The Limits of Occupying Wall Street

I’ve been trying to decide what I think about the Occupy Wall Street crowd camped out in New York City’s Zucotti Park.  I came of age in the late Sixties, and they remind me a little of that time—a disparate bunch, loosely organized around a sense of injustice, with more than a few joining in because it’s fun.  I want to like them, simply because they make me nostalgic.

They’ve marched on Wall Street and blocked the Brooklyn Bridge for a day.  They did protest tours of millionaire’s homes.  They even faced down a squad of janitors sent by the mayor.  There have been arrests and drama, including commandeering city buses to use as paddy wagons.  They’ve broadcast their opposition to unfairness, and to the immoral distribution of wealth in America, seeing our financial establishment as the primary offender.  What’s not to like?

My problem is that I have no idea what they want done.  I commiserate with their complaints, and wonder if they have plans.  According to a website that bears their name, Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement, fashioned after the revolts in many Arab nations this year.  I assume that’s why they occupied a park.  But, unlike these Americans, the Arabs have a clear goal.  The Egyptian revolutionaries weren’t leaving Tahrir Square until Mubarak left office, and I don’t hear that kind of ambition emanating from the Occupiers.

The non-leaders of the leaderless movement, when interviewed on television, say they don’t want to restrict the possible developments and permutations that might occur, as policy proposals bubble to the top, sort of like the foam on a beer.  But I suspect they simply aren’t sure how to remedy the problems they dislike.  Let’s face it, if there was something concrete to do, like overturning Jim Crow laws, or stopping the draft, they wouldn’t be quite so diffident.  They want to stop the decline in their fortunes, and, beyond identifying a culprit, don’t know where to begin.

I understand the difficulty.  It’s like trying to soothe a pain that rubbing can’t reach.  I’ve had three kidney stones, and the pain is exactly the same.  The only difference is the availability of pills to kill the agony of stones; for the financial distress that is ruining lives there are no pills that make a real difference.

Thankfully for me, each of my kidney stones passed within a week, in the form of a very welcome moment.  I never needed surgery or a change in diet, and the other unpleasant reminders that those little crystalline pebbles are part of a much larger system.  Unfortunately, our country’s economic woes are not passing in a week, and that, as my urologist would say, indicates a larger problem.

In the form of advice from afar, I’d say the Occupy Wall Street folks are not thinking large enough, having underestimated the size of the problem.  The inequities, injustices, and blatant greed in our society can’t be blamed upon investment bankers, any more than I can blame my kidney stones on my kidneys.  As much as Gordon Gekko is fun to hate, Wall Street is not the true source of our discomfort.  Wall Street is simply one of the consequences of our prevailing social ethos.  Occupy Wall Street has to aim higher, to the level of culture, where the elevation of individual profit over human life is legitimated.  Wall Street exists because we let it exist.  Most Americans approve of profit-taking; it’s only a matter of how much; and, for many people, that means as much as you can get.  The results are all around us, even if we don’t like to admit it.  The prevalent misery and poverty are a product of our societal greed.

To get a broader perspective, I suggest we turn to a polar opposite, and a great analyst of systemic suffering, the Buddha.  According to Buddha, desire is the source of all suffering.  Desire causes us to cling—to people, emotions, and things—and their temporary nature inevitably leads to sorrow.  We want stuff to last.  It never does.  And we deal with the unavoidable pain by seeking more.

In his famous Fire Sermon, Buddha says we are on fire with desire.  The ear is aflame; the eye is aflame; the mouth is aflame; the body is aflame; the intellect is aflame.  Buddha goes through a litany of the many sources of craving that afflict us.  True happiness, nirvana, depends on dousing the flames.

Buddhism presents an interesting contrast with American culture, where we are trained from birth to desire things.  Desire is the burning heart of the American dream.  Just add money and you, too, can be the envy of your neighbors.  People fight each other over Christmas toys on Black Friday and camp out overnight to get gadgets.  The stuff we possess defines who we are, and there are always new things to make us look lacking.  In fact, lacking desire is believed to be a sign of laziness.  Why did somebody not succeed?  They didn’t desire it enough.

We’re not born this way, of course.  It may be possible that newborns have no desires at all, making them all little Buddhas.  They react to feelings of discomfort, but, as long as they are tended to, simply float in a sea of wonder.  Unfortunately, the flotation period doesn’t last long, as we inundate them with objects, entertainments, chew toys, stuffed animals, and brain stimulation programs meant to make them a genius, if they have enough drive.

Finding the coolest rattle is only the beginning.  Marketers purposely target young children with products, not only because they will pester parents into spending money, but because they want to inculcate brand recognition for products children will use in adulthood.  Brand loyalties can be set as young as age two.  Is that toy truck a Ford?  By the time kids head off to kindergarten, they recognize hundreds of logos, and are probably wearing a few.

At school, the corporate marketing continues.  Coke machines stand in high school lobbies; Pizza Hut gives free pizzas to students who read enough books.  Businesses sponsor ball fields and Gatorade’s orange lightning graces the sidelines.  High school sports are broadcast on ESPN, creating high school sports celebrities, and turning their games into the first layer of the minor leagues.  Little leagues are now how you get recruited by high schools.

The high school ball player, in turn, is hoping to achieve that trifecta of American desire: wealth, fame, and conspicuous consumption.  Lebron James appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school senior, the same year his mother bought him a Hummer.  Derek Jeter recently built a 31,000 square foot home, or a personal abode slightly smaller than the average Best Buy electronics store.  He did limit himself to a six car garage.

In fact, give an American enough money and there’s a good chance he or she will become desire run amok.  Sixty percent of NBA players are bankrupt within five years after they retire.  Surprise, they spent it all!  And they are simply a few of many cultural heroes to dissolve in a mix of lusts, cravings, and greed.

In that kind of environment, the housing bubble that nearly bankrupted America is entirely understandable.  Millions of people bought homes who couldn’t afford homes, because that is what a successful American is supposed to do, and we all know what we think of unsuccessful Americans.  A much smaller number of people made millions of dollars selling those mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them, knowing they would eventually go bad.  And an even smaller number of people made billions selling packages of those bad mortgages to unsuspecting investors.  To help it all happen, the U.S. Federal Reserve purposely kept interest rates low enough to entice buyers.

This is business in America; desire run rampant.  America is on fire.  We’re a society built on craving things; recessions occur when we finally can’t keep up ourselves.  Buddha would probably find us to be a special manifestation of hell.

Billionaires are not the only greedy people in the United States.  They are just better at it.  Otherwise, the typical American family would not have an average credit card debt of nearly $16,000.  We want what we want, and America is glad to help.  It’s how the gears keep turning.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.  If the Occupy Wall Street folks started from there, we might be on to something.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

One Response to “The Limits of Occupying Wall Street”

  1. They aren’t thinking big enough, they have no clear goals—so they’ll just bleat for a while then fizzle out with nothing achieved but “a good time was had by all”.

    Face it, you need a revolution. If ever your government’s books were opened to the pubic you’d get one, even in dumbed down apathetic modern America— until then expect more of the same.

    We all need our people in high office to be criminally accountable, but it won’t happen. No Nurembergs for Bush, Blair, and Obama, so as ever ‘to the victor the spoils’ (and might-makes-right). Principles? Right out there with the dodo …

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