OWS: The Children's Crusade Redux
This year marks the 800th anniversary of the Children's Crusade. The celebration began early. There are some intriguing parallels, and contrasts, with OWS as it sputters into the new year.
In the spring and summer of 1212, crowds of young people gathered around two charismatic boys: a shepherd from near Chartres called Stephen and a twelve-year-old from Cologne, Nicholas. Stephen claimed that he had received a letter from Jesus, delivered in person, and Nicholas reported a conversation with an angel. The boys had been told to lead a Crusade to the Holy Land.
Crusading was in the air. The disastrous Fourth Crusade, launched in 1202, had been diverted to Constantinople and had sacked the capital of Eastern Christianity. Undeterred, the pope had declared crusades against heretics in southern France in 1208 and against the Muslim conquerors of Spain in the early spring of 1212. Like the Second and Third Crusades, these were all military operations, conducted by nobles and their knights. This one was to be different. The Holy Land was to be restored to Christendom and the True Cross recaptured not by arms, but by the grace of God. He would part the waters of the Mediterranean and, when the young people arrived "dry shod" in the Middle East, their piety would convert the heathen.
An important article by the Dutch medievalist Peter Raedts speculated that the Children's Crusade was a movement chiefly of the poor, arguing that "puer" referred not merely to boys, but to wage-earners as well. A sparkling recent account by Gary Dickson disagrees. There were certainly adults along, particularly in the German movement, but the ranks were made up mostly of children and adolescents. In any case, all participants believed that their innocence was their saving grace.
The idea of the sanctity of childhood long predates Rousseau. Jesus proclaimed that only those who had become like children would enter the kingdom of heaven. His preaching in the temple at age twelve was a popular image in stained glass windows, along with slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the first Christian martyrs. There was a revival of the belief, too, that poverty was indispensable for salvation. St. Francis of Assisi was the most inspiring of several preachers, with wide followings who urged that the injunctions of Jesus be taken literally. St. Francis, possibly inspired by the children, set out on a Crusade of his own later in 1212 but was shipwrecked.
The previous three Crusades to the Holy Land had been miserable failures. Clearly, God wished to entrust the retaking of Jerusalem only to His beloved innocent and poor. Crowds of ordinary people had also participated in the First Crusade. They had preceded the armies and, stirred by the preaching of Peter the Hermit and Count Emicho of Flonheim, had looted and massacred the Jews of the Rhineland, and then fought in Anatolia. This Children's Crusade, on the other hand, was to be a peaceful movement that would transform the world.
In the summer of 1212, the Crusaders crossed the Alps into Italy. Nicholas, according to legends, traveled in a flower-bedecked cart, holding aloft his magic tau. Finally reaching Genoa, the more than 7,000 followers watched expectantly as Nicholas approached the Adriatic. The waters didn't part. When he tentatively stepped onto the sea, his foot plunged into the water. Bitterly disappointed, his followers dispersed. Some tried to arrange alternative transportation and hire ships in Genoa. Some made their way to Marseilles and Brindisi with the same idea. Many settled in Italy. The others trudged back across the Alps, though only a few made it home, according to the chroniclers.
As for today's Occupiers, they did not gather spontaneously. They were summoned by the Soros-funded, media-savvy, anti-capitalist, Israel-bashing Adbusters. There was no charismatic leader. The guy in the flower-strewn cart, the Obamessiah, had let them down. (If they'd looked into the 2008 campaign contributions, they'd have noticed that he got a heftier percentage of Wall Street's donations than McCain did.) And in light of the disenchantment of the world several generations ago and the wholesale substitution of politics for religion since then, the demands of the Occupiers are strictly temporal. And these don't include reclaiming for the West the places where Jesus walked. Quite the opposite.
The ninety-nine-percenters are out to save the world nonetheless. Beginning with modest calls for term limits, campaign finance reform, and restrictions on influence-peddling, their platform rapidly moves on to demands for universal health care; reviving the WPA and CCC to create "jobs for all Americans"; a "Robin Hood" tax on all financial transactions; draconian powers for the EPA to "shut down corporations," along with major funding for alternative energy projects; amnesty for illegal immigrants; legalizing same-sex marriage; a moratorium on foreclosures; and, conveniently, forgiveness of all student loans -- while cutting the national debt by 15 trillion.
The demands are not utopian. They're childish.
We're apt to think of all medieval people as childish, with their capriciousness, cruelty, and credulity -- above all their passionate attachment to relics, the bones of saints. But the Children's Crusade was roundly condemned by nearly everyone commenting on it. The abbots, monks, and merchants were skeptical about the divine inspiration of the expedition and convinced of its futility. Clerical critics had likely read the last four books of Aristotle's Logic, newly translated into Latin and part of the core curriculum of Europe's new universities. The young Crusaders, they argued, were behaving irrationally.
It's not much more rational to believe that lavish spending, debt forgiveness, draconian regulations, and open borders will bring us dry shod to the Holy Land of balanced budgets.
"Children are little Zen masters," the Beat poet Gary Snyder used to tell audiences. Not exactly, but they do give us small epiphanies from time to time. I'll always remember a moment when my 4-month-old daughter looked me in the eye and casually tossed her bottle over the side of the high chair. I was struck by the obvious: children have no appreciation for where the bottle comes from and where it goes, no understanding of the past, no sense of the future.
The Occupiers are as obtuse about the causes of the recession they're protesting as they are about the consequences of their cornucopia of demands.
A government intent on increasing the percentage of minority home-owners pressured banks to gut lending standards while it dramatically reduced the risks of subprime loans. It encouraged the proliferation of mortgage-backed derivatives and then allowed banks to leverage their dubious CDOs 40:1. A favorite target of the left, Gramm-Leach-Bliley -- OWS wants to repeal it -- which allowed banks to diversify, deregulated nothing and enabled institutions who took advantage of it to survive the meltdown.
There's no plank in the Occupiers' manifesto about Fannie and Freddie. The two GSEs held 70% of the country's 27 million low-quality mortgages, and they have lost $226 billion since 2007. Bailing them out will cost at least $154 billion -- three times what was spent on the financial firms and GM. But no demonstrators are camped in front of Fan and Fred, the Federal Reserve, the SEC, or the White House or Congress.
The Children's Crusade hoped to peacefully convert the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem. But the left is disfigured by hatred. The Occupiers and their supporters are driven by resentment and envy, but also by vindictiveness. For the left, there are always victims to be revenged and villains to be humiliated. When South Africa agreed to democratic elections in 1994, it was clear that Israel would now fill the role of bête noir. The people who preach the loudest against "hate" always seem to be the most rabid haters.
The Snidely Whiplashes of the recession are of course the 1%. Their greed -- and the deregulation they are supposed to have engineered to satisfy it -- was our undoing.
Grown-ups prefer a dispassionate look at the data.
It turns out that only 2.77% of the wicked 1% are financial professionals, not that far ahead of doctors and lawyers. There's no breakout for the entertainment industry, but it's likely a higher percentage. Since the top one-percent of the one-percenters get only 19% of their income from salaries, if you take, say, 2007 as your cutoff, their percent of national wealth will have increased significantly over the previous decade, as the paper value of equities soared. If you take 2009, you get a different picture.
We've had a progressive income tax since 1913, and it shouldn't be surprising that the 1% pay more than their fair share: with 17 % of the nation's income before the 2008 crash, they contribute about 40% of all federal taxes. Their share of national income fell to 11% after the market meltdown.
The top 5% pay 60% of federal taxes. The percentages for the contributions of the rich rose steeply during the Reagan administration. Forty-seven percent of those who file pay no taxes, and 85% of these folks get reimbursed by the feds through tax credits and welfare benefits. As for tax rates, the Bush cuts disproportionately benefited the lowest quintiles. After deductions and credits, the highest quintile is taxed at about 25%, the lowest at 4%. With a 1984 baseline (post-Reagan tax cuts), the lowest falls from about 10%, while the highest stays at 25%.
And what does tax revenue fund?
Non-defense spending has spiked from an average of 15.6% of GDP before BHO to over 20%. It now represents 80% of the federal budget. As recently as 1961, it was less than 50% of the budget. Transfer payments account for 18% of all income, up from 13% pre-Obama. War on Poverty programs alone had cost $8 trillion by 2000, after 35 years.
The Occupiers have sometimes been compared to Tea-Partiers by sloppy thinkers of the left. But the Tea-Partiers are adults. They have a genuine interest in the past. There has been a remarkable revival of interest in the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, and the Founding Fathers, as well as in the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.
The mindless mantra "change" -- iterated even in the Rose Bowl commercials for Oregon and Wisconsin -- has little appeal for historically conscious adults.
Tea-Partiers and their sympathizers are also concerned about the future. It helps that many of them have jobs and kids and grandkids. At some point, our creditors will get cold feet. Perhaps it will come when the current national debt of nearly $14.3 trillion reaches $15 trillion, but maybe we'll be cut some slack until it passes $20 or $25 trillion. Whenever it happens, it's safe to say that the spike in interest rates on treasuries and in the percentage of the budget devoted to debt service (currently 6%) will be painful. Tax rates and inflation rates are likely to dwarf those of '70s and early '80s. (A much smaller percentage of taxpayers were affected by higher top marginal rates before the '60s.) It's our children who will pay.
Tea-Partiers want to protect children; Occupiers want to be treated like children. They want Uncle Santa to pay off their student loans and their mortgages, find them a job working for him, and pay for their health care. They're convinced that he can do this by shaking down a few heartless Scrooges.
The media, of course, has found the children far more loveable than the adults are. Lumped with the appealing enablers of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, they were celebrated recently by Time magazine as People of the Year.
Discriminating souls have always viewed children with a more jaundiced eye.
According to the poet Phyllis McGinley:
Their fancies sway like jetsam and flotsam;
One minute they're winsome, the next they're swatsome;
While sweet their visages, soft their arts are,
Cold as a mermaiden's kiss their hearts are.
"What is more enchanting," wrote the essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, "than the voices of young people when you can't hear what they say?"
The fate of some of the child Crusaders in 1212 is not without interest. According to reports, most of those who did manage to secure passage on ships from Mediterranean ports were sold to Islamic slave traders.