We Have to Occupy Something

What exactly is the purpose of Occupy Wall Street? Apart from a vague sense of it  being the liberal progressives’ counterpart to the Tea Party, and a coalition of unionists, anti-capitalists and mad-as-hell twentysomethings angry about the rising cost of Netflix and Facebook’s infuriating shape-shifting, it’s sort of unclear.

As a “movement,” Occupy Wall Street doesn’t reveal an organized grassroots agenda as much as it represents a general climate of anger, frustration, and antagonism against the “haves”–a suspiciously narrow (1%), heartless, no good very bad group whose entrepreneurial success and capitalistic success apparently oppress the 99% of us have-nots who are being unfairly kept from sharing in the 1 percent’s riches.

Mostly, though, Occupy Wall Street represents the natural discontent of an entitled generation raised on the notion that we deserve things, that the government owes us something, that everything we want should be accessible, and that somehow we are not responsible if we don’t end up quite as successful in life as we’d hoped. It’s a blame-shifting problem. It’s an inability to delay gratification or go without that which we believe is our right or destiny. And it’s a problem both on the micro/individual and macro/government level.

I like Bruce Wydick’s perspective on it for Christianity Today:

Like most protests, the Occupy Wall Street folks are better at identifying something that is wrong than identifying a way forward that is right. But even if the protestors don’t understand much about financial economics, they have a clear sense that something is wrong. That something, however, lies deeper than the behavior of a relative handful of Wall Street moguls. That something, I believe, is a sense of material entitlement that has crept into the American psyche. This sense of material entitlement has infected our personal choices, our politics, and our financial system.

Wydick places the blame not on one entity but on the spirit of entitlement that pervades both individual Americans and our government institutions. In his assessment of the side-effects of the spirit of entitlement he includes the ubiquity of debt, the real estate crash and uncontrolled government spending. “Our financial crisis is a crisis in American values for which we all share blame,” he writes.

The thing is, “sharing blame” is hard for us humans to do. We’re infinitely averse to admitting our own culpability. In almost anything. Whether it be our own financial hardships, or those of our communities, or the high taxes under which we suffer… We have to lash out against someone. We have to go occupy something.

As Christians, though, I think we must first and foremost look within for the blame. We must own our share in the mess. Beyond institutions and hegemonies and Wall Street tycoons, how are we responsible for the trouble we’re in? True revolution begins here. True change begins with what we can actually control: our own lives, an awareness of our weaknesses and potentials, and a commitment to working to improve.

If we have to occupy something, let it be the dominion of our own culpable Self, the guiltiest of all institutions and the one we are likeliest to spur toward positive change.

28 responses to “We Have to Occupy Something

  1. Well thought out and well said, again, Brett. Thank you for having the courage to state it this way. I appreciate your strong position here.

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  3. Of course there is room and need for personal accountability. The Wall Street occupation is an imperfect protest, and no doubt you can find examples of entitled people latching onto it if you look hard enough (see here for a particularly egregious example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jd-samson/i-love-my-job-but-it-made_b_987680.html ).

    But is it really that hard to discern the goals of the movement? They are protesting crony capitalism, a system that removed any semblance of accountability from the people who are arguably most responsible for causing it. Individuals who made bad choices largely *are* suffering for it through underwater mortgages and lost jobs. In contrast, the people responsible for creating a system where it was profitable to take advantage of people going through the complicated and sometimes intimidating process of buying a house by lending them money far beyond what they could afford? They were the recipients of bailouts, and there hasn’t even been any meaningful changes in regulation to prevent something like this happening again.

    That kind of anger is what’s driving a lot of these people, and there is nothing wrong with it.

  4. And, like many acts of resistance, the folks Occupying Wall Street and other areas of the country don’t have a vision of a redeemed atmosphere – they’re mostly discontent. I think part of that posture is cynicism and part apathy; they want their malcontent voices to be heard but are not carving space or creating a picture of what their hoped-for life looks like. It goes beyond not merely having a list of demands or plan for socioeconomic change: they aren’t casting a clear or firm hope that others can step into, and the negativity is underwhelming, uninspiring.

    • There is nothing wrong with average people expressing discontent and anxiety without proposing solutions. Our leaders are supposed to propose solutions, and crafting good policy is a difficult job that not everyone is capable of. That said, it’s pretty clear that our leaders are failing us, and that the surest way to commit a crime and not be held accountable for it is to be wealthy and connected.

      > It goes beyond not merely having a list of demands or plan for
      > socioeconomic change: they aren’t casting a clear or firm hope that
      > others can step into, and the negativity is underwhelming, uninspiring.

      Maybe to you, but I bet you have a job.

      • I’m not saying it’s wrong for folks to express discontent without offering an answer, but it’s far from the most efficient or healthy solution.

        And sure, our political and economic leaders do control a whole lot, but we aren’t completely powerless. I understand there are plenty of factors that make it difficult for a huge amount of Americans to obtain employment right now, but blame placing and apathy isn’t helping the situation at all. We have to be individually and communally creative and encouraged if we want to see the atmosphere of America improve.

      • Hey, matt.
        I’ve been unemployed for 5 months after serving 3 years as a missionary in Honduras. I’m not taking unemployment because I don’t want the government to write a bad check, but I AM doing fine. I’m living with my parents and humbly accepting the support of my community as I apply for over 100 jobs across the United States. I know the Lord will provide and I can’t blame anything on sinful people who have lots of money. I just think it is important to be angry at the right thing – sin. I wrote a bit about it here: http://musingsinmontage.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/occupy-wall-street-ruffles-my-feathers/

  5. I agree that many of the problems in our society stem from material entitlement. However, these protests are more than just angry, unemployed 20-somethings looking for their share. Check out this piece by NPR’s Planet Money for a different perspective on Occupy Wall Street: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/10/07/141158199/the-friday-podcast-what-is-occupy-wall-street

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  8. On the whole, I think this is a very accurate assessment. It’s interesting though because Occupy Wall Street seems like a blowfish revolt. Much of the actual demographic of the 99% who were definitely not present at these “riots” are ethnic minorities, women or long-time victims of systemic imbalance that have dealt silently with not receiving aid that the government said they would provide and also got the majority to believe they had provided. Those who have been vocal of the 99% in the past have really not been heard, until young white twenty-somethings with iPhones decided that not being able to get a job when and where they really wanted one is something that they feel uncomfortable about, and started placing blame on the corporate national economic system, which has been slighting other people we have been content to ignore, for generations.

    It seems to follow course that many of these long-sufferers so to speak are taking the opportunity to join up with a movement of vocalizing these concerns, however dissonant, largely championed by a demographic that this nation built itself to hear, but it’s safe to say those people are in it because if change needs to happen maybe this will do the trick. I think that most of the “yuppie” protesters are driven by individualist entitlement, and disillusionment from meritocracy, of which is perhaps the largest socio-psychological basis which we build our economic systems upon. So that is a problematic zeitgeist. I wouldn’t say that a young latino mother who has been denied a job based on prejudices that bleed profusely and directly into economic realities is suffering from an unhealthy fugue state of entitlement that is driving her to complain for unfounded reasons though.

    Theologically, nobody deserves anything but hell, and all of us must reassess our rampant entitlement, but not everybody is being affected on the same level by their government and established societal norms and ideas which results in actual injustice. Yes, many of these protesters are privileged kids who don’t know what privilege is, and are demanding actions to help them get back to what they and their culture has defined as their normal, which they assume is a universal normal. But not everybody is speaking from a position of privilege. Maybe a better movement would be Occupy South Bronx, where people just hang out where the distance really manifests itself. Maybe then the playing field can be leveled when it’s made evident that people with real reason to feel slighted by their country have been forced to go unheard for years, and maybe we can take care of a real communal problem far more devoid of a shoddy individualistic agenda, that should have been addressed as such far earlier.

  9. I’m not a huge fan of either the Tea Party or the Occupy movement. That said, characterizing the Occupiers as a bunch of twentysomething losers pissed off at Netflix is more than troubling—it’s offensive.

    Not only do you trivialize economic disparity, you naively equate failure with not trying hard enough. Never mind that wealth goes hand-in-hand with power. Never mind that much of the wealth in America has been earned at the expense of those with no influence or power whatsoever. Never mind that honest people who want to care for their families can’t find jobs, through no fault of their own. Never mind that people are denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition they didn’t ask for.

    According to your portrait of the Occupiers, if we’re not successful (and by successful I assume you mean “rich”), it’s because we’d prefer to whine about how poor we are instead of doing an honest day’s work. But that kind of picture doesn’t account for the thirtysomethings, fortysomethings, fiftysomethings, sixtysomethings who make up the Occupiers. I can guarantee you those people don’t give a flip about how much Netflix costs or how often Facebook gets a makeover. They see injustice and want to do something about.

    When did wanting an equal voice become a form of arrogance? When did we decide that capitalism was better than compassion? When did success come to only mean “being rich?”

    Forgive me, but your whole posturing attitude strikes me as the entitled one.

  10. I came across your blog from a friends post on Facebook. To me this piece resembles much of what David Brooks does: presents bloviating as thoughtful dialogue. It is very clear what the OWS crowd is protesting, rampant hyper-capitalism, excess neo-liberalism, and lack of accountability from the people who got us into this whole hot mess.

    Your statement on the demographics has been proven incorrect. And I believe it is intellectually dishonest to keep making easy statements that it is just angry entitled 20 somethings.

    You may not agree with what these people are trying to change, but to relegate them as just a bunch of whiners? Now that is just utter nonsense. Change does not happen overnight and movements are messy (not from a physical standpoint). The OWS movement is getting more organized every day….let’s hope they effect the change they are shooting for.

  11. Good heavens. Your willingness to bend over backwards to avoid listening to what progressives actually care about has reached a new low.

  12. I have to mostly disagree with this article. This is MUCH more than discontented, entitled twenty-somethings, in fact I have been pleasantly surprised at who I have seen at Occupy DC and our Occupy Movement here in little Roanoke. It has by and far been an older generation of people. I think, if anything, (and I fear this) that it is largely a discontented middle class that is angry and I hope with all my heart that those living in poverty get involved too because this probably concerns them the most. This movement should go way beyond politics (again, that is my hope) and look at the mess our culture has created – it’s a culture of financing, of living in debt, of materialism, and of making sure that the poor stay in their place. I believe that the government and our “democracy” wrongly support these things. But mainly, yeah, this movement is trying to end the corruption that comes from mixing corporations and state. That is NOT entitlement!

    • Good thoughts. I have been interested to see how OWS manifests in other states and venues, but if they are older people going about things more civilly, then of course they’d be less of a media magnet, so unfortunately it’s been difficult to find coverage.

      Corporations + State creates a baffling mess, to the point of it achieving a certain level of invisibility to the general public. I also think State on it’s own could turn it’s head back to glaring issues it’s been incredibly adept at skirting around, which leaves people hurt in more ways than just financially speaking.

      That said, I think this article is speaking to a cultural symptom of entitlement that cannot be ignored as a systemic psyche that has gone unchecked, and it is not necessarily saying that the goals of OWS are misplaced, but that there are better ways to go about getting these things accomplished which are more effective, mature, and even pragmatic, but which our general ‘I-deserve-(blank)’ philosophical environment will flag as too modest.
      The nebulous goal of economic injustice is a bit too broad to really expect the government to take this model seriously, however there are some very real issues being felt by those in OWS and elsewhere that should undergo change, and should have had progress made a long time ago. The issue is still real, but there is something unusual about how our nation suddenly chooses to showcase pushback from these long running economic injustices only now, when our young white citizens start to feel difficulty from systemic operation and subsequently involve their faces and identities in the movement.

  13. Brett – I’ve read your blog for a long time now, and have both agreed and disagreed with things you have said, but I still enjoy every bit of it. This entry, however, is a joke. If anything, you come off as one of the many entitled, pull yourself up by your boot straps, hard work equals success types that seem to be turning a blind eye to the massive chasm that is swallowing the middle class and turning them into the working poor.

    My dad has worked for a company for forty years. The last couple of years he has seen the corporate management turn over at an unbelievable rate, worked 70-80 hours a week (and only paid for forty), seen his health benefits go down (along with his health in general), been regularly screamed at by corporate management who don’t even have experience with the goods they sell (while his district has remained in the top three of the entire company for several years) and with the ever present threat of the companies collapse because of the recession, can only stand by and wait to see if he will have a retirement fund waiting for him when he does retire in two more years.

    I’m sure some of those protesters may not exactly fit the bill of needy Americans, but I’m glad they are out there, occupying Wall Street and other cities across this country for those of us that can’t. One of those people represents my father – A life time of hard work, with everything he had to show for it swirling down the drain because a small group of people that were playing with an entire countries money decided they could do what they wanted. He can’t be there. He can’t camp out for weeks on end. He has to work, but someone CAN do that for him. Someone can represent him, and that’s who those people are.

    This blog is yours, and you are entitled to any opinion you might have. This is, hopefully, the only time I will ever say this, though – You need to rethink this situation. You need to look beyond the surface of it.

  14. Brett, wonderfully written (as always). Couldn’t agree more.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  15. “As Christians, though, I think we must first and foremost look within for the blame. We must own our share in the mess. Beyond institutions and hegemonies and Wall Street tycoons, how are we responsible for the trouble we’re in? True revolution begins here. True change begins with what we can actually control: our own lives, an awareness of our weaknesses and potentials, and a commitment to working to improve.”

    I really think this is a pretty milquetoast response. Actually, no, it’s worse than that–it’s shifting the blame away from the powerful, it’s ignoring problematic economic trends, including the consolidation and globalization of corporations, especially banks and it’s ignoring economic stratification. I’ve spent years working in anti-poverty activism and in the prison system, the mental health and the homeless system. The trends of a larger percentage of people becoming unemployed and underemployed along with a deteriorating safety net is creating serious problems among all sectors of society, with the exception of the top 10% whose collective wealth has done nothing but increase. There are hundreds of thousands of people whose only source of income is Food Stamps (thanks to TANF); homeless shelters have waiting lists. And there is a crisis of students being thousands of dollars in student loan debt and a job market that is paying everyone else.

    No, you can’t act like the system doesn’t matter. You can’t pretend that as a Christian we need to only look within. The system is a problem where the poorest upon us are suffering the most and we have two parties that are constantly working towards stripping the government of any social responsibility. If you ignore the problems of the system, it’s only perpetuating them and it has real material consequences.

    The only hope is that there is some collective action that doesn’t cede to this kind of fatalism you are proposing. Because really, not just for the broad swathes of the declining middle class but for people most affected by oppressive systems, who are homeless and food insecure, we should fight for real systemic change.

    And I’ll end by saying that I find people who are comfortable enough to feel as if introspection is the answer should not pretend that isn’t an enormously privileged and entitled place to be.

  16. @Andrew and Amelia: Sweet–thanks for saving me the trouble of replying to this unfortunate blog post from Mr. McCracken.

    It’s an all too good example of how articulate writing doesn’t necessarily articulate something of insightful worth.

  17. Brett

    Love your site, but check yourself on this one. If you want to talk entitlements, let’s look at Wall Street. They operate with a “too big to fail” mentality with no real risk whatsoever. We make poor investment decisions and we lose our retirement. They lose billions, (I’m sorry trillions) and they have zero personal liability and wait for the government to bail them out.

  18. I have to agree with Brett. Virtually all of the coverage that I have seen of the OWS protests has shown people that are primarily within the demographic described in this blog. My observations are that the protests are more of a reaction to unmet personal expectations than they are to advocating for the oppressed. One doesn’t have to look very far to realize that our culture truly is stuck on entitlement.

    When I read the statement, “As Christians, though, I think we must first and foremost look within for the blame.” I see the mirror reflecting myself and my own sense of entitlement. I am supposed to live with the conscious knowledge that this world is not my home, yet I find myself stocking up on my comforts and planning for how I will pursue “my” future that is even more financially comfortable than my current situation. Nevermind that the future of my life isn’t even really mine, but rather God’s, since he owns me. When this mirror of entitled-ness is reflected back on me, I know that my responsibility is to repent and to turn toward Christ and prayerfully seek to live out love in the way that he showed us in the gospels.

    Politically, we as Americans, have recourse. We can vote; but we cannot simply listen to the rhetoric of each political party villainizing the other. I do not see where either democrats or republicans have done much to reverse the direction of deepening national debt. I’ll admit that no one on either side of the political aisle leads me toward any kind of enthusiasm. I suppose what I am saying here is that we must vote, but not be enslaved to either political party (yet another thing that I have had to repent of).

    But ultimately, of course, we have to remember that this world is NOT our home. As people who have been bought and redeemed by Christ’s blood, our home is in God’s kingdom. As I am reminded of these things, I find myself unable to look upon the OWS protests as a righteous cause. Instead, I want to ask what we could instead be doing as Christians to truly take up the cause of the oppressed.

  19. Complete and utter rubbish. You use straw man arguments (like most libertarians) to make the others argument sound ridiculous. The facts is the anti-capitalist/corporatist left is angry and frustrated like you say, but it knows exactly why. It is because capitalism and statism are the same thing and always operates to benefit the current ruling class. This is why they are angry.

    Capitalism is not a free market as it always requires at least a minarchist state to enforce it’s privileges ie copyrights, patents etc. As it requires the state it requires to enforce these privileges it requires regulation and is thus not a free market. As both the capitalist and the statist retain the status of the dominent class and dominate the market, entrepreneurs and market risk takers cannot compete fairly and inevitably become workers of the domient classes. This means as a worker is alienated from his/her labour they are exploited, as they do not receive appropriate resources in response to their labour. The libertarian and voluntaryist cop out of “it’s voluntary” is frankly laughable, as it completely fails to recognise humans have a need both for survival and a need to appear successful, so will sell their labour to the domient class. Necessity takes over and people will prostitute their body’s and labour as workers. “Occupy Wall Street represents the natural discontent of an entitled generation raised on the notion that we deserve things, that the government owes us something, that everything we want should be accessible, and that somehow we are not responsible if we don’t end up quite as successful in life as we’d hoped. It’s a blame-shifting problem.” wrong. It is just a small part of the global resentment towards capitalists and governments taking what isn’t theirs and exploiting the labour of the misfortunate.

    The solution is simple and has been proven to work in grassroots struggles all across the world. Through the free market decentralised socialism naturally occurs (more reminiscent of Proudhon’s and Kroptkin’s than Marx’s) as scarcity of resources becomes obvious and the community’s need for survival becomes top priority. This has been proven to work in shanty towns all over the world, in iceland, in catalonia etc many times over.

    Trying to single this group as a individual occurrence and not a part of a growing phenomena is just simply nieve and ignorant.

  20. Pingback: Occupy Life (things one might do while unemployed) | musings in montage

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