I’ve got this problem where I can’t seem to stop myself from reading attack pieces on the Occupy movement. Thank God I don’t have cable, so I can’t watch Fox News, but give me a link to a right-wing blog post or the comments section of the local paper’s story on Occupy New Hampshire, and I’ll click on it every time.
Then, inevitably, I find my muscles clenching and my mind racing to find rejoinders to arguments that consist mostly of name calling and wildly inaccurate caricatures.
The thing that always punches me in the gut when I read this stuff is the word “whiners.” It usually comes up pretty quickly, along with the phrase “occupy mom’s basement.”
It doesn’t bother me much that these guys are insulting the protesters. The Occupy activists are clearly tough enough to take it, and they can take pride in how much they’ve already shifted discussion in the national media toward the subjects of inequality and unemployment.
What bugs me is what the commenters are implicitly saying about my neighbors. I live in a poor-to-middle-class neighborhood, and what I hear from the right wing is a big, fat congratulations to people like the ones who live here for not whining.
If you’re not literally starving to death, the right-wing narrative goes, you have no business complaining about an economic and political system that makes your life difficult. If you’ve got the least bit of family support or education and you complain about being unemployed or making minimum wage, there are whole web pages like this one devoted to making fun of you.
There’s also, of course, an implied promise in all of this that if you spend your time working hard instead of whining you’ll end up in a comfortable position and be able to look down on all the little whiners.
I’ve been writing this blog about my neighborhood for the past three months, and I’ve noticed a distinct lack of whining from my neighbors. They lose their jobs, get evicted, get their houses foreclosed, and instead of complaining they redouble their efforts. They find another job or go back to school. They crash with a friend for a few months, sleeping on blankets on the floor so their kids can share the couch.
It’s a vision right out of one of the anti-Occupy ranters’ stories about their grandparents. The next line in the story is that the grandfather starts a company and works long hours, and the grandmother helps out while watching the kids, and pretty soon they’ve got a nice house and the money to send the kids to college.
That’s not the trajectory that most of my neighbors seem to be on. And the hardships they are going through are mostly not the what-doesn’t-kill-me-makes-me-stronger kind.
I talked to two different men recently who spoke with a surprising lack of bitterness about their ex-wives. Both of them said financial stress was a big part of what wrecked their marriages. They’re not whining. They’re working at demanding jobs and spending time with their kids and living interesting lives with a lot of joy in them. But their relationships with the women they loved have been ruined and their kids have to deal with being shuttled from household to household.
I talked to a woman who works in home care, making meals and giving baths to the elderly and disabled. It’s good work that she cares about. She can’t afford enough food for her family, so she feeds her children and sometimes goes hungry herself. She doesn’t have a car, so she walks from one assignment to the next, sometimes faint with hunger. She’s not whining.
I talked to a woman whose boyfriend is dying of cancer. While she was taking care of him, and fighting with Medicare and Medicaid over paying for his care, she was also worrying about what she’d do after he’s gone. She won’t be able to afford an apartment by herself. She’s too busy to whine.
A young mother I talked to had just been evicted. She and her children had already been homeless once. When I met her she was joking with her sister while their kids played at the park, not whining at all. But her kids are growing up knowing that on any given night there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to sleep in their own beds.
Another young woman I talked to is an immigrant from Greece who’s still in high school. Her family runs a convenience store and is struggling, like so many immigrants have for so many decades, to make a life for themselves in America. She’s got great hopes for a future in design. But her family can’t afford health insurance, so her father doesn’t go to the doctor when he gets chest pains. She’s clearly terribly hard-working I can imagine an amazing and very prosperous life for her in the long run, but I can also imagine her family suffering a terrible tragedy in the near future.
If my neighbors did decide to look for a political solution to their problems, I don’t know that they’d reach the kind of conclusions that the Occupy protesters have. But the idea that working together and thinking about institutional problems amounts to whining is disturbing to me.
That’s not just because I think the country would be stronger if more people organized politically around problems in their daily lives. It’s also because of a guy I talked to who had lost his apartment a few years back because he couldn’t afford the rent, despite working nearly full time at a retail job. He said when it happened he was so ashamed that he thought about killing himself.
What gave him strength, he said, was talking to co-workers who, he discovered, had been through the same thing themselves. Before that, he’d never known their stories. I’m really glad they weren’t so afraid of being called whiners that they never told them.