Friday, February 10, 2012
Against my own better judgement, and most likely my own well-being, I'm going to open a can of worms. More: a case of cans of worms. I'm going to do my best to think this out without resorting to proposing solutions, because there are no solutions.
Anonymous, the upcoming election, Arab Spring, LulzSec,AntiSec, SOPA, PIPA, Occupy Wall Street... just as one thing fades something else comes back up, and I'm starting to realize they are all threads of the same complex and interwoven cloth. If you get the chance, try to read Quinn Norton's eloquent and careful analysis of Anonymous available on Wired.com (this link will show all posts tagged anonymous 2011, and you'll find some other stuff in there as well : http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/tag/anonymous-2011/ ).
Typically when it comes to these kind of things, I find myself very much in the place of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who posit the viewpoint of the boys: “this is pretty f*cked up right here.” When pressed for their opinion on most issues, they'll give you the same spiel: there are two diametrically opposed sides, and both are completely wrong. A majority of people find themselves caught in the middle, and the only voice of reason is to say “alright, let's stop fighting and use a little common sense here.”
As far as Occupy Wall Street, I found myself at first completely behind the movement. I've literally spoken for years about the need for a vigorous and effective series of protests to protest the problems in this country. I didn't care which problems were picked; honestly there are too many from which to choose. My only view was that the government of this nation had become simultaneously too powerful and too apathetic. It was at once applying policies with strict vengeance and ignoring its own rulings to let things slide. My conspiracy-theorist friends were all too quick to point out that this has always been the way. Those in power don't care for the wellfare of the common man and woman, they only care for the ones who can get/keep them elected. Those friends started making me also realize that the protesters bore a lot of similarities to the people who I derided the most: hipsters. Perhaps I was wrong to jump behind this hive-mind of anti-conformity, mainly due to the fact it was in fact another “ironic” expression of conformity itself. Maybe the arguments were valid, but how much impact can drum circles and camping around things really have? Why was this so different from the Tea Party, and how was it being derided by so many people and vilified? Maybe I was wrong, these people actually deserved derision for the fact they were just complaining instead of going back to work.
So in the end, I found myself where I belong: in the middle. How did I get here? By deriding the hypocrisy of both sides, as a typical pretentious ass might. I saw some of my friends saying “this is ridiculous, my father/uncle/cousin is thriving because of all of their hard work in this economy. They work ninety hour weeks and already pay way too much in taxes, you protesting asshats need to go to work.” Then, I saw some of them saying “just got back from another set of interviews. Been trying for over a year to get work and haven't even gotten a callback yet. Why can't anyone with a degree in modern interpretations of renaissance art get work around here?”
After striking my head repeatedly on the desk I realized the problem. As with all of the different movements and events of the past year, I find myself questioning not the sincerity of the members, but their willful ignorance of the facts.
If your father is working ninety hour weeks as a small business owner, he's not in the crosshairs of these people. He probably doesn't even pay the so-called “millionaire” tax because he makes less than the cutoff point after all your business expenses and losses are paid. The people in the crosshairs for these protesters and activists are the ones who climbed to the top positions of these financial companies, and made incredibly short-sighted decisions based on the rationale that when the bubble burst, they'd have enough money to ride out the wave of water that drowned everyone beneath them. If you are a small business owner, there's no way you're standing on enough shoulders for that to even BEGIN to describe you.
If you can't get a job in underwater basket-weaving, thus paying off your $40,000 student debt, it seems like you made a series of bad decisions before you came to your current predicament. You probably had absolutely no interest in researching the future of the field that you went into, you just did what your parents told you. And now, you're probably blaming them for putting you through college (co-signing those massive loans) and sleeping on their couch while you refuse to work at a McDonald's in order to help pay the bills.
That's the derision speaking, so I'll let the cynic go for awhile and come back with the optimist. Your father is probably scared about his company being taxed. He's probably terrified that the government is going to do even more to curtail his rights as a business owner, and do things that make owning and operating a business (which in all rights should be seen as a service to this country as being willing to create jobs) more impossible. If you haven't gotten a job in your field, you probably actually DID research before you chose your path, and at the time (before the bubble burst) you actually had a job lined up and were ready to go. You probably don't have time to work at McDonald's because you're spending all your time trying to interview for jobs that can support you in your own place and allow you to live up to the dreams you had as a student.
And that's when it hit me: this world is different. No, it's not just a different job market than it was when our parents got out of school (which it is). It's not just a world in which technology has brought greater power and freedom to the individual than ever before (which it has). It's a world in which all of these things have happened at such a break-neck speed there is absolutely nothing to hold on to. People, as a rule, will polarize in times of crisis. They'll fall behind ideals and supporters. Immediately after a catastrophic event, people begin to find who to blame. Soon after, camps of “us” and “them” form. And this is exactly what's happening, and has been happening for the last twenty years.
I can only speak for the last twenty-eight years to which I've been a witness, and more specifically the last twenty I was intelligent enough to understand at least the mood that pervaded our culture. As brought up before in my analogy to South Park, two sides emerge, and begin trying to polarize the masses to them. It is only the sensible people who refuse to be pulled into a camp for the betterment of one of the sides. Anyone who gives you an ultimatum (you're for us or you're against us) has absolutely no respect for your decision. You're a tool to them, or you're an obstacle. And this is the underlying problem.
People are not obstacles, and we are certainly not tools to be used by others. There was perhaps a time in my life that I counted myself among the Machiavelians who would argue that humans are a resource to be utilized in a war of life or commerce. But after seeing the daily struggles, triumphs, and failures of my fellow humans, I arrive at only one conclusion: the only thing that is valuable, if anything has value, is life.
Rather than bore you with a thousand anecdotes (which are ultimately symptoms) of this particular problem, I'll just bring up one example that has colored my entire understanding of this situation.
There was a man who lost his job due to the company closing its doors. He had been smart, planned for prolonged unemployment, and saved enough money to live off of savings (including his mortgage payments) for upwards of three months. So, as a responsible citizen, father, and homeowner, he called the bank to ask what he should do to make sure he didn't lose his home. They told him to request an option to change his terms via certified mail. Again, a responsible man, he notified his bank via certified letter that he had lost his job and would be searching for a new one, but in the meantime may need to defer some of the cost of his home, perhaps paying the principle and electing to pay into the escrow towards the end of the year, or temporarily modify the terms of his loan based on his current equity. He was five years into a fifteen year note, so he had a fair amount paid, and had never missed a payment. The bank responded with a foreclosure notice. According to them, the terms of his loan stipulated he maintain employment. Upon further research, that was never the case, it was only a question of whether he could pay the bills, which he was sure he could do for at least a few months before even having to miss a single payment. The bank's response? “Take it up with your congressman.”
You see, this man had an FHA loan, and as part of a government financing program, they pushed the responsibility to the government. So of course, he did his best to find out what options he had in civil court and with lawmakers. They told him to talk to his bank.
This is one story, there are literally millions of people who have had this exact same experience. I'm not saying I know what the solution is, but this is clearly a man who was responsible and did everything he could to make things work. He was reasonable and measured and did everything you are told you're supposed to do, and in the end he wound up with nothing. When he went to the occupy protests with his two kids, it was because they had been kicked out of their home and had nowhere else to go. Burning through his savings to keep his kids clothed and fed, he ended up having to unload them on relatives and live out of a tent while he “took it up with his congressman.”
I realize this is only one story out of the millions out there. Some people are protesting on the street because they made bad decisions. Some of them have much more compelling stories. But in the end, this man is just one of millions, and so am I. His story is just another one in the pile of stories, and mine could be too. I pay all my bills on time, I don't buy things I don't need, I try to invest for my future. But tomorrow I could be on the street because of circumstances completely beyond my control, and that doesn't just scare me, that pisses me off.
I don't care if you agree with the protesters. I don't care if you think they are completely ignorant or if you think they personify everything that's great about this country. No matter your feelings about them, they are people. Some were duped by a system that didn't care about them. Some of them ended up making human mistakes and are being punished for the rest of their lives for it. And some of them did everything they were supposed to do, and are still turned out on the street for it. And I think that's a problem. They, and we, are continuing to pay for crimes we did not commit. This has to stop.