Occupy, and the Quest for Common Sense

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(Occupy Wall Street demonstrators at Zuccotti Park, October 2011) 

If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them–these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd.  – Thomas Reid

As time goes on and world and national events increasingly tug at the fabric of my sanity, I have found myself with a gut-level feeling that just won’t go away.  It’s the feeling that the collective United States has simply taken leave of its senses, that something beneath the surface of direct experience has gone very wrong.  Alas, the feeling grows every day:  We are required to focus long and hard, for example, on government involvement in something as basic as human reproduction. . . or rather, the prevention thereof . . . or rather, whether and how prevention thereof should be paid for.  And we’re told that it’s about freedom of religion . . . that is, the freedom of religion of the insurance providers, not actual reproducing humans . . . or rather (in recently introduced federal legislation), the freedom of all insurance providers, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

A part of me insists, as I observe this spectacle, that this is the kind of issue a civilized nation like the United States, with its constitutional history and centuries of social growth, should have sorted out long ago.  But no, and it feels like something has gone wrong, something big.

“Oh, come on Mike,” I can hear you saying, “don’t be so naive! You’re just old and crotchety.  What makes you think anything’s changed except yourself?”  All right, I’ll grant you that I have little reason to believe that people have ever been more rational or sensible, or less intolerant or hateful, than I now perceive them to be.  The messy jumble of conflicting opinions and perceptions, in which I am but one participant, has always been there.  And I’ll grant as well that the internet now makes available vastly greater amounts of information, right here at my fingertips, to potentially offend my sensibilities.  And I’m reminded, too, of an aphorism passed on to me years ago that a friend learned from her mother: “Whenever you don’t understand something, remember that it’s either about sex or money.”  Well, there you go.

Still, I sense a different quality in the insensibility of America today, some emotional undercurrent that I think must reflect fundamental changes going on around us.  I want to understand that quality and make better sense of these changes.  Why?  Something profound is coming down, something many of us feel but cannot yet fully comprehend, and forewarned is forearmed.

Throughout my life, you see, I’ve had a stubborn mind-set that requires things to make sense, and holds that everything can make sense with enough information. This is a deep-seated trait, like an itch that cannot be scratched.  I suspect that I’ve inherited this uncomfortable trait from the European immigrants from whom I have descended.

My recorded ancestry consists mostly of long lines of early, European-American settlers and fortune-hunters arriving here from England in the early 1600s (including the Eatons in Massachusetts and the Benjamin Harrison line in Virginia), and from Scotland and Ireland in the 1700s and 1800s (among them the Scotch-Irish Holmes line from Northern Ireland, the Kellys from Ireland, the McCunes and the Dunns from Scotland and the Allins from Cornwall), nearly all of whom had lived in Vermont, New Hampshire, Virginia and Ohio for more than a century before heading west in covered wagons for Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas to homestead on the Great Plains.  Some of them even pushed on to California in the great Iowa migration that founded the City of Pasadena.

Whatever I may have inherited from this motley collection of ancestors when finally I arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Christmas Eve in 1944, it did not include a high tolerance for nonsense.  So, it seems, I’ve been driven throughout my life and career by an insatiable need to find answers, to learn the truth.  I’m certain there are far more people smarter than me than there are people who are intellectually more relentless and stubborn.  And I also believe I am a lot more willing to see the world as it is, as best I can, and far more averse to ideological escapism, than a great many of my fellow Americans.

My Scotch-Irish Genes

Searching for concepts that might describe my brand of stubborn mentality, I stumbled upon Scottish Common Sense Realism, a school of philosophy originating with a few Scottish philosophers led by Thomas Reid (1710-1796), quoted above.  Reid was given a professorship at King’s College, Aberdeen in 1752, where he wrote An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (published in 1764): “Shortly afterward he was given the prestigious Professorship of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow when he was called to replace Adam Smith,” which  position he held until 1781. According to Wikipedia:

Common Sense Realism swept American intellectual circles in the 19th century. James McCosh (1811–1894) brought it directly from Scotland 1868 when he became president of Princeton University, which soon became a major stronghold of the movement. Noah Porter (1811–1892) taught Common Sense realism to generations of students at Yale.

If Scottish Common Sense Realism comes down through history as the tribal philosophy of my ancestors, I can certainly feel it in my bones.  Reid’s “common sense realism” held that a real world exists outside of and independent of our mental perception of it, a burning question at that time.  I have always intuitively subscribed to this so-called “naive realism” as well as the view of the German philosopher  Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) and others like him who maintained that:

Only objects of experience, phenomena, may be known, whereas things lying beyond experience, noumena, are unknowable, even though in some cases we assume a priori knowledge of them. The existence of such unknowable ‘things-in-themselves’ can be neither confirmed nor denied, nor can they be scientifically demonstrated. Therefore, as Kant showed in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the great problems of metaphysics – the existence of God, freedom, and immortality – are insoluble by scientific thought.

The concept of common sense realism seems less remarkable in this age of the Hubble telescope, when the far reaches of the Universe seem potentially within range of our direct observation and the heavens have been mapped extensively, certainly well beyond my childhood expectations.   Never have I been more certain that everything can, and should, make sense, with enough information.  I have consigned unknowable things – things that cannot be confirmed or denied and cannot possibly (even theoretically) be scientifically demonstrated, to the realm we call “fantasy.”  And things once disproved that are still senselessly advanced as truth I have consigned to a realm called “ideology.”

The notion of “common sense” is comforting today, as it must have been to Thomas Paine during the Revolutionary War, but as we are occasionally reminded, “the problem with common sense is that it’s not all that common.” And there is so much going on all around us, every day, that is beyond our direct observation and that we somehow try to understand by inference.  How can we know when our inferences are based on reality, and not fantasy or ideology?  How can we know that something we have decided is true is really consistent with Thomas Reid’s  brand of “common sense”?

Recognizing Falsehood

Sometimes we just know that some things are wrong, so “manifestly contrary” to all that we have experienced and learned that we know we must reject them as absurd.  That, frankly, is what I know about trickle-down Reaganomics.  But that is actually an easy example, because there is a wealth of factual information bearing directly on it.  The disproof of that idea is all around us, in fact, inherent in the latest 30-year history of growing wealth and income inequality in America and around the world.

It’s like evolution.  We know that things change because, well, things change.  And we know that if a small percentage of people are allowed to get much wealthier than everyone else, they will do it.  These things constitute reality, and they should be obvious to every living, breathing human being.  But millions of people reject these realities.  Their train has switched onto a siding, apparently never to return to the main line, and there’s no reason to assume that great numbers of Scotch Irish haven’t also found themselves switched off onto that fantasy siding.  (It’s not like there’s some sort of genetic immunity from irrational or illogical thinking, at least so far as I know. I’m deferring to Skip on these issues.)  The question is: Why?  Therein lies my gut feeling that something is terribly wrong.

This problem is in our faces every day.  Another dark-suited “conservative” appeared on Hardball last night to confront Eugene Robinson and Chris Matthews with his feeble you-can’t-tax-the-job-creators pitch, one formulation of trickle-down Reaganomics.  Part of my discouragement lies in the inability of folks like Matthews and Robinson, who clearly know better, to with any frequency call these people out.  Sure, it’s only a one-hour show, but don’t invite these people on to spout their nonsense if you have to let it pass.  When “Hardball” becomes “Foosball,” it’s more harmful than helpful to the listeners; the guests roll in and roll back out on their fantasy side track, and viewers fail to learn what they really need to know.

Understanding Truth

There are two things, in the midst of the ever-confusing morass of economic and social disconnects of American politics, that have intuitively made real sense to me:  The first, when I learned that wealth and income inequality had grown to depression-era levels in the U.S., was that another deep depression for the bottom 99% is on the way.  There is no way that could be wrong, if we stay on the current path.

The second is that, exactly when it made sense for them to do so, the American people rose up en mass in an “Occupy Wall Street” movement, engendering instantaneous nationwide and world-wide companion movements.  Everyone participating just knew, without having learned all the details or filled in all the blanks, that the dangerous growth of income and wealth inequality between the top 1% and the bottom 99% had to be challenged and stopped, and even more interestingly, the movement exactly pinpointed the major cause of the problem – Wall Street.

And they intuitively knew exactly what had to be done.  The lead photo from Zuccotti Park was posted with a CNN article entitled Occupy Wall Street beta tests a new way of living  by Douglas Rushkoff  (October 25, 2011), in which he observed that something very different and new was taking place:

Occupy is anything but a protest movement. That’s why it has been so hard for news agencies to express or even discern the “demands” of the growing legions of Occupy participants around the nation, and even the world. Just like pretty much everyone else on the planet, occupiers may want many things to happen and other things to stop, but the occupation is not about making demands. They don’t want anything from you, and there is nothing you can do to make them stop. That’s what makes Occupy so very scary and so very promising. It is not a protest, but a prototype for a new way of living. * * * 

The urban survival camps they are setting up around the world are a bit more like showpieces, congresses and “beta” tests of ideas and behaviors the rest of us may soon be implementing in our communities, and in our own ways.  * * *

They are not interested in debate (or what Enlightenment philosophers called “dialectic”) but consensus. They are working to upgrade that binary, winner-takes-all, 13th century political operating system. 

I mostly agree with that assessment, but we must also appreciate that Occupy is a movement born out of realism, and wedded to notions of common sense.  In my experiences with Occupy Albany, one of the nation’s most successful efforts to cooperate with the city and state governments and one of the sites that lasted the longest before eviction, I have seen young and old alike bring the powers of logic and analysis to bear on problem solving.

Yes, it’s about implementing and creating new ideas and behaviors, but we must appreciate this as well:  The occupiers are not idealists, for the most part, but hard-nosed realists from all generations and all walks of life.  You may say they want to change their world, but in my view it’s more about saving their world, as their world is being taken away from them.  Occupiers are the very people who are refusing to turn their backs in denial on reality.  They are fully aware of reality, and know that the current system must change, if they are to save what the President calls “the promise of America.”

Occupy is a conservative movement.

You heard me right: Occupy is a conservative movement.  Conservatism is resistance to change, and this movement wants to stop destructive change.  Thus, it’s not in that sense “liberal” to oppose the Keystone pipeline project or oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, when opposition is based on the interest in the conservation of natural resources and preserving the well-being of the planet.  Some causes such as increasing reliance on renewable energy sources are legitimately also seen as “progressive” as well, as they recognize and advocate adapting to social and planetary change.  But we might just as sensibly characterize them as “flexibly conservative,” as they aim to preserve what we have in the face of inevitable change.

However we might characterize them, such causes are firmly grounded in realism.  And at its core, we must remember, Occupy challenges the growing inequality of incomes and wealth, and that is a profoundly conservative challenge.  The true conservatives in decades gone by never favored depressions, or even economic instability, and throughout history conservative presidents like Ronald Reagan have routinely and strenuously condemned them.  Accordingly, the 1%ers that Occupy confronts today are not “conservatives” in any traditional or sensible use of the word, and we should stop calling them that.

Occupy at its core is struggling against powers of destruction that, driven by financial greed, are ever more rapidly destroying the nation and the social contracts upon which it was built.

 (City Hall in Northampton, Massacusetts, February 2, 2012.  Photo by Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times)

Things like the Occupy movement don’t just happen by accident.  Occupy Wall Street surfaced when the individual sacrifices demanded by it could no longer be avoided. Consider this, from a report by Rose Aguilar, Occupy Has Raised Class Consciousness: Now What?, published yesterday by Truthout:

The year 2011 will go down in history as the year in which citizens used their collective power to make economic justice part of the national conversation and force the media to focus on real issues rather than the manufactured deficit crisis. * * * 

Since Occupy Wall Street kicked off on September 17, Occupy demonstrators across the country have raised awareness about the widening wealth gap, inequality, rising student debt, criminal activity on Wall Street, poverty and home foreclosures. * * *   

“The Occupy movement is an extraordinary breakthrough,” says David Korten, co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, and author of “Agenda for a New Economy.” 

“On the progressive side, we tend to focus on individual issues. The Occupy movement has given us an overall framing umbrella with a focus on inequality. It may be one of the most effective branding exercises in history.”

“They tapped into something that millions and millions of Americans obviously felt,” adds Gar Alperovitz, professor of political economy at the University of Maryland and author of “America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy.”

“The response tells you far more about where most Americans are than we had known before. Those ideas touch something in the understanding of millions of people that something is profoundly wrong in America.”

We know what’s wrong: 43 percent of Americans are “liquid assets poor,” meaning they lack the money to live for three months if their main source of income were lost, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development. More than 46 million Americans are living in poverty and on food stamps, the highest number ever. More than 17 million women lived in poverty in 2010; over 7.5 million women live on less than $6,000 a year, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Fourteen million people are unemployed. Another 8 million are working part-time but want full-time work. The unemployment rate is far higher for women and communities of color.

Over 50 million Americans are uninsured. Another 50 million are underinsured. A 2009 Harvard study shows that 45,000 people die every year because they don’t have health insurance.

Meantime, corporate profits continue to rise and corporations are sitting on a record amount of cash. Thanks in large part to record-high oil prices, ExxonMobil’s 2011 profits rose 35 percent, to a whopping $41.1 billion. That’s nearly $5 million in profit every hour, or more than $1,300 every second, according to ThinkProgress. Exxon pays a lower effective tax rate than most Americans and refuses to pay $92 million in cleanup costs for the Valdez Alaskan oil spill, but it had no problem paying CEO Rex Tillerson $29 million last year.

Despite massive oil profits, last May, 45 Republicans and three Democrats refused to repeal $21 billion in tax breaks over the next ten years for Exxon, BP, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips. The final vote was 52-48.

The one percent owns approximately 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and almost half of all investment capital. Five percent own 70 percent of all investment capital.

“Those are medieval numbers,” says Alperovitz. “That’s the way medieval society was organized.  . . .  Who owns the wealth is the primary question people should be asking.”   [6]

Indeed.  But everyone taking to the streets and camping out in public parks last fall didn’t know those statistics, and most still don’t.  They knew what was happening to them, and they knew that the same things were also happening to a great many others.  But they also knew that their sense of the “truth” was reality-based, and common sense told them that such statistics could, in those circumstances, be accurately inferred.

About the Occupy movement’s premise that something has gone profoundly wrong in America, and how it chose to respond, Thomas Reid himself might have said: “That’s just common sense.”

JMH – 2/14/2012

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2 Responses to Occupy, and the Quest for Common Sense

  1. i have been looking all over for stuff like this. thank you

  2. Pingback: Don’t Tax the “Job Creators”? |

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