I, like so many others, have been following the Occupy movement these weeks and months, but I’ve written very little about it. I’m in sympathy at a general level–I have a low opinion of banks–but I’ve been unclear about how Occupy Wall Street would cause actual change. I was no clearer after visiting Occupy Boston on my way home from Salem, although I admired the community spirit.
Today I got some insight into both the movement and the reaction against it from an unexpected source, a mid-twentieth century book on cultural communication, The Silent Language by anthropologist Edward T. Hall. As a passing remark to illustrate a discussion of explicit and implicit cultural markers, the former being as obvious as laws and the latter being the givens that no one knows they know, he states: “The discovery that one of the implicit assumptions of American life is that hard work will be rewarded may explain a good deal about behavior in this country…” (p. 65)
Indeed. Let’s look at Occupy from that perspective.
How tents in public squares will fix any of this is beyond me. But I do believe that most of us (the 99.5%) are playing with a stacked deck.
The culture says that a college degree will get you in the door, but the jobs that are being created by our trickle-down system are for food service and landscaping. The culture says spend whatever you have to spend to get a good education. Parents start saving for college when their kids are born. Kids accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in debt on the gamble of good employment later. The parents are left with not enough funds for a decent retirement, and the unemployed and underemployed kids despair when see what little they have left after the banks and the loan companies take their share.
Yet both sides of that decimal point think they’ve gotten a raw deal. “I worked hard, and now I have to spend my money to support you bums?” “I worked hard, but now what I did is meaningless?”
I’ve heard it said that it was the educated kids in the 1960s who ruined it for everyone, with all their social turmoil and political actions. Education, they say, was dumbed down after that to help preserve the status quo. It’s an interesting theory. Certainly there has been a weird shift where now a college degree qualifies you for positions where a high school degree used to suffice. It is interesting to note that a high school diploma is essentially free to all, where a college degree requires money–sometimes a lot of money. Hmmm…
I also haven’t seen a lot of mention lately of the fact that much of the upheaval in the Arab Spring was fueled not just by political dissatisfaction but by the dissatisfaction a generation (or two or more) of well-educated college graduates who could not find jobs. They took down the political system (or tried to, things are not yet fully resolved). Our over-educated and underemployed are trying to take down the financial system. I wonder which is the more entrenched? I’m guessin’ money.
At any rate, I got no easy answers here, people. If you expect that, move along. I still don’t know what tents in the park will accomplish, but then, no one knew where the Free Speech Movement was going to lead, either.
Can’t help but wonder what Isaac would have though of it all.