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?
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?