Turn the Shame Around

For the longest time I didn’t get Occupy Wall Street, but then Herman Cain helped me out: He said something so monumentally wrong that my reaction against it pointed me in the right direction.

Here’s Herman:

Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! … It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded, it is someone’s fault if they failed.

That’s when I got it. An unjust system’s first line of defense is shame. As long as we’re ashamed to admit that we’re victims, as long as we’re ashamed to identify with the other losers, we’re helpless.

It would be great to have a 10-point plan that solves everything. It would be great to have a party that endorses that plan and a get-out-the-vote movement to put that party into office. But none of that is going to happen until large numbers of us cast off our shame, until we turn the shame around: We need to stop being ashamed that we couldn’t crack the top 1%, and instead cast shame on an economic system that only works for 1%. The people who defend that immoral system and profit from it — they should be ashamed, not us.

That’s what Occupy Wall Street is about. OWS isn’t about plans and parties and votes. That all comes later. OWS is about casting off shame and learning to identify with the other losers.

I didn’t get OWS because (like a lot of other people) I kept trying to fit it into the wrong model. It’s not the 20th-century labor movement, marching for a minimum wage and a 40-hour week. It’s not Rosa Parks demanding her seat on the bus. It’s not last spring’s occupation of the state capitol in Madison, demanding  the restoration of collective bargaining rights, a reversal of education cuts, and maybe even the recall of Gov. Walker.

Those were fine movements, but they’re not this movement. This is more like feminism in the late 60s or gay rights in the 80s.  Specific demands will play their role eventually, but consciousness-raising has to come first.

Remember what we were told in those days? Feminists were women who had to work because they were too ugly to get a man. Gays were perverts too limp-wristed to defend themselves. They were losers. If you resembled them or sympathized with them, you were supposed to be ashamed.

Somebody had to be the first to go out in public and absorb that scorn. I remember my shock the first time I saw Dykes on Bikes, or a troop of guys in drag chanting “We’re here. We’re queer.” I remember trying to imagine how much courage that took, and what else must be possible if this was possible.

But other than a vague sense that they ought to be treated more like human beings, I don’t remember their demands. I wonder if they remember.

Now go look at the pictures at We Are the 99%. One person after another is saying, “Look at me. I’m losing in this economy, and I’m not ashamed who knows it.”

That’s powerful. I think everybody who looks at those pictures feels a little bit of their own shame melt.

Maybe the economic story you’re ashamed to tell is no great shakes compared to people who have lost their homes or got sick without insurance or had to move back in with Mom and Dad. But you probably have one.

Saturday night at dinner, talking about OWS led an old friend to admit to me that he had taken a pay cut. He’s got a job; he’s surviving. But still — a pay cut — that’s not the image of himself he wants a lot of people to see.

Here’s the story I don’t tell: After things started going south, I was gullible enough to believe the bankers who said they had it under control. I put a chunk of my retirement savings into Citicorp and lost it. I’m not going to be eating cat food any time soon, but the story shows me being a sucker, so I don’t tell anybody. I don’t like being a sucker. I want to project an image of the 1%, not the 99%.

That’s got to change. Just about all of us — around 99%, I figure — are losers these days. We need to stop being ashamed of it. We need to tell our stories, and when we hear each other’s stories we need to embrace them, not distance ourselves.

Most of all, we need to turn the shame around. The bankers who stole a bunch of our money and lost the rest — they should be ashamed. The CEOs who have corrupted our political system so that it serves their interests instead of the people’s — they should be ashamed. The politicians who take the billionaires’ money, rig the economy in their favor, and then tell the rest of us it’s our own fault we’re not rich — they should be ashamed.

You don’t have to tell me: Change requires more than just consciousness-raising. I know.

The old rules still apply. We’re going to need policies. We’re going to need agendas and lists of demands. We’re going to need leaders to represent us and armies of volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls and write letters to the editor. We’re going to have to register millions of voters and get them to the polls. None of that is going to happen automatically just because people lose their shame about being victims of an economy run by and for the 1%.

But I don’t believe that stuff is going to happen at all — not on the scale we need — until people lose their shame about being victims and losers. It’s just a first step, but I don’t think we can skip it.

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Comments

  • Erik Johnson  On October 10, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    GREAT article! I am an occupier, and I have been very frustrated with the mainstream media for their complete inability to get it, and their willingness to marginalize or dismiss it because they don’t get it. You still don’t get it, because you think you know what we need, you don’t. But you get why we’re here. It isn’t about demands, it isn’t about agendas, and it most especially isn’t about leaders, not in the conventional sense and especially not in the washington sense or the wall street sense. We’re here to demonstrate. We’re here to demonstrate that we are not a minority. We’re here to demonstrate that we’re not a few hippies, bleeding hearts, and labor organizers. We’re here to demonstrate that the GLOBAL financial system is BROKEN and it needs our attention, EVERYBODY’S attention NOW. We do not want to go home and leave it to politicians and voters to fix it in the next election cycle. We WILL NOT go home until we have been included in the process that will ultimately arrive at the solution. We have tried doing it your way, their way, the old way, and it isn’t working, and it will never work. They have bought it, paid for it, and in typical 20th Century fashion they believe they can dispose of it however they want, well they can’t. We will take it back, you can join us, or you can watch it happen and wish you’d been a part of it. We won’t be turned away. We believe in the general assembly, in direct democracy, in direct action and an engaged populace. We believe that if ANY government wants to call itself a popular government then by hook or crook it is going to be OF the people, BY the people and most especially fucking FOR the people. Keep working at it, stop by and watch a general assembly, talk to protesters, get involved. You don’t get it yet, but you’re getting close.

  • Don Bishop  On October 10, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    In Herman Cain’s 9 9 9 plan, would the woman in the picture pay 10%?

  • David Ebert  On October 11, 2011 at 5:54 am

    The mainstream media gets it- but they are owned by big businesses, so they are not just ignoring you, they are actively screwing you.

  • Anonymous  On October 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    It never occurred to me that anyone would be ashamed that Wall Street screwed the country. That is, unless you voted FOR Wall Street and AGAINST government controls. Then you should be ashamed.

    I remember the S&L scandal, caused by “deregulation of the banking industry.” Remember that disaster? I thought, now, finally, people will understand that banks and Wall Street need to be regulated.

    BUT NO!!!! At least half of the American public did not learn a thing!

    For fear of making people mad, I will not mention any names, but his initials are: George Bush. He gutted the S.E.C. and put Wall-Streeters in charge. The S.E.C. still existed, but the elephants were in charge of the peanuts.

    Sometimes, I think: people get what they deserve. But then, not all of us voted against government regulations of Wall Street. So I say to people who voted against government and for Wall Street deregulation, BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR–YOU MAY GET IT.

    And, &%$#@!, did we get it!

    • Anonymous  On October 13, 2011 at 8:03 am

      Give me a break. Bill Clinton and the dem’s have done more damage than GB or any of the republicans. It was their crap laws on affordable housing that cause the housing mess

      • weeklysift  On October 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm

        The idea that affordable housing regulations caused the housing bubble has been debunked in a bunch of places. Here’s one: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2008/10/12/53802/private-sector-loans-not-fannie.html

        The simple way to see this is that the least regulated parts of the market collapsed first: non-bank mortgage companies like Countrywide Financial and investment banks like Lehman Brothers. It’s hard to tie them to government regulations.

  • Matthew Platte  On October 12, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Citicorp!? Srsly? To rub a wee more salt into that wound, you now see more clearly the on-going plight of the still-striving 1% which is simply: where can I invest this particular pile of money that will make a good return.

    The answer is nearly impossible to find.

    So do not lash yourself too vigorously for failing to find a better home for that retirement fund. To have succeeded would have implied that you had solved the internal inconsistency of capitalism.

  • Kurt Griffith  On October 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    My father was a cab driver in NYC. He brought the house I grew up in, and later the house I came of age in. We was a WWII Navy veteran, leftist, a union organizer and steward. He was also an auxiliary police lieutenant and a scoutmaster. He worked his ass off and succeeded within the “rules” of the American Dream of the 50s-70s. He also had a history degree, was a Mensa member, with an amazing sense of noblesse oblige, despite being in a working class occupation – always had an upper class sensibility.

    If I tried to get ahead driving a cab in the current economy with a family of four – I’d be bankrupt and homeless.

    My childhood home cost $5000 in 1960. My teen years home was $50,000 in 1975. In 2001, I brought a house in the NYC suburbs for $340K. In 2006 it’s street value inflated to $600K. (so much for that). I am a Graphic & Web designer. I certainly make more than my father did, but not a HUNDRED times what he made. I am living on the raggedy edge, slowly but surely burning through the inheritence he worked so diligently to provide me.

    He passed away in 1997, before he saw things begin to really implode. As a veteran he was very conflicted over Vietnam and was deeply suspicious of American Motives and policies in Gulf War I.

    In 2001, a month after 9/11, I was laid off from an Art Director job in a massive downsizing that spread through the entire design and publishing industry in the NYC area. There went the job that qualified our mortgage. After an 18 month job search, I got another AD post at a small magazine, with a 30% pay cut and NO benefits. That lasted NINE months and they sold themselves and laid off 50% of their staff. The magazine has since ceased publication. Another casualty.

    I now freelance full time from my home. I make half of what I did in 2000. My expenses are nearly DOUBLE. We’re slowly sinking. And it’s very very very difficult to talk about thins among peers, neighbors, colleagues, clients and in the business community. I am made to feel shameful that I am not a “success.” in the classic capitalist sense. When I was job searching, I was made to feel like a penniless mendicant in a hairshirt, by the same assholes slap my back and invite me to the sports bar and talk about football as a fellow “business owner.” Mind you same skill set, same resume, same (aging) suit and (home) haircut.

    At that point the suspicion that there was something messed up not only with the system, but our culture, began to fester. I did the right things, pursued my dreams and talents.

    Much less driving a cab, I can’t honestly recommend Design to young people in the current economy. The leading starting position for designers is currently “intern” – try that with 175K in student loans. Be a debt slave effectively forever. My son is 17 and facing all those college choices. Egad. I KNOW his gerneration will have it much worse off than mine did. Mine’s alrady worse off than out parents. The American Dream is OVER.

    George Carlin seemed to have it down in 2005 in his “American Dream” segment of his HBO special “Life if worth losing”

    “The reason they call it the American Dream, is ya gotta be asleep to believe it!

    I am the 99 Percent. Gotta get that shit on T-shirts and buttons.

    • weeklysift  On October 17, 2011 at 7:17 am

      Thank you for your story. Above all, I think we need to get the public discussion re-focused on what really happens to real people, so that we can leave behind the stereotypes and straw men and just-so stories that dominate the discussion now.

      • kim  On October 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm

        What we need is a vision of Capitalism 2.0, a new version of a steady-state, sustainable capitalism not dependent on growth, that pays a decent amount to the people who do the real work. That will be a version of democatically-run, worker-owned workplaces, with banks dedicated to helping start such businesses, owned by thePeople in some way.
        More later….

  • Peter R. Cross  On October 27, 2011 at 4:12 am

    A key point, or perspective, which is little voiced in all of this: “What is NORMAL?” And, what is bizarrely ABNORMAL?

    I use the term “normal” in the sense of “matching the real or natural world” and more specifically, in the sense of agreement with the normal curve, bell-shaped curves, or Gaussian distributions. These expressions of variation are close to being natural laws, and significant areas of modern thinking and mathematical analysis are based on them. In some sense, we might argue that “such patterns of variation represent how things ought to be, and ought to work.”

    (In an example from physics, the speeds of the molecules in a cup of coffee fit a Gaussian curve).

    Those who believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence will say with Jefferson that individuals are born with certain inalienable rights. But it is a matter of modern statistics and science that they are born, across a population, with a “normal” variation in wanting to work hard, in being honest, in the abilities required to learn calculus, in the genetically coded influences on how tall they will be as adults, and in a thousand other characteristics you could eventually list or learn about.

    And, in a moral and fair society and economic system, one would see these variant qualities working themselves out in educational achievements, wages, savings habits, and so on, such that variations in income and wealth would more or less match a normal curve, before adjustments via taxation and social programs aimed at creating an optimum Commonweal for all members were made.

    It is finally sinking in how immoral, unfair, stacked, manipulative, and rigged our society, economy, and political structure is — because a graphic display of the distribution of wealth (and thus power) is SO BIZARRELY ABNORMAL when considered against “what we know is natural.”

    There are no reasons, other than the very weird ones we have invented, and the ways history piles up injustice upon injustice and inequality upon inequality, generation after generation, that suffice to explain what we see when we truly examine the situation. One has to torture logic to the extreme, to imagine small groups of people with extremely perverse combinations of characteristics that would allow THEM to twist and bias society on their own, within a short period of time. There’s hope, then, that if some strong reforms were made toward justice, they might stick. Without that, the chances of the race overcoming onrushing challenges aren’t very good.

    • weeklysift  On October 28, 2011 at 7:43 am

      I used this as an opening quote for the Sift once:

      “It is easy to find a man in almost any line of employment who is twice as efficient as another employee, but it is very rare to find one who is ten times as efficient. It is common, however, to see one man possessing not ten times but a thousand times the wealth of his neighbor.”

      – Willford I. King The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States (1915)

Trackbacks

  • By Public Shamelessness « The Weekly Sift on October 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    […] Turn the Shame Around. It took Herman Cain to teach me what Occupy Wall Street is about: casting off shame and putting it where it belongs. The Powers That Be would have us be ashamed that we weren’t good enough to crack the top 1%. But what is really shameful is an economy that only works for the top 1%. […]

  • […] Last week I talked about the role of shame in maintaining an unjust system: A lot of people are losers in such a system, but who wants to identify with losers? The closer you are to the abyss, the stronger the temptation to deny that you bear any resemblance to the people who have already fallen in. […]

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    […] week’s most popular post. For the second week in a row, Turn the Shame Around got the most views (1400 last week, 7000 total). The most popular new post was Suck It Up, with […]

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    […] Turns the Tea Party Around (18K) and you’re over 100,000. Other posts that got kiloviews are Turn the Shame Around (7.6K) and Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation […]

  • […] using code words in your public campaign to point to reprehensible commitments made privately. In Turn the Shame Around and Suck It Up: Using Our Pride Against Us I talked about the psychological hooks the 1% uses to […]

  • By The Republic of Babel « The Weekly Sift on March 5, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    […] you’re not rich, blame yourself!” Until that moment, I had vaguely wondered about the role of shame in keeping the 99% down, but it took Herman to crystalize it for […]

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