|He-man with flying troll|
Apparently the wealthiest 1% in the US pay about 40% of all annual income tax collected in that country. This figure has increased since tax rates for the richest Americans were reduced under Bush; this means that although very rich Americans now pay a smaller proportion of their income as tax, their share of total income has increased so much that have ended up paying a larger proportion of the national tax bill – the reduction in their tax rates may have helped to achieve this result. So while the figure of 40% might initially seem to suggest that the richest Americans contribute an impressively large share of tax, on reflection, it is a stark indication of how extremely unequal the distribution of wealth in that country has become.
It could be seen as a very short explanation of the situation that has provoked, and sustained, the Occupy movement. But it can also be seen as a succinct summary of a mindset that the Occupy movement has created.
Without the existence and persistence of the Occupy movement figures like this would not currently be circulating on the internet. The rhetoric of Occupy has somewhat arbitrarily divided the US population into two camps: the wealthiest 1% and the other 99%. This is designed to give the movement credibility – it is not speaking on behalf of a small, marginalized group, but is voicing the concerns of an overwhelming majority, the 99%.
An unfortunate side-effect of this strategy is to make those cordoned off as the 1% seem embattled and accused, held exclusively responsible for problems created by the society as a whole. This has motivated some to come up with statistics or slogans to defend this group, aiming to point out that the super rich do contribute to society (in many cases this is precisely how they’ve gotten so rich), and don’t typically spend large swathes of their time sitting around scheming about how to rip its fabric apart.
As the brief discussion of US income tax shows, this tactic backfires when it involves a denial of the problem. The inequalities are extreme. So are some of the rips and tears in American society - and the anger and sense of insecurity they incite.
(A quick digression: last week Tom and I saw the Cohen Bros film, Burn before Reading. It’s a great example of intelligent American humour – humour underpinned and abruptly interrupted by rage. But Americans have no monopoly on inequality, insecurity, or ax-wielding maniacs. Consider what’s happening right now at the University of Sydney.)
|OWS Ladies' Choir|
But to get back to the main topic: a remarkable thing about the Occupy movement is that although it is a protest movement, it is not dominated by anger. Rather, it can be seen as an antidote to the anger that often seems to be tightly coiled just under the surface of contemporary social life. It is resolutely non-violent, and committed to inclusive, creative, frequently humorous and truly democratic forms of communication. Just one example: a musician friend of mine who lives in NY, Greta Gertler, has contributed by forming a choir that regularly sings four part harmonies in Zuccotti Park in Brooklyn. It's called the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) Ladies’ Choir. In spite of the name, I understand that female gender is not a prerequisite for membership. Protest may have been high-pitched before, but never has it been so mellifluous (here is one of the songs they sing).
So is there a way of challenging the divisive element in the 99% versus 1% slogan that doesn’t deny the problems, or lead to even more divisive discussions? Thanks to Bhante Sujato, I recently came across a counter-slogan, devised by Zen peacemaker Ari Setsudo Pliskin, that fits this bill perfectly. Instead of “We are the 99%” he advocates: “We are the 100%.”
Imagine if the rich and poor in America and elsewhere came together to defend democracy, and let lucid arguments rather than money determine the outcome of political struggles, for the benefit of society (and the planet) as a whole. You may say I'm a dreamer... But the concerns of the Occupy movement affect us all.
|A gracious gadfly on the rump of the state|