“We are the 99 percent,” they cry — the mother of four, the husband working multiple jobs, the college grad crippled in debt. They cry of financial hardship, of how they live from paycheck to paycheck, barely scrapping out a living of long hours and meager wages. They cry of injustice, how the richest 1 percent of America is currently in possession of approximately 40 percent of the nation’s collective wealth — an influence that they then allegedly abuse and exploit to their benefit.
So in cities and towns all across the country march the 99 percent, with crowds sometimes numbering in the several thousands, shutting down major public areas in protest of this polarized monetary distribution. Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Times Square, Occupy Your Local High School — over the past few months, with pockets of demonstrations emerging from nearing every corner of the nation and even around the world, it is apparent that there is no place too big or too small that this movement will not find.
Fueled by the enormous support of the general public and a variety of sympathetic celebrities, what many are calling the revolution of our generation has undeniably captivated the spotlight of American attention.
And that is exactly what I do not understand.
I do not understand how such a movement can exist, let alone thrive, in a society such as our own. In fact, I find it to be incredibly ironic.
For the 99 percent scream their self-reported accounts of poverty and misfortune from their online rooftops, blogging of the overwhelming obstacles they must overcome and the unwinnable battles they are forced to fight before turning on the wealthy elite for the undeserved shortcomings of their present circumstances. The evil 1 percent and their corporate greed, sucking the money and opportunity away from common citizens and making it impossible for them to succeed, they say.
And yet they are so caught up in their own stories that they fail to recognize the similarities between their own lives and those of the very people they are blaming for their troubles.
Take for example the African-American girl, born in rural, impoverished Mississippi and raised by a single unsupportive mother, who was sexually abused by her relatives as a child. She runs away from home to attend high school, gets a job at a local radio station and earns awards for her oratory prowess. Eventually she goes on to host what TIME magazine would call “the most popular talk show on TV” for 25 consecutive years, and is now the wealthiest — and possibly the most generous — African-American in the country. Her name is Oprah Winfrey and she is, by our definition, “the 1 percent.”
Or consider the orphan boy from San Francisco, raised by a mechanic and accountant, who dropped out of a very prestigious college to save his adoptive parents some money. After living on recycled bottle money and handouts for the next few years, he eventually turned a computer made in his garage into the multi-billion dollar company we now know to be Apple, Inc. His name was Steve Jobs—also, by our definition, “the 1 percent.”
We as Americans take pride in the various freedoms that are afforded to us, protected liberties that would otherwise be unavailable in such breadth anywhere else in the world.
And yet what many seem to be taking for granted is the fact that such freedoms come hand in hand with another fundamental American ideal: competition. For the very definition of the term “freedom” implies that every individual is “free” to utilize these rights to the degree he or she sees fit. We can choose to exercise our freedom of press or to free public education just as easily as we can choose not to. And it is precisely our decision to do so or not that defines the contour of our future success.
So the stats may be true. The richest 1% of America may very well be in possession of nearly half of our nation’s wealth, and they could quite possibly be abusing such economic power. But I do not believe that that is the biggest problem at hand.
The much larger and consequential issue in America right now is the fact that thousands upon thousands of able-bodied citizens find it more appropriate to spend their days marching into large public areas and impeding the productivity and efficiency of others than to use the same amount of time to continue seeking employment of their own. It is as if America has simply grown tired of trying and quit.
What the public must understand is that, as cliche as the phrase may be, life was not made to be fair. Human civilization has been advanced to its current state by the very essence of monetary competition, which is by definition a ladder that many will try to climb but only a few will actually succeed. The unequal wealth distribution is a byproduct of the sophistication by which society exists today, and yet it is also the catalyst for innovation and productivity — the engines that have driven and continue to drive the growth of modern society.
But sitting outside, in the middle of a crowded public area, waiting for the world to change to your benefit? That is not how this country was made, nor do I think should we ever try and make it so.
I am not the 99 percent. Nor am I the 1 percent. I am not a demographic. I am an individual, with an independent future — affected by many others, but ultimately controlled and determined by me, and me alone. Take responsibility for your own life, work harder, try again, and strive to contribute something to the world. Stop occupying Wall Street and occupy yourself.
Benjamin Hong is a second-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.