Occupy Wall Street: Waking Up from the American Dream

In my freshman year of college, I had a professor named Brian Dougan. Professor Dougan was an unconventional man – he rode his bicycle to campus every day, he was fascinated with junk, and he wore his hair in dreadlocks that looked like they had gone unwashed for weeks. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t take his class as seriously as I should have. And yet, even though my grade in Professor Dougan’s class was less than stellar, he taught me one of the most important lessons I learned in college. Namely, he taught me that the greatest changes in our lives happen when we are farthest outside of our comfort zones. This is exactly why I find the Occupy Wall Street movement to be so exciting.

In the streets of American cities, people are leaving their comfort zones to try and bring about the change that has eluded them for so long. The result has been nothing short of revolutionary. Has anything like this ever happened before? I ask in earnest; I’ve only been walking this earth for 22 short years, and I admittedly lack the perspective of some of the more seasoned observers. I also admit I’m no economist. I realize there are some staggering financial numbers behind these protests that I would be ill-equipped to crunch.

But, do you know which numbers are even more staggering? Try the thousands of people gathering in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, as well as across the country. They’ve been occupying since Sept. 17, and they wouldn’t be showing up unless they had the passion to make their voices heard. Actually, “passion” is probably the wrong word to use at this point. “Anger” is probably a more suitable choice.

And why shouldn’t they be angry? If you’re anything like me, you grew up learning that America is a land of working hard and playing fair. Anyone could tell you that – our parents told us, our grandparents told us, exceedingly patriotic advertisements for Chevrolet pickup trucks told us. We grew up believing that The American Dream™ could be achieved by anyone who played by the rules. And then, when we woke up from the dream, we realized that someone drastically revised the rulebook while we were sleeping.

I’m sorry, I’m kind of looking at this is in a cynical fashion. This must be why I’m never allowed to discuss “grown-up” matters at parties. (I’m just kidding. I don’t get invited to parties.) But I can assure you, cynicism was not my intention. On the contrary, I would describe my view of Occupy Wall Street as “recklessly optimistic.” When I first learned of the movement, I thought it would be nothing more than a simple gesture, a fleeting attempt to start a dialogue about the rampant financial irresponsibility of our nation’s richest one percent of the population. That was almost a month and a half ago, and I am thrilled that I was wrong. I thought the masses would be content to sit on the couch and watch increasingly moronic television as their futures were gambled away by consequence-proof bankers and executives. But, lo and behold, people are finally angry enough to turn off the TV and realize that there are some castles out there in dire need of storming. It’s an exciting thing to watch. It’s an exciting time to be an American.

I know that Occupy Wall Street has its critics. These are the people who decry the protestors for not knowing the value of hard work. Pardon my French, but this is poppycock of the highest degree. I realize I can’t convince every critic that most of these protestors are amazingly hard-working people who simply got screwed by a broken system, but what I can do is tell you my family’s story. You see, my parents both worked for a major airline, the name of which may or may not rhyme with “Mouthbest.” For the first twelve or so years of my life, I never heard them talk about finances, so I just assumed that everything was fine. And then, 9/11 happened. Airline stocks plummeted across the board, and before I knew it, my parents’ retirement money was more or less gone. My parents worried, but through it all, they worked. They worked themselves crazy. They worked themselves sick. My father, a baggage handler, has had surgery on his back and both shoulders to alleviate on-the-job injuries. He struggles to get out of his chair like a man 15 years his senior, and yet, he works. My mother has since left the airline. She works two jobs in addition to babysitting on Fridays, and even so, sometimes she hesitantly approaches me, asking if she can borrow $20 for gas or groceries. It’s hard-working people like my parents who are marching on Wall Street, but that doesn’t stop the passing wiseacres from yelling, “Get a job!” Oh, the irony of it all.

I fear it will be that sort of hasty judgment that will be the downfall of this movement. We talk too much and listen too little. Why should we listen, when “we” are right and “they” are wrong? This is nothing new. In this day and age, every discussion topic with even a hint of political influence inevitably degrades into a glorified shouting match. The voices of the masses marching on Wall Street outnumber the voices of the wealthy elite, but volume will solve nothing. I think the dialogue has already begun, now it just needs to continue until we figure out how to clean up this mess.

My friend Kelsey has been posting a lot of articles about Occupy Wall Street on Facebook. I sent her a text message yesterday, thanking her for caring about the movement. She said it fascinated her, and that it had wonderful potential to make changes for our country. It was probably the most serious message I’d ever received from her, so I tried to lighten the mood with a little sarcasm.

“Then again, what do we know?” I said. “We’re just a bunch of dirty hippies, after all.”

“Yep, dirty socialist hippies who are too lazy to go out and get jobs,” she said. Even though we were poking fun at ourselves, I knew there were people who honestly held that opinion of the protestors. It was discouraging, of course. But I think every group of revolutionaries, great or small, has had a pack of critics on the sidelines – and the critics have always been the ones yelling, “Get a job!”

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