Suck It Up: Using Our Pride Against Us

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 am a former Marine. I work two jobs. I don’t have health insurance.

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.

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  • Anon  On October 18, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    “The only things he “sucks up” are money and fame”

    Uh, yeah, except “sucks up” should be “earn.” How dare he earn all of that money to which the “99%” is entitled.

    • weeklysift  On October 20, 2011 at 6:30 am

      The point is that Erickson is telling other people to “suck it up” like he does when he in fact has a cushy life. Erickson is nothing at all like, say, the Marine.

  • Anon  On October 18, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    “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?

    What should it be like? Would you require that people be paid without regard to their skill and marketability? How are you going to decide what wage is the correct one to pay? It should be “livable,” right? So, a guy flipping burgers for 40 hours a week ought to be able to support himself? Should he be able to support a family too? Should the guy with the family to support be paid more than the woman who does the same job, but is single? These questions go on and on.

    Once you start to set wages at anything other than market rate, you have to ask this question: To whom are you going to be fair? And the answer, every time, will result in you being unfair to someone else.

    Would you have people give up essential liberty for a measure of security? Because it really sounds like it.

    • Allison  On October 20, 2011 at 5:10 am

      I don’t speak for everyone, but here’s one reply.
      You focus on minimum wage. Personally, I’d rather see more reinvestment in societal good. To take one example, I believe that nobody in a country as wealthy as ours should be homeless. People who work harder, or are even just luckier, should be able to have more — even lots more — but the minimum standard in our country should be “safe but basic housing” not “freezing to death.” I’m not sure why, but this seems to be a radical position. This group: has specific, data-based policy priorities to move us in that direction.
      Another example: that guy should have health insurance.

      Also, I’m not sure what the “essential liberty” is that you’re referring to. Can you be more precise?

      • Anon  On October 20, 2011 at 8:54 am

        the “essential liberty” quote is a reference to a quote about civil liberties that was quite popular in some circles when it was President Bush rather than President Obama running Guantanamo Bay, using rendition of captured combatants and running the wars of this country. On a domestic scale, people are looking for security in (for example) health care, but frequently do not consider that by allowing the government to run it, or to mandate participation, they give up a substantial portion of their liberty.

        “The guy should have health insurance.” Perhaps, but who should give it to him?

        It is sad to see people homeless, I agree. But that problem runs far deeper than society’s willingness to provide funding.

      • Allison  On October 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm

        I recognize the quote. What, exactly is the liberty? Liberty to… what?

        We all, collectively, should give it to him. We (most likely) all gave him a K-12 education, we all paid his salary when he was a Marine.

        I disagree with you about homelessness. I believe that fully funding the right kind of programs could almost completely eliminate it.

    • weeklysift  On October 20, 2011 at 6:38 am

      You are talking as if the only alternative is some kind of command economy. There are many things the government could do to make life easier for ordinary people that don’t involve some kind of wage board that would decide what everyone needs or is worth.

      We could, for example, tax the wealthy and build infrastructure. People would have jobs doing real work on needed things — which is what the vast majority of the unemployed want.

      • Anon  On October 20, 2011 at 9:09 am

        We could tax the wealthy, and we do. The wealthy pay the most taxes in pure dollar figures. Whether the tax structure is progressive enough is an argument for another day, but let’s not pretend the wealthy pay no taxes.

        It is funny that you see these people as victims, and seem to wish they’d act like victims. they are just people doing what they can, working for a better life. Your reference to the “old times” of a 40 hour work week is a pretty narrow view of history. For a very brief period during and after WWII, some people had that sort of lifestyle. It was not sustainable, and never really was for the long term. Remember, for most, those 70 hour work weeks were spent doing hard physical labor on the farm. the industrial revolution made the work easier, and eventually less dangerous.

        The premise of this “group” is that the “1%” has it’s money because it takes money, unfairly from the 99%. Economics is not a zero sum game. the 1% has wealth because it creates wealth. Creation of wealth ought to be encouraged, not castigated.

      • kim  On October 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm

        Anon– What, exactly, did those 1% do to create that wealth in way that they should get 99% of the profit, rather than, oh, say, 53% of the profit?

  • Anon  On November 8, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    KIm, in the unlikely chance that you read this, in answer to your question, “what does the 1% do?” For example, Steve Jobs develops and markets brilliant products, enriching literally millions of lives. Andy Grove escapes communism to develop computer processors that allow PC’s to function at recently unimagined levels. Mark Zuckerburg develops software to allow millions of people to connect in new ways. Millions of small business owners go to work every day, do things that have value for their customers, and provide jobs to millions of others. Tim Robbins makes excellent movies that people want to see. Michael Moore makes excellent propaganda films that people will pay to see and discuss. Warren Buffett makes very careful calculated investments, and provides his shareholders with acceptable market returns (and lobbies the government for favorable tax exemptions for his life insurance companies).
    These people often become fabulously wealthy due to their hard work and persistence, and their ability to provide value to others. In doing so, they not only provide the value to their customers, they also provide jobs.


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