Stop the Tether Ball

I was among the thousands who marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue on August 26, 1970.  We carried posters demanding pay equity, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, free abortion on demand, or an end to rape.  Like the people in Occupy Wall Street, and the other Occupy groups around the country, we didn’t have a set agenda.  We were frustrated after millennia of a subordinated status and we were exhilarated by our camaraderie; we knew that in Iowa City, Lawrence, Kansas, and all over the west coast others were joining the demonstrations.

I remember looking up at a private men’s club along the route.  A trio who might have been drawn by Thomas Nast was standing at the window, holding highball glasses, their faces reddened by whiskey, looking down at us with mingled incredulity and scorn.  We cheered and marched on.

During the next decade, we achieved some of our goals, had frustrating defeats over others, never reached pay equity, but what we did do was change the conversation about women in America, just as Birmingham and Selma changed how we talked about race.  I look at Occupy Wall Street, or DC or Chicago—my current home—and hope the conversation about wealth, privilege, and a decent life in America is about to start changing.

In the 1980’s, when I worked in the insurance industry, I read an op-ed piece in the National Underwriter by a health insurance executive.  He said that just as Americans had learned to accept two different tiers of education—good for the wealthy and miserable for the rest—so we would learn to accept two tiers of health care.  I thought this was so outrageous I wrote a book about it (Bitter Medicine), but the executive was correct: we swallowed two-tier medical care right alongside shockingly awful schools as if both were manna from heaven.

In that same decade, as American business owners began shutting down factories here to send work to the cheapest places possible—even to slave labor camps in Burma—the Chicago Tribune chided Danville, Illinois workers who wouldn’t agree to cut their pay to ten dollars an hour. The plant was moved forthwith to Mexico.  Try living on twenty thousand a year, I wrote in one of my endless unpublished letters to the editor.  Now support a family on that income.

For  over thirty years, the dominant voices in America have shouted that the only functions the government should regulate are women’s reproductive health, and access by the poor to daycare or health care (then US Senator Rick Santorum proclaimed that women on welfare, required since 1996 by TANF to find work when their newborns were six weeks old, didn’t need help with child or health care because “It never hurt anyone to struggle a little.”)

We don’t need libraries, because if you want a book or a computer you ought to buy your own.  We don’t need clean air or water for the country as a whole—those are a privilege for the wealthy. Who don’t need to pay taxes.  As Leona Helmsely famously put it, “Only little people pay taxes.”

We little people subsidize the roads, the police, the fire protection, and the public safety for the Koch brothers.  We little people buy gold-plated health care for Congress, which includes 244 millionaires, many of whom are working hard to deprive the rest of us of a modest shadow of the coverage we buy for them.

When I look at Zuccotti or McPherson or Grant Park, I’m not surprised the Occupiers don’t have a fixed agenda.  For decades, we’ve been like a tether ball in a schoolyard, pummeled by so much abuse from so many different directions that we’ve just spun around in circles.  Now, the Occupiers are stopping the ball, and demanding that we play a new game, one where the one percent don’t get to pummel the ninety-nine.

The Preamble to our Constitution cites six purposes of the document that made us a nation.  Two of them are “to establish justice” and “to promote the general welfare.” It’s high time we turned our conversation in America toward how to achieve those goals.