Homesteaders Jim Norris and Wife (Library of Congress)
I spoke with a thirty-something mother of two residing in suburban New Jersey about the Occupy Wall Street movement. She was disgusted by their antics. “Our business failed, our house was foreclosed on, we lost everything and you don’t see us blaming someone else for it!” she exclaimed. “It’s about personal responsibility!”
She lost everything as a result of the economic meltdown and yet still puts it on herself for not having anticipated or planned properly beforehand. I tried to explain that protesting a rigged system isn’t the opposite of personal responsibility. Doing what you can about the cards being stacked against you and 99 percent of your fellow Americans is, personally, responsive. And that is what Occupy Wall Street and their international — viral solidarity demonstrations say they are there to do.
There’s a bastardized quote attributed to John Steinbeck that says socialism never took root in America because we all think we’re just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. The actual quote, which Steinbeck wrote in America and Americans, is more pointed, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
We’re not really a culture of delusional dreamers who all believe someday we will be wealthy. There are some, sure. Their escapist fantasy involves a windfall and a secluded island. There are also those who (still) actually become rich. But for the vast majority of Americans — the myth is less we are going to be rich — the myth which led us to the extreme wealth distribution debacle we’re now in — is that we’re all homesteaders.
You don’t have to grow your own food, build your own house or “paint your own wagon” to believe you could if you really wanted to. And really, did in some indirect way.
We’re a society full of pioneers, pilgrims and immigrants. We were a religious freedom sanctuary from England and then penal colony for England — insulted, neglected and over-taxed by the empire. This led us to tell the King of England off, then engage the most powerful army in the world at the time for our independence. And we succeeded at it.
Then people from all over the world flocked here to find refuge and opportunity. It has led Americans to have a bit of bravado about who we are as a people. We think of ourselves as rugged individualists. Because it takes courage and determination to leave your country and forge a new life in this one — and most of us are descended from those people. [Editor’s Note: Or maybe are forced to leave and to face slavery and eventually find freedom in a new country. That takes a lot of courage.]
It’s not so much that we think our destiny is to be rich — it’s that we believe our destiny is ours. We make our fortunes or we don’t make our fortunes. We block out of our minds that roads aren’t a naturally occurring phenomena; that buildings take legions of workers to erect or that energy comes from somewhere. We think we do it all and when we fail — it’s our fault.
So when things don’t go our way, we don’t blame outside factors. When we fail, we don’t see that the game is fixed. We tug at our bootstraps and feel anguish at our own deficiencies.
The reason why Occupy Wall Street is resonating still with Americans is because there are those who’ve been living with shame for what they see as not being self-sufficient…enough. They’re not “embarrassed capitalists,” they’re mortified homesteaders. They’ve been laid off, they’ve lost their homes, their retirement is gone — they feel personally humiliated that (according to their personal creed) they didn’t do the right thing and maybe could have avoided this defeat.
Occupy Wall Street is letting people who’ve been in the shadows know that they’re not alone and they didn’t cause this. It’s something Americans at their core don’t usually believe. It’s actually a tough sell. But the movement is growing so apparently there are some converts.
Americans in general, and the downtrodden specifically, are figuring out they’re not alone.