Lots of news this week: Steve Jobs, American iCon, has died, the Occupy Wall Street movement is finally getting lots of media attention, and the amazingly talented Cyndi Lauper, now appearing at the local House of Blues, continues to misspell her own first name.
Occupy Wall Street is the real story, and I say this even though I consider their claim to be “the other 99%” of Americans an exaggeration. This is because they don’t represent that roughly 28% who insist on voting against their own interests even when a stone blind bat could see the unhelpfulness of such a tendency.
The 28% I'm talking about includes those people who still approved of George W. Bush in 2008, after he had dragged us into two wars, (one of which was unnecessarily long and the other absolutely unnecessary), had shifted the tax burden away from his super-rich friends and onto the backs of the rest of us, and, finally, led the economy into the worst disaster we've seen since the 1930s. So, who are those 28% that still approved of Bush even after he brought about Mondo Catastrofico? I don’t know, but I don't think they sympathize with the Occupy Wall Streeters. In other words, these good Wall Street demonstrators might want to change their slogan to “We are the other 72 percent!” Admittedly not too catchy, but more accurate.
The 28 percent who tend to vote for and support the interests of the super-rich (i.e., the one percent) would benefit from a more enlightened understanding of human nature. Such an understanding might convince many of them to see the errors of their ways and, who knows, maybe even get them to admit that G. W. Bush did not deserve their unwavering devotion.
Ganz bestimmt, Herr Goethe!
The key feature of human nature that needs to be more widely understood is that which binds us, against our own will sometimes, to our fellow humans. This feature is rooted in our brain chemistry, which in turn is a function of evolutionary processes that have made Homo sapiens the all-time mammalian champions of mutual help and support. When we are behaving naturally, we tend to feel for each other, share the sufferings of each other, and strive to help each other.
Such a statement is likely to provoke denunciations of “Kumbaya singer!” from the ranks of the 28-percenters, but, let me assure you, I like Kumbaya no more than I like pickled pigs’ feet, which is to say, not very much.
What I do like are the neural and behavioral studies, now arriving in an endless stream, that have identified mirror neurons and other brain components that underlie our inability to separate ourselves from each other. Call me a socialist if you must, but current research proves beyond a doubt that we are, above all, social creatures.
Admittedly, we can be trained to disqualify certain fellow humans from any right to our sympathy (i.e., dehumanize them), whether they be racially, religiously, ethnically or politically different. But this takes training. Our natural impulse, particularly when we are face to face with each other, is to look out for each other.
But, you say, what about murder? War? Enslavement? Rape? Theft? Going through the express check-out line with more than 10 items? Yes, these things do happen, and they are anti-social, but they are, except in the most dysfunctional of societies, newsworthy aberrations. What is not news is the constant, neuron-based, tide-like pull of the social impulses, the ones that mark us as inescapably linked to each other.
Here’s another possible objection to the “We are social” model: What about the benefits of capitalism, the encouragement it gives to individualistic, competitive striving?
I grant that a measure of competitive striving is also natural to us, and can be constructive, but only when channeled along socially responsible paths. Our problems today stem from the all-too-numerous examples of destructive, anti-social striving, the kind of striving that has characterized, for example, Enron, Halliburton, BP, the tobacco companies, Goldman Sachs, Citibank and other outfits whose natural habitat is Wall Street. Their striving has been aimed at personal enrichment even at the expense of social devastation.
Which brings us back to the OWSers. The “99 percent” they promote is more an aspiration than a reality, but it still speaks to the fact that the American economy, since about 1980 has been steadily drawn into the clutches of the super-rich - that one percent who use their money to buy Congress and the White House and then engender laws designed for their own benefit and at our expense. Theirs is a destructively selfish competitive striving.
Eliminating, or at least drastically reducing, the influence of their money on our elections would go a long way toward compelling our elected leaders to pay more attention to us than to those who fund their campaigns. The most obvious device for accomplishing this would be publicly funded federal elections.
Of course these same moneyed interests would claim that publicly funded elections amount to a “government take-over,” but the truth is that government is where our democratic rights make their home. The main problem with our democratic house today is not that it is governmental, but that it has been steadily taken over by non-governmental, moneyed interests. Wall Street represents these interests, so the OWS movement is a big, fat, bold step in the right direction. Even though some of these protestors seem unfocused, and, this being New York, they bring with them a healthy dose of the theatrically bizarre, they still, in my opinion, deserve our praise and support. If they manage to effectively focus our sustained anger they will indeed be the people we have been waiting for.