My father is an engineer (the Engineer, if you read this blog often). When my brothers and I were of an age for bedtime stories, our father’s engineeriness showed itself in an interesting way. In lieu of traditional bedtime stories, he told “stories” about how things work. He explained the inner workings of our television set well enough that years later, when I was trying to understand a new method of radiation therapy for my job, someone described it as “rasterization,” and I instantly got it.
We understand life through stories, and the TV raster story was exactly my father’s kind of tale. The underlying plot line was that if you delve into the physical realities of the world and learn how things work, really cool things become possible. It’s a good story.
Today I was reading the ongoing coverage of Occupy Wall Street. An NPR commentator noted that the media is having trouble with this story because they don’t know what to call it. Is it a movement? A political act? Typically we’d expect for there to be concrete demands and conditions under which the occupation would be ended. But there is another sort of rhetoric coming up, one that I infinitely prefer. One journalist characterized the occupation as a great act of “political imagination.” Naomi Klein spoke of a whole different level of change in addressing the occupiers when she said, “I’m talking about changing the underlying values that govern our society. That is hard to fit into a single media-friendly demand.”
In a previous blog post, I wondered if the occupation was a sign that it was time to reconsider what could change. Today, I think we have an opportunity to change our underlying story, to question the values we’ve been living by, not the ones we say we live by, but the ones our behavior indicates we live by. That level of change is as much about living those values ourselves as it is about demanding the same of our politicians and financial leaders.
Taking a good hard look at the story we’ve been culturally married to, the single hardest truth I see is that we’ve long believed that money is the single most important thing. We may say it’s family, but many of us work ridiculous hours and still bring the laptops and Blackberries home. We may say it’s religion, morality or ethics, but we still buy the cheapest products around, even if they’re made cheap by immorally and unethically exploiting workers overseas. We may prefer not to support companies who took government bailout money and then gave their executives huge bonuses, but if they offer cheaper insurance, the money trumps the objection. I’m not writing this with an intent to shame. It takes energy to fight the dominant story, and I certainly don’t always win that fight in my own life. But if I had to pick the number one aspect of our story that needs to be rewritten, this would be it.
I’d vote for our next project of political imagination to be this: To break the stranglehold of money – politically, culturally, and personally.