Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday, November 26, 2011
I was born in Cedar Grove, a village north of Milwaukee where on Halloween during the late 1940s, while the little kids were trick or treating, the high school kids were gathering junk to heap in front of the bank downtown.
They gathered outhouses, carts from the cannery and the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad station across Main Street, car parts and milk cans from the dairy farms that bordered the village into a pile that blocked the entrance to the bank. The Occupy Wall Street idea is nothing new to me.
The pile wasn’t as impressive as the encampments in New York and elsewhere around the county are now, but its intent was identical. It sought to wage transitory, ineffectual rage against a permanent, effective financial establishment.
Just as the encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park was cleared, so was the pile in front of the Cedar Grove bank. After the junk of protest is cleared this irony remains. The protesters’ loan payments will still be due.
To buy into the American dream you have to be all in. You have to believe anyone can grow up to be president, four bedrooms and three baths of your own are within reach and you can retire when you want to. We hold those dreamy truths to be as valid as the belief that all men are created equal and the rest of it we’ve been fed since birth.
Occupy Wall Street and its permutations are perhaps indicative of the beginning of the end of a belief in the dream and mark the simultaneous emergence of a suspicion that all men are not created equal when it comes to created wealth or the wealth into which they were created.
Nevertheless, the flaw in Occupy Wall Street is the same as the flaw underlying the junk in Cedar Grove. The success of both events is dependent on the belief that the institutions being attacked care. They don’t now, and they didn’t then.
There is a term for this — “screw-you wealth” — and it aptly describes the attitude the very rich, represented now by Wall Street, maintains about those at the growing, disaffected base of the American wealth pyramid.
Wall Street does not care what Occupy Wall Street thinks. It cares only for the power inherent in the financial instruments it trades. During the reflective Wall Street weekends in the Hamptons now, just as on weekends in the banker’s home in Cedar Grove then, no tears are shed for anyone outside their interests base. Conscience is not part of their picture because screw-you wealth excludes its necessity.
F. Scott Fitzgerald nailed it in “The Rich Boy.” “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”
Although we find the financial machine difficult to understand, we remain trustful of it because we must to continue to believe in the American dream. We love to hate that which we are bound to seek to embrace.
That is why Occupy Wall Street is simultaneously raucous and inarticulate. It is consciously shouting for something its subconscious knows it doesn’t want. That’s why it’s bound to fail.
On the mornings after those Halloweens autumns ago in Cedar Grove, the high school kids graduated, married their sweethearts and purchased homes by signing 30-year mortgages held by the bank they’d trashed for one night.
By closing that circle they’d failed, just as the Occupy Wall Street protesters will fail, to accomplish anything because they’d chosen the ephemeral over the effective, an aimless rant over what would have helped them, a meaningful revolution.
Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal: http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/opinion/column/guest/karl-garson-remembering-occupy-cedar-grove/article_7552e45e-17aa-11e1-8b73-001cc4c03286.html