Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Promise Made

I want to talk about expectations. I want to talk about Occupy Wall Street.

Hundreds of attorneys, law students and other legal minds are volunteering their skills to protect the rights of protesters in the Occupy movement, according to the National Lawyers Guild.

In New York alone, dozens of people have stepped forward to act as legal observers at marches in the past month. They don luminous green hats at rallies and document the names of those arrested in confrontations with the NYPD, and they also can be found in court.

The New York City chapter of the Lawyers Guild has about a dozen pro bono lawyers working on cases. At least 50 more attorneys are on standby if the caseload becomes overwhelming, said defense attorney Marty Stolar, who represents several protesters.

The US Constitution promises us many rights, in exchange for....what? Abiding by the laws of the land as passed by the government.

And how do we abide by those laws? Well, as a living human being, by knowing the law, by understanding the law, and by accepting responsibility when we are in the wrong of those laws.

So those rights are promised to us in exchange for our promise to obey the law. Sounds like a social contract to me!

What form does this "obeyance" take? As a people, we are expected to contribute to the greater good of the society around us, economically, spiritually, morally. Most laws in this country grow out of the Ten Commandments which are easily understood (and devilishly hard to obey, but that's a different post.)

This has all been simplistic to this point because I need to pin down the crux of this article. Bear with me a bit longer.

So how do we contribute to the greater good? By being good citizens. And we're good citizens by keeping out of trouble and not being a burden to the rest of society.

We are trained for this from the very earliest onset of consciousness. We're taught that, if we just work hard at a job or a business, we can aspire to a mediocre middle class existence.

Really. That's the Horatio Alger myth we've all had inculcated in us from the get-go, in some form or other. Many, if not most of us assume we're to be rich by working hard and saving our money (HA!) but in truth, all that was supposed to provide us was a stable family life and decent food and shelter.

The disconnect we get learning all this stuff is pretty ironic: If we stay in school, study hard, get a job, go to work, get married, have children, act normal, watch TV and buy the stuff we're brainwashed into buying, we'll be "normal." No, better than normal. We'll be real Americans.

Meanwhile, only one percent of us can be in the one percent. Only five percent of us can be in the five percent. Only one in five of us can be in the twenty percent.

Do you see where the confusion starts in people's minds?

It gets harder. Look at the other half of the Alger Myth: if we save our pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves.

Possibly true. No one ever got rich working for someone else, but plenty of people have accumulated a comfortable wealth by putting away as much money as possible, and many of us grew up in a day when banks would let a five year old open a savings account with five bucks, so he could put away his allowance and chore money. We were encouraged to save, to delay gratification, and to only go into debt when it was absolutely necessary (to-wit, to buy a house. Then it became maybe for a car. Then, it went onto maybe for college. Then, maybe a vacation. Then, maybe Christmas presents. Then, food.)

We didn't stop saving because we wanted to, we stopped saving because we had to. You'll notice what happened in that progression: it went from things that were nice to have to things we had to have.

We had to have a house, because when our parents and grandparents returned from World War II, there was plenty of cheap houses to be bought within spitting distance of the city where they worked. And we had to have the car because that's how they got to work (see above: go to work, be a real American.)

And as wages began to flatten for the American middle class, parents just couldn't put away enough money for college which, through the laws of supply and demand, were becoming exponentially more expensive every year. Why? Because wages were flattening. The kids needed more education just to keep up with the American dream. That increased demand. Colleges could only be built so fast. A college education, once a privilege, became a commodity.

Y'know, as America the nation is just finding out, you borrow enough and soon those monthly payments eat into your income. Now, any big ticket item become financeable. Like appliances. Like vacations. And soon, you find yourself trying to work the magic of buying now, paying later on everything because you simply do not have the money.

Meanwhile, the Alger Myth never changed. It never flexed to "Work hard, pay later, and die of a heart attack."

At least the OWS folks would have had warning about what they were up against.

So here we are: a generation lost in cyberspace with no time left to start again. We have an entire battalion of kids who did what they were told: studied hard, got an education, got a job, got a place to live...and now find themselves spending night after night in a sleeping bag on an increasingly cold concrete sidewalk.

And people mock them for being lazy hippies. People who, if they had to sleep on a couch would whine about being uncomfortable.

We broke a promise to these people, and we ought to honor it.