The Cancer in the American Dream

NEW YORK (Frameshop) – One of the aspects of  the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) the mainstream media has failed to grasp is the extent to which it has generated an almost continuous string of protest innovations, some of which reveal a great deal about the issues motivating people.

One example are the “We are the 99%” self-portraits circulating the internet.  As of the writing of this post, a site by that name has collected almost 1,000 of those self-portraits, all of which follow the same general format: a person posing with a hand-written or typed note describing the personal devastation the American economy has visited upon their lives.  

This example is a fairly representative of the genre (archive of photos here):

Most of the letters include an actual portrait of the writer, not just a hand, and they almost always include stories about working through college only to end up unemployed, losing a job and being forced to move back in with aging parents, fruitless months and years of looking for work and so forth.  All of the stories are laced with a frustration, many have tipped into frustration and anger.

The writers of these letters have all experienced the American Dream bursting into flames and crumbling into ash at their feet.

They are frustrated not just because they cannot get jobs, but because their lives were modeled after a well-known American approach to self-reliance: education as a path to employment, independence, family, home ownership, surplus income–happiness.

What does the American dream look like when it fails–when hard-working people get good grades, attend good schools, work hard, sacrifice for their families, but end up with nothing?

It looks like a loan statement with a balance so high it poisons your whole life with fear.

If we once read the phrase “American Dream” and thought of a happy family standing by a white picket fence, a house, a car, and dog named spot–the “We are the 99%” self-portraits tell us to forget all that. Open your file drawer where you keep your bills. What once was the American Dream is now crammed into file of loan coupons so overstuffed it cuts your fingers each time you try to pry it out.

For 99% of the public, the American Dream is no longer about buying a house and living a middle class life of modest comfort and security.  Instead, it is a dream of somehow finding a way to pay off $90,000 in student loans, $25,000 in credit card debt, so that you can finally afford to take on $350,000 in mortgage debt  before you are forced to take on $500,000 in unpaid medical bills.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that these self-portraits should not be glossed over as the latest cautionary tales about living within our means, buying what we need before what we want, and so forth.  There is a deeper, more sinister tale to tell, here.  This is a story about how the financial sector–the banks–have transformed education into a mechanism that drives people deep into debt by praying on our faith in advancement through education.

Nowadays, it has become so common for students to graduate from college with so much debt that they cannot possibly keep up without a windfall of personal income.  The desperation to find enough income to cover debt payments in turn forces young Americans to find ways to increase their odds of landing a high paying job–often resulting in more education, more debt, more desperation.

Meanwhile, many of our universities, whose tuition payments saddle students with life destroying debt, suffer from the opposite problem.  Most private colleges and universities in America are sitting on hordes of capital in the form of protected endowments, massive accumulations of wealth whose protection and growth is entrusted to–you guessed it–the banks.

Again, if you used to think about college as a pathway to the American Dream, the “We are the 99%” self-portraits force us to rethink. Colleges and universities constitute huge streams of revenue for the financial sector.  Students line up to take on towering stacks of loans on one end, university Presidents shovel contributions into investment accounts on the other end. Tuition keeps rising, endowments keep growing, banks keep winning.

Student debt, of course, is not the only debt listed in the “We are the 99%” photos. Credit card debt, mortgage debt, medical debt–just about every aspect of the American Dream is now riddled with cancerous debt.

For many of us watching OWS unfold, the collective voices on the street speak to our deep anger that banks have been allowed to set up shop deep inside the American Dream and take advantage of people at the exact moments they try to live up to the ideals of the nation.

We are sick of it, sickened by it.

Even if the toxic assets still sitting unresolved on the books of the gambling houses that crashed the global economy were unwound fairly–even if the unregulated trading desks were regulated–even if the crooks who made obscene profits from both the rise and fall of the economy were forced to pay fines and serve jail sentences–even if all the financial regulations we put in place after the Great Depression were restored–the cancer of debt injected into  the American Dream by banks would still be there.

If the “We are the 99% Photographs” are any indication, a growing number of Americans are fed up with this situation–fed up and in the streets.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. “We ARE the 99%.”

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