WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE! Occupied by an old vision!


PART 4—DIGBY DISLIKES THE NEW MATH: How will the Occupy movement end up?

Like you, we have no idea. Progressives face a long hard slog, given the lethargy, laziness, failure to function of the past forty years. Many pitfalls lie ahead. There are any number of ways the Occupy movement could stumble.

That said, the movement has made one remarkable move, a move that involves basic math.

The Occupy people have loudly declared that they’re part of the 99 percent. This flies in the face of recent math, in which we’ve routinely been told that we’re a 50/50 nation.

That recent math was completely correct in terms of red/blue electoral outcomes. But the Occupy movement has produced newer math, encouraging people to see themselves within a different grouping—as part of a 99/1 nation.

Which is it? As a Democratic voter, are you part of the 50 percent? Or are you more part of the 99? Some will resist that latter idea. Most specifically, they will reject what it seems to say about—who else?—“those people.”

Can we really see ourselves as part of a 99 percent? If so, that means that most tea party supporters are part of our group! Headstrong adherents will rise to protest such an appalling idea. David Atkins seemed to do so last week, writing at Hullabaloo. After explaining how “morally repulsive,” “disgusting and shameful” a blogger in Texas seemed to be, the headstrong young Atkins described a Manichean fight to the finish:
ATKINS (10/8/11): Pearl clutchers and “bipartisan” hand wringers insist that the left and right in this country must come to some meeting of the minds. An agreement on rational, sensible policy on which we can all come to consensus.

But the truth is that there is no coming to terms with those who live in an ideological bubble that prevents from feeling basic empathy or shame. There is a real battle of ideas being waged in this country, and only one side is going to come out victorious.

It will either be those who understand what it's like to be part of the 99 percent and realize that the system is broken. Or it will be those who believe that all of these people deserve to suffer in squalor. There can and will be no middle ground.
Is “a real battle of ideas being waged in this country?” If so, we haven’t seen it! But Atkins drew a familiar old portrait—a portrait which is as old as tribal warfare itself.

(Does Atkins ghost-write the "Left Behind" books? Just asking.)

What had occasioned all this thunder? A blogger in Texas who said she had seen a lot of kids wasting their student loan money! To the headstrong young Atkins, this seemed to mean that she believes “that all of these people deserve to suffer in squalor.” There is no coming to terms with such people, he thundered—with “those who live in an ideological bubble that prevents from feeling basic empathy or shame.”

Atkins was really bringing the thunder. But uh-oh! Look’s who’s talking, one of the analysts said.

Question: Are you part of the 50 percent? Or could you be part of the 99? The newer math of the Occupy movement is built around some fairly obvious points. For example, everyone is getting looted by the oligarchs—red and blue voters alike. Everyone pays too much for their health care; everyone’s salaries stagnate. But you can’t explain such facts to other people if you’re convinced, going in, that they are simply not part of your tribe.

You can’t approach the 99 percent with a dogmatic 50 percent mindset.

Tribal tribunes love the idea that the world is red and blue, Us against Them—that the true math is 50/50. Tribal tribunes have always loved this most ancient pre-human idea. And tribal tribunes have always found ways to undermine any wider perspective. Also at Hullabaloo last weekend, Digby played tape of a Mitt Romney speech, then offered these puzzling thoughts:
DIGBY (10/8/11): Notice the cheers [for the Romney speech].

I know it's not fashionable to say this, but it must be said: the fault lines in American politics are as deep as ever and despite our common economic victimization at the hands of the elites, it's going to be very, very unlikely that the entire 99% will rise up against the rest. It's just not who we are. And the particular fault line Romney is tapping in that speech is about to open up as the anti-war movement joins the Wall Street protests. I'm not against that—to me it's all part of the same thing—I'm just pointing out that the fault line still exists and that we shouldn't lull ourselves into the same delusions that the Tea Party had when it convinced itself that it was already speaking for everyone in the nation. This stuff goes way deeper than people want to believe. We've been fighting along these lines from the beginning.


I'm going to guess that my view of this will not be popular among some of you who truly want to believe that the OWS movement is going to sweep the country without any substantial opposition from average Americans. I hope that's right. But history suggests that it won't happen that way. It's going to be a fight. And possibly a big one.
Question: Who on earth would ever have thought that “the entire 99 percent” was ever going to “rise up against the rest?” Who would have thought that the Occupy movement “is going to sweep the country without any substantial opposition from average Americans?” Using Atkins’ silly construction, who would have pictured “an agreement on rational, sensible policy on which we can all come to consensus?” Who would have thought that this movement’s new math amounted to such a prediction?

In her post, Digby was playing the set-upon victim, as she increasingly likes to do; she pretended it wasn’t “fashionable” to make her statement, which was in fact simply fatuous. Politics is never about getting everyone to agree, and the Occupy movement’s insightful new math doesn’t mean that we are trying to win 99 percent agreement. It means that blue tribal members might approach reds with a broader perspective—might even help some reds come to see that they're part of the 99 too.

Two days later, Digby was still boo-hooing and playing the victim. As she started, she begged her readers not to be fooled, misled, confused or unclear about what those people are like:
DIGBY (10/10/11): I've been getting a fair amount of static for my post the other day warning about tribal politics rearing its ugly head as the Occupy movement continues. It's not just the billionaires who will put their resources to bear to undermine the movement, but the rank and file, average Americans who will choose their tribal loyalties over common class concerns. Kansas hasn't changed that much.
Poor Digby! She is subjected to so much static for her daring posts. It isn’t just the billionaires who will resist—average Americans will resist too! For ourselves, we have no idea who would have doubted this obvious fact; of course, many average Americans will choose to stay with the reds. The question as one builds a movement is of course different from that.

No one tries to win everyone over. The real question turns on "how many."

How many people in the red tribe might end up seeing themselves as of the 99 percent? There’s no way to know until you approach them—and that’s what tribal tribunes, all through history, have always inveighed against. As she continued, Digby noted that the Tea Party Express was dissing the Occupy folk—and Tea Party Nation was dissing them too! We have no idea why that would be a surprise to any sentient person. But as she explained what this conduct meant, Digby went where she always goes—to a portrait in which all members of the other tribe are just like all the rest:
DIGBY: Somehow I don't think they are going to be allies. And, in fact, their "movement" wasn't in response to economic conditions at all (or even the Wall Street bailouts, truth be known.) It was a response to the election of a Democratic president, which can never be truly legitimate, and one who particularly offended their notions of privilege. As I said, it was the same old conservative movement dressed in a tri-corner hat.

And they have sympathizers, many of whom are going to be activated in response to Occupy. (They don't call them Reactionaries for nothing.)
Of course, Tea Party Nation and Tea Party Express aren’t “going to be allies;" those groups are run by well-paid professional oligarchs. The obvious question here is different: How many regular people in the red tribe might, in the end, become allies? As she always does, Digby tosses off a sweeping statement in which all forty million tea party supporters have identical motives and understandings, with race of course being part of the blend. She then recommends a statement by Jonathan Schwartz; he tells us what “these people” won’t do. And she herself ends up like this, using her favorite word:
DIGBY: It's worse than that. They will happily join the oppressors and help them do the stomping. It's not political and it's not economic—it's tribal worldview.


I also think that the ancient demand to "redistribute the land" makes perfect literal sense in this context too. After all this new aristocracy has gobbled up ever more of the nation's wealth and then used the money to buy up the political system and undermine democracy. A little redistribution of those holdings would go a long way to restoring the proper balance.

And many of their fellow sufferers are going to say "suck it up, you whiners," identifying with the oppressors, perhaps in the vain hope that they will someday be one of them. Or maybe it's just a deep need to see themselves as better than somebody. It's just who they are.
Digby’s favorite word is “they.” It’s a word which denies that even one of “those people” could have the human qualities which define our own wonderful tribe. Yes, we know—she doesn't say “all.” But as as you read, where is the emphasis?

Projection is also a mark of such tribals. Those people “have a deep need to see themselves as better than somebody. It’s just who they are,” Digby explains. But that’s pretty much the feeling we get from the headstrong strivers at Hullabaloo, who tell us, in sweeping terms, that those people are “morally repulsive,” “disgusting and shameful,” unable to “feel basic empathy” on the basis of the fact that they saw they've seen a lot of kids squandering student loan money.

As always, the haters have been Where the Wild Things Are. On the basis of their travels, they want you to know that “those people” won't be on your side!

Jim Sheridan’s 1997 film, The Boxer, includes a brilliant portrait of two tribal political haters. In the midst of The Troubles, their teen-aged son has been killed by the Brits. Now, their own IRA is negotiating peace!

They want The Hate to continue.

We see them speaking to a photo of their dead son, telling him they will never let him down. They will never let the killing stop; they will find a way to make it continue. We strongly recommend this heartbreaking, nuanced, deeply insightful part of Sheridan’s film.

At some point, tribal hate doesn’t let us turn back or move forward. It tells us to undermine movement toward understanding, clarity, reconciliation, sanity. They won’t all agree, it loudly insists. Those people will never be our allies. If they can imagine even one hold-out, they tell us it’s foolish to try.

In fact, we are the 99 percent—although no, the professional oligarchs won’t be swayed by this obvious fact. Nor will there ever come a day when we win 99 percent of the vote, or 90 percent, or 80.

That isn’t what the new math means. As has been true through the annals of time, The Hate doesn’t want you to see that.


  1. I like the spirit of the "We are the 99%," even if I disagree somewhat with the construction. To me, it's more like "We are the 80-95%, depending on what issue is being discussed," because the second-richest 1% is still pretty wealthy.

    And eventually, if the group has any success, it'll turn into "We are the next 9 or 19 or maybe if everyone is lucky 29%." Lots of people were suffering before the recession of 2001 got the middle class riled up, but liberals didn't much care about those folks.

    But the 50-50 thing is flawed analysis since both those percentages are moving around when it comes to substance. Yesterday's Heritage paper is today's Obamacare, Bush's dictatorial power grab is Obama's Very Serious means of keeping us safe.

    That's why Naomi Klein had it right: Focus on issue advocacy and let the Democrats worry about themselves.

  2. I see what Bob is saying, but I also get where Digby is coming from. She's a white woman of a certain age from a certain background, and as she's noted many times in her column, she grew up with and around some of the Tea Party types who, no matter how much you try to dialogue with them, refuse to change.

    My experience has been a little different. I also grew up around Tea Party/right-wing types, some so virulent in their hatred of Democrats and liberals that you would think they were ready to do them bodily harm. These people despised Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Despised them, and let you know it.

    Over the years I have come across a number of right-wing people like this. Most recently, I used to participate on a message board that wasn't specifically about politics but did have a political section. What I saw over and over was this same virulent anti-liberal venom.

    But around 2006, things started to change. What I noticed was the deep disenchantment among some of these very right-wing people with Bush and his right-wing project. They were upset about the Iraq War debacle. They were upset that the government was borrowing at levels that would have made Clinton or any other Democrat jealous. They were surprised that the tax cut plans had not translated into all the jobs that Bush created.

    This provided an opening to talk past the venom. I can't say that all of the folks I talked with changed their minds, but many were willing to recognize that in fact, not just Bush, but the right-wing project, was a disaster. Whether they voted for Obama or sat out the election I don't know. But it was possible to meet part of the way.

    When things are bad this is possible. I don't know whether these people have resumed their calumny since 2008, but I think back to 2006, when things were already starting to go sour in this country, and recall that dialogue was possible. But they had to give too--that happens far too rarely among many high-profile conservatives nowadays.

  3. Final line in paragraph 4 should read:
    They were surprised that the tax cut plans had not translated into all the jobs that Bush claimed.

  4. Here here, Bob. You're in the right and don't stop flogging this one. You're the only well-known voice on the left I can think of who gets this.

    My experience with righties is that a lot of them are indeed closed-minded efftards (rather like far too many liberals I could name) but a lot of them aren't and actually do appreciate and respond to persuasion and seem open to convincing.

    Lefties resent the stereotype that they are out-of-touch elitist snots almost as much as they insist on confirming the stereotype.

    Oh, and there's an expression for what Digby's doing. It's called projecting.

  5. I find the 99% 'new math' construction useful for emphasizing our essential common humanity which could serve as the basis for a new political alignment that cleans the augean stables of our politics.

    The new math does not mean 99% will vote the same, but that identification can permanently shift enough people to change things.

    So, it doesn't matter if our identified tribes hate each other, that is a kind of mental noise that prevents us from really seeing the common humanity for long enough to create bridges that go to places other then the well trod path of the 50/50 polarization with the red faces, popping veins and pointed jutting fingers that typifies the violence across that borderline (Joni Mitchell song on this is amazing http://bit.ly/r2zDKx).

    And Bob is saying by looking at 'those people' as one of the 99% that we too belong to, that are orders of magnitude less wealthy than the 1% that have rigged the game - we may begin to connect with them without tribal judgements for long enough to share what Krugman and Jeffry Sachs have to say about the rabbit hole our common the Republicans want to place us in.

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  7. Well said Mr Somerby. I think it's of a piece with your stress on the greatness of Martin Luther King. The ability to love your enemies (or more fundamentally to refuse to see others as enemies at all) versus monkey tribalism. It's a deep question and it's something we all have to face.

    Thanks very much for continuing to say this. We need to hear it over and over, because at heart it's so much easier to be a tribal monkey than a compassionate brother/sister.

  8. Great column, Bob. In fact the 99% is not far off. $250K family income is the 98% borderline, which just about covers the matter. If we increased income taxes on the wealthiest 2% AND levied a one-time 75% wealth tax on estates bigger than, say, $3 million, we'd have all the money we needed for increasing Social Security payments and funding Medicare for All.