Bipartisan agreement -- at last.
My mother and I are close in many things, but not in politics. Mom is the staunch Republican, while I'm the staunch Democrat.
Mom states repeatedly her fealty to the Republican tenets of small government and fiscal responsibility, railing especially against "out of control government spending."
When I point out the last Republican administration -- that of George W. Bush -- trashed those tenets, plus waged an unnecessary war (Iraq), all of which took us from the surplus President Clinton left and plunged us deep into deficit and debt, the phone line goes polar.
So deep is the political divide between us that I held off asking what she thought of the Occupy Wall Street protest. When it finally hit the front pages, I finally brought it up. "Um, Mom, what do you think of the protest going on in New York?"
"I think it's great!" she said. "Greed is killing this country. It's about time somebody got out and protested."
No kidding. "Mom," I said, "I agree, I agree."
Mom continued -- she was on a roll:
And it's taking place right where it should -- Wall Street -- where the greed is the worst. And look how the protests are spreading around the country. High time, I say. Greed is killing this country and it has got to be turned around.
No kidding. I was tripping over myself in agreement. Mom was so emphatic making her points that she, a tailored lady, didn't even mention the protesters' scruffy appearance, a feature oft-mentioned in the media.
And critics say Occupy Wall Street hasn't made its point clear?
You need see only one protester sign -- "Human need, not greed" -- to get, instantly, what this protest is about: economic justice. Wall Street collapsed the economy, yet rewarded itself with record pay -- without producing much utility and sometimes even betting against their own clients -- all done with near-impunity: Unjust!
The gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of us, the 99 percent, has gotten ever wider -- with the 1 percent now controlling 40 percent of the nation's wealth -- meaning much hardship incurred on our end and none on theirs: Unjust!
Money-power drives our political process to the benefit of the wealthy and detriment of "we the people," in what columnist Eugene Robinson calls "the unholy alliance of financial power and political power:" Unjust!
Yet, should Wall Street collapse us again, which, with Wall Street resisting reform, could happen, we the people would have to bail it out -- again: Unjust! Moreover: Enough!
No wonder growing swaths of the public are resonating to this siren call. And no wonder Republicans are toning down their taunts: It's not smart to taunt an earthquake.
After deriding the "angry mobs," Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor now concedes that too few people control too much wealth in America. In other words, he describes an unjust system.
Justice, injustice: We are talking of the basic rightness and wrongness of things. We are talking of altering the nation's consciousness; a new day dawning after a calamitous decade post-9/11.
Is this the American Autumn to parallel the Arab Spring's dignity revolutions? Certainly the core motivations chime: the demand for dignity, for justice. In the imagination these protests, combined, could serve as Archimedes's lever, the torque toward a global shift in consciousness. That's a long way off -- my mother would say I'm getting ahead of myself -- but it's possible.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., were nothing more to come of Occupy Wall Street, the protesters deserve our gratitude for disrupting the increasingly brittle political conversation and forcing onto the table -- finally! -- the core cultural question: our besetting problem, what major American novelist Edith Wharton called "the custom of the country" -- money and greed.
Crucially, what Occupy protesters also force is a recognition of the massive power that comes with massive wealth, the "money-power." They challenge us -- deal with it.
One way to deal, and avoid partisan stalemate, is to carry on this conversation about the culture within the culture -- in our families, at work, in the places where we talk seriously (town halls, church discussion groups, the forthcoming family Thanksgiving dinner). To kick-start the conversation, I offer my mother's statement as theme: "Greed is killing this country and it has got to be turned around. Discuss."
The more we collectively examine our great American experiment, a balancing act of capitalism and democracy, the better we can collectively agree how profoundly out of balance this experiment has become and how money-power threatens our democracy. (We need to also examine how greed has infected the grassroots as well: Plenty of folks on Main Street signed on for more consumerism than they could afford.)
This takes us back to politics, where, if economic justice is to be achieved, we must return. How else to reform and regulate turbo-capitalism, to achieve capitalism with a human face? But I confess I dread it -- the stale partisan-think. Democrats talking income inequity, Republicans decrying income redistribution.
Even my mother and I ran into static again when we touched on the political, when, wrapping up our call, she said, "Obama shouldn't have bailed out the banks."
"Now, Mom, it was Bush who passed the bailout bill, remember? Obama cleaned up after your guy, he administered the bailout."
Everything depends on wise handling. As it moves to the political (the first national convention convenes the fourth of July), the Occupy protest must maintain control of its broadly appealing message and not let it be radicalized by the far right or far left, where some advocate for destroying capitalism itself. And, importantly, the protest must stay nonviolent, which, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi proved, works.
In this way the Occupy protest could elevate the 2012 presidential campaign -- to a nation-saving debate about how to achieve an economy both productive and just. This in itself would be an advance over the ideological food-fight now taking place among the Republican primary contenders. President Obama, presumptive Democratic nominee, stands to benefit from a coherent Occupy protest, enabling him (or forcing him) to pitch harder Main Street's demand to Wall Street for equity.
And of course, much depends on us: We who resonate to the Occupy protest must defend its principles and turn around the culture of greed.
Which brings me back to Archimedes and his lever. "Give me a place to stand," he wrote, "and I shall move the earth with a lever." Conscientious Americans across the political spectrum must stand, take that lever -- the demand for economic justice -- and, together, pull.
For an overview of recent economic history, see this article by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz.
Carla Seaquist is the author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is the author of the play "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," to be included in a forthcoming volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death." She is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."
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