Two numbers that are the sum of an anguished decade

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2011, 12:00am


Numerologists are having a field day with two digits - 1 and 9 - that, when arranged in a certain sequence, have foretold the fortunes of America: first there was 9/11, now it's 99:1.

The former entered the American psyche like a bullet a decade ago, sinking so deep into our collective wound that the evocation of its memories - exploding planes and falling glass towers, a fabled city shrouded in soot and dust, crushed bodies and a hole in the ground - spurred two costly wars overseas.

Indeed, some historians propose that 9/11 drove the American empire onto the path of self-destruction; the most powerful country on earth found itself a decade later teetering on the edge of an economic abyss as a direct result.

Nine. One. One. 911. Emergency. Crisis. Sorrow. War. Mistakes. Recession. The Lost Decade.

But, while its meanings continue to pile up, a new arrangement of the two digits comes along exactly a decade later and, with it, a shifting tide - 99:1. Ninety nine to one. It stands for protest and misery, the slipping of the middle class from their moorings. The former delineates a nation rallying under the flag, speaks of unity against a common enemy. The latter speaks of the opposite: disparity, disunion and, ultimately, disillusionment.

The colon between 99 and 1 has transformed into a raised drawbridge, with the 1 per cent living it up inside the fabled fairy tale ivory citadel while the 99 per cent look in. And the moat? A yawning gap between the haves and rising number of have-nots.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread around the world and continues unabated: 99:1 is the symbol of resistance.

One poignant poster in San Francisco said: 'Give us back our Dream!' Latest Census Bureau figures show the American dream is unravelling as millions slip into poverty. Almost one in four children - or 16.4 million - now live in poverty. Last year, 2.6 million more people sank beneath the poverty line, bringing the total to 46.2 million, the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has published such figures.

Critics and pundits alike say there's no coherent demand from the protesters; no collective goal. Whereas 9/11 was a collective need to right an injustice, 99:1 is not yet part of the collective consciousness that could change policies.

No discerning voting blocks have emerged from the diverse crowd. The left, long divorced from populist politics, struggles to harness the energy of the unrest, while the right remains oblivious.

Give us back our dream! Perhaps among all of the signs, this is closest to the core of the rage. After all, who wants to wake up to a stark new reality? In a sense, the 99 per cent may moan about the economy and inept politicians, but we can't tear ourselves away from the old vision.

Marx, who thought religion was the opiate of the masses, obviously didn't own a flat-screen and experience the power of reality TV and America's fairy-tale-like commercialism.

The reality that's not yet shown on TV is the permanent underclass that has become a fixture of the new America. That reality also tells us we are a nation mired in debt. And, if the bankers seduced us to buy a house beyond our means, packaging subprime mortgages as the norm, we must take part of the blame for wanting a grand home that was never within our reach.

The 'Occupy' movement is a rallying cry but is not yet a coherent redefinition of the new America. The 99 per cent, if it is to turn the tide, must take ownership of America's new direction. It needs the clarity of a new vision. It must demand of itself as much as it does of the state. Reform is a national imperative and personal necessity. It must ask serious questions. The American dream has been downsized. Can we live with less?

Strange to say, the 99 per cent needs to think like the 1 per cent. As numerologists describe the personality assigned to that singular number: 'You don't let anything or anyone stand in your way once you are committed to your goal.'

New America Media editor Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres