It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.
--W. Somerset Maugham
One thing that the Occupy Movement has done magnificently is draw attention to the fact that the vast, vast majority of Americans have been ill-served by the top-oriented, trickle-down economic and political policies to which our country has pledged its allegiance for the past 30 years. And no group within OWS has done that more eloquently, more movingly, than We Are the 99%.
If you click on that link and go to their tumblr you’ll read testimonial after testimonial from average people who have been left scrambling to fend for themselves as a result of these policies. Testimonials from people who discovered when the final debt bubble burst that, in 21st century America, working hard and playing by the rules is no longer enough to ensure one’s survival. Forget about the aphorism that says “a society’s greatness is measured by how it treats the least of its members,” these people are coming to grips with the fact that America’s top-oriented, trickle-down approach often doesn’t set a place at the table for even average Americans.
I suppose that the apologists for the current system recognize how compelling these stories are because one of them, Erick son of Erick, recently started a competing tumblr: We Are the 53%. Its name derives from the fact that, in America, only 53 percent of the population earns even the minimum amount necessary to subject them to federal income taxes. So these people are what passes for the lucky ones in today’s America.
The site itself contains testimonials from people describing how hard they’ve personally had to work, sometimes describing how poor they still are, and yet how little sympathy they have for anybody with the temerity to point out that 21st century America is a grossly unfair place to live.
Many of these testimonials are truly maddening – not in a These people make me so angry I can’t see straight kind of a way, but in an I can’t understand why you are fighting to preserve a system that clearly doesn’t care about you kind of way.
More below the fold.
Some things should just be obvious. Both We Are the 53% and We are the 99% define themselves by referencing the American population as a whole – so, pretty clearly, nearly everybody who is a member of the 53% is also and at the same time a member of the 99%. The math alone means there’s almost perfect overlap between the two groups.
But, of course, this isn’t about math. It’s about competing views of one’s place in society, of one’s obligation to society, and of society’s obligation to its members.
If one photo/testimonial has become the face of the We Are the 53% tumblr, it must be this one:
For those having a hard time reading this rather truculent looking young man’s statement, he describes himself as a former Marine who now works two jobs, doesn’t have health insurance, had to work 60 – 70 hours a week for 8 years to pay for college, and hasn’t had four consecutive days off in four years. Sounds pretty horrible. Yet he closes with this sentiment: “But I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners. I am the 53%. God Bless the USA!”
(You just know this guy has blared Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA all his life and not once has he ever actually listened to the lyrics.)
Staring at that photo just produces such cognitive dissonance in me that I almost don’t know where to begin. To start with, I do understand this man’s pride in what he has accomplished and had to overcome to get to where he is today. Working the equivalent of 2 full-time jobs, for 8 years, to put oneself through college is beyond admirable and kudos to him for managing that.
But what I don’t understand is why it seems never to have occurred to him that he shouldn’t have had to do that. Is getting a college degree in the United States really supposed to be so difficult? Is an America in which someone has to work as hard as this young man did for 8 years in order to get that degree – which is rapidly becoming a requirement for employment in all but the more menial jobs – the type of society to which we should aspire?
And consider the circumstances in which this young man actually finds himself now; what has all that hard work and his service to his country as a Marine earned him? Today he still has to work two jobs, is unable to take any vacation time, and doesn’t have health insurance. After all that work and service he is absolutely slaving away and still is only one serious illness, one physical accident, one stroke of bad luck from complete and utter bankruptcy.
Is this, in fact, the way American society is supposed to work in the 21st century? For all this young man already has contributed to our economy and to our country . . . is his reward supposed to be nothing more than a life spent working like a dog and hoping against hope that his luck holds out? Or the luck of his wife, or his children?
Is this a system worth preserving?
* * *
Some years ago I met and had a fairly long conversation with another young Marine, who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. At the time, America’s bloody Iraq misadventure already had been recognized for the gross debacle it was, but Bush II was still in office and nobody seemed to have a plan for extricating the United States from that catastrophe in a way that wouldn’t make it obvious just how badly the Dauphin had screwed up to begin with.
As I’ve mentioned before, policy makers generally find it easier to keep pursuing disastrous policies than to admit that they made a mistake in the first place. This is the sunk cost phenomenon in which “policy makers tend to favor uncertain success over certain loss. As long as the project is neither completed nor stopped, the dilemma will keep presenting itself.”
And this often results in some serious heartbreak. That young Marine I met and spoke with years ago knew that Iraq was a failed experiment and he knew that it was almost certain he would be sent back there within less than a year for another tour of duty, but he didn’t know – he couldn’t know – if he’d ever make it back home that next time.
Of course, it’s not just policy makers who are subject to the sunk cost dilemma – everybody has to deal with it from time to time, and I’m staring at the face of the man in the picture above and I wonder if that is what he is doing.
Maybe the reason he seems so determined to preserve a system that clearly just does not care whether he lives or dies is because he’s spent years really believing all the people who told him the game is fair, and now if he acknowledges the game is actually rigged then he’ll also have to acknowledge that he’s been played for a fool. Maybe, having worked and sweated as hard and as honorably as he has, he can’t bear to think that all of that work may have been for nothing, a down payment on a promise that almost certainly will never be kept.
Or maybe, like so many other people, he just can’t distinguish between needless sacrifice and noble sacrifice. Maybe he confuses suffering with value.
Do you remember this exchange, from back when Bush the Lesser was traveling the country and trying to gin up support for his plan to abolish social security?
Ms. Mornin: Okay, I’m a divorced, single [57 year-old] mother with three grown, adult children. I have one child, Robbie, who is mentally challenged, and I have two daughters.
Pres. Bush: Fantastic. First of all, you’ve got the hardest job in America, being a single mom . . . .
Ms. Mornin: I work three jobs and I feel like I contribute.
Pres. Bush: You work three jobs?
Ms. Mornin: Three jobs, yes.
Pres. Bush: Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)
Ms. Mornin: Not much. Not much.
It is hard to conceive of someone more clearly missing the point here than did President Junior. Ms. Mornin’s toiling away at three jobs to support herself and her handicapped son is admirable to be sure . . . but it’s not fantastic. It’s not ‘fantastic’ that in 21st century America this woman has to work as hard as she does and go without sufficient sleep because that is the only way she can earn enough money to support herself and her handicapped son.
But that Ms. Mornin is in fact living a terrible life completely escaped Bush’s notice. So far as he was concerned – this son of a president, this Ivy League legacy, this man whose fortune and career was handed to him every step of the way by people desperate to curry favor with his daddy – this woman’s life was no more relatable or real to him than a Lifetime Channel Made-For-TV Inspirational Movie . . . but it was just as entertaining.
So maybe that is what the young man in the picture is thinking. Maybe he fancies that the degree to which his life has worth is measured by the degree to which he has to suffer. Maybe his martyrdom on a broken system is what proves to him that his life is meaningful. Maybe believing that the system ultimately is fair is what permits him to view his time spent on this planet as a period of noble sacrifice, and not one of pointless waste.
In the end I can’t know, will never know. But I’d be willing to bet, if that young man’s sacrifices never pay off, if he continues to get shafted year after year after year by a system that at best dismisses him and at worst despises him because he is not already one of the blessed few . . . his attitude will change. A lifetime of toil, disappointment and suffering ultimately will render him – as it renders almost everybody – petty and vindictive, just as Maugham suggests.
And that won’t be good for him, and it won’t be good for anybody else.