Leland Conway's Oct. 10 column on the Lexington version of the Occupy Wall Street protest is a move to narrow the debate on the power of corporate and financial elites.
He begins by telling us the local protesters "don't really know" why they are angry. But Conway's main concern is to preach a fundamentalist faith in "the market." as if Americans haven't learned anything since the Great Depression.
Allegedly, the free market — the domain of bankers and CEOs — will take care of everybody. He seems to think citizens should ignore the increasingly unequal and unfair society the big banks and corporations had a huge hand in making.
Amazingly, he wants the global markets of corporate capitalism to operate in ways they historically never have.
I understand there are more than 1,300 complementary OWS protests around the country. These democratic protest groups are committed to the non-violent tradition of Henry David Thoreau, the Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The ongoing Lexington demonstration, conducted by people largely 18 to 30 in age, is clearly committed to non-violent use of First Amendment rights respectful of community norms.
I have talked with dozens of them about joblessness, crippling student debt, their parents' struggle with mortgage issues, grossly inadequate health insurance coverage and an uncertain future with an increasingly unstable climate.
They have thrived on support of passing drivers and walkers, many of them blue collar and no doubt experiencing declining wages and benefits, unfair bank fees, etc. They prize the support of older citizens.
One night just before 9 p.m, I watched an older man, disabled, with a graduate degree in history, park his car, take out a hand-lettered sign and go to the sidewalk to join the protest. Another evening I was very pleased to stop by one of the group's regular assemblies and find that one of Kentucky's most distinguished writers had brought a sizable group of students from a nearby college.
What more and more of our youth are asking us is essentially: "Do you really want to live in the society that we are becoming?" "Where inequality is this severe, how long do you think we can claim to be a democracy?"
In a widely accepted study of 20 advanced nations, we have the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children. We have about 50 million people with no health insurance and at least 25 million adults with no jobs. Meanwhile, our decaying infrastructure is dangerously neglected. Outstanding student-loan debt is even larger than credit-card debt.
What is motivating those who have taken their protest to one of the nation's largest banks? It is exactly what former Sen. Russ Feingold recently said: "the crooked way this country is being run" and the "unholy alliance" between Big Business and publicly elected representatives. As the protesters' signs indicate, they are not taken in by the dogma that only Big Government is to blame.
This protest is grounded in the experience of economic and environmental insecurity and in a thoughtful concern for "jobs with justice" — and more.
It is the latter that seems to agitate Conway. These folks are asking tough questions that they constantly discuss and argue — not at all surprising to someone who has been in the classroom more than 40 years, as I have. He asserts that "capitalism was never supposed to be in partnership with government."
He should tell that to the financial elite's experts in global tax dodging. These big-business profiteers know how to keep money overseas instead of creating jobs at home. These elites know how to use trade and tax policies to exploit the global labor market even when, for example, China's factories operate like prison camps.
Meanwhile, some corporate ways of exploiting nature contribute to ecological havoc and keep climate scientists such as Peter D. Ward and James Hansen awake worrying about future generations.
Kentuckians concerned about this group would do well to remember Wendell Berry joining Kentuckians for the Commonwealth members such as Teri Blanton and Stanley Sturgill sitting in a weekend at the Governor's Office. They should calm their fears and come downtown and talk to these young people who like to sit and talk ideas.
What I have seen down there is a remarkably practical sense of community along with excitement and appreciation for participatory action in public space. As they like to put it, "This is what democracy looks like."
To this I would add, in our dismaying polity and besieged world, these are also legitimate grounds of hope for democratic change.