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.
This week we got to see the slip side of the same phenomenon: how the rich and powerful take advantage of the legitimate pride many struggling people feel in the virtues that keep them afloat.
It started a week ago Wednesday with a cruel joke: Erick Erickson, founder of the right-wing blog Red State and recently a CNN commentator, started the We Are the 53% web site to parody the emotionally powerful We Are the 99% site I linked to last week. He posted a photo of himself disguised in a working-class t-shirt and holding up his story:
I work 3 jobs. I have a house I can’t sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up, you whiners. I am the 53% subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain.
The “53%” are from a right-wing talking point that is debunked here and in more detail here: 47% of American households pay no net income tax, mostly because they don’t make enough money to qualify. (They pay plenty of other taxes, however, some at a higher percentage of their income than many rich people.) The point of “the 53%” is to evoke an image of a hard-working majority that pulls the weight of everyone else. It is part of the right-wing argument that minimum-wage-earners (and not the rich) should be paying more taxes.
And in Erickson’s case, it is ridiculous. His “jobs” consist of doing what he enjoys, and he could stop any time he wants. The only things he “sucks up” are money and fame, not abuse or anxiety. But one of the talents that puts Erickson firmly in the 1% is his understanding of working-class resentment and how to turn it against the weak rather than the powerful. So people with legitimate stories to tell have followed his example and posted to his site. Like this guy:
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college. I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners. I am the 53%. God bless the USA!
Minus the suck-it-up closing, this could be a 99% posting. This guy is a victim of the economy, but he doesn’t like being a victim, so he identifies with the lords rather than the serfs. Damn those whining serfs, for claiming to be like him.
A similar (if less in-your-face) story has been forwarded all over Facebook:
Like the ex-Marine, this woman (the fingers and handwriting look female to me) has virtues worth taking pride in: She’s talented enough to get a scholarship, hard-working, and with enough self-control to spend less than she makes. Her version of “Suck it up, you whiners” is less insulting, but just as distancing: “I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.”
Really? I don’t think so. We can all decide not to identify with the people who work more and more for less and less, but we can’t decide not to resemble them.
I picture this student sitting in her cheap apartment, maybe watching somebody’s cast-off picture-tube TV rather than going to the movies with her friends, eating something sensible that she cooked herself, planning to get back to her homework in another few minutes — and identifying with the 1%.
“That’s how it’s supposed to work,” she writes. She’s supposed to “work my @$$ off” for whatever she gets, and hope that she doesn’t get sick, and hope that when she picked her major she didn’t guess wrong about where the jobs would be. Meanwhile, the ever-increasing bounty of this rich planet goes to other people — many of whom aren’t as talented, didn’t scrimp and save, and don’t work their asses off.
That’s how it’s supposed to work?
It’s tempting to pour scorn on these two, but that’s just falling into Erickson’s divide-and-conquer trap. The 99% are supposed to fight each other. The field slaves are supposed to resent the house slaves, and vice versa.
So what is the right response? Max Udargo nailed it in Open Letter to that 53% Guy. It’s absolutely worth reading in its entirety (it has become the most shared post in the history of Daily Kos), but this is the key point:
I understand your pride in what you’ve accomplished, but I want to ask you something.
Do you really want the bar set this high? Do you really want to live in a society where just getting by requires a person to hold down two jobs and work 60 to 70 hours a week? Is that your idea of the American Dream?
… And, believe it or not, there are people out there even tougher than you. Why don’t we let them set the bar, instead of you? Are you ready to work 80 hours a week? 100 hours? Can you hold down four jobs? … And is this really your idea of what life should be like in the greatest country on Earth?
It would be one thing if life was just that hard, if producing enough for everybody to get by required everybody to work 70 hours a week and never make a wrong move. But that’s not true. We know it’s not, because things used to be different. Americans used to have secure 40-hour-a-week jobs that paid well enough to raise a family on one income. Per capita GDP has gone up considerably since then, but the surplus has all accumulated at the top.
That’s not natural; it didn’t happen to nearly the same extent in other countries. It happened here because the very wealthy got control of our political system and ran it for their own benefit. It happened because we changed the rules to reward financial sleight-of-hand over making things and serving people. It happened because we devalued the public sector — the schools, the roads, the parks, the safety net — and let our whole society get split into First Class and Coach.
Fixing that is what the 99% movement is about. It’s not about making talent and hard work and wise choices irrelevant. But how talented, how hard-working, how wise — and how lucky, never forget the role of luck in your success — should a person need to be to have a decent life? How unforgiving do we want to make our society?
If the 99% win and the system changes, the economic race will continue and some people will still outrun the others. Nobody grudges them that. But we don’t have to live in a society where the Devil takes the hindmost. And we can still have empathy for the people we pass. That’s a virtue too.