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[Chalice] Joining the Losers [Chalice]
how shame, denial, pride, and resentment keep the 99% divided

Presented November 13, 2011, by Dr. Doug Muder

Listen to a recording of "Joining the Losers"
36:53 minutes - 14.8 MB - Joining the Losers .mp3 file.

Opening words

Anatole France: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."


I once heard the story of a particularly clever protest during the Civil Rights movement. A movie theater did not sell tickets to Negroes, so protesters of many ethnicities came together, arranged themselves by color, and got in line together. A blond Swede was at the front of the line, a coal-black African at the end. And in between Germans, Greeks, Arabs, and South Asians represented every shade from light to dark.

Where would ticket sales stop? Exactly what shade was too black?

Imagine that you stumbled into that protest, just wanting to see the movie, not knowing what was going on, not even conscious of the fact that you never saw Negroes inside this theater. The organizers place you in your appropriate spot, behind someone lighter, in front of someone darker.

Imagine being the last person to get in. The woman ahead of you gets a ticket. The man behind you is turned away. You get to see the movie.

Luke 18: 9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

I think I should annotate here, because Jesus uses both Pharisees and tax collectors as stereotypes that his audience would have understood, but two thousand years later we have a harder time. The Pharisees taught that religion should be part of everything you do, rather than just being a business transacted in the Temple between God and the priests. That's why, when the Temple was destroyed a few decades after Jesus, the Pharisees were the sect that survived to create modern Judaism. But as you might imagine, many of the common people Jesus was talking to might have found them annoying, holier-than-thou. "Why can't we just get on with our business and stop worrying what the Torah says about every little thing?" Tax collectors were disreputable people, people you wouldn't want to be seen hanging around with. It's not that there is something wrong about collecting taxes in general, but Israel was an occupied country, so these were Roman taxes. That made the tax collectors were collaborators, Jews who profited from the Roman occupation of their country.


[An annoying religious zealot and a collaborator went up to the Temple to pray.]

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income."

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.

Matthew 20: 1-16

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o-clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, "You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, "Why are you standing here idle all day?"

They said to him, "Because no one has hired us."

He said to them, "You also go into the vineyard."

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, "Call the workers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first."

When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.

And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat."

We Are the 99%

There is a web site called "We Are the 99%". Maybe you've seen it. People write their story on a single sheet of paper and then post a photo of themselves holding the paper. By now there are more than a thousand stories on that site. Here's one:

I am a 20 year old college student trying to better myself and my family by gaining an education although my husband and I both know that with the way things are, we're both almost better off working our minimum wage jobs that we have and are barely scraping by with than even attempting to do anything more.

We rely on government assistance for food/medical/daycare, work insane hours each week to get by and still can't afford basic necessities.

Our combined 100 + hr work week shows no profit. None of our jobs provide medical (which due to asthma, I cannot go without medications or I will die. Since a stable home for my children is more important that my own health, rent comes before my $150 prescriptions).

My husband is trying to find another full-time job on top of the one he has so we can stop relying on assistance but due to a buy out and closing of the company my dad worked at, so are 900 other people in the area who are suddenly unemployed or like my dad, took a 75% pay cut and can't afford their bills anymore.

I AM THE 99%

Here's another:

Got my bachelor's. Got low-paying job. Business went under. Defaulted on 70K student loan debt. I make less than 20K a year -- 2 jobs. Not enough to pay debt. No dental/health. 6 cavities -- used car -- no savings -- no $ in bank.

We are the 53%

There's another web site called "We are the 53%". It's a response to the 99% site,and it uses the same format. The title comes from the fact that only 53% of American households owed any income tax last year. Conservatives have latched onto this figure to symbolize the idea that only about half of the people in America are pulling their weight, while the rest are baggage.

Interestingly, the people considered to be baggage are not the idle rich, working age people who have no jobs and live on investment income. They're not trust-fund kids, who have never worked, but live on vast inherited wealth. No, the baggage, the 47%, are often like the folks on the 99% site, who might work two or three minimum-wage jobs, but can't make the minimum amount to get into the lowest tax bracket.

The first 53% post was put up by Erick Erickson, who is actually quite well-to-do and famous. He started, the premier conservative group blog, and now he's a commentator on CNN. He tells his 53% story like this:

I work 3 jobs. I have a house I can't sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don't blame Wall Street. Suck it up, you whiners. I am the 53% subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain.

With that post as a model, the site drew posts from people much poorer than Erickson:

I am a former Marine. I work two jobs. I don't have health insurance. I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college. I haven't had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years. But I don't blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners. I am the 53%. God bless the USA!

Here's a similar, but less inflamatory story that's been shared on Facebook:

I am a college senior, about to graduate completely debt free. I pay for all of my living expenses by working 30+ hrs a week making barely above minimum wage.

I chose a moderately priced, in-state public university and started saving $ for school at age 17. I got decent grades in high school and received 2 scholarships which cover 90% of my tuition. I currently have a 3.8 GPA. I live comfortably in a cheap apartment, knowing I can't have everything I want. I don't eat out every day, or even once a month. I have no credit card, new car, iPad or smart phone -- and I'm perfectly OK with that. If I did have debt, I would not blame Wall St. or the government for my own bad decisions. I live below my means to continue saving for the future. I expect nothing to be handed to me, and will continue to work my @$$ off for everything I have. That's how it's supposed to work.

I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.

Herman Cain, in an interview with Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal:

Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself. ... When I was growing up, I was blessed to have had parents that didn't teach me to be jealous of anybody, and didn't teach me to envious of somebody. It is not a person's fault because they succeeded. It is a person's fault if they failed.

The Talk

Many years ago, my mother and her sister had a conversation. I was about to get a Ph.D. in mathematics, the family's first, and I had already lined up a job that paid more than my father had ever made working in the factory. My aunt commented that I was lucky to have had so many opportunities, and that made Mom bristle. "He wasn't lucky," she said. "He worked hard." Now, I think this was an old argument, because over the years my sister and I had provided Mom with more obvious things to crow about than my cousins had given my aunt. Mom wasn't willing to write that off as luck.

Looking back, though, I recognize some truth in both of their points of view. I did work hard, and I was lucky. I was lucky to be born with talents I did nothing to earn. I was lucky to have parents and teachers who encouraged me. I was lucky that I didn't have to drop out of school to help support our family. I was lucky not to get sick. I was lucky that none of the stupid risks I took as a teen-ager turned into life-changing disasters. I went to college as an English major, and I came that close to not signing up for the freshman math course where I met my most inspiring professor and the ambitious students I hung around with for the next four years. That was one of many moments when my life could have gone some other way entirely. So I was lucky. And it was not the least of my luck to live in a country like the United States. I'm sure many just as talented people worked just as hard in Sudan or Rwanda, but things did not work out nearly so well for most of them. I could go on and on.I was lucky. And I worked hard. You can tell the story either way. Probably all of you have known some success in your life. Maybe it's a big success or just a small one. But somewhere, you have a success story. And like me, I bet you could tell it either way. You worked hard. And you were lucky. That's how you succeeded. That's how anybody succeeds.

Now, that vision of success -- that it takes both luck and effort -- is a little too complicated to communicate to small children. So we usually just present the hard-work side,because that's the part a person can control. You work hard and you hope for the best. But hoping for best comes naturally,while hard work needs to be taught. So it would be a poor parent who told his child: "Do whatever you want and maybe you'll get lucky." Instead, parents tell children: "No you can't go out and play with your friends, you have to stay in and do your homework. No you can't stay up and watch TV, you have to go to bed so you'll be awake for school tomorrow. No you can't skip straight to dessert. You have to eat your fruits and vegetables. And then you have to brush your teeth." And -- unless things have changed a lot in the last few decades --parents also threaten children with what will happen if they don't: They'll grow up ignorant. They won't get into college. They won't get a job. They'll be fat and unhealthy. They won't be good at sports. Their teeth will turn black and fall out. They won't be pretty, and no one will ever want to marry them. Now, personally you may try hard not to give these negative messages to your children. But they're out there. Children can't really escape them.

There's an old song about this. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby both sang it. It's called "Would You Like to Swing on a Star?". The chorus is very upbeat:

Would you like to swing on a star?
Carry moonbeams home in a jar?
And be better off than you are?

But then comes the alternative: Or would you rather be [some kind of animal]? Each verse describes a different kind.

Or would you rather be a mule?
A mule is an animal with long funny ears.
He kicks up at anything he hears.
His back is brawny but his brain is weak.
He's just plain stupid with a stubborn streak.
And, by the way, if you hate to go to school,
you may grow up to be a mule.

It goes on like that: Pigs have bad manners. Fish are slippery and try to escape the consequences of their actions. And so on. These animals are bad. And if you're not careful, you might grow up to be one. Now, people who tell kids these things mean well. And if you remember adults telling you things like that when you were growing up, I'm sure they meant well too. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby probably meant well. Some kinds of behaviors help you to succeed in life, and the grown-ups wanted us learn them. They didn't want us growing up to be losers. But there's a downside. What happens when you grow up and you meet the kind of people your parents threatened you might become? People who can't find work. Unhealthy people who need some kind of care they can't pay for. People who don't have an education or a skill. Or maybe they do have an education and a skill, but it's obsolete now. We don't do that kind of work in this country any more. Or a machine does it now. Or that whole industry doesn't exist any more. Maybe they didn't save when they were younger. Or they did save, but they put their money in AAA-rated bonds that turned out to be worthless. Or maybe they trusted a pension fund that invested in those bonds. However it happened, they are the losers in this economy.

How do you react when you meet them? No doubt some part of you feels compassion, wishes them well, and wants to do whatever you can to help. But maybe you have another reaction too. Maybe some part of you thinks: All my life I was raised not to be like this person, and by God I'm not! I didn't make his mistakes. I stayed in and studied when he went out and played. I turned left when he turned right. I took the other one of those two paths that diverged in the woods, and that has made all the difference. In other words: O God, I thank thee that I am not like this tax collector. Or, to put that in 21st-century terms: Suck it up, you whiners.

When enough people have a reaction like that, it starts to have political implications. It's one of several psychological responses, each of which is very human and understandable in an individual. But the people who benefit from the injustices in our economic system can take advantage of them to keep the rest of us from coming together to fix things. Let me go back and start at the beginning. I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know if I say that we live in a country with ever-increasing inequality, ever-decreasing opportunity, and hardening barriers between classes. More and more so all the time, our economy works for the benefit of the wealthiest 1% and at the expense of the rest of us. You would think this would be impossible in a democracy, but here we are. The lower 99% seem incapable of coming together to defend their own interests.

Now, how does that happen?

Psychologically, an unjust system's first line of defense is shame. That's what's going on in that Herman Cain quote -- and I picked Cain not because the message is unique to him, but because he said it more plainly than anybody else: If you're not succeeding, don't blame the system, blame yourself. If you want to work, but can't find a job; if your mouth is full of cavities, but you can't afford to go the dentist; if you're doing everything you can, but you still can't provide what your children need to grow up healthy and happy -- don't be angry, be ashamed. Don't go out on the street and protest, go into your closet and hide, because you are a loser. That sense of shame combined with the expectation that we will meet blame rather than compassion causes many of us to minimize the extent to which we have been affected by the downturn. "Oh, I'm OK. I'm getting by. Things are looking up. I've got some prospects."

In the last few months, the Occupy Wall Street movement has started breaching that first line of defense. That's the significance of that 99% web site. People are overcoming shame. By protesting in public, and by putting their pictures and their stories out on the web for everyone to see, they're saying, "Yes, I am losing in this economy. But I refuse to hide. Look at me. This is what a loser looks like in America today." If you spend much time paging through that website, you'll probably see that they look a lot like the rest of us. The losers look a lot like you.

Now that is a scary thought, and fear tends to evoke another understandable reaction: denial. When you meet someone whose situation scares you, makes you worry about your own situation, the most natural response in the world is to try to find some difference between them and you, some waterline where you can imagine that the tide of misfortune will have to stop. That reaction may not be admirable, but it is very human. You hear that someone has lung cancer and (if you're not a smoker yourself) the first words out of your mouth are likely to be "Did he smoke?" The parents whose child vanished into thin air, the woman who was raped, the old person who can't keep working but can't afford to retire -- it's the most natural thing in the world to wonder what they might have done wrong that you always do right. And once you find the waterline that separates you, it's very tempting to build an imaginary wall there, a wall that makes it very clearthat I am on this side and they are on that side. And so, your mind turns differences of degree into differences of kind. It's not just that they work 40 hours a week and you work 45. It's that you are hard-working and they are lazy. If a single choice of yours has turned out better than theirs, then you are wise and they are foolish. If they broke a single commandment that you have kept, then you are upright and they are depraved. So an unjust system's second line of defense is to help you build that wall of denial to separate yourself from those shameless people who are refusing to hide even though they are losers. And so you will hear, for example, that unemployment isn't really that serious a problem, because it mainly affects the unskilled. Or people who didn't graduate from college. Or college graduates who didn't major in the right subject. Or people who did major in the right subject, but didn't get good enough grades. As long as there is some place to build that wall, you don't have to admit that the losers look a lot like you.

Denial gets all mixed up with legitimate pride. So that ex-Marine is right to take pride in how hard he works and what he has endured to keep his head above water. But he works two jobs and has no health insurance. Who is he kidding, imagining that there is some difference between him and the people on the 99% site? Likewise, that college senior who has no debt and works her ass off -- she has a lot to be proud of. But she imagines a wall that separates hard-working people who make good decisions from everyone else. She is on the right side of that wall. And because luck plays no role in the world, and because decisions that seem wise at the time never turn out badly down the road, she will always be on the right side of the wall. She will never need the help or support or compassion of the 99%.

In the same way that we resist being lumped in with the losers, we also want to hang onto our resentment of people doing better than we are. I'm not talking about class warfare here -- quite the opposite. It is actually quite hard to raise resentment against the very rich. Human nature just doesn't work that way. For example, growing up, I hardly ever thought about the kids who spent winter vacations skiing in Aspen and summer vacations surfing in Hawaii. They lived in another world. But if my sister got two scoops of ice cream when I only got one, that was not fair. Resentment stays close to home. It's much easier to resent people who are almost like you, but have some small advantage. Maybe they have just a little more than you, or like the late-arriving workers in the vineyard, they have exactly what you have, but didn't suffer as much to get it.

And so, an unjust system's third line of defense is to deflect legitimate resentment onto the wrong target. Last spring, when the bill to take away the collective bargaining rights of public employees was being debated in Wisconsin, the Club for Growth blanketed the state with a very effective ad. It talked about the sacrifices that private-sector workers in Wisconsin had been forced to make to save their jobs, the cuts they had had to agree to in benefits and wages. And where did the ad want those workers to focus their resentment? Should they resent the owners, who pocketed those sacrifices as higher profits? Or the executives who raised their own pay while firing some employees and squeezing concessions out of the rest? Oh no. The ad wanted distressed private-sector workers to focus their resentment on the public-sector teachers and nurses who hadn't had to make those sacrifices yet. If my money has been transferred to the rich as profits, then my sister's money should be transferred to the rich as tax cuts. It's only fair.

We are the 99%. This is a democracy. If we can hang together, it ought to be possible to re-write the rules so that the economy works for ordinary people again. But there are big obstacles against us holding together. And you don't have to look far to see them, because they are sitting right in your own brain: the shame you feel in your own defeats; the denial that makes you want to say, "Bad things only happen to other people"; the pride that makes you want to set yourself above those who are worse off; the resentment you feel against people who are doing only slightly better. And all of those impulses sit right next to things you need or deserve. You ought to criticize yourself and learn from your failures. In the face of adversity, you need to find reasons to hope. You deserve be proud of all the things you're doing to keep your head above water. And you should stand up for yourself and demand to be treated fairly. So I'm not saying you should throw all that stuff out of your head. That would be naive advice, because I can't do it myself. I am ashamed, I am in denial, I am proud, and I resent all the wrong people -- just like everybody else.

All I'm saying is: Pay attention. Watch yourself. Shame, denial, pride, resentment -- those are ways you can be manipulated into working against your own interests and against people whose problems are just like yours. The manipulators have enormous resources. You will hear their message from all directions: The people who want change, they are evil, they are lazy, they are jealous, they are misguided, they are dirty, they are disgusting, they are unreasonable, they are violent, they are minions of some dark conspiracy against all that is good. And above all, you should be ashamed to have any connection with them. You should identify with the 1%, because you want to join the winners, not the losers. From time to time, that message will strike home and you may find yourself raging against people who are victims of this economy, people who are worse off than you are. When that happens, take a step back. Ask yourself where this is coming from. This thing you find yourself raging about, is it really the important battle? Or is it more important to make the country work again for the vast majority?

If this movement is to succeed, the hardest thing you will need to do for it is not to vote for certain candidates or give money to certain causes or even to occupy Washington Park. The hardest thing you'll need to do is face that voice in your own head, the one that says, "You don't want to be one of these losers." When you hear that voice, I hope you will claim your people and say: "Yes. Yes I do. I want to join the losers. Together, we are the 99%."

Closing Words

A century ago, Eugene Debs claimed the losers of his day like this: "While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it."

©2011 Dr. Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Dr. Doug 2011. Joining the Losers, /talks/20111113.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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