The other day I was talking to my teen girls, I don’t remember about what exactly, but I casually mentioned that something-or-other had come to be expected now that we’re living in another depression.
“It’s a recession, dad, not a depression,” one was quick to correct.
But it’s not a recession, I told them, it’s a depression we’re living in. They looked at me, shocked. A recession, well, that’s something the nation recovers from over time, eventually. But a depression? That’s serious. They study the Depression in school and things were really bad then. So if just saying that is enough to cause them to rethink their world then perhaps we need to change the message. Perhaps we need to look around and see that we really are living in a depression.
Of course, we’d know this if we weren’t so constantly distracted by technology and entertainment to see it. Would you like to prove this to yourself? Put down your smart phones and laptops for a month, turn off the TV and go to an actual sporting event or movie in a theatre, use public transit or walk everywhere you need to go no matter the weather, read only newspapers for information, and pay for everything that week using only cash. Doing this, putting yourself physically back into the world, you’ll start to see more of what’s around you. It’ll look damn depressing.
With this idea of my girls thinking we are only in a recession (call it deep, call it double dip, whatever) and not a depression I began to wonder if our well-honed ability to distract ourselves has prevented us from truly being able to have an effective protest. I was thinking this last night while I was making dinner and listening to the radio when a story came on featuring a profile of an article in the Sunday New York Times about how the Occupy Wall Street protests were creating a sort of public architecture. The Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman had enthusiastically embraced the movement’s occupation of a public/private space as a reinvention of a democratically formed community, with its own organically borne standards and definitions of that space. Kimmelman’s article boldly skips along drawing comparisons with Vietnam protests taking over Central Park in the 60s, Bejing and Berlin in ’89, the democracy movement in Cairo, all as a through-line to the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccoti Park.
It’s an interesting idea on the face of it but the tone of both the article and the radio interview struck me as just being a little too brightly off-key, like a child singing too loud to compensate for their fear of forgetting the lyrics. The lyrics in this case are the echoes of the Great Depression, and the exuberance of all this communal democracy drowns out the reality that the Occupy Wall Street movement is the modern manifestation of the Hoovervilles of the Depression, not some bold political wind of change.
Replace the displaced dust-bowl farmers and displaced factory workers with un- and under-employed Americans who have been convinced to amass bad debt and accept lower wages and these Occupy Wall Street communities look like nothing less than the shanty villages that sprung up during the Hoover administration before “too big to fail” became a viable means to keep financial solutions alive. It pains me to think of these protest encampments springing up across the country under Obama’s watch because I fully believe he inherited these problems and doesn’t have what is necessary to fix or change things. I think the movement may turn out to be a true political zeitgeist with the ability to shift the direction the country takes, but perhaps not in the ways we imagined.
The only positive hope I can hold onto through this repeat of history is that as these Obamopoleis continue to spring up and take root that eventually the government can and will deliver the necessary reforms and programs that place us at the cusp of an FDR-like change in civic and civil responsibility. I’d like my girls to see a country that stopped yelling at one another long enough to build something good. I’d like for them to witness what it means when people work together to ensure that everyone gets the same chances, that there is more life than playing video games on a touch screen, or believing that if enough people repeat the same fiction about living in a recession then surely things aren’t so bad that they need to worry about them.