Friday, November 18, 2011


For the last several weeks, I've been trying to find time to visit Chicago's Occupy movement, with the hopes of seeing it firsthand and possibly interviewing some of the attendees. Originally, I made a decision to not write about it until attending, but I haven't been able to make the trek downtown, and my desire to share my thoughts cannot wait any longer. Writing this from afar, even separated by just a few miles, seems to go against the spirit of the nationwide Occupy movements. However, one part of that spirit is solidarity, so lending my opinions in essay form is something, I suppose. I've read countless news articles from both mainstream and grassroots media outlets; I've bantered via social media, even taking time to read dissenting opinions to make sure I have a balanced foundation; I've heard varying thoughts, from extreme support to extreme disapproval to hints of being in the middle. After taking all of this in, weighing various themes, and simply sitting deep in thought for stretches of time, there is one thing that everyone has to agree upon: the system is flawed. The one idea a lot of people will disagree with me about: the Occupy protesters are engaging in their patriotic duties. Of this I am unequivocally certain.

With unregulated activity, banks and corporations have dug this country into a hole that we're all desperately trying to get out of together. From stock market manipulations to risky spending to flat-out criminal activities, the financial landscape is frightening. Do I claim to have all the answers and understandings? No. But I do know how this personally affected me. I was laid off from a bankrupt company (with no severance) while its executive officers received lucrative bonuses after running the company into the ground. Our customers, dealing with their own financial problems, couldn't spend money as freely as before. Sometimes financial woes are singular, but in this case, there has to be a connection. All the while, the gap between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken has grown at an alarming rate. Nobody is saying that the wealthy cannot earn money, but there is a problem when the top 1% decries fair tax rates while people like myself spend long stretches clinging to unemployment. During my jobless phase, I opted to pay my taxes outright, even though it meant less immediate money, and never once did I question my requirement to pay my share...yet some wealthy people refuse to accept higher taxes, even though they would still be able to live luxuriously. Yes, some may call me a tree-hugging, whiny liberal. But after months and months of desperate job hunting, I finally landed a temporary bookselling position. While I'm grateful to have income that's slightly higher than my unemployment rates, I realize that there are still millions of people, some much more educated than myself, clamoring for dwindling career opportunities. And still, people do not want to hold the perpetrators of the financial crises accountable, and claim that people like myself are lazy and demanding handouts.

My friend Rachel (the founder of Booksellers Without Borders)has been a consistent presence at Chicago's Occupy rallies, documenting her thoughts and experiences via social media, and also via regular newspapers. On October 30th, The Chicago Tribune published her article "Why I Occupy," a strong, pointed account of her reasons for making multiple visits downtown. She engaged in no name calling, no snide remarks, and made many a valid point. A sample of her letter:

"I occupy because I believe in the First Amendment and the civil liberties it grants us.

I occupy because the system is not broken but relies on this kind of active participation to remain strong.

I occupy because it is exciting to see democracy working.

I occupy because after seven years combined of undergraduate and graduate studies, I have student loan debt but not the gainful employment necessary to pay it down.

I occupy because I have been underemployed since finishing school, often working two or three part-time jobs to try to make ends meet.

I occupy because I have spent half of this year unemployed altogether, through no fault of my own. I occupy because the unemployed cannot afford to be invisible statistics any longer.

I occupy because the alternative is sitting in my parents' basement writing cover letters that won't even be rejected, just ignored.

I occupy because if it weren't for the safety net my parents have provided, I would be sitting on a street corner all day asking for a different kind of change."

I am in the same position. If it weren't for my parents, I would have been on the street a long time ago. Of course, since I know Rachel, it's easy for me to have her back. She and I are two educated, intelligent, hard-working people with our hands tied due to the current economic system. For anyone who has not been unemployed recently, it's hard to convey just how daunting it is. Again, it's easy to assume that everyone is lounging around and milking unemployment benefits. Critics of the Occupy movements love to make jokes about the protesters being a bunch of drumming, stoned hippies who have no idea how the system works. Currently, the system benefits the elite and is leaving everyone else trying to stay above water. Are there people at the Occupy movements who are there "just because?" Of course. Are there people who don't know what they're protesting? I'm sure of it. However, the vast majority are Americans who realize that something is wrong, and if some attention can be called to a broken system, so much the better. Perhaps this is naive, but I like to think that some of the people have followed the Occupy movements and have come out more educated. Critics have fallen back on the notion of "they don't know what they're protesting!" But the movement has been flexible. It's making people aware of the problems.

Naturally, Rachel's letter received a lot of feedback, both positive and negative. I'm going to cite some of the responses, all of which are available online at the Tribune's website. I'm not going to use the names of the people who replied, but only out of respect. If I knew them, I would ask for permission, or I would attempt to engage them in dialogue. Another reason is that I don't want it to seem like I'm criticizing AND hiding behind a blog. I'm only using their cited rebuttals to offer my counter-arguments in relation to Rachel's letter and my own opinions. Again, like Rachel, I'm not engaging in name-calling or needless criticism. If someone is against the Occupy movements, that is his or her opinion.

"You occupy because you are anti-military, anti-capitalism, anti-government, feel that society owes you something, are well-educated and unemployed but too good to take a temporary job, still living at home, frustrated, bored and, yep, liberal."

Occupiers are NOT anti-military. Our men and women in uniform also suffer from job insecurity and constraints, and the War on Terror has been draining the national budget for nearly ten years. Soldiers are doing their jobs admirably, and we support them unequivocally. What we do not support is them being in danger due to dubious decisions on the part of the government. And I find it curious that a supposedly conservative person would claim that Rachel is anti-government. If anything, if the government had imposed the proper regulations, the recession might not have been as drastic. And if the government held Wall Street accountable, there would be a sense of justice instead of frustration. And the current GOP candidates are trying to promise an end to proper government regulations. To me, that's much more anti-government. I find it to be very hypocritical that the same political ideology that claims we have too much government is turning around and claiming that another ideology hates government.

"I do not occupy because while working menial jobs during my college career, I chose a major that would be attractive to employers instead of majors such as History, Gender Studies or English-Literature; and I then paid off my loans."

This letter troubled me the most, for multiple reasons. If someone desires to study subjects in college with the sole purpose of making him or herself attractive to employers, that is their choice and that cannot be argued. However, the implication is that subjects such as History, Gender Studies, and (my major) English are dead ends. I've been hearing this long before the Occupy movements began. Even at the very naive age of eighteen, when I decided to major in English, I knew there wouldn't be immediate jobs available, that I would have to spend time honing my craft and educating myself. However, why can't one study what they're passionate about and have that lead to gainful employment? I will never be someone whose sole purpose is to make money. I majored in English because I love writing and literature and wanted to devote my life to these subjects. If the above-mentioned majors were not beneficial in some way, why would colleges offer them? Artists and critical thinkers are invaluable to society. I'm not making any assumptions about the writer, but I'm criticizing the opinion. I'm sure he/she has various passions unrelated to the line of work. But the current landscape makes the pursuit of passions for employment next to impossible. People like me and Rachel are trying our best to be self sufficient. We're not relying on our parents out of laziness. We're trying to forge our paths in an economic world ruled by a lack of jobs and opportunity. The unemployed are decried for "looking for handouts," but it's okay for a bank to receive a government bailout while its CEO makes more money than most people can imagine?

I know this has been a pretty rambling essay, and I know there are much more eloquent pieces out there. But this is one of those moments where I'm writing from the heart as well as my brain. There are so many other concerns and questions I could have raised, but I wanted this to be a small part of support to Occupiers and their message. Keep exercising your first Amendment rights, keep questioning our current state, and let's actively work to make a better world. And my final message is for the critics: we respect your opinions, even if we respectfully disagree. However, do not claim that Occupiers are anti-American. The beauty of this country lies in the realization that such movements and rallies are possible. During all the criticism of the Tea Party movements, not once did I hear anyone question their right to protest. Change is needed, and the Occupy movements are proving to be a necessity. Believe it or not, these movements are really the definition of patriotism. We have so much potential for positive changes, and while our current state is not perfect, we're not completely hopeless. And least not yet.


Rachel said...

Thanks for your essay and support, Jamie.

What still baffles me is that my goal of stable, long-term employment has them branding me as an entitled brat who is looking for a handout. I'm not afraid to work hard, and I've taken many temporary and menial jobs. What I want is a job that pays enough for me to live independent of my parents. Preferably before I hit 30.

Also, if we live in a world where studying the humanities is pointless, then I don't want to live here any more.

And I wonder if they know how many of the people at Occupy are veterans - and how many of them are unemployed and/or homeless. I respect their service to our country and just wish we had taken better care of it so they would have jobs, homes, and benefits to come back to.

Thanks again for expounding on my piece in the Trib.

James Yates said...

Rachel, I couldn't agree more with your statements.

The more I think about feelings over the Occupy movements, the more I realize how divided people are over political issues. This essay is likely agreed with by supporters and dismissed by critics of the movement. So in essence, I'm preaching to the choir.

However, I guess evidence and written support needs to grow. People on the right won't be swayed by a small written piece, yet maybe more attention to the issues will foster ideas from folks in the middle. And really, if I truly believed that I was "preaching to the choir," I wouldn't have written this at all. I would be at fault as a writer for not attempting to explain what I feel passionate about.

kjml said...

Hi Jamie,
Good points, and well made. If I have nothing new to add, I can still show agreement and support!
I especially take your point to heart, that too many critics of the OWS protest assume way too much about the people who protest and the people who are in solidarity with their complaints. Worst, is the assumption that corporate America has the right to determine useful study and career options. If our society has little or no room for people who don't bark to the corporate command, something is terribly wrong. Since when did an economic system come to be the lawgiver on human meaning? (The correct political term for that assumption is "fascism."
Let no one lie to you about this: the unemployment rate is in fact as much a corporate boon as it is a social bane. They want this purging of human assets, people relegated to begging for jobs, as if the last 40 years of wage stagnation have not been enough of a sauce on the banquet of run-away corporate salaries and profits.
I have attended the protest (as an observer)here in Providence: trust me, they are not the loons you are hearing about on TV.

Diaphoresis said...

You raised a number of critical issues in your essay: I'll address education. It's surprising how much the early American mindset pervades in our society. America was a country people came to flee oppressive Governments, or for a better life. They had to work hard to survive. There was not much of a social structure beyond one's immediate community. Naturally there was a hatred of government, & of sharing with others one didn't know the often meagre fruits of one's labor. People had come for a better opportunity, had taken huge risks, they wanted to keep what they earned. Hence the repugnance towards big Government & anything that resembled socialism. Winner takes all. And the young country needed bulders & growers - farmers, blacksmiths, butchers, construction workers, miners & the like. More than book critics or art historians. Education was at best an investment, at worst a luxury.
And 200+ years later that still defines the American mindset. Heck, we are the wealthiest country in the world, we should offer a better safety net, affordable healthcare & education to all. But try selling affordable nationalized higher education & healthcare to the American people!
I won't criticize the person who commented about marketable education. The reality is one of limited family means can't afford a huge student loan without some assurance of ROI. I hear it from a lot of people who ruefully say their interest was in art or poetry but had to choose accounting cause they didn't want to spend the rest of their lives worrying about loan repayment. I don't thinbk people who say that are necessarily belittling humanities majors. However let me add this. There are few safe subjects anymore. I have an advanced degree in a 'marketable' subject (Molecular Biology). I have a job, OK, but severely underemployed (wont' go into details, would take up too much space). Nursing was sold as a recession-proof vocation. Now many new graduate nurses can't find a job.
I hope America realizes education is valuable not as an investment but knowledge is a value in itself. We are no longer a wild society where individuals are looking for opportunity, but a nation of people where winner doesn't take all but cares & shares. And where an educated citizenry is an asset in its own right. We shouldn't let young minds interested in the humanities to grow pale & spectre-thin & die. It would require a change in the whole idea of privatized education, of ultrahigh college executive & football coach salaries, & of private corporations investing in the people of the society they make profit from rather than maximum profit as the sole objective. As to hirability, I know protectionism is unpleasant to some, but the real world is that they can hire a writer or editor at much cheaper rate overseas who can work online & do pretty much the same. Happening even in teaching. In journalism. Outsourcing is not restricted to factories & call centers anymore. I think at least for the time being we have to say America First. Sorry if my comment appears somewaht rambling.

James Yates said...

kjml: Thank you for your kind comments. I have a few days off this week and am hoping (fingers crossed) to make it to the Occupy Chicago movement. I'm in full solidarity, so without actually having been, I know that the folks aren't the loons that some media segments make them out to be.

Diaphoresis: I'm the king of rambling comments, so trust me: your remarks were anything but; they were extremely well-thought out. In a way I can understand the person's feelings on marketable education. But I took some of the remarks out of context. As a whole, his comment was belittling Rachel for majoring in humanities and making him (or her)self out to be superior for being more attractive to employers. I truly feel for you in your underemployment. I'm working a minimum wage seasonal job, and it's all I could get. I'm trying to use it as motivation to find something in the near future. Again, I'm not expecting miracles, and I can be conveniently naive when it comes to trying to find my career niche. :)

I'm also glad that all of these comments are genuine and heartfelt. I now know that I wasn't just preaching to the choir, but engaging in excellent dialogue with various other people. Thanks everyone!

Diaphoresis said...

Thanks for responding, & best of luck in your job search too (& thanks goes to your friend Rachel as well for tweeting about this blog)!

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