Brooklyn, New York
Author and journalist
“People recognize the system that runs on money is not running in a humane way.”
Nathan is the author of Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse and God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet. He has written about religion, reason and violence for publications including The Nation, The New York Times, Harper’s, Commonweal, Religion Dispatches, AlterNet and others. He is also an editor at Killing the Buddha and Waging Nonviolence. You can visit his website at TheRowBoat.com.
I talked with Nathan about his upbringing, how it may have helped shape his views on money, today, and what drew him to Zuccotti Park to write about the Occupy movement.
You tried several other professions before you became a writer. Were you searching for work that would make money, or were you searching for something that would satisfy your interests, or both?
Like a lot of people today, I found myself with the expectation that I should have both. (Laughs) I think I was lucky or blessed or whatever the appropriate word is to have a childhood without a whole lot of dire want; I had a good education and was given a lot. So I grew up with the sense that I should make sure to do something that would be worth doing, and that would be a contribution to the world that I’d grown up in fairly easily, and that had been good to me.
I think there’s definitely an attitude toward work that one gets that does come from a situation of some privilege. I didn’t come out of college with a huge loan debt that many people have to deal with. That I was able to get an education that gave me a lot of options was a huge privilege. You could stack many more on top of that.
So, on the one hand, I feel a responsibility to be self-sufficient and to support myself. And at the same time, I feel like I also have to do that in a way that is for the good and that uses whatever talents I have in the best way I can find to use them.
I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, inside the Beltway, just outside of Washington, D.C. I was an only child, still am. My father was a real estate broker, and my mother worked at the Smithsonian Institution, both really good parents, and people who valued education and who had rich intellectual lives, rich spiritual lives, and they gave me a lot.
Do you have a sense of what your parents taught you, either explicitly or implicitly, about money?
I think they taught me to be cautious. They taught me not to love it. My father was somebody who dealt with money every day very, very explicitly. He spent his time helping people through what was often the biggest transaction of their lives. He’s very good at working with it, and I think he enjoys it, but I don’t think it’s the money that he enjoys. I think it’s the people and the problems and solutions. He never seemed to relish making money. He did it to support our family and to help others and to be good at what he did, but, he never seemed to be pursuing it above other things. Or other things that you value so you can have a home which can take care of your family? A home with a roof above their heads and something that they like to do and Prime Roofing can help build the roof you want.
What was your childhood awareness of the social class you were in?
I think early on, I wasn’t really aware of class very much. I think it evolved over the course of my upbringing. I was in a pretty affluent part of what was then, and is less so now, a pretty diverse area. As I got a bit older, I became more aware. My neighborhood was very white, and over the course of my upbringing, the houses around us kept getting bigger and bigger, and that was always uncomfortable for me. I think that sense of privilege and that distinction and the separation became more and more uncomfortable.
When I was little I remember being very uncomfortable with the fact that someone would come to clean our house. My mother worked, my father worked, both fulltime. And they were very busy. So this was very understandable. But it seemed strange to me that somebody else would have time to do work that we didn’t have time for. I think that was how I learned to recognize that some people’s time is valued differently than others. And that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. That kind of basic inequality is something that is a discomfort that I think is really hard to get over, and really doesn’t make sense ultimately. It is something that I would love to contribute to undoing in some way.
These instincts in me or impulses are not a rejection or a rebellion against my parents. I think these values, like equality and solidarity, are things that they taught me. My parents are very supportive. They’ve always encouraged me to find my own way, even to a fault. That might be part of the backdrop of a generation that is always trying to find meaning in work. Many of us were raised by parents who just wanted us to find our own way, who didn’t want to dictate what would become of us.
On the one hand, that’s a wonderful gift. On the other hand, it can kind of [create] crippling indecision. I went to Brown University without a very clear idea of what I was going to study, which is, I think, a very strange idea generally — that it’s this rite of passage that you have to do without really knowing why. But I was very, very excited about college itself. I was excited to go to a place where I could explore things more and just kind of play and figure out where my interests led.
In your book, God in Proof, you write about spending time in a monastery as part of an independent study project during your last months of high school. You said that you wanted to know “who I am with respect to the monastery, the discipline and perhaps to God.” Can you talk about who you are with respect to money?
I don’t think money is as real as God, if you’re going to make that kind of parallel. I think a journey in life that I find meaningful is to make God more real in our lives, making this universal love more a part of how we live — how we think, how we act. And I think my own hope is to make money less real. To make this thing that creates hierarchies and distinctions and enables some and disables others less of a force in our society and in our lives.
So what is my relationship to money? I think I want less of one and a lot of my conversations about these sorts of things with my wife, Claire (we just got married a few months ago), really have to do with figuring out how to not let our decisions be driven by money. To make sure that we’re able to meet our needs and the needs of our family, but to make those choices on other terms.
Are you in synch about that?
We’re comfortable about it. Maybe a better way of saying it is, I think we’re both committed to that conversation. We have different upbringings and different anxieties, but I think we both don’t want to lose the good things in life for the sake of certain fictions that seem less tangible and less important.
Claire and I have had situations in which we have struggled to meet our needs and have had times where we haven’t. I think, on the one hand, we try to operate in a way that keeps our lives as simple as possible. That’s often the way we talk about it. How can we just keep our focus on the stuff that’s real and that we really need? And how can we put aside the other stuff responsibly? And if there’s an excess, I see that in some sense as a blessing, but in many senses as a danger, as a problem. It’s a result of a kind of social crisis that some people might have more money than they know what to do with, and many, many people don’t. What do you do with that money?
When you were writing Thank You, Anarchy, about the Occupy Wall Street movement, you spent a lot of time there as a journalist. Could you talk about what you found there for yourself?
I think the first thing was this visceral experience of hope and possibility, of seeing and being in the midst of and a part of a group of really energetic, passionate, obsessive people who felt deeply that something was wrong in this society. They felt it in their lives and in struggles that they were going through and also in their observations of the world around them. And then also that suddenly, all of this energy which was normally kind of disparate frustration, was all in one place. In Zuccotti Park, and then around the country.
So much of what happened from that, mostly the internal interactions, but also a lot of the output, was so creative and positive and beautiful. The art that would come out every day! You’d show up — or wake up– (Laughs) at the plaza and you’d see a new work of art, a sculpture, an electricity-generating bicycle, whatever talent happened to be there at a given moment. It was a revelation about the possibility of a society in which people really can freely offer their talents to one another rather than selling those talents all day, every day, day after day, all day, to whatever is needed by a system that they don’t especially like. And so that was very powerful and very hopeful.
And then of course, a lot of that same confluence of energy had a lot of negative sides, too. There were some respects in which people really were able to connect and organize, and other respects in which they really weren’t, and money was one of those ways. It was striking that people were very good at organizing actions, putting on events that would feel lively and creative and invigorating, but they were really not able to manage money, weren’t able to make decisions about resources in responsible ways, and that struck me as a kind of generational issue.
Maybe it has something to do with parents not talking to kids about money, it being a touchy subject. I remember in college, money was the touchiest subject of all. It was one thing that you absolutely would never talk about. You had a situation where you had people who were often children of very, very wealthy families and then people who were there on financial aid, and those inequalities were just too much to handle or to talk about explicitly.
There’s an interesting scene in your book where the protesters are starting to get money coming in, as people are making donations to the movement, and they were befuddled about how to handle it.
Absolutely. The general assembly structure that had been decided upon was really in many ways a political performance. It was good for making decisions about certain matters of action and ideology, but it really was not something set up for managing resources. Many people started seeing those resources as a curse, and some of them saw them as their own piggybank, and everything in between. So it was just striking to me. This movement was designed in a very intuitive way. Managing money was not part of that design; it was something kind of kicked down to the future, and never really dealt with well.
Do you see that as a weakness of that movement?
Absolutely. On the one hand, I think that there are times and places where movements really shouldn’t be too concerned about money. I think this was a time in the movement where it was really being driven by adrenaline and energy. It was about changing the narrative, not about building organization, and that’s what it was really successful at, and I think that’s great.
But after that initial moment comes a really vital need to start managing resources and building movement structures and institutions that would help carry on this work. That’s what a lot of people from that movement have been trying to figure out, and it really hasn’t been easy. There just is not a clear path for a lot of people of how to get from the kind of ambition and hope and excitement of that initial stage to a stage where they can work institutionally within the society and still feel like they’re getting anywhere. To bring their ideals together with the problem of getting by in the society.
That sounds like a central question, doesn’t it? One that many people are grappling with.
Yeah. I think I’ve been trying to figure that out, too. And you know, I think, on the one hand, it reveals a lot about the alienation people feel from what really is the basic structure of society, which is that people who privately own lots of money get to do what they want with it, and people who don’t are in big trouble and have a really hard time meeting their basic needs. And so I think the aversion to money is an aversion to everything that it represents. It really is hard for people to approach money without the baggage of what they know it means and manifests.
The ways in which people understand this vary. There are people in Occupy, for instance, who were, by some kind of anarchist orientation, just interested in non-participation in all sorts of economic systems. There are all sorts of theories about changing the world without taking power, which also means without accumulating money. Another element in that movement was that of the libertarian anxiety about the Federal Reserve and the particular ways in which money is minted and managed in the twenty-first century. Global finance. And that’s a whole other set of anxieties about money, but that’s still a very pro-money outlook. It’s just pro a different kind of money.
So there are a variety of ways in which people take up the problem and analyze it and try to go about figuring out a response. But I think fundamentally, it has to do with a sense that people recognize the system that runs on money is not running in a humane way, and they’re afraid to deal with it. The result is that it kind of backfires and things get even worse, and the movement is unable to grow as a result.
So I think a really important challenge of this generation is to try to figure out how to manage money and resources and institutions in a way that is going to be more comfortable and more amenable to the ideals that people hold, and that will also enable them to gain some traction in a world that would otherwise just kind of squash them.
Do you feel you were changed by your experience with Occupy?
Well, it definitely changed me in the way that any kind of decisive life experience will. I’m not sure exactly what it did to me or in me. It certainly connected me with networks of people around the country and in some cases around the world, with common interests, and made me feel that there is a kind of movement and there is a direction that things are going in and that things could go in. I think that’s maybe the thing that has really stuck with me.
When I was reporting before it started, I felt very much like I was just following my own nose. I felt some sense of collective identity in different ways, but it was never quite as strong, and it was always very particular. I think seeing this movement explode made me feel like, okay, particular common themes, or certain particular interests of mine resonate with this common zeitgeist, resonate with something that’s bigger than myself, and so I’ve kind of let those guide me. If it hadn’t been for this movement, I might be looking at other things. I might have more of a sense of isolation in what I’m doing as opposed to a sense of contributing to a broader project.