The Ties That Blind

When the Canadian activist magazine AdBusters issued a call on its listserv to start the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York and other cities, a couple of like-minded protesters created a companion blog on Tumblr called “We are the 99 percent.” The purpose of both the protests and the blog was to point out that the bottom 99 percent have been subsidizing the very rich and their wealth-multiplying experiments for decades. But the blog did something the protests didn’t: It allowed folks who couldn’t camp out in Lower Manhattan and risk arrest to participate. Contributors upload pictures of themselves holding handwritten notes that tell their stories of disenfranchisement, insolvency, and unfair workplace practices. Each note varies, but overall, the blog depicts an economy in decline and the people pushed down to the bottom as a result.

Not to be outdone, conservatives launched their own Tumblr with the same aesthetic. “We are the 53 percent” co-creator Erick Erickson, a CNN commentator and the editor of the conservative blog, set the tone with the first post: “I work three jobs. I have a house I can’t sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners.”

Critics have pointed out how specious his “three jobs” claim is; Erickson works as a political pundit and is paid to do the same thing in different venues. But what’s most striking about the blog is how many contributors resemble those in the 99 percent. “I am making $5/hr less in my current job then [sic] in my previous one,” one man who looked to be in his thirties posted on the conservative site on October 11. “My wife and I live in a house that we are upside down on. We have 2 used cars and couldn’t afford a new one if we wanted to.” The same day, a middle-aged woman on the 99 percent site posted a similar tale. “My husband lost his job 2 years ago and can’t find full-time work—he takes temp jobs at low pay to help make ends meet. He still owes $ on student loans. I work 40 plus hours a week for barely over minimum wage.”

These two stories only diverge at the end. The man concludes: “I don’t blame anyone who is successful for my situation. I don’t want the government to fix things.” The woman, on the other hand, simply continues to document her woes.

This is why conservatives call the 99-percenters whiny. “Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. That’s what I do,” their counter-posts imply. It’s a tempting story because Americans have been telling it about themselves since our country’s founding: We shook off old Europe to build a new country, armed with nothing but ideas and a willingness to work. Never mind that it’s false. Never mind that our unshakeable belief in the merit of hard work disguises that we haven’t been reaping its rewards for some time.

But overcoming such a deep-rooted American narrative isn’t easily done, and even the title of Erickson’s blog feeds into the perception that the protesters want something for nothing. The “53 percent” comes from a Tax Policy Center study showing that nearly half of Americans paid no net federal income tax in 2009—because of a decline in their incomes before and during the Great Recession, and a combination of long-term and stimulative tax credits that reduced their tax loads. (Of course, they still paid local and state taxes and federal payroll taxes.) The complicated nature of tax policy means that some of the 47 percent who get more back than they pay probably don’t realize they’re not paying federal income tax. That likely includes most of Erickson’s bloggers, who have more in common with the 99—percenters than just the style of their Tumblr postings.

“I feel like a failure!” one woman lamented on the 99 percent blog. Admitting that you’re financially underwater and don’t know how to get out is as unattractive an autobiography as the Horatio Alger story is alluring. Perhaps that’s why conservatives have been so successful at exploiting the narrative to benefit their friends. If you keep insisting that the 1-percenters made it entirely on their own merit, no one will notice how much you’ve twisted the system to benefit them at the expense of the less-well-off.


Since moving to the US in 2002 (from Canada), I am constantly and persistently amazed at the power that these "American" myths hold on everyday Americans. It seems to me that as long as these myths persist, it will be very difficult to advance progressive causes. Unfortunately, belief in these myths are not restricted to Republicans and Libertarians. I have discussions, with many otherwise mainstream Democrats, who still believe in American exceptionalism, don't realize that affordable access to health services and education should be rights and not privileges.

So let's talk about the decline in social mobility. That myth persists, but our poor have a much lower chance of escaping their poverty than people do in Europe. That needs to be drummed home.

I, as a guy forced to read some of Horatio Alger's dreadful potboilers as a kid, feel the need to attack the author at every opportunity. Whenever anyone uses "a Horatio Alger" story for someone pulling themselves 'up by their own bootstraps', they aren't reflecting the REAL Horatio Alger's sordid history or the way his character's rose in the world. (e.g. this piece on Elizabeth Warren "The candidate who is accused of instigating class warfare seems like she has stepped out of a Horatio Alger story.")
This is wrong:the real Horatio Alger was a defrocked Unitarian minister in Brewster MA, caught sexually abusing boys in 1866, who would move to New York and turn out over 130-odd formulaic and eerily similar novels where a handsome young boy with 'pluck' , homeless in the big city, would 'meet cute' a rich man (in 'Ragged Dick.or Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks', handsome young Dick, who want to be successful, saves a merchant's drowning child) who sets him up in a position...The success is not from hard work, but luck and catching the eye of a patron. They become not rich generally, but middle class and respectable. Yes, they practice thrift and hard work and self-improvement (unlike 'unmanly, soft, effeminate' slackers, who are not so good looking), but luck, in the form of a powerful older man is the real key to advancement in Alger's writing.

Alger seems to have been "a tireless advocate for the homeless" (mostly boys) and a serial pedophile... See
An interesting, if not entirely convincing take on the Horatio Alger myth is:

So the "Horatio Alger Story" is not success through hard work, but luck and attracting the wealthy patronl, with a sexual subtext of abuse of boys....

The greatest irony is that there would be very, very few jobs in America right now if it wasn't for Cold War-era military R&D spending. All of these Tumblrs and most of these right-wing websites exist on the Apache webserver on the Internet. There would be no Tumblr, no Apache, and no Internet without government spending. Also, most newly created jobs available today, since the decline of American manufacturing, are jobs created by the Internet.

The Internet came from Cold War-era ARPA/DARPA spending (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The Apache server is the successor to the NCSA web server, created at the University of Illinois using not just public university dollars, but also grants from the National Science Foundation. Without these public investments that gave our country a huge head start in the cyber economy, it is clear that American unemployment would be MUCH higher indeed.

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