There is a man on screen standing behind a toothy grinned boy with unruly hair and a bright orange dreamsicle dripping between his fingers. The man puts his hands on the boy’s bony shoulders, stares straight into the camera, and tells the questioner that his son will never be rich. “He ain’t no rapper, he won’t be rich. No. He won’t be rich.” Father and son wear ripped and soiled t-shirts, sweating in the Chicago heat.
The man who invented Kinko’s sits on a park bench arrogantly chewing gum, confidently tossing his head toward the lens as he explains how he climbed his way to the top and made millions. As he discusses the value of empathy in the business world, a disheveled black man approaches him. Right on cue. After a stilted conversation, the Kinko’s CEO hands over a couple of bucks. As soon as the presumably homeless man is out of sight, he states in a hushed tone that he doesn’t usually give those sorts of handouts. He only likes to invest his money in the homeless who seem to be “bettering themselves” by playing music or demonstrating some sort of talent. He only offers cash to those who beg when he thinks it’s the most effective way to get them to go away.
Condoleeza Rice’s stoic face flits across the screen. She speaks of how the American people help one another. She talks about disaster, and the compassion of neighbors–the strength of patriotism. As her strong voice continues to drone, images of thousands of starving and panicked Americans assemble outside the Metrodome. They are the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, screaming in the eyes of cameras for help. No one answers.
Milton Friedman, winner of the 1976 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his infamous “trickle down economics” defense, stews angrily behind horn rimmed glasses as he is questioned about his “proven” theories. He shouts that the death of this country will come from too much government–that the rich growing richer makes the poor richer too. The income gap is a motivating tool.
Nicole Buffet, granddaughter of billionaire Warren Buffet, tears up as she sits in her sparsely furnished apartment and tells the story of how he disowned her for choosing to live a middle class lifestyle and talking about what it was like to grow up in their family. Ironically, she works as a nanny for a wealthy family with a lower income than her own.
These are all scenes from the 2006 documentary “The One Percent.” Perusing Netflix last night, this documentary about the disparity between the richest 1% of Americans and the rest of the country became my Monday night entertainment of choice. Filmed and produced by Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson family fortune of Johnson & Johnson, I found it eye opening and honest despite a few amateur moments. It takes a lot of courage to speak out against a system from which you benefit. Jamie Johnson grew up in a family of millionaires. He grew up playing croquet dressed entirely in white, and sitting in on monthly meetings with the family financial advisor. He knew that his inheritance would take care of him for the rest of his life. And yet, he wondered about the rest of the world. He wondered what he did to deserve this decadence, when so many others were fighting to survive. He asked questions. Interestingly enough, his own father went on a similar venture when he was fresh out of college–filming a documentary in South Africa about the exploitation made by large corporations (including Johnson&Johnson.) Much of the plot in “The One Percent” stems from this father-son dynamic. After being reprimanded for the exposure involved in his own documentary, Jamie’s father angrily refuses to participate in the making of his son’s. He remains private with his wealth. Again and again he waves his hand in front of the camera and proclaims “I don’t know how to solve these problems. I don’t have the answers.”
These waving dismissals were typical of almost all interviews in the film that took place with members of the extremely wealthy echelon of the top one percent. These are the people who control the country. At one point, they are referred to as American aristocracy. Isn’t this the truth? We rejected monarchy in our founding, but we return to it through the lives of our celebrities and capitalist conquerers who grace the cover of Forbes magazine. The wealthiest interviewees all followed a trend of excuses and pride. They talked about how hard they had to work to get to the top–how they donated to charities and motivated the lower class. They talked about how everyone has a talent. How we can all “make it.” They complained about the estate tax. At a meeting that takes place every year in an effort to get the wealthiest Americans together to talk about how to make more money and keep what they already have, the author of a book with a title something like “Wealth: Keep it in the Family” gave a lengthy speech.
Cut to the scenes that take place in the inner city–where black fathers talk about the multiple school closings in their neighborhoods and the fact that their children are crammed 40 to a classroom until they eventually drop out. They talk with stooped shoulders about how they are being pushed out by the white elite–moved to make room for high rises and the glass windows of skylit condos. I watch and I am reminded of the scenes of “Savage Inequalities,” the stories of Teach for America Alumni, and “The Life and Death of the Great American School System.” In each of these cases, it was a privileged person looking into and interpreting a problem they previously didn’t understand. As a privileged college student, I am starting to feel this pull–the need to see what I have been allowed and encouraged to ignore, and to try to do something about it. This is what Jamie Johnson did, but it is something too few of us have the courage to do.
This is the point that the riveting article “Against Apathy: Role Models for Engagement” by Paul Rogat Loeb makes. He opens his article with a paragraph that spoke to me immediately, stating:
“Wherever I go, small groups of students do tackle the critical issues of our times: environmental threats, illiteracy, growing gaps between the rich and the poor. But most feel too overwhelmed. They’ll do important work volunteering one on one, because that’s tangible and concrete. But when asked to imagine themselves taking on the deeper roots of issues they care about, they come up blank. Our culture hasn’t given them the models to take action” (Loeb, 1).
I read this, and it resonates. We are taught as a generation to care, but we are taught also to stop caring once we make our own paychecks. We are told simultaneously that an individual can make a difference (i.e. the constant talk of recycling and “going green”) and that it’s all pretty much hopeless anyway–one extra long water wasting shower or one vote won’t change the world. We are optimists in liberal arts colleges–building strong opinions and reading about the world, but we are cynics on graduation day–saddled with student loan debt that now surpasses the nation’s credit card debt and faced with a daunting job market. We know that injustice exists, but our “survival” mode kicks in. At some twisted level, we are still social darwinists. We volunteer and we do our best to “stay informed” about the world, but we don’t bridge the gap to trying to change the system.
I recently had a conversation with one of my house mates about what defines “activism.” Living in an honor house with the title “Activism for Social Change,” we get a lot of questions about what it is we actually “do.” After we got past the creation of our cookie cutter answer about bringing activist groups on campus together to create change, helping to organize and advertise activist events, and holding semi-frequent networking nights, we started to really think about what activism means. So often it is associated with the enraged faces of sign carrying protestors on barricaded streets, but this is not what activism means to me. Activism is a scary word in our culture because we are so afraid to be hypocrites. To us, it seems to be always associated with incredibly strong opinions and lifestyles–with the extremes. It’s very hard for us to think in shades of gray. We think of activists as people who have changed their lives to the extreme and who should be called out every time they stray from their beliefs.
I think of activism as what happens when you recognize a problem and begin to analyze the connections that create it. I think of it as what happens the day you are volunteering at a soup kitchen and stop to think: “Why do I need to be here? Why do these people need to be fed? Why are they living on the streets?” Activism is what happens when you take that extra step and begin to change the system. When you recognize injustice and expose it. This is something Jamie Johnson did with his documentary. It is something Kozol and Ravitch and Sentilles did with their books (all read for my Education Independent Study and discussed in that category of this blog.) It is something we need to think about as parents–being careful to show our children the world beyond their bubble and encouraging them to think about it. We need to teach them to be optimists–fostering an understanding of the importance of relationships. This teaching needs to continue through the college years and beyond, rather than being abandoned for theories of “trickle down economics” and “every man for himself.”
On rainy days like this one, when everything I’ve been learning and discussing intersects, I have hope for solutions. We can’t know everything. We can’t see every angle. But it helps to make an effort. Eventually, we can do more than just care. We can see the problems in our country and throughout the world, acknowledge them, and move beyond mere recognition to try to change the systems that create them.