The former entered the American psyche like a bullet a decade ago, sinking so deeply into our collective wound that the evocation of its memories – exploding planes and falling glass towers, a fabled city shrouded in soot and dust, crushed bodies and a hole in the ground -- spurred two costly wars overseas. Indeed, some historians propose that 9/11 drove the American empire onto the path of self-destruction; the most powerful country on earth a decade later found itself teetering at the edge of an economic abyss as a direct result.
Nine. One. One. 9/11. Emergency. Crisis. Sorrow. War. Mistakes. Recession. The Lost Decade.
But while its meanings continue to pile up, a new arrangement of the two digits comes along exactly a decade later and with it, a shifting tide - 99:1. Ninety-nine to one. It stands for protest and misery, the slipping of the middle class from their moorings. The former delineates a nation rallying under the flag, of unity against a common enemy. The latter speaks of the opposite, of disparity, disunion and ultimately, disillusionment.
The colon between 99 and 1 has transformed into a drawbridge drawn, with the 1 percent living it up inside the fabled ivory citadel while the rest mill about, looking in. And the moat? A yawning gap between the haves and rising number of have-nots.
The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York and quickly spread around the country -- then, inevitably, in the age of instant information, the world. A month later it continues unabated. In time, 99:1 may endure as a symbol of resistance and, as some youthful elements among the protesters in New York would have it, a symbol not without a sense of romance, “a revolution.”
Here are a few lines gleaned from homemade posters, placards and signs made out of cardboard one bright morning in downtown San Francisco.
“$ +1% = WWIII”
“For Sale: America”
“I went to school to come up. Not to get tied down by Debt.”
“People before Profits.”
“Democracy not Plutocracy.”
“Do You feel it Trickle Down? 99% don’t.”
“You are the 99%!”
“There is more of US than Them, 99% more.”
“99%+1% Divided by 2 Parties = 1%”
Perhaps most poignant, held up by a doe-eyed teenager was this: “Give us our … Back.” Between “our” and “back” were crude, childlike drawing of little houses. Next to her, someone else held up a sign that read, “Give us back our Dream!”
Data from the latest census tells us that the dream is unraveling as millions of Americans are slipping into poverty at levels unseen in 14 years. One in four children -- or 16.4 million overall – live in poverty. Last year, another 2.6 million people sank beneath the poverty line, rendering the number of Americans now official impoverished at 46.2 million, the highest number in 52 years.
In California, unemployment hovers around 12 percent, and one out of four children suffers from hunger as their families struggle to feed them. Since 2007, one million children have been impacted directly by foreclosures in the state. California leads the country in foreclosures, with 1.2 million foreclosed homes in the last three years. And the foreclosure crisis isn't over. It has jumped in the latest quarter in the Golden State, where 2.3 million houses -- of 10 million nationally -- are already in negative equity, popularly known as being "underwater."
"American dream?" laughs one protestor at BART's Embarcadero subway station in San Francisco. He is one of the self-proclaimed 99-ers, who has been unemployed for three years: "You don't dream, brother, when you freak about food and shelter. You have nightmares."
Critics and pundits alike say there’s no coherent demand, no collective goal. “What do they want?" network news anchors wonder aloud. Their tone often a little incredulous, as if they're trying to understand some new games that rowdy children play.
On the far right, the voices are downright disparaging. Rush Limbaugh called them “spoiled brats” and leading GOP presidential candidate, Herman Cain, dismissed them of being “un-American” and “jealous” of the rich. Bill O’Reilly called them “socialists.”
But this isn’t exactly a class struggle a la Marxism. One is hard pressed to find a sign that says, “Down with Capitalism, Long Live the Proletariat!” Such a sign would be in any case anachronistic.
Consumerism, to be sure, remains the rage. A few blocks from the Embarcadero BART station, where the protests took place in San Francisco last weekend, the line for the latest iPhone 4S was almost as big as the protest itself. Besides, if they are socialists, then what do we call a government that bails out private banks and automobile industries using taxpayers’ money?
It is certainly far from being a revolution. At a closer look, it’s more like a collective revulsion at the wealthiest Americans, as the middle class watches its assets dwindle along with its fantasy of ever joining the ranks of the 1 percent.
What do they want? Their fair share, more regulation on a system that‘s seemingly rigged to benefit the super-uber-rich, a crash diet for the fat cats who own Washington and leave the rest far, far behind. They want the promise of opportunities and upward mobility, which now seem to have faded to the far side of the moon.
“Politics today is little more than money laundering and the trafficking of power and policy, fewer than six degrees of separation from the spirit and tactics of Tony Soprano,” journalist and television personality, Bill Moyers, recently said during a keynote speech. “[Protesters] are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied America.”
End of a Romance?
Whereas 9/11 was a collective need to right an injustice, though, 99:1 is not yet part of the collective consciousness that could change policies. No discerning voting blocs yet emerge from the diverse crowd, and the left, long moribund and divorced from populist politics, struggles ineptly to harness the energy of the unrest.
The right, meanwhile, remains oblivious. During recent debates, GOP presidential candidates jockeyed to repeal rules aimed at preventing unregulated accounting practices that led to such disasters as Enron, massive foreclosures and the subprime lending practices that resulted in the near collapse of the American banking system.
Give us back our dream! Perhaps among all of the signs, this one seems to say something closer to the core of the rage. After all, who wants to wake up to a stark new reality? Many among us, if we could, would be like Cypher, the character in the Matrix, who betrayed the rebellion as he preferred to return to the Matrix. Why? Reality, which Cypher had seen too well for himself, is a terrible, broken world.
Thus the Kardashian sisters continue to bicker on reality TV, and real estate magnet Donald Trump continues to fire his famous apprentices, and handsome bachelors continue to court voluptuous bachelorettes in opulent settings on our televisions nightly. We cry as poor, unknown singers find fame and fortune on stage in front of millions on shows like America’s Got Talent and American Idol.
In a sense, the 99 percent may bitch and moan about the economy and inept and corrupt politicians, but we couldn’t tear ourselves from the old vision. Marx, who thought religion was the opiate of the masses, obviously didn’t own a flat screen TV and experience the power of America’s fairy-tale-like commercialism.
What happens if you wake up?
The reality not yet shown on TV is the permanent underclass that has for a while now become a fixture of the new America, and their number is growing. How to make an appealing reality TV show out of something so depressing as people surviving on nickels and dimes and the underground economy? Aim the camera any direction and shoot?
That reality tells us we are a nation mired in debt. And if the bankers seduced us to buy a house beyond our means, packaging subprimes as norm, we too have to take part of the blame for wanting to live in that grand home that was never within our reach in the first place. The country goes underwater: The U.S. government in $14.8 trillion dollar debt -- almost triple what it was on 9/11, The obsession with budget cuts becomes the norm, and an average American household is $120,000 in debt.
The Occupy movement is a rallying cry, but it remains a litany of grief and not yet a coherent redefinition of the new America. The 99 percent, if it is going to have a long effect and turn the tide, will need to take ownership of America’s new direction. It needs the clarity of a new vision. It needs to demand of itself just as vigorously as it does of the state. Reform, after all, is both a national imperative and personal necessity.
It needs to ask serious questions. The American dream has been downsized. Can we live with less? If the America we like to think of is "Number One," what happened to make it become the 99?
It is strange to say, but the 99 percent needs to think like the 1 percent. Numerologists say this about the personality assigned to that singular number: “You don't let anything or anyone stand in your way once you are committed to your goal.”
Since World War II, the Ozzie and Harriet version of America was seductive, and so is the premise of endless expansion and ascendancy. But the exceptionalism that once defined us has become a deception. It is propaganda, like the self-esteem movement based on self regard, rather than true achievement. There's no such thing as exceptionalism that lasts generation after generation in our turbulent world without constant and honest reassessment and a national direction and purpose. Empires rise and fall at high frequencies.
So we are the 99. We are mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore. All good and true. The tide is turning. Perhaps. But now what?
Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diasora. His next book, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013.
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