occupy movement: some answers to cynics and detractors

While at work this past weekend, I spent some time reading comments and posts written by people who dislike the Occupy movement. Most of these comments were angry, or cynical, or dismissive. I thought I'd address a few of them here.

Laziness. Supposedly Occupy demonstrators and supporters don't want to work hard. We want everything given to us, simply because we exist.

This leaves me wondering about who works hard and who does not. Do nurses work hard? Construction workers? Secretaries? Flight attendants? Do labourers work hard? Teachers? Social workers? Auto workers? Or do we all think that hedge fund managers and stock exchange traders work harder than the average working Joe and Jane?

Do the critics believe that the 1% all became super-rich by dint of hard work? That every CEO with a multimillion dollar salary - plus several million dollars annually for each corporate board of directors on which he is listed - actually worked his butt off and was fairly compensated?

Surely we all know that great amounts of wealth are inherited, that most wealthy people started out rich and became richer? If we don't personally know any rich, indolent people, certainly we've read and heard about them, no? Popular culture is awash with such stories. Even if we count all the rags-to-riches stories, opportunity has to be built into the system, and available to all, right?

To those ends, I hope you will read these two posts, both eloquent and cogent responses to this issue. (I posted them earlier, but they may have been buried.) The posts are too long to quote well here, and the writers deserve your click.

Max Urdargo at Daily Kos: Open Letter to that 53% Guy.

Impudent Strumpet: We are part of the 99%.

The "Open Letter" writer touches on another response to the laziness charge, an important one. Now, this writer believes far more than I do in the promise of capitalism to bring prosperity and happiness to the greatest number of people. I think we've seen enough to conclude that reform doesn't work; the next bust is only a cycle away. As the sign says, "The system isn't broken, it was built this way."

It's a big difference - the difference between liberalism and socialism - but we'll put it aside for now. He writes:
I want everybody to have healthcare. I want lazy people to have healthcare. I want stupid people to have healthcare. I want drug addicts to have healthcare. I want bums who refuse to work even when given the opportunity to have healthcare. I’m willing to pay for that with my taxes, because I want to live in a society where it doesn’t matter how much of a loser you are, if you need medical care you can get it. And not just by crowding up an emergency room that should be dedicated exclusively to helping people in emergencies.
We have this in Canada. And it works, big-time. This means that even if a person is lazy - whether he be rich and lazy or poor and lazy - he can get decent medical care.

Laziness shouldn't mean starving and living on the streets. Neither should physical disability, or poor mental health, or drug addiction, or pregnancy, or really bad luck. All people, regardless of ability, deserve to eat well, have a warm, safe place to lay their heads, have access to education, meaningful work and full medical care. And that means more than we have now in Canada, exactly none of it left to the vagaries of employment or the free market.

We're not demonstrating because we're lazy. (Do lazy people protest? Wouldn't lazy people be home watching TV, rather than out in the streets?) We're demonstrating because, as Imp Strump puts it:
The 1%, the rich and the powerful, fucked up the world's economy, wrote themselves bonus cheques that are orders of magnitude bigger than the likes of us who have to pay our way through school on scholarships and low wages will see in a lifetime, and are trying to make the rest of us, the 99% (which does include you, BTW - even with today's unemployment rates, scholarships and 30 hours a week don't put you in the richest 1%), pay for it by creating a world where it will be harder and harder to have things work out just by doing what you're supposed to do. They're trying to make there be fewer jobs, have them less well-compensated and less secure, and at the same time to reduce available public services. This means that it will be harder for you to get and keep your 30 hours and you'll get paid less for it, and at the same time your tuition will go up and your scholarships will go down.
Hypocrites. I was astonished at how many people criticize Occupy demonstrators for buying coffee from Tim Hortons or Starbucks, or wearing Lululemon jackets. In the US years ago, people used to criticize Ralph Nader for being wealthy; today you hear the same about Michael Moore.

Being a champion of people's causes does not require one to take a vow of poverty. Privilege itself is no crime: it's what you do with your privilege that matters. And being an activist doesn't mean living in some alternate universe where all your needs can be met through local, independent, fair-trade businesses. We all exist in the same world, and we do what we must and what we can.

At bottom, this criticism is little more than an ad hominem attack: denigrate the messenger in order to dismiss the message. But messengers don't need to pass moral purity tests before their message is deemed valid.

They say they want change, but change to what? Certainly, to a system that is more equitable, that provides more opportunity and a greater level of comfort to a greater number of people. But the details of the alternative system don't have to in place before one speaks out against the present one.

The first step is raising awareness that there is a problem, and that the problem is not individually based - your inability to find a decent job, my inability to afford higher education - but systemic. Public demonstrations and the conversations that follow raise that awareness. Wisconsin. Egypt. Greece. Wall Street. Bay Street. It's all connected.

As increasing numbers of people come to understand that the system is broken, they realize they are not alone. That their ideas are not so crazy after all. That they can ask for more. That they deserve more. And that maybe, just maybe, a better world is possible.

That idea begins to spread. People begin to talk about what they want, what a new system could look like. How it might be created.

We don't have to have a plan and make a presentation like some boardroom executive rolling out a new product. And we don't need a party platform; we're not running for office. We just keep meeting, and keep talking. As the saying goes, we make the road by walking.

We already have a system. It's called voting. If you want change, vote for it. Does voting bring change? In the recent provincial election, voter turnout was at an all-time low. We're often told that low turnout is a sign of apathy. But what if voter turnout is so low not because of apathy, but because of its opposite, anger and frustration? What if people are hungry for change, but none of their voting choices offer it? What if people don't vote because they believe that no matter what party is elected, the system remains the same? How do they effect change then? This movement is taking a stab at an answer.

Various ad hominem attacks. The protesters are hippies. They are teenagers. They are... fill in the blank. Have you turned on a TV lately? Have you actually observed a demonstration? I wish the people writing this stuff would come out and merely watch, with their eyes and minds open. They'd see a whole lot of ordinary people, trying to create a better world.

This morning in Toronto, it appears that a few Occupy people showed up in the financial district with signs. A large march is planned for later today, but this morning a few dozen people rallied on their own. Naturally, internet right-wingers are having a field day with this. Ha ha ha, only a few people turned up, this means your ideas are stupid!

It's so easy to sit on the sidelines and mock. But standing up and being heard feels so much better.

Occupy TO: schedule, needs, updates.

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