The Blind Men and the (Economic) Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by American John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) recounts a traditional Hindu tale still used as a caution against focusing too narrowly on one aspect of the truth and failing to see the “big picture”. It’s a mistake many if not all of us have made at one time or another.
Right now I believe this poem is being played out in the public square via the contrasting, but in some ways overlapping, goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement and those of the Tea Party which preceded it. These two movements, I think, have more in common than they may realize, but see themselves as polar opposites because each focuses on different aspects of the economic “elephant in the room” — the squeezing of the middle class.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”
The Occupy Wall Street movement’s original goal appears to have been to protest special treatment given by the federal government to the financial sector of the economy and the disproportionate influence of big business upon the political process. The perception is that ever since the 2008 financial collapse and the ensuing Great Recession, banks and big corporations have received numerous handouts and bailouts while ordinary people suffering loss of their jobs, homes, health insurance, etc. as a result of decisions made on Wall Street are left out in the cold. Further “demands” have since been added by a loose coalition of left-leaning groups, but the core message remains.
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”
Meanwhile, the Tea Party arose shortly after Obama’s election to protest the federal government’s overspending and reckless accumulation of debt; its name was intended as an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already”. It, too, has broadened to encompass a wide variety of generally right-leaning groups and individuals who share a common conviction that the government itself is the prime cause of the nation’s economic problems. Bloated budgets, overtaxation, disproportionate or unmerited benefits promised to favored groups (public employee unions, illegal/undocumented immigrants, etc.), intrusive regulation that impedes creation of private sector jobs — these are the things the Tea Party, in general, stands against. This movement sees overreliance on government as a threat to personal freedom and a big reason why so many people fail to take responsibility for themselves, their families or their communities.
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”
How does each movement view the other? If comments in the legacy media and blogosphere are any indication, Tea Partiers tend to regard OWS, at best, as a movement of gullible, easily manipulated and spoiled leftists who refuse to take responsibility for themselves and are seeking a scapegoat for all their problems. At worst, they see OWS as a conscious effort by socialist or communist masterminds to incite class warfare and civil unrest. Occupy Wall Street, meanwhile, has envisioned itself from the beginning as a liberal counterpart of the Tea Party. They see the Tea Party as an attempt by big business and the rich to protect their own wealth at the expense of the middle class and poor, by taking away government programs and benefits the vulnerable have long relied upon, reducing the influence of labor unions, etc.
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”
So which side is right? They both are, to some extent. Although it may be safe to say that most participants in this blog (including myself) lean more toward the Tea Party than OWS, I think we realize that big government is not the sole cause of all our economic problems. We also realize that curbing federal and state spending — while it will certainly be helpful to our economic health in the long run — won’t be painless by any means. Moreover, it’s hard to deny that big business and the financial sector often demand government handouts of their own — tax breaks, regulatory exemptions, and other targeted economic incentives — while decrying individuals who do the same (some of whom may have lost their jobs or their livelihood due to decisions made by these very same companies). And while individual responsibility and wise choices (such as not getting into debt and marrying before having children) can reduce the likelihood of poverty, it is no guarantee of success. One can do all the “right” things and still lose one’s job, lose one’s home, or end up in poverty or close to it (it happened to me not all that long ago). Hence the anger and fear which helped ignite both movements.
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”
At the same time, Occupy Wall Streeters should face the fact that government’s resources are not infinite, and that every benefit it promises to one person is taken from someone else through taxation. Well-paying private sector jobs with good benefits generally aren’t created by poor or even middle-class people; they are created by the wealthy who have money to invest in technology, facilities, and hiring. To rail against the “1 percenters” and demand additional burdens upon them may be to cut off the very source of the economic security they long for. Furthermore, with debts mounting throughout the world there may simply be no choice but to accept a reduced or less secure standard of living in the future. A proper balance between government and the private sector must be restored; the question is how it will happen — through the democratic process and rational decision making, or via a violent economic upheaval with potentially devastating consequences (a la Greece).
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”
Like the wise but blind men, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street touch upon different parts of the same beast that threatens the economic future of the American middle class. One may have a clearer view of the situation than the other, but both have valid points. The media, which thrive on conflict, prefer to present both movements as implacable enemies locked in a fight to the death. However, as Catholics who recognize that no individual or group now on Earth is free of original sin and that there is no such thing as a political Messiah, we should try to focus more on the big picture and have compassion for all those caught up in conflicts or economic forces they may not fully understand.
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!