99%

Success is easier to reckon for a Rally trial than for Occupy Wall Street.

A few weeks ago, en route to and from a Rally Obedience trial in Littleton, Mass., I listened to the CD version of Molly Ivins’s Who Let the Dogs In? I had 99% on the brain: Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has framed the current crisis as 99% of us against 1% of them — the richest, most powerful elite none of whose members we ever voted for and who still have such huge power over our global lives.

99% came up in two of Miz Molly’s pieces, one near the beginning of the book, one near the end. Her point in both cases was the same: that we in the United States have more control over our lives than 99% of the people who ever lived. I’m not about to do the math, but in essence she’s right. Some of us have more, much more, control over our lives than others, and some have very little control, but we collectively are less at the mercy of weather, disease, and capricious chieftains than 99% of the people who ever lived.

So why are so many people so enthralled with the notion that the mess we’re in is entirely the fault of the minuscule 1%? That’s a rhetorical question: I know the answer. Everyone’s the hero of their own story, right? White women tend to be more comfortable talking about sexism, of which we’re the victims, than about racism, in which we’re the oppressors. Men of color tend to be more comfortable talking about racism than sexism for the same reason. And so on.

Along these lines — OWS seems to have become a popular spectator sport for privileged liberals and progressives who are within a decade or two of my age (60, for y’all who’ve forgotten). What’s up with that? I’m seriously curious. When I was out in the streets as a young person, most of my parents’ generation was emphatically not on the sidelines cheering us on. We sang to them: “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / your old world is rapidly aging.” That was part of the point. Why are so many aging liberals and progressives rhapsodizing so uncritically about OWS?

One of the blinkers

I don’t know. I’m listening hard for clues. It reminds me a bit of the middle-aged former basketball star cheering his son (gender intentionally specified) on from the sidelines while his creaking knees preclude him from playing himself. Hmmm. Creaking knees may keep a guy off the basketball court, but they’re not much of a hindrance in political organizing. Martha’s Vineyard has seen a few OWS solidarity rallies in recent weeks. As far as I know, the focus has been on that bloody 1% again. A rally held at the blinker intersection was all about Wall Street. Was any reference made to the ongoing local struggle focused on that very location? Hmmm again.

Distant and monolithic is so much easier than close up and messy. The closer you look at the 99%, the messier we are. Working in small groups, living in a small town on a small island, I’m acutely aware of how diverse and contentious a hundred or a thousand people can be. We all turn out for the fireworks and the fair, but try to get us to agree on anything and you’ll start seeing fault lines based on sex, ethnicity, age, class, how long you’ve been here, what town you live in, and several other factors, not to mention sheer cussedness and grudges we’ve been carrying against someone who dissed us 10 years ago or maybe in second grade.

The 99% in other words is more cohesive in opposition than it would ever be if it had to construct something. So let’s everybody focus on the fat cats, OK?

OK, here’s a fat cat story set right here on Martha’s Vineyard. If you live here, you may remember it. On May 23, 2008, the Vineyard Gazette carried a story headlined “Sheriff’s Meadow Halts All Native Plant Removal on Foundation Property.” Seems the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF — yeah, that SMF, the one that’s suing Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter in land court over a small piece of Chilmark land) allowed a local landscape company to remove “large numbers of trees and other plants” from two of its preserves and sell them to one Dirk Ziff, to landscape his 30-acre estate near Lambert’s Cove. The Chilmark conservation agent was reported as saying: “For a couple of weeks they had trucks with trailers behind, running in and out. And they had a Bobcat loading the trucks very busily, pretty much all day for several days.”

In 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Mr. Ziff #97 among the 400 richest Americans. I believe that wins him a place in the elite 1%, no? Most people agreed that Mr. Ziff’s “deep pockets” contributed to the problem.

SMF acknowledged in the May 2008 story that Ziff had been a contributor to the organization. He and his wife are listed among current contributors in the $1,000-$2,499 category — mere pocket change for someone who’s net worth is estimated at around $4 billion. He’s also on the board of directors of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

So you could zero in on this Ziff fellow, who inherited his fortune as one of three sons of the late publishing magnate William Ziff Jr.; according to Forbes, his money is now “scattered across hedge funds, real estate, debt, equities, commodities.” Sure, his deep pockets have had a big effect.  But the 1% wield their power through the 99%. The guy didn’t drive the earth movers onto the conservation properties himself or dig up those trees. Presumably the Martha’s Vineyard Museum doesn’t condone such behavior; they’re just willing to overlook it as long as he helps sustain their organization, so he gets to sit on their board.

So are we of the vast, amorphous 99% willing to take a close look at how our lives, livelihoods, and communities are tangled up with the 1% up there on Mount Olympus? Or is that just too messy, too hard, too disturbing to the illusion that we of the 99% are all in this together?

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to 99%

  1. Will Stewart says:

    ” Why are so many aging liberals and progressives rhapsodizing so uncritically about OWS?”

    If OWS is standing up for the vast majority, why are the rest of us sitting back on our laurels? Certainly there are actions by some fringe elements that show up to make trouble, but they are not representative of the overall movement. I’m sure there were glitches in the actions of the Revolutionary Army in the late 1770s, so where is our critical response to that?

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    • Is OWS “standing up for the vast majority”? That’s one danger of this 99% framing: the temptation to believe that (almost) everybody’s on the same side. Sure, (almost) everybody can be on the same side as long as we’re talking lowest common denominator — Mom, apple pie, and OWS? The current financial situation hasn’t affected everyone equally. Racism, sexism, classism, etc., haven’t gone away. My hunch is that part of the euphoria over OWS, especially for class-privileged white guys, is the illusion that they have.

      I’m thrilled to see at least some critique of capitalism going on. The “corporations know best” ideology that took hold during the Reagan administration has been bad news for most of us from the very beginning. But I’m still looking for inklings that this is more than a feel-good movement for the relatively privileged who’ve finally realized that their own privileges are threatened.

      P.S. Locally I don’t see many people “sitting back on our laurels.” I see plenty of people who are doing other worthwhile things, and plenty who are too demoralized and/or afraid and/or convinced that getting involved is a waste of time.

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  2. Hal Davis says:

    I’m heartened by the Occupy movement because it hearkens back to Clamshell, as Susan says.

    It also renews my faith in political action as an ethical precept.

    I arrived in Minneapolis in 2007. It has a rich labor and radical history, some of which I knew.

    Today I learned about the Honeywell Project, which preceded my arrival by a several decades.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honeywell_project

    Membership

    The Honeywell Project had no formal membership, but the base of the organization was a coalition of secular and religious pacifists, socialists, anarchists, and activists from the anti-war, labor, solidarity movements. Participants came from a wide variety of occupations and ages and was open to anyone. Like many similar organizations of the time, participants were mostly white, though a few native Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics were involved.
    ====

    Peace activism animated them.

    On Wednesday, OccupyMPLS won the right be in the county-owned Government Plaza with signs, for as long as they want. The federal judge also urged county officials and the occupiers to settle their differences.

    I like the conversations the Occupy movement has provoked. Yours and Susan’s.

    Perhaps Occupation begins at home. Where it focuses may move beyond home without losing sight of it. Can you Occupy and Buy Local? It’s the American Way.

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  3. David says:

    I do not see the 1% as the real villains here. The super rich did not became that way purely on the backs of us “average” Americans. They have had tremendous help from our elected officials. The men and women we ourselves sent to Congress. In our capitalistic society getting an edge on the competition is as basic as Business 101. Lobbyists, special interest groups, PACs and the rampant cronyism inside the Beltway has finally morphed into an unwieldy monster, feeding on it self and spewing forth polarizing and debilitating ideological warfare. Our government is no longer FOR us, but it certainly is BY us. As the old saying goes, we Americans rarely get the government we want, but usually get the one we deserve. Apathy and indifference in governing ourselves has created this mess. Perhaps OWS is chasing the wrong rabbit? The real foxes in the hen house reside under that beautiful dome in Washington. And all of us voters put them there.

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    • I agree. Mega-corporations put a lot of effort into influencing elected officials. They’d be fools not to: they have a lot at stake. “We the people” have abdicated responsibility, maybe because we feel we don’t have much at stake or maybe because we trust our elected officials to take care of us (hah!). Apathy, indifference, and being too easily sidetracked by media manipulation: these are all huge problems. If OWS encourages people to take practical steps toward changing this, I’m all for it.

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  4. Susan says:

    What I see in the messy 99% referenced by OWS is a Renaissance of values supporting real concern for real community, real concern for quality of life for all of us, and a return of moral outrage that hasn’t been seen or felt on the streets since the Clamshell Alliance stormed against the construction and operation of Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant or protesters mobilized against the Vietnam war. Why? I hope many respond to your questions here because the answers are deeply complex. I will focus on the most pared down statement of understanding that I can make.

    I know a bright 22 year old, just out of college. He wants to become a police officer but departments in Boston and nearby cities and towns are underfunded and cannot afford to hire qualified candidates without experience. They cannot afford to fund the training of new candidates at the police academy. Many of the new hirees at the police forces ARE hiring are moving laterally from within the system. This young man is working at a grocery store a distance away from his home. It is the only work he has found in nearly a year. He cannot live on the fulltime wage he takes home, so he must live with his parents. He looks around and sees not only his friends and peers in the same situation with no clear way to build an independent lifestyle. Among his coworkers at the store are many people who have been laid off white collar jobs, small business owners whose businesses have closed, or individuals over 50 who are a testament to ageism in the job marketplace. Some of them have lost homes to foreclosure, some are homeless. Few have health insurance. This is not a depressed economic area – the store is in privileged Concord MA. Most employees live in the local area. Many qualify for stamps and fuel assistance. The sense of communal caring and concern grows as personal details are shared. Savings and assets have been depleted by market failure and the need to live on savings after unemployment is cut off. I know more than one person who is only able to afford $10. of gasoline at a time. What used to remain unspoken is discussed freely and openly. People look into the face of those around them and see the deteriorated world most of us previously lived in and with a certain measure of assured confidence that it would continue in a relatively stable way. The hunger for daily life to be best, in the simplest ways is building, and those within that decade away from your sixty year age group are standing, many of them in lack alongside the 20 somethings who cannot get ahead. I don’t hear anyone I speak to rail against the 1% of people, or mention specific examples of an ultrarich individual interfering with our community circumstances. I hear voices of those so angry about how the system is so geared to work against our basic need for a decent lifestyle and decent form of income generation. The structure of the system is new seen clearly by those being hit by its privations, and we’re seeing it hit the guy next door in a similar way. We want to help one another take collective control of the circumstances of our lives. I have spent a lot of time on the Vineyard and I know what a rarified place it can be. But I will wager that as annoyed as any Vineyard 99er may be about the carte blanche given to Mr Ziff, their concern for their family and friends’ fiscal health and their ability to remain in a home, keeping a roof over their heads is what drives their attendance at the blinking light rally. Those who remain untouched by the state of our economy, whose lifestyles remain reasonably intact remain cushioned from the need to feel value in the OWS movement. But a movement it is and it is a unifying effort which may just identify a clear and progressive set of goals that can succeed in giving the 99% a true say in the politics, services, employment, and fiscal realities and bring real and healthy change to the way we live our lives.

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