I’ve been doing a lot of radio interviews and book talks lately, and one of the most common discussion topics has been the Occupy movement and its demands. So I’d like to address the deeper issues as I see them. As always, I (and I hope, you) ask, how might we look at this phenomenon not just in political or psychological, but in mythological terms?
We have experienced a rare combination of factors in the past several years. The slow, long-term increase in the disparity between the rich and the rest of us that I documented in my book has become a freight train. America is now essentially a Third World Country in terms of wealth distribution, and more and more of us are finally realizing this.
At the same time, the traditional force that occasionally seemed to work against these trends – the Democratic Party – has revealed itself as merely another face of the single Party of the Wealthy, its leadership as corrupt and as beholden to corporate interests as the Republicans.
And now, so many have lost their faith in Barack Obama as a savior (the traditional, if African-American, hero riding in from the wilderness to clean up the mess within the walls of the city and restore innocence). Indeed, many now recognize him to be, as one writer has said, “the most reactionary Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson.” In other words, we havelost our innocence, once again.
As I have argued in my book, when this disillusionment occurs, as it has many times in our history, great cracks can appear in the Myth of American Innocence. It is a time – the present moment – when the whole country, maybe the whole world, is in a liminal state, between worlds, between myths, so to speak. It is a historical moment of great opportunity, when great changes may be possible. We can move, individually and as a culture, toward deeper, more nuanced appreciation of the tragic mystery of our lives – or we can retreat deeper into ignorance.
History has shown us that when cracks appear in our unconscious and/or unquestioned belief systems (and the stories that convey those beliefs), strong and often violent reaction follows, as is happening in our city streets. The “one percenters” are well aware of the mythic issues at stake. And they know very well how to distract large numbers of older, white, middle-and-working-class people (the people Richard Nixon referred to as the “silent majority) – through fear of the Other. They did it after the 1960s by fomenting racial fear, and they did it after the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s with 9-11 and its aftermath.
My fear is that the new distraction will be a provocation of war with Iran. And there’s very little any of us can do about that, because Obama appears to be quite willing to go down as a war-monger.
But I want to end this essay with my hope. My hope is that the conversations going on in the public assemblies at the various Occupy encampments are going deeper than economics. Certainly, economic losses – of home, jobs, dreams and perhaps innocence – are driving the very necessary protests about a political system and a tax system that have made the rich so much richer at the expense of almost all of us.
But if the conversations stop at that level, we are missing a great opportunity.
For the first time in maybe forty years, we have the chance to question aspects of the American mythic story that underlie the economic discussion: the myths of progress and consumerism; the myth of unlimited growth (which, said Edward Abbey, is found in Nature only in the cancer cell); the myth of white privilege; the myth of American exceptionalism with regard to the world’s resources; the myth of America’s good intentions and responsibility to police the world and protect it from evil; and many other narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to live with the gaps between our ideals and our realities.
My hope is that millions of people are beginning with questions such as “Where did my job/house/future/dreams go?” and moving on to questions like “Aren’t notions like full employment and the paradise of consumerism (not to mention a permanent war economy) absolutely inconsistent with a sustainable world and the need to reverse global warming?” and “Why did I value such things and beliefs even if they never satisfied me? Isn’t the repetition of an unsatisfying experience the very definition of addiction?
If they do, then we as a nation may finally be getting into the kind of trouble that we were meant to confront. If we stay with such questions, my hope is that they lead us into much deeper ones, such as “What is the meaning, not of life, but of my life? Why did I come here? How can I support the (re-)emergence of a set of mythic stories that will provide the container for my descendants to flourish when the world we think we know collapses completely and is swept away by the winds of history? What do I owe to my ancestors, to my children’s children (to seven generations), to the spirits of this land?”
NOW we’re talking!