Who Are the 1 Percent?

There is a real and potentially fatal problem with the “Us vs. Them” narrative that Occupy Wall Street has made the focal point of its campaign — most famously with the “99 percent against the 1 percent” rhetoric — and that is that it does not transmute smoothly into the more intimate “Me vs. You.” It is one thing haphazardly to generalize about “the 1 percent,” or “the rich,” or “Nazi bankers” and “fascist policemen,” and quite another to get down to cases. When I interviewed a lady who labeled the bankers and the police “Nazis,” she was notably reluctant to describe any one of those to whom I pointed in such extreme terms — “Well, maybe not him personally . . .” Put a face on an epithet, and the vitriol soon dwindles; indeed, the targets who retain their “miscreant” sticker even when named tend to be a long, long way away — far enough removed to be usefully employed as abstractions. This was something I noticed particularly keenly on Friday, at Occupy Wall Street’s march on the banks.

While the marchers were fashioning their infantile paper airplanes, a couple of Citigroup employees stood by on the street having a cigarette break. One of them got into a conversation with a nearby protester: “Am I the problem?” he asked. “Well . . . not you,” came the nervous response. You see, when push comes to shove, a couple of popular scapegoats aside, it is always someone else who is the problem. Not him, not you, but that guy in the other department. He is the monster. Some of this is, naturally, attributable to politeness; it is far easier to rail in generalities than to look someone in the face and tell him that he is what ails the republic. But I think that this reluctance is more readily attributable to America itself — the United States simply doesn’t produce that many top-notch cartoon villains.

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