(Part II — Start Your Own Freaking Movement Then)
I’m so tired of hearing wannabe armchair know-it-alls and negative critics bitching about how the Occupiers are running their own protest. First, observers were mad that the protesters wouldn’t boil the movement down to succinct bullet-point demands that would allow them to cynically, glibly, shallowly treat the very big and complicated problems that our country is facing. Then, they wanted to tell protesters how they should conduct their direct actions: don’t block traffic or destroy property or be rude or obscene. Also, they wanted to make them leave their children at home (please don’t undermine the authoritarian indoctrination we are trying to give them) and stop looking weird. The last part kills me. Essentially, the critics didn’t have a beef with the protester’s thoughtful statements about politics and the influence of money on our society today. Rather, they were disturbed that this intelligent insight was coming from someone who didn’t comb their hair, wore a cape and/or a mask, or was covered in tattoos. The observers prefer that you look “normal,” thank you, and we appreciate your strict cooperation. Yes, please look legitimate when denouncing corporate America. We can’t stand to look at you…er, listen to you otherwise. Of course, a good number of the critics were, all the while, demanding protesters get jobs too, because bums protesting would be yucky and un-American.
To these obnoxious and annoying voices I want to say: “If you don’t like it, start your own freaking protest.” Be better organized and look/smell better and be effective. If you can fix the inequalities we face today, do it! Then, the Occupiers won’t need to be on the streets and they’ll go home. Show them how respectability does it. Damn.
But, I think you won’t. I think you won’t get your lazy butts up and actually do anything. I think you’d rather pick and complain. Honestly, I’d love to have you add your voices — or even drown the Occupiers out if it means you can accomplish what they can’t. The thing is, I think this is part of what the protesters have to do: they have to annoy you so badly that you gripe about it, and gripe about it, and gripe about it — just like you have been. They have to goad you into saying publicly that you agree with their message, even as you complain about their methods. What you are doing then is actually giving the movement its armchair legitimacy and taking the conversation from the streets where the protesters are living it and putting it in offices and meeting rooms and on talk shows. Even as you sniff at the protesters in doing so, you are repackaging the message so that politicians cannot avoid it. The government can clear parks and arrest protesters; it can’t censor MSNBC, CNN or Fox pundits as they cover the story and pester candidates with questions about the protests and responses. It also can’t keep citizens from blowing up Twitter about what’s going on or engaging in millions of conversations about it — even if derisive — with friends and colleagues across the country. In your own little curmudgeonly way then, critics, you are being part of the movement. Welcome to it.
Consider yourselves the 21st century versions of E.B. White. When the Bonus Army marched to D.C. in the 1930′s, White was sympathetic but critical of what the protesters were doing. Writing in The New Yorker, he expressed his own concerns that something of the greatness of the country was gone. It was still rich, he thought, but unemployment had broken the spirits of millions of men and this loss was as crushing as any ruined crop or wasted resources. However, White also dismissed the protesters as a special interest whose terrible condition separated them from their fellow Americans, who were not in the same boat. Feel sorry for the unemployed, he said, but don’t identify with them, Middle Class. Their pains are not yours; you have your own concerns on which you must focus. In short, White rejected the notion that it was the system that was broken, as so many others thought in looking at the country in the midst of the Great Depression.
Of course, many did look at the staggering unemployment and housing foreclosures and shuttered businesses then and concluded that the problem must have been the way the Wall Street fat cats and financiers had played the market on spec and banks had played fast and loose with reserves in the search for profits and corporations had responded to the downturn by slashing jobs and heartlessly forcing men onto the streets. It was completely credible for many to see this as a sign that the market had cruel intentions and the only party who could rein it in and force it to work for the betterment of all citizens was a strong regulatory government. Today, the absolute failure of safeguards to protect the market from the harmful effects of the greedy elite leads many again to question if it is the system itself that is the problem. Tired of being manipulated by the few and forced out of the political process that would help them respond to powerful interests, protesters see no other choice but to change the venue and work outside the system. I don’t know what’s so hard to get about that. Yet, critics and pundits keep complaining that protesters aren’t using the political process as they feel they should and expressing their discomfort in the face of recalcitrants who have had enough of the mendacity of the myth of the American Dream and are taking to the streets.
So, you critics and pundits who delusively believe you are so wise or expert in managing revolutions, you are today’s sympathetic but exclusive E.B. Whites. You think you are not one of these people on the streets — that you do not share a common tyranny (as White called it) with them. The truth is, you are more like them than you are the Koch brothers. It is just your snobbery that prevents you from promoting your self-interest here. If you can’t get over your middle class sensibilities and separate respectability from righteousness in your minds, you will never really be part of the movement. That’s okay, though. Keep doing what you’re doing and wrinkle your noses at those who see discomfort and disruptiveness as completely legitimate costs of fomenting change. You know in your hearts — and in your minds — that the protesters’ complaints are legitimate and that they are ultimately helping millions of Americans retake a political process that has squeezed them out in favor of the rich and powerful. That’s why you complain but you still sympathize. You retain your decency. Thank you for that, but feel free to do more. And, if you think you can do better, let us see it!
(Part I — The Candy-ass Middle Class)
I worry that the Occupy Wall Street movement will accomplish anything with lasting significance for the future, as opposed to eventually petering out and falling into historical obscurity like previous movements (read: Coxey’s Army or Green Corn Rebellion). As a historian, I look back at the political fights that have taken place in the U.S. and I wonder if we have the stomach for it anymore. More specifically, I wonder if our success has made us less rebellious — and, therefore, maybe a little less “American” (since, you know, the founders were rebels). The more we’ve come to define ourselves as productive capitalists, the more complacent we’ve become.
The thing people wanted so badly in the 19th century — access to a stable, decent standard of living — the thing they were so willing to literally fight for, we largely achieved in the 20th century. A burgeoning middle class expanded to include not only educated professionals but even tradesmen and technicians. That economic status and the comfort that came with it sapped the revolutionary spirit out of participants though. The middle class today is too well behaved and too politely socialized for fisticuffs. Nothing is worth more to them than the sanctity of property or a convenient life. Mobs used to shut down cities over labor disputes. People used to consider it completely legitimate to set fire to something as a statement of absolute political rage. Not anymore.
Occupy Wall Street is no Haymarket affair. Shit, it isn’t even a substantial service interruption. Don’t blame its domestication on a lack of fiery leadership though. You couldn’t find more than a handful today to follow Mother Jones, if she was around, and she used to attract crowds. It’s all about good PR now, which is no longer on the side of the poor and uncouth. No one gets worked up about economic injustice or feels sympathy for the less fortunate anymore. Occupy protests aren’t about any war on poverty. The reason liberals who identify themselves as middle class have joined the resistance is simply because they are now suffering economically and fear joining the poor (which in many cases they have, and that is a great affront to those used to a better life). This is not bleeding-heart liberalism.
The middle class — so dominant in the political discourse — doesn’t have pity; it only has self-righteousness. For them, the morality of the cause (and its proponents) is the important thing. It’s not acceptable to “fight like hell for the living,” a la Mother Jones. It is acceptable, though, to march for political equality politely like Martin Luther King, Jr. — but now you have to meet that standard set: peaceful protesting only, no fighting back, patiently suffering the beatings and indignities of your opponents, facing hate with respectability, etc. It is only through your long-suffering that you gain effectiveness with the public these days. If you shit on a police car or disrupt traffic or interfere with Suits on their way to work, you have lost your moral standing and your legitimacy is dismissed. The middle class wouldn’t break a fucking window, much less the party line — regardless of the fact that corporate America regularly doesn’t play by the rules and screws people every chance it gets. Further, if the police don’t use excessive force on you, then you are a trouble-making instigator who can’t abide by curfews/city ordinances/health regulations. Basically, you have to get beaten up or be Sister Teresa for the middle class to back you. Otherwise, you’re SOL.
By “the middle class backing you,” of course, I mean telling a pollster on the phone that they approve of you. They aren’t going to march with you or anything. That requires inconvenience and/or discomfort. This, the middle class must never endure. Also, making noise just to be disruptive and being generally dismissive of social conventions and authority is uncivilized. These too should be avoided then. In short, the middle class is not a revolutionary class. When you go back through American history, you won’t find the leading lights of rebellion (Cesar Chavez, Big Bill Haywood, Emma Goldman) among them. The poor and the wealthy will fight, but Middle America is a candy-ass class. They will be at home, judging the revolution.