By Cassandra Nelson
As Occupy activists take stock at the six-month mark and look for ways to make their movement sustainableby appealing to a wider audience, I offer one concrete suggestion: change your name.
The Bush administration was smart enough to stay away from it. The war in Iraq lasted exactly six weeks -- from the invasion on March 20, 2003 to the now infamous "Mission Accomplished" photo op on May 1 of that year. By that point, Iraq's conventional armed forces had been defeated. What dragged on for eight more years was an occupation. Most Americans, though, thought of the conflict as Operation Iraqi Freedom or the War on Terror. Was it honest for President Bush and his staff to phrase it this way? Not entirely. Was it clever? Very much so.
The word "occupation" suggests illegitimacy. It suggests force. It suggests a temporary and unfair arrangement. Occupiers in history don't win: it's the people whose land they occupied who are vindicated in the end. The Nazis occupied France. France once occupied Algeria. That's not the side of the fight anyone wants to be on -- not just because it's the losing side, but because it's the wrong one.
The Occupy movement's strategy up to this point has also made them look like squatters -- squatters in front of buildings where people go to work and make money. And if there's one thing a lot of Americans want to do right now, understandably, it's to go to work and make money. They don't want to sit in a park with people who perhaps don't have the opportunity to bathe every day. It may sound glib and cruel, but living in a park is what homeless people do. I suspect that many people viewing the Occupy movement on television or in the news have made this connection, though not necessarily on a conscious level.
Finally, the name Occupy suggests stasis, as if the goal were just to sit around in as many existing spaces as possible and point out what's wrong with them. This spatially-oriented approach limits Occupiers' agenda and also puts them on the defensive. They have to apply for permits; they have to shout over speeches others have organized; they have to explain their presence in a public space.
It seems to me that the ones who really ought to be explaining themselves are the people who have turned the American dream into a nightmare. The people who have let the middle class go on thinking that hard work, strong will and a good education are all it takes to succeed in this country -- that those elements alone are enough.
On the one hand, maybe they never were. ZIP code, skin color, sex, religion, nationality and other factors largely beyond one's control have long played a role in determining who succeeds in America, and how much.
On the other hand, an individual's chances for upward social mobility today are as good in the United States as almost anywhere on the planet.
In between these two truths is a story of the ways in which the system has been increasingly rigged in the last half century. I don't even pretend to know what happened exactly, but it had something to do with the growth of an increasingly complex, perilous and largely imaginary financial infrastructure; a decrease in government regulation of same; a cozy and mutually beneficial relationship between corporations and lawmakers; and trends in both executive compensation and federal income tax that can only be described as bananas. Fun fact: today, the richest people in America pay 35 percent of everything they make over $388,000 -- or less. Under Reagan, they paid 50 percent of everything they made over $175,000. Under Eisenhower, they paid 91 percent of everything over $400,000. Ninety-one cents on every dollar above a certain amount! It's admittedly a Gala to Red Delicious to Pink Lady comparison, but still telling.
So even if we concede that the playing field was never perfectly level, and that it isn't perfectly level in other parts of the world today, it remains safe to say that the opportunity of the average American to make a decent living -- enough money, say, to raise a family, own a home and retire -- has diminished substantially in recent decades. How we got here, and what we intend to do about it, is a conversation that we as a nation need to continue.
To that end, I propose a new name for Occupy -- a name that better expresses why people are upset right now, a name that appeals to everyone who's not directly profiting from the unfair and corrupt system currently in place, and a name that puts those people responsible for the most incredible income inequality this country has ever seen on the defensive.
Justify. Justify Wall Street. The Justify movement. It can be applied to any physical space or any institution, and it puts the pressure on the questionable party. On the CEO who makes an exorbitant bonus, for instance, or the Congressman who takes advantage of insider trading, or the local official who cuts education funding for the third, fourth or fifth year in a row.
The image that the Justify movement would call to mind wouldn't be its own supporters. It would be a split screen of sorts -- with private jets on one side and food pantries on the other. It would be a picture of a yacht, alongside toys on the lawn of a foreclosed home. It would be the face of Stephen Helmsley, who took home $102 million last year as the country's highest paid CEO, next to the face of an uninsured child. And it would ask how you can justify all of the things on one side of the screen when confronted with those on the other. It would cut through much of the current vagueness, apathy, and annoyance, and it would steer the conversation to what it's really about: justice.
Cassandra Nelson is a PhD candidate in English literature at Harvard University focusing on postwar American fiction. HKS Democrats leadership reviews and approves all op-eds that appear in this space.
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