So much of what is broken today in the United States, as illustrated by the ever expanding #occupy protests, is mirrored in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. But it is equally the case that some of what will heal the brokenness of this country can be found in lessons from that era. These come together in the term the “American Dream” as it was coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The Epic of America.
The American Dream is more than “material plenty,” argued Adams. It has the spiritual dimension of a fundamental respect for human dignity and even human flourishing. “The American dream,” he wrote, “has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”
The worth of the “simple human being” is the foundation of this country, and the threat to that is at the heart of the #OWS protests. The young, the most idealistic among us, know this threat well.
“That we’re young means we have the most to lose by standing idle,” is one of the smart, poignant signs carried by a young #OWS protestor. There are now thousands and thousands of #Occupy protestors around the country—many of them are young, though not all.
It is not just the young who have come to the protests. Returning vets carry signs that say, “Second time I’ve fought for my country, first time I’ve known the enemy.” But there are also Boomers and the retired, the middle aged and middle class, the poor and the might-as-well-be poor-with-this-lousy-paycheck. They have come because America can no longer deliver on the American Dream.
Young Americans feel they have been doing everything right; they worked hard and got an education, and all they have to show for it is a boatload of debt and no job. “I’m angry because I don’t have millions of dollars to give to my representative, so my voice is invalidated,” said Amanda Clarke,21, a student at the New School. “And the fact that I’m graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in loans and there’s no job market.” Veterans defended our country and came home to find they should have been defending their communities from predatory banking. They are exposing the unholy truth that all America does these days is manufacture debt and fast food.
But there’s a deeper message being delivered here, more in the process of the organization of the protests than in any of the signs. It’s a kind of American Dream reset—American Dream 2.0. The way in which the protesters organized, conduct themselves and communicate is an implicit condemnation of the whole apparatus of our system, a system taken over by corporate power and bought and paid for by Wall Street and delivered to K Street and Independence Avenue. The communities that have formed in the various cities where #occupy is attracting larger and larger crowds emphasize community over unilateral power. The protests combine arts, culture, and sustainability along with calls for a decent economy that can provide for its citizens.
#OWS is a process, not just a protest. A student in NYC observes, “The interesting thing to me is how they are communicating. [During the protests] they are not allowed to amplify sound so they are using a system of ‘telephone’ to repeat what speakers are saying to the crowd and hand signals from the crowd in order to show support of ideas. It is an interesting case of decentralized protests.”
The “low tech” of playing “telephone” to outwit a ban on amplification is the product of very sophisticated media strategy and a practice of community decision-making called the New York City General Assembly a kind of application of the “open source” technological process (like Wikileaks or Wikipedia) to social organization. The NYCGA describes itself as an “open, participatory and horizontally organized process” and which anyone can join. The minutes are posted online verbatim to foster transparency.
Originally, activists from New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts teamed “up with the amorphous collectives of Adbusters, Anonymous, and Day of Rage, (all organizing groups)” and “formed the nucleus of the General Assembly.” The “open source” nature of the General Assembly is a “viral” growth strategy. New attendees feel immediately involved and part of the movement.
This very involvement communicates the spirituality of the #OWS movement. It is about the respect and dignity of every human being.
The process of the #OWS protests, not just the fact of them, should cause us ask ourselves, when did the American Dream become purely materialistic? When did the American Dream get reduced to just having a job that pays a lot and owning a home? Material support for being able to live decently is important and no one should be denied basic shelter, food, education and an opportunity to work.
But along with that, the #OWS protests should push us to consider the question: when did the American Dream stop meaning everybody’s dignity and worth is respected and valued?
Faith leaders are flocking to the #occupy protests and this spiritual call to action is a message they are conveying loud and clear. “This isn’t just a jobs issue, or an education issue, or a health care issue, this is a spiritual issue, about what the United States has become,” the Rev. Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church told a crowd at #OWS last Sunday.
Rev. Ellick, Senior Pastor Donna Schaper, members of Judson Memorial and many other faith leaders carried a 50 pound paper mache “Golden Calf,” based on the biblical text in Exodus 32 where the people abandon God and start worshipping false idols, from their church to the site of the #OSW protests. The statue had been made by James Salt of Catholics United, and brought to town with the help of Faith in Public Life. That the “Golden Calf” bore a striking resemblance to the Wall Street Bull was no accident.
But the religious message was not merely that Wall Street should be critiqued, from a biblical perspective, for worshipping only profits. Schaper also argues, “(W)e went for the basics of our many faiths, the golden rule which is so distanced from and by the golden calf. ‘Do unto those downstream from you what you would have those upstream from you do to you.’ This rule applies to hippies, Republicans, church members, ministers, and financiers.”
Those of many faiths and humanist values can come together around the American Dream 2.0. The American Dream reset that the #OWS protestors are modeling, and faith leaders are supporting.
The worship of only material prosperity, and the neglect and even contempt for the spiritual dignity and worth of every person in this country, is what is most profoundly broken in our society and we will not be able to fix it with a ‘set of demands.’
I’m working with the #occupychicago group to bring the Judson Memorial’s Golden Calf to Chicago’s LaSalle Street.
Others are planning to do the same in other cities—Minneapolis, MN, Portland, OR and on and on.
And we’ll see if we can do a spiritual reset on the American Dream. One community at a time. Soon there may be a #occupyUSA.