Democracy and Public Policy
“The more a source thinks like you, acts like you and looks like you, the more trusting you are, the more willing you are to accept the story you’re told.”
~ Jones (2010)
Michael R Jones is studying public policy narratives. He and his colleagues are not documenting discrimination or prejudice; they are validating common features of human behavior using quantitative scientific methods. As I think about why the Occupy movement is happening now and whether it will be able to sustain itself long enough to have effects on economic policy, one of the background, subjective elements has to involve addressing whiteness.
Saturday, I laughed with a few people I met who also found it amusing but undaunting that our first visit to Zuccotti Park coincided with snowtober. I was impressed by the gritty people (of varied ethnicities but mostly white) who gutted through the freezing wet slush of “the snowpocalypse” – thereby crossing an important hurdle for the movement overall.
That’s whiteness, not being white!
The distinctions between being a white American and the institutional structures of whiteness are important. First, the structures of whiteness are ‘in’ Americans of all ethnicities to some degree, even if only by necessity in order to survive (let alone do well) in today’s hyperdrive commercial/consumer-based society. Second: to understand the difference between the genetic-social fact of being white and the institutional structures of whiteness is to realize that the issues raised by the Occupy movement are not about white Americans trying to get over or above anybody else. Instead, this could be the historical moment when middle-class white Americans begin to demonstrate a widespread cultural awareness that whiteness – both the personal sense of superiority, and as institutionalized in ‘the rules’ – is not fair to anyone.
Economics and History
Emanual Derman wrote about working at Goldman Sachs from 1985 into the late ’90s. “The capacity to wreak havoc with your [financial] models provides the ultimate respectability” (2004, p. 13). Derman was simply describing the attitude of the biggest gamblers, but it could just as well have been a prediction.
Jay Smooth talks about the ringers who are now trying to justify authoritarian repression of the movement, describing their desperate attempts to distract attention. His analysis came a week before Dahlia Lithwick made similar points about “the endless loop of media bafflement … and … walloping amount of willful cluelessness.” Among Lithwick’s points:
- “It’s a movement that feels no need to explain anything to the powers that be, although it is deftly changing the way we explain ourselves to one another.”
- “They aren’t holding up signs that say “I want Bill O’Reilly’s stuff.” They aren’t holding up signs that say “I am animated by toxic levels of envy and entitlement.” They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money, they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want—wait, no, we want—to be heard…”
- “Hey, occupiers: You’re the new news. And even better, by refusing to explain yourselves, you’re actually changing what’s reported as news. Because it takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling. Maybe the days of explaining the patently obvious to the transparently compromised are finally behind us.”
Revolution: American Style
- Regulation of corporate interests is government’s most basic job.
- Progressive taxation is a necessary social good.
- Civil rights must translate into economic prosperity for everyone.
In A Letter to the Occupy Together Movement, Harsha Walia writes “we cannot under-estimate the difficult terrain ahead.” The evidence is already plain. Caitlin Curran, photographed (above) with the sign explaining the financial sector’s bad faith, was fired from her job. NYC’s confiscation of generators occurred a day in advance of the snow storm, a selective application of law ostensibly for public safety. “Enough is enough,” the former mayor [Rudolph Giulani] said. “We can’t allow this to go on forever and ever. It sets a bad precedent … [and] diverts police resources from public safety.” Speaking of bad precedents, “Police fired pepper spray and used pepper-ball guns against demonstrators in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday.”
Jay Smooth, in his video about the ringers, talks about how the movement is both specific enough to express people’s concerns, and vague enough to allow many people to come together under a broad umbrella. Walia expands on this point:
“…Maybe this is how movements need to maintain themselves, by recognizing that political change is also fundamentally about everyday life and that everyday life needs to encompass all of this. There needs to be a space for a talent show across from anti-patriarchy meetings. There needs to be a food table, medics, and a library. Everyone needs to stop for a second and look around for someone’s phone. And that within all this we will keep talking about Troy Davis and how everyone is affected by a broken, racist, oppressive system. Maybe, maybe this is the way?”
The everyday must include learning in a very fundamental way. The percentage of young Americans completing college these days continues to drop, for reasons as serious as our economy is flawed. There are so many things that people just do not know, which both supports and complicates the many things that people do know – whether they have completed a college degree or not. Walia again:
“..this is what Occupy Wall Street is right now: less of a movement and more of a space. It is a space in which people who feel a similar frustration with the world as it is and as it has been are coming together and thinking about ways to recreate it. For some people this is the first time they have thought about how the world needs to be recreated. But some of us have been thinking about this for a while now. Does this mean that those of us who have been thinking about it for a while now should discredit this movement? No. It just means that there is a lot of learning going on down there.”
Scaling The Learning Curve
My favorite scene in Eight Mile is when Cheddar Bob seems to slip up before Rabbit’s rap battle against his main rival by asking isn’t Rabbit afraid of the awful things Papa Doc is going to say? Although Cheddar Bob is shushed by the rest of his friends, Rabbit takes inspiration and turns the apparent faux paux to winning strategy, saying every bad thing about himself to leave Papa Doc with an empty mouth.
Craig Schneider writes, “A movement born of anger over the gulf between the rich and the rest is only gradually attracting the very groups who have felt the brunt of economic inequality, both historically and as a result of the Great Recession.” I find it encouraging that such strong voices as Jay Smooth and Harsha Walia are doing their best to teach and guide, admonish and nourish, criticize and refuse to compromise. Regardless of what I think I know, I have to admit also how naive I still am.
For instance, how could I not have known, while growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the scope of brutal violence? The recently released Swedish film, The Black Power Mixtape, reconfigured memories of my childhood. How could I have thought all that ugly stuff ended after King and the Kennedy brothers were killed? Details of family life, my father’s job, and drifting undirected through elementary school composed the extent of my exposure to the larger world. It was the moment of desegregating the public schools in Denver, and I heard other kids’ awful rumors that the black kids who would soon be bussed in would be “coming with knives” – obviously something not okay was going on! But the threat remained in the realm of words other people said; I made friends across the color line and, while puzzled, never gave the ugly talk much thought.
Now, looking back, I recognize the mental and emotional cushioning as another lesson in white privilege. Admitting the scope of my ignorance is not pleasant, but it is necessary.
Resisting Reduction: Whiteness remains only one facet among many
Traditional policy analysis, rooted in market models and instrumental reason, fails to accurately capture the subjective nature of political reality (Deborah Stone, 2002, cited in Michael R Jones and Mark K McBeth’s 2010 public policy research introduced at the beginning of this entry). This subjective nature – differences of knowledge, experience, history, outlook, and viewpoint – is Occupy Wall Street. Confused media ringers are sidestepping and obscuring the simple narrative structure: a clear villain, a singular hero, and a victim who inspires empathy. The villain is clear: government’s failure to regulate. What we are witnessing and participating in is a great democratic experiment: what happens when the hero and the victim are one and the same? The American people are rising together to confront and correct great wrongs done to the American people.