Occupy the Voting Booth!
Great April 2 issue on the Occupy movement! And a great idea to ask eleven Occupy observers to write about what comes next. I’d like to dwell on the message from Frances Fox Piven. She asks disillusioned Occupiers to refrain from attacks on Obama and reminds them of the importance of the next election. Their absence from this election may cause a member of the 1 percent to attain the presidency. That would have disastrous consequences, only one of which might finish wrecking this country: appointments to the Supreme Court.
Astra Taylor writes about occupying the media and the message. The media paid attention to Occupy’s message because it staged an unexpected and prolonged camp-in at an unlikely place. But the big, narrative-changing action popularized by Occupy Wall Street was the phrase “We are the 99 percent” (implying, of course, that the denizens of Wall Street are the 1 percent). Big ideas were succinctly expressed in that short phrase. They told a story everyone could understand, of the American value of fairness and the moral failure of unfairness, using a symbol we all recognize, Wall Street. As time goes on, Occupy can organize locally or nationally, even internationally and get good results, I’m sure. But it will need more of those meaty, deeply meaningful “truth bites.” Plan the message first, then the media event to make it visible, not the other way around. For free resources and message builders go to metaphorproject.org.
‘Culture of Poverty’?
New York City
In “Rediscovering Poverty” [April 2], Barbara Ehrenreich quotes out of context a passage from The Other America by my father, Michael Harrington, and charges that in order to comfort the middle-class reader, he presented the poor as different from and inferior to mainstream society.
Ehrenreich cites the passage “To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.” The section from which this quote is taken begins with my father agreeing with F. Scott Fitzgerald that the rich are different from the rest of us. He is arguing that economic circumstances shape every aspect of the lives of every member of every social class and that this is particularly true of the poor because their circumstances are so brutal. He then criticizes the middle class for having too limited a vision to see this. Rather than comforting the middle class, The Other America repeatedly criticizes it for applying its values to circumstances to which they do not apply.
Ehrenreich argues that the idea that the poor are different and inferior stems from my father’s use of the concept of the “culture of poverty,” which was later used by conservative opponents of the welfare state to mean “bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles.” Though Maurice Isserman rightly criticizes my father for using the term ambiguously, if one reads the book, it is clear that my father did not see the “culture of poverty” as “bad attitudes and faulty lifestyles” but that such attitudes and lifestyles resulted from the “culture of poverty.” By the “culture of poverty,” he meant an encompassing web of circumstances and not a pattern of behavior.