Ah, Occupy Wall Street. The protests make feel like the kid who stares longingly out his window as the neighborhood kids play in the streets, knowing that he’ll not be able to finish his piano lesson in time to join them. As the Occupy Wall Street protests have been unfolding over the past few weeks, I’ve been following their progress online from my computer at work. But as much as I’d like to, I don’t think I’ll be able to join the protests. Because, well, I have a job.
That just sounds funny to me. It sounds like the sort of thing I’d expect to hear from an old man—which is, incidentally, what I am slowly becoming, day by day. It happens to all young men, eventually, whether they like it or not. We’re all subject to time’s indifferent march. But I don’t feel like an old man, and I certainly don’t think I talk like one. “I don’t have time for this nonsense; I have a job!” It’s the sort of thing I picture harried businessmen in suits shouting at the protesters as they walk by. “Get a job, longhairs! Why don’t you try being a contributing member of society, like me!”
Because that’s what the men in suits always shout at the hippies: “Go get a job!” That’s cliché, yes, but it’s also true: it’s what former Dick Cheney adviser Ron Christie had to say to the protesters during an appearance on Hardball this week. It’s an amazingly tone deaf thing to say, considering the astoundingly high unemployment rate that shows no sign of going down anytime soon. I’m sure many of the protesters would LOVE to go get a job, but the fact that they can’t is part of what motivated them to pitch a tent with the occupation in the first place.
The high moral ground of that old man with the suit is eroding away, as well. Whenever the protesters get too loud to be ignored, the man in the suit could always take refuge in his own superiority as a Contributing Member of Society. Except, well, the suits are doing their best to dry up those contributions to society, at least as far as taxes are concerned. Their preferred contributions are more nebulous and less quantifiable. “Job creation,” for instance. Because all rich people are job creators. You don’t want to place a burden on the job creators, do you? The very people we need to re-energize society? You do? For shame! Go get a job, longhair.
And then there’s the long hair. There’s something scary and polarizing about student radicals that never really occurred to me during my tenure as a student radical. Ten years ago I would have been right there at the epicenter of these protests, skipping classes if necessary. Me and my dreadlocked vegan-anarchist friends, with our homemade clothes built from duct tape and safety pins, linking arms and leading chants. Yikes.
The movement could probably use more folks like me: the folks who put on ties every morning, the folks who do the crossword and drink their coffee during their commute, the folks with (relatively) non-threatening hair. But as much as I support their aims, I can’t drop my day to day life to pitch a tent with them. Despite the fact that my fiancé and I are both well-educated and working unambiguously white-collar jobs, we’re also living paycheck to paycheck. Maybe thirty years ago two people in our position might have been able to put some money away into savings, and could have afforded to take some time off work to devote to a personal cause. But then what would those people be protesting? The erosion of middle class financial security is one of the symptoms of our national epidemic, but at least we have our jobs. At least we’re getting by, if only just.
And so we watch the protests unfolding, knowing that we support their aims, hoping the movement will continue to grow, but knowing that we’ll be unable to stand on the front lines. There is little I can do but show my support, walking past the protests each morning, balancing my coffee as I straighten my tie, raising my fist as I shout out, warmly, lovingly, laughingly, in solidarity: “Go get a job!”