Playing With Fire
Occupy Wall Street follows three years of sloppy presidential name-calling — “millionaires and billionaires,” slurs about Las Vegas and the Super Bowl, profit-mad, limb-lopping doctors, introspection that now is not the time for profits and at some point we should cease making money, spread the wealth, punish our enemies, and all the old Obama boilerplate. Someone finally got the message about the evil 1%.
When Ms. Pelosi and President Obama voice support for the protestors, we enter 1984. Does that mean that the Pelosis now pull their millions out of Wall Street, that the First Family eschews the 1% at Martha’s Vineyard and Vail? That Obama turns his back on Wall Street cash, and, for once, accepts public funding for his 2012 campaign? Postmodern class warfare is an insidious business, and hinges on its advocates not looking in the mirror.
No wise politician should invest in the bunch like those rampaging in Oakland. Their nocturnal frolics are a long way from Woody Guthrie’s Deportee, the Hobos’ “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and the world John Steinbeck fictionalized. It is the angst of the wannabe class, overeducated and underemployed, which chooses to live not in Akron or Fowler, but in tony places like the Bay Area or New York, where annual rents are far more than a down payment on a starter house in the Midwest. Being educated, but broke and in proximity to the wealthy of like upbringing and background, are ingredients for riot.
I saw videos of youths burning things in Oakland, but was told that it “was a small minority” and atypical of the protest. Not long ago I saw no clips of anyone spitting at black congresspeople wading into the Tea-Party demonstration, but was told they did and that it was typical of tens of thousands of racialists on the Mall.
But Some Are Less Equal Than Others
I don’t think the protests are really much over the Goldman Sachs bailout, or jerks like revolving-door Budget Director Peter Orszag starting back up at Citigroup, or Solyndra crony capitalism. Apparently, most middle-class and upper-middle class liberals—many of them (at least from videos) young and white—are angry at the “system.” And so they are occupying (at least until it gets really cold and wet) financial districts, downtowns, and other areas of commerce across the well-reported urban landscape. As yet there is no definable grievance other than anger that others are doing too well, and the protestors themselves are not doing at all well, and the one has something to do with the other. I am not suggesting union members and the unemployed poor are not present, only that the tip of the spear seems to be furious young middle class kids of college age and bearing, who mope around stunned, as in “what went wrong?”
Then there is a wider, global phenomenon of the angry college student. In the Middle East, much of the unrest, whether Islamist, liberal, or hard-core leftist, is fueled by young unemployed college graduates. Ditto Europe in general, and Greece in particular: The state subsidizes college loans and the popular culture accepts an even longer period between adolescence and adulthood, say between 18 and 30 something. Students emerge “aware,” but poorly educated, highly politicized, and with unreal expectations about their market worth in an ossifying society, often highly regulated and statist.
The decision has been made long ago not to marry at 23, have two or three kids by 27, and go to work in the private sector in hopes of moving up the ladder by 30. Perhaps at 35, a European expects that a job opens up in the Ministry of Culture or the elderly occupant of a coveted rent-controlled flat dies.
Students rarely graduate in four years, but scrape together parental support and, in the bargain, often bed, laundry, and breakfast, federal and state loans and grants, and part-time minimum wage jobs to “go to college.” By traditional rubrics—living at home, having the car insurance paid by dad and mom, meals cooked by someone else—many are still youths. But by our new standards—sexually active, familiar with drugs or alcohol, widely traveled and experienced—many are said to be adults.
Debt mounts. Jobs are few. For the vast majority who are not business majors, engineers, or vocational technicians, there are few jobs or opportunities other than more debt in grad or law school. In the old days, an English or history degree was a certificate of inductive thinking, broad knowledge, writing skills, and a good background for business, teaching, or professionalism. Not now. The watered down curriculum and politically-correct instruction ensure a certain glibness without real skills, thought, or judgment. Most employers are no longer impressed.
Students with such high opinions of themselves are angry that others less aware—young bond traders, computer geeks, even skilled truck drivers—make far more money. Does a music degree from Brown, a sociology BA in progress from San Francisco State, two years of anthropology at UC Riverside count for anything? They are angry at themselves and furious at their own like class that they think betrayed them. After all, if a man knows about the construction of gender or a young woman has read Rigoberta Menchu, or both have formed opinions about Hiroshima, the so-called Native American genocide, and gay history, why is that not rewarded in a way that derivatives or root canal work surely are?
Class—family pedigree, accent, clothes, schooling—now mean nothing. You can meet your Dartmouth roommate working in Wall Street at Starbucks, and seem for all appearances his identical twin. But when you walk out the door with your environmental studies degree, you reenter the world of debt and joblessness, he back into the world of good money. Soooo unfair for those of like class.
Then there is the sad hypocrisy of the Occupy Wall Street mess. Are Oprah and George Soros enemies of the people? Are the criteria that one must both be rich and right-wing to exempt a John Kerry, Warren Buffett, or Nancy Pelosi? Multimillionaire Michael Moore dresses like a buffoon, spouts his usual silly Flint, Michigan, shtick, and earns an indulgence? Are former New Jersey Governor Corzine and the BP and Goldman Sachs execs, who were so eager to fund Obama’s campaign, also class insects? Why not an occupy White House for near three years of 9.1% unemployment, an occupy Hollywood for John Depp’s $50 million last year, or occupy the LA Lakers gym for obscene basketball salaries? Why not occupy Sacramento for the $200,000 plus retirement pensions from a bankrupt state? Or for that matter, why not occupy dad’s house?
And then there are the sloppy rubrics “millionaires and billionaires.” A software engineer who makes $150,000 a year, and has a $850,000, 1200 sq. foot bungalow in Menlo Park (= one million in net worth) is to be in the same category as those worth 1000x more—or even a Bill Gates or Jay Rockefeller? The young radiologist who brings in $250,000, but pays the full tab for his two kids at USC and Occidental ($100,000 per year) is analogous to the late billionaire Steve Jobs, or is he that much better off than the DMV supervisor at a $65,000 salary, with less taxes, and whose three kids are all on state grants at CSUs? We need a government Department of Assessing Net Worth to factor in locale, entitlements, dispensations, cost of living, and housing to adjudicate who is what.
Are we back to reckoning relative rather than absolute wealth? Mr. Victor Hanson is poor and mows his own lawn, and Donald Trump has 1,000 gardeners? My Accord has fake leather seats and those in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Mercedes are real hide? My 140-year old frame house is worth only $150,000 in Selma, and something that looks just like it is worth a million in Palo Alto? Is the roof better on that account?
The whole point of globalization was to extend the simulacra of the aristocratic class to the common man. It succeeded brilliantly. Go to Wal-Mart and get fitted with “outdoor wear,” walk out and to the untrained eye (like mine) it looks about the same as the stuff at ten times the cost at REI or Eddie Bauer. I spoke at a financial group of zillionaires not long ago. Afterwards a young woman complimented my garish “black and gold watch band.” I replied, “A great deal at Walmart at $19.00.” What great wealth brings today is not elemental advantage, but optional delight in the sense of flying private rather than coach, six homes instead of one, a week in Tuscany rather in Pismo Beach. In absolute terms, not all that much; in terms of highly aware younger people, cosmically unfair! I was riding my bike the other day: a farm worker emerging from an almond orchard was on his iPhone, not unlike the ones I see in Occupy Wall Street clips. Weird world.
These are upside down times. The EU that was to be our model is in shambles. The supposedly white right-wing champions a Herman Cain, with deep South baritones and youthful experience with Jim Crow. Yet both are considered suspect, while a Hawaiian prep school, Ivy League graduate, with contrived black cadences, is the better representative of the African-American experience. Never have Americans’ prospects seemed brighter—vast new energy reserves, an unmatched military, disarray in Russia, the Middle East and Europe—and never have been Americans been more conditioned and readied for decline. In such surreal times, we see the anguish of the upper-middle class at Occupy Wall Street, championed by multimillionaires, whose overt liberalism is offered as some sort of exemption.
The invaders of Sparta find the farm of King Agesilaos and begin its destruction.
Melissos and Mêlon paused to look at the estate of King Agesilaos. But this was all, just some simple stones and a few wooden columns? In this new Hellas upside down, a hoplite just walked into the house of the great king of the Spartans and did what he pleased? Was this the power of Epaminondas to make the make- believe ordinary? But then, Mêlon thought further, how small an estate for a king? This was all they were to burn? Were there still leaders enough in Hellas like Agesilaos who lived as simply as did their hoplites? Mêlon knew Agesilaos fought alongside his men, but now he saw that he lived like them as well.
Suddenly about ten or so Mantineians with iron bars pried the roof off,sending it down between the mud brick walls. Others were gathering the roof-beams and throwing any of the debris they didn’t burn into wagons.
Few knew that they had destroyed a royal house of the Spartans—built ten generations of men earlier and never a footprint of the enemy in its courtyard. Fewer cared. One cart was full of pithoi of oil, another of spades, rakes, and scythes. There were even some breastplates—the bell types that the Spartan elders wore a hundred years earlier and more when they had stopped the Mede at Plataia. Some Mantineians in their drink danced on top of the field wall. They were tossing like balls the light bronze helmets of the Persians,taken as booty long ago in the great days by the Spartan breed who broke the Persian general Mardonios.
The live-stock of the king’s farm, cows and goats, had been driven off. Any that had been left behind had been butchered. Their carcasses had been piled before the entrance that was covered in smoke as the looters torched rafters and poured a vat of olive oil over some loose wood to light the mess. A few were already cooking rotten meat on spits over a bonfire in the courtyard.
Mêlon had thought he would never tire of the flames devouring all things Spartan, especially that of the royals. But now? The burning sheds and dead cattle were not so much Spartan, but the works and efforts of farmers like him—and the destruction was therefore senseless. His own strongbox in the well at home was full of silver that Malgis had earned doing just what these Mantineians were busy with. Yet Mêlon, son on Malgis,wanted no more of any of it. These were farms, not farmers, that they were destroying. He cared little who worked them, only that it was wrong to burn the holy olive, to cut the gnarly vine, to torch the well-oiled roof-beams that exist beyond the owner.
Meanwhile, Mêlon stared at some loud Arkadians holding a rope. On it a helot boy was lowered down a well. Already drunk on their wine, they were scuffling over a treasure not yet found and cursing each other for slacking—as the dangling youth below banged against the stone sides of the well. The more hardy beyond the house were trying to ax down a few olive trees.
But most had given up after lopping off the low-lying limbs, and were content with scrounging moldy nuts from a nearby ancient
almond. Lykomedes himself rode up and pointed to the passing Boiotians. He was happy enough, since his wagons were already full of plunder, he had met few Spartans, and his Mantineians saw no need either to cross the Eurotas or the spine of Taygetos. “Tell your madman Epaminondas to forget Agesilaos. Forget his acropolis across the river. Forget battle and fighting Spartans. There’s sport enough with us. First the house of Elektra. Then Lichas’s, and now the king’s.”
He shook a fine silver pitcher at them. “The closer we get to the river, the richer the plunder. Every now and then we find a Lakonian holdout with a scythe— a wild one who thinks he can keep Arkadians out of his garden. But why go get yourself killed when there is more profit in plunder here? We can do the Spartan just as much bad, worse even, by carrying off everything he has. Get near the river to give us cover. But no need to cross, no need for battle, no need to get us killed when we can get rich.”
So Lykomedes laughed and rode off. A Lakonian wagon creaked behind him, filled with Spartan red tunics, plumed helmets, a set of armor, three helots shackled, and a horse and mule tethered to the back. The Arkadian driver yelled out, “For a Dorian race that has no money, these Spartan thieves have more than we do.”