Sunday, October 30, 2011

Shut up and be happy, you ungrateful Occupy Wall Street protesters!

A conservative friend posted this to Facebook a couple of days ago, and it's been gnawing at me a bit:

The suggestion here being that the Occupy Wall Street crowd is selfish and ridiculous to be protesting.

This is both right and wrong. We should all be grateful in a cosmic sense for what we do have, of course. But "being a starving baby with ribs showing" shouldn't be the only grounds for complaint. (If it is, the Tea Party might want to pipe down as well.)

If you believe that your betters are tilting the playing field not through luck, not through accident, not merely through hard work, but through the greasing of palms and the escaping of the same rules that apply to you—then I think it's fine and appropriate to speak up.

This is a similar logic to those who suggest (say) American women shouldn't complain about disparities in the United States because, hey, Afghanistan! Burkhas! It's a logic that allows the people at the top to deflect the complaints (merited or not) of people in the middle and even people near the bottom—in in deflecting, serves those people at the top quite well.

It's also a logic at odds with the American Founding that conservatives like to claim as their unique heritage: The Founders might've been taxed without representation, but they were doing pretty well under the British, by and large. My conservative friend replies to this point that the Founders were concerned with "representation and consent of the governed. It wasn't simple materialism."

Well, exactly.

There are many Occupy Wall Street critics who have convinced themselves that the protests are, at foundation, envy by the poor of the rich. Perhaps there's some of that at work. But the most common complaint, as I understand it, is about governance. The fact that government is supposed to be accountable to people, but seems to be more responsive to moneyed interests—in ways that disadvantage many of us.

No: Things don't suck as much here as they might in other parts of the world. They might not suck as much as they did 100 or 200 years ago for many people. But it's not irrational to look at one's own time and place and ask if we could or should be doing better—and it's not selfish to push for that improvement if you can identify it.

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