This is Not the Story of a Shining City on a Hill

Some think the Occupy movement is full of a bunch of no-good-lazy-bums that have decided they don’t want to work. Or shower. Or do anything. Quite fairly, these critics argue that if the protesters only had the same networks of support, opportunities to succeed, and luck that they had, there wouldn’t need to be a movement.

Oh wait, they don’t argue that at all! Disregarding their lucky breaks, these critics still reckon they got where they are solely because of hard work, and if the protesters just got out of their tent and rolled up their sleeves, they could have the same. Well, unfortunately, that’s not the case, and that’s why people are upset. There are some protesters that aren’t employed, but a lot of the Occupy protesters do have jobs. Either way, they’ve seen what can happen, and they aren’t happy about it. They are raising issues that people ignore until it suddenly becomes their problem.

As George Carlin said: “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

And these aren’t issues that have just popped out of the blue. There are some pretty deep historical roots to the movement, from their non-violent tactics, to grievances that have been building – not just since 2008, but for decades.

Let’s go back to a world called the 1980s, and see what was happening then…

Yup, this was happening

In the 1980s, the United States was in the hands of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a former actor that had brought the glamour of Hollywood with him to Washington during his extravagant 16 million dollar inauguration. The narrative that Reagan was perpetuating, and indeed, what many now remember of the time, was a “Morning in America,” a time of rebirth for the country and a return to traditional American values. Historian Gil Troy described Morning in America as “the great party known as the 1980s, when the stock market soared, patriotism surged, the Soviet Union crumbled, and America thrived.”[1] Before a renaissance, however, must come a dark age, and Reagan often described the 1970s as “a decade of neglect” where the economy waned, foreign influence diminished, and the government became an overblown and inefficient leviathan.[2]

At the time of Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981, both supporters and detractors of the man had already bought into the myth of Reagan as a cowboy from the American west, ready for a gunfight with big government and any other enemies of free enterprise and individual liberty. The frontier myth, an integral part of American folklore since the late 1800s, was stylized and fused with Reagan’s political image. In an interview published in the New York Times the day after Reagan took office, historian Ray Allen Billington related that although this myth was based on the frontier as “a land of unrestrained liberty, where the individual was supreme and law was dispensed out of a holster instead of a law book…[the American west] wasn’t really like that.”[3] Billington went on to say that “people believe the myth that was created…and Reagan has come to personify those things; they aren’t true, but it doesn’t matter because people think they are.”[4]

By April 1984, after several years of tax cuts to the wealthy and increases to defense spending, Reagan proclaimed that “America is safer and more secure today because the people of this great nation have restored the foundation of its strength.”[5]

Just as with the earlier political myth-making, Reagan’s speeches were often high on patriotic imagery and optimism, even when this portrayal came at the cost of facts or the truth. In 1982 Reagan posed the question of what a private organization like the Boy Scouts, which at that time operated for 187 million dollars annually, would cost if it was run by the government bureaucracy. Without providing a source, only explaining that “someone’s worked out what the answer to that would be,” Reagan projected that the Boy Scouts, “if run by the government, would cost about 5 ½ billion a year.”[6] In the same year, the president went as far to tell Chicago students that gun possession used to be a capital offence in Britain in order to make a point about gun control.[7]

Rather than backing up his statements with factual evidence or his political image with substance, Reagan influenced on a broader level by affecting people’s general attitudes on issues they cared about. If they resented government control, they could relate to the idea of too many regulations or too many workers filling out government paperwork. If they supported every American’s right to bear arms, they could connect the story of gun possession resulting in the death penalty in England to gun control as an infringement on personal liberty in the United States. Through this political style combined with American myths and traditional values, Reagan had an affect on the consciousness of the United States in the 1980s. Indeed, as Gil Troy points out, “Reagan’s all-American outlook defined his times.”[8]

This outlook culminated while president Reagan was on the campaign trail in Texas during the summer of 1984. On 6 July, Reagan made a speech to the Texas Bar Association arguing that his administration had been working hard to undo the neglect of the 1970s. In his remarks, Reagan invoked the sacrificial myth of the Alamo and the legend of a confederate soldier named Robert E. Lee that worked to heal the United States following the civil war. The president connected this imagery to a narrative of the 1980s that showed a “reduction in both unemployment and inflation,” a crackdown on “high spending and taxes and unnecessary Federal regulations” and an administration that “spoke candidly about the wrongs and dangers of totalitarianism; we rebuilt our defenses; we revitalized our alliances.”[9]

At the end of the speech, Reagan asked “how can anyone in the United States of America, in the world today, be scared of anything?” Then he finished by declaring America to be a “shining city on the hill.”[10] The idea of America as a glittering example to the rest of the world was nothing new. John Winthrop first invoked the “city on the hill” myth in a sermon he delivered shortly before landing on America’s shores with a group of wealthy English Puritans in 1630. It subsequently became a founding myth of American exceptionalism.The America that Reagan described was seen as an example set for the rest of the world to live up to.

Making the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention on 16 July 1984, ten days after Reagan’s declaration of America as a shining city on the hill, New York governor Mario Cuomo responded by saying that “this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’”[11] Before it could truly be an example to be followed, America had troubles that needed to be solved. Cuomo argued that despite Reagan’s apparent populist approach and ability to connect with the average American, he really had no understanding of what was really going on in the United States. Namely, that there was:

…another part to the shining city, the part where some people can’t afford to pay their mortgages and most young people can’t afford one, where students can’t afford the education they need and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate. In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble. More and more people who need help but can’t find it…and there are people in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day.[12]

Cuomo then went on to say that:

Maybe Mr. President, if you visited some more places, maybe if you went to Appalachia where some people still live in sheds, maybe if you went to Lackawanna where thousands of unemployed steel workers wonder why we subside foreign steel; maybe,  Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and talked with some of the homeless there; maybe Mr. President, if you asked a woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn’t afford to use – maybe then you’d understand.[13]

The governor from the Democratic Party insisted that if their party was going to win the presidential election in November of 1984 then they “must get the American public to look past the glitter” that the Reagan administration had used to hide the United States’ second city.[14]

Where there was “Morning in America” there was also “mourning in America.”[15]As the economy grew, so did crime, drug problems, and the fear of a nuclear holocaust. As the Soviet Union was breaking down, so were many American families. Even with all the materialism and emphasis on consumption, a real concern for the environment was growing. For all the patriotism, there were many that saw America’s actions in the world as negative and harmful.

Nowadays, the USSR may be gone, but other problems remain. In a lot of ways, they’ve only gotten worse. The prevalent attitude on Wall Street now – the blind faith in materialism, greed and consumption – got a major jump-start in the Reagan Era, and the lack of regulation helped drive the recent problems.

Myth-making is distorting the truth about American capitalism. No longer is it the innovative entrepreneur that rises from rags to riches with the help of the market’s invisible hand. It’s corporations that win out, and anybody that can’t contribute to the profit margin is left by the way side. Or at least that’s the perception, and the gang at the top aren’t helping much to change it.

For instance, how did the fat cats act when the bailout money went to bonuses? Well, it was an example in arrogance; the impression that these Masters of the Universe and American Psychos somehow deserved such glittery rewards, built on the backs of hard-working people, didn’t go over so well. It caused division, and helped create the 99% versus the 1% dichotomy, and overshadowed the fact there’s a lot of good people in society’s elite too; folks that want to tackle the world’s problems as much as anybody. The paradigm of separation, however, only added fuel to the anger of the marginalized. As did debt. Losing their jobs. And feeling like they didn’t have a voice.

People are upset at the exclusion from having a say in a system that is:

-widening the gap between rich and poor
-ignoring the environmental damage worsening everyday
-turning universities into assembly lines
-spinning the truth into Reagan-esque propaganda

These issues and their consequences mean there is still, like in the ’80s, more than one city in America, and they are far apart from each other. The Occupy Movement is raising the voices from the other city, the one without the glitter. For doing so, they aren’t just getting a backlash from the 1%, but also the people they are protesting for: the ones in danger of being forgotten by the system when they suddenly find they are out of a job, can’t afford to finish school, pay their mortgage, or cover the cost of their kid’s hospital bill. They say they support the message, but not the means.

…But then they don’t offer any substantial ideas on how to make things better.

The problems dividing the haves and the have nots aren’t new. And trickle-down economics and blind faith in the free market  isn’t going to solve them.

[1] Gil Troy, Morning in America, p. 12.

[2] For examples, see “Remarks at the National Conference of the National Federation of Independent Business” 22 June 1983, and “Statement on Proposed Superfund Reauthorization Legislation” 22 February 1985.

[3] “A Cowboy Hero, Myth and Reality.” Robert Lindsey. New York Times. 21 January 1981.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Remarks at the National Leadership Forum of the Center for International and Strategic Studies of Georgetown University” 6 April 1984

[6] “Remarks on Private Sector Initiatives at a White House Breifing for National Service Organization Leaders.” 27 April 1982.

[7] Troy, Morning in America, p. 8.

[8] Ibid, p. 4.

[9] “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the Texas State Bar Association in San Antonio.” 6 July 1984

[10] “President Says Social Security Faces a Squeeze.” Frances X. Clines New York Times 7 July 1984.

[11] “Transcript of Keynote Address by Cuomo to the Convention.” New York Times 17 July 1984.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Troy, Morning in America, p. 13.

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3 Comments on “This is Not the Story of a Shining City on a Hill”

  1. Lee Chamney Says:

    Great article, but just to be a devil’s advocate, I think your last paragraph on moderates who don’t fully support Occupy might be a little overgeneralized. As a moderate, and certainly one of the 99%, I support some of the message and some of the means, but I have found the Occupy movement to be somewhat closed to any people who support the core policy reforms but not the rhetoric. And I do support a lot of real solutions, some of them which are also supported by the Occupy mainstream.

    For the messages, the original messaging of Occupy was great. It was policy-focused and moderate, focusing in the United States on overturning Citizens United through legislation and bank policy reform, and in Canada on improving social spending and opposing ideological spending. These are things most people, in Canada and the United States, agree with. They deserved and received union support, media sympathy, and popular agreement. But the last two months have been like watching a successful movement in reverse, as the movement adopted messaging more or less guaranteed to alienate unions and the mainstream. Anarchism has become so common in the movement that the angry young white man with a Guy Fawkes mask (licensed by Time Warner) shouting that “Capitalism kills” is now the face of the movement. And in my experience talking to Occupiers, conspiracy theories are very prevalent: a lot of people talked to in the movement believe that the Canadian government is irredeemably corrupted by corporations and that money is imaginary. Many people have also seemes extremely upset at me when I note the facts that corporate donations to political parties over $1000 are illegal in Canada, the vast majority of Harper’s money comes from ordinary people in donations of $50 or less, and that virtually all money in history has had aspects of fractional reserve involved in it. On one occasion, the very statement that policy change can happen through voting, that we’re not all forever oppressed by a giant conspiracy of bankers, has gotten me called a sheep.

    On the note of sheep, the elitism of the movement has become very public, and there isn’t a lot of condemnation coming at it by members inside the movement. You see the word “sheeple” at every rally, presumably referring to a large portion of the 99% they claim to represent. Similarly, the idea of a nonmaterialistic Christmas as a personal choice is great, but when Occupy protestors are yelling at people in malls for expressing love for their friends and familes through goods (something seen in almost every human society in history), when 90% of North Americans purchas Christmas gifts and 70% work in tertiary industry, which thrives on Christmas shopping, their claim to be representative is totally blown out of the water. I think a lot of moderates, like myself, are thinking that “If I’m part of the 99%, and I’ll get mocked for not buying into conspiracies, for wanting policy reform, and protested for spending a moderate amount on Christmas gifts, then they’re not representing me.” In the end, it really seems like a lot of protestors are just on power trips. Now, I know that’s not everyone, but it is being encouraged and accepted by the movement’s authorities, like Adbusters, and seems disturbingly mainstream in the movement itself.

    As for methods, a lot of the Occupy movements have cost taxpayers a lot of money. The bill to the City of Vancouver alone is over a million bucks, or the annual property taxes of about 500 ordinary people. And as the movement has no clear demands or withdrawal schedule, by all appearances they want to continue to soak up this money indefinitely. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to protest, but I think it alienates a lot of people that there is no acknowledgement within the movement that their method of protest is built on the backs of those they say they represent. There is a serious streak of entitlement in the Occupy movement, that they have a right and not a privilege to permanently take over public land, and that they have a right and not a privilege to taxpayer money, which, I think, a lot of people are right to be angry about.

    Anyways, that’s just my take, but I think it’s an opinion held in common by a lot of people in the middle ground. Sorry that this post got away from me and lurched wildly into TL;DR territory.

    • Lee, I’d like to copy this comment into my original post, and then delete it so I can take credit for it – but too many people have already contacted me saying they strongly agree with what you’ve written. I hate when that happens!

      Seriously though, you’ve got a lot of really good points, and you’re right to say I was being overgeneralized. When I post stuff I always hope somebody throws back some insightful critiques, and you’ve done a brilliant job of that. Also, it seems like there is starting to be some different voices raised from within the Occupy movement, including ones that do bring some condemnation. You’ve probably already seen this, but here’s an example:

      “Occupy and women’s rights”

      Hopefully Occupy can re-mobilize and stay focused on the original messages you were talking about. I think for anything to happen, though, the moderates are going to have to get more involved, and there’s a very good chance of that happening. For instance, there’s a new course being offered by Dr. Roberta Lexier down in Calgary at Mount Royal on Occupy:

      “New Gen Ed. courses tackle societal issues of the day”

      Also, there’s a new Facebook group starting out with interested folks around the UofA, and anyone is welcome to join:

      “Collaboration for Community Information”

  2. EricIndiana Says:

    Thank you so much for that great, well thought out & presented post. I get so sick of the Reagan myth – which I think grew simply because Reagan was reelected and the Republicans could point to him therefore as a successful president, after Nixon (disgraced), Ford (one-term filler) & Carter (single term). It’s funny that you cite the pun “Mourning in America” – I thought I had made that up (see this post: ).

    Anyway, I teach middle school & a rural town & the kids worship Reagan because their parents watch Fox News. It’s creepy and depressing.

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