in-law Tristan said to me during our conversation about the movement.  I was telling him about how, for the most part, I was annoyed reading the now-famous Tumblr page We Are the 99 Percent.  Annoyed because many of the frustrated writers seemed painfully unaware of the privilege inherent in their problems.  [The student loan debt issue that my friend Sabrina mentioned in her comment on my first post is as good an example of this as anything for me.  To have had  the opportunity to accumulate student loan debt is something that many people I have worked with will never experience.  I mean, any type of meaningful education has completely eluded many of them through little fault of their own.  Do I think there are predatory lending practices in the student loan industry?  Yes, definitely.  But I’m really not convinced that the majority of students who have huge debt were victims of such practices.  I feel this way particularly in regards to graduate student debt.]  Anyway, back to my conversation with Tristan.  I think our exchange went something like this:

Me: I’ve heard a sob story or two in my work — and I work with impoverished people in the United States where our poor have a better life than many in other countries — and so many of these “99%” are not even in the same ballpark as a sob story.  I would be more sympathetic if I felt that more of them were addressing the real inequalities I have seen, but my incarcerated men can’t post things on Tumblr.

Tristan: Well, your frustration is because you’re more of a radical than the majority of Occupy protesters.

I really had to chuckle because it’s been a long time since someone called me a radical (this was not that uncommon in my late teens/early twenties, but I have mellowed emotionally and become more of a centrist politically in the intervening years).  But you know, Tristan’s right to an extent.  I don’t think acknowledging structural inequality or institutional racism in our society is particularly radical, but I own that some aspects of my beliefs and the way I am trying to live my life might be considered radical, even by other radicals (since Tristan is definitely one of those).

I’ve been staring at that last sentence for awhile, trying to figure out where to go from there.  To explain those “radical” beliefs further would require answering questions like, How do we want to live now and in the future, and where?  How will we make a living?  And the one we get asked a lot, what are we even doing in California, living with my parents?  It’s not that I don’t want to address those questions more fully, but the topic feels too expansive and work-in-progressy for the present moment (of course, articulating more about our goals and plans would no doubt help me make progress, but it also feels too time-consuming for these naptime musings).  I guess as simple a way as any to give a sense of where I stand is to briefly dissect one of Samantha Bee’s interviews in the Daily Show clip I posted last time.  She’s talking to a young man and asks whether he would share his iPad 2 (which he’s holding) with some of the “hobos” in “downtown” Zuccotti Park.  He’s says no, but that he does support a society where everyone has access to technology.  The exchange continues:

Samantha: So it’s not so much about sharing, but about everyone having an iPad 2?

Young Man: Or at least everybody having access to the material wealth of life.

I don’t doubt this young man has good intentions, but even beyond some sense of hypocrisy, I personally feel that he may be aiming for the wrong things.  And this is a sense that I get from many of the Tumblr posts as well.  People believed/thought/were told that hard work and education would get them a nice home, a good retirement, college-educated kids, steadily-increasing wealth, new technology, etc.  and now many are mad because it hasn’t panned out.  But to me, we ought to be in the business of scaling down our own personal expectations, especially if we are concerned about inequality.  I just don’t believe that we will live in a world where everybody has access to all the good things available, and so I’m personally trying to want a more modest life.  Even though I think iPads are cool, I know they’re not a part of my current or future life, so I don’t let myself think about wanting one (the iPad and most technology is easy for me, accepting that the kind of travel I would love to do is probably not in the cards for us, that’s definitely more difficult).  I’m not invested in telling individual people what they should or should not have since every life experience is different and one person’s need is another person’s luxury, but I just don’t believe that the kind of consumption and scaling-up that was happening just a few years ago is sustainable — especially if we care about access for everyone and not just ourselves.

Having said that, I do agree with some of the aims of the OWS movement.  The idea of getting money out of politics seems to me too broad an objective (as my friend Emily got at in her comment on my last post), and on its face, just impossible.  But I support, for example, closing the loophole that allows congresspeople to participate in “insider trading” that would be illegal if they were not elected officials, as well as a number of other particular proposals that would make our elections more about public service and less about wealth accumulation.  As for the question of corporate personhood, I remain conflicted.  I sympathize with the frustration about corporate money in politics, but I also think that many people fail to acknowledge some of the benefits and innovation that exist because of the laws governing corporations.  I also wonder, is it really a consistent position to say, I want to limit corporations in this way, but I will still contribute to their wealth by buying and using their products?  I don’t know, those are still issues I’m grappling with.

When it comes right down to it, occupying and protesting are not my preferred methods of political involvement, so in that way, it’s just not a movement that really resonates with me.  And I definitely sympathize with the point that the author of that Washington Post op-ed about low black participation in the movement was making when she said:

Why should they [black Americans] ally with whites who are just now experiencing the hardships that blacks have known for generations? Perhaps white Americans are now paying the psychic price for not answering the basic questions that blacks have long raised about income inequality.

Sadly, the stories of so many of the black men and women I’ve worked with, known, and loved, are much, much sadder than those of so many of the Occupiers and I worry about obscuring some of those issues that I find more troubling.

Still, I think most of the protesters are good people who are trying to do something meaningful.  I was undeniably moved by Rossana’s simple statement: “Do I think this is going to change things, in the government?  No, probably not.  But it’s changing me, it’s changing us.”  I respect her recognition that, at the end of the day, life has to be mostly about changing ourselves because there is so much out of our control.



  1. I hate politics and know almost nothing about the occupy movement, but I loved reading this post. You are such a high-quality thinker, in terms of how you weigh and criticize things, and I place value on a lot of the same principles you do. I think one of the reasons I don’t yet have the strength to engage more in politics is because my aims would be too radical, but reading things like this helps me realize there is probably a place for me in realm of political thought, waiting for me to be ready to take it.

    Comment by v. blanchard — December 8, 2011 @ 12:44 am

  2. I’m really struck by the comment the guy Samantha was interviewing. He won’t share his toy, but feels everyone should have access to it? I agree I think people are expecting much too much. The word entitlement comes to mind. I find it happening with my kids already. And I so wish I could write more, but the kids keep interrupting. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts with corporations involvement with government and it’s benefits, because I can only think of cases with corruption. ok, really gotta go.

    Comment by Ishkhanoohie — December 9, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

  3. What I love about you lindsey is that you always do the research before you voice an opinion. I feel like you can’t really stand one way our the other unless you understand what the stance is. I agree that demonstrating is not my favorite way of getting one voice heard, especially when it gets out of hand, and I agree with us needing to lower expectations, most of the world lives without our so called necessities:-) and the fact politicians get paid so well is so weird, frankly I dont understand what they are doing so well to get compensated so well.

    Comment by Carissa — December 11, 2011 @ 6:23 am

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