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.
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.