More than 35 years ago, while writing my honors thesis at Hamilton College, I encountered survey data assembled by the University of Michigan on American beliefs. Sociologist Robert Bellah referred to these beliefs as America's "civil religion." Superman represents them well, since they are essentially, "truth, justice and the American Way," with the American Way standing for freedom and opportunity for all. In my thesis, I concluded that if American workers no longer believed this vision was possible, our nation could deteriorate into stratification and class warfare.
Fast forward to Occupy Wall Street, and Atlanta, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland and the other cities where the protesters have gathered together, found a voice and are gaining steam. Some in our country are asking, "What is their message? What do they want? What do they stand for?" It's hard for me to understand how they could miss the point. To me, it's as simple as Superman's mantra and as American as capitalism and apple pie. They want their shot at the dream.
Someone from Wall Street I spoke with last week minimized the protesters' importance, saying, "Occupy Wall Street has had absolutely no impact on Wall Street." Well, maybe not yet. But if Wall Street and Washington don't consider the potential future impact, they are fiddling while Rome is burning.
My parents, after surviving the Holocaust in Poland, came to America penniless but with great expectations. My father, passing the Statue of Liberty on the way to Ellis Island, told my six-year-old brother, Ed, "Everything is going to be fine. We are safe now; we are in America."
The power of the American dream sustained my father in his adopted country despite the years working 16-hours-a-day, seven-days-a week to start his own small business and support his family. But while he fulfilled his part of his contract with America, America also delivered on the dream: he and my mother were able to provide for my brothers and me a comfortable home, college education and our own ability to prosper and deliver to our children, as well.
But for many Americans, our nation is not delivering on its promise of truth, fairness and opportunity for all, the values for which Superman inspired us to represent. The occupiers of Wall Street are reminding all of us that the great recession from which we've yet to fully emerge was first a values meltdown before it became a financial meltdown. While basically no one has been held accountable for the incredible greed and moral wrong-doing that led to America's current financial malaise, clearly, great harm was done to our economy and to our people.
Where is the justice? Where is the fairness? Where is the shared responsibility for the jobs? The American dream is more than just an ideal. It means something that is fundamental to our way of life. And truth, justice and the American Way are more than just a comic book slogan. They are America's values. Many Americans and many American companies still live by these values. But our perception of those who are successful on Wall Street and in Washington has changed. Where once they were our real-life heroes, they have fallen from grace.
When Wall Street and Washington lose touch with the values of the American people -- when they forget that capitalism and government are entwined in America for the purpose of offering its people our shot at the American dream -- they lose their value to the American people. Maybe they need a simple reminder from Superman.
To see more about how we can come together through civil dialog and America's shared values, go to www.Purpleamerica.us