Last week, I asked my students to engage with me in a critical analysis exercise. Their mission was to research this Occupy Wall Street (OWS) phenomenon, and to compare it to the Tea Party Movement. I hadn’t been following OWS much, but it certainly seemed to be picking up steam as Occupying spread across the country, and across the globe. The last “movement ” I remember was championed by the High and Mighty Moral Majority after the Clinton Presidency. I’m resisting the urge to be snarky as I recall the tagline to George W. Bush’s 2000 Presidential campaign. G Dubs had branded himself a “compassionate conservative” seeking to “restore honor and dignity in the White House”. I know hindsight is 20/20 and all, but…
I did say I was resisting the urge, didn’t I? I’ll leave it alone. I don’t need to spell it out for y’all. Prayerfully, your hindsight is 20/20 too. (Ha! “Prayerfully” — did you read my last post??)
At any rate, what emerged in class was a raucous debate about how social/political movements must look and behave to be considered successful. One of my students was flat out anti-Occupy anything. He called all of it “a buncha people in tents making a buncha noise!”
The larger premise of his argument was that Occupy Wherever, in general, is too general. They are unfocused and unorganized. He perceived the protesters as raging against the machine, but with little specific to say, except “fuck the system!” And, to him, you just cant get nowhere with that. To him, that position is like sitting at the negotiating table with a pen and pad, while the cat across from you shows up with his goons and some baseball bats. You can see how compromise would fail to launch in this kind of environment.
I’ve been fascinated by OWS in the last few weeks, and fascinated by public characterizations of it. Many of the criticisms of the demonstrations echo my student’s sentiments. The movement is unfocused, and “the 99 percent,” as they are calling themselves, appear to be #AllAntiEverything. And only hippies and children hate everything. Thus, to many mainstream news organizations, these cats aint said nothin yet, worth dignifying with a substantive response.
But here’s the thing: The nature of these protests is non-specific by design. The 99 percent is raging against an amorphous “machine” because there isn’t a specific person or company or organization that’s the lone culprit. It’s the entire system –the entire social, political, and economic order that is out of whack. Year after year, the gap between haves and have-nots grows wider, and our social order looks more oligarchic than democratic. Indeed, more oligarchic than even representative republican. In other words, it looks and functions like a government by the people, but for a small few…numbering about, say, 1%.
I ran across some statistics in the last week that have helped shape my opinion of OWS. The Huffington Post reports that between October 2010 and September 2011, U.S. newspapers published about 400 stories per month which included the word “inequality.” In October 2011, that number jumped to more than 1,250. Additionally, the number of “greed” stories rose from between 450-720 during the same period, to nearly 2,300 in October 2011 alone. Contextually, one could argue that the ramp up in media attention simply coincides with reporting on what’s happening now. Occupy Wall Street is a current event, and the 24 hour news cycle that defines contemporary social and political discourse lives and dies by the current event, or the next big thing.
However, Occupy Wall Street has succeeded so far in growing bigger and more important than merely being “the next thing.” And claims to the contrary seem determined to portray protesters as a gang of tree-hugging libs who ultimately seek to live in communes, smoking weed and line-drying cutoff denim shorts, sharing scrambled tofu breakfasts, and growing dred locs and shit — indicating to The Man in no uncertain terms that they don’t give a fuck about His Establishment.
Since the 1960s, it seems progressive populist movements always have a tenor of silliness, and nonseriousness attached to them. Don’t fall for it. It’s a classic straw man, a distraction — a way to make you look over there while your pocket is being picked and your common sense and common decency are eroded in the rat race to get rich.
OWS’s greatest accomplishment so far is that it is changing the national conversation about the salience of the American dream. I think, by in large, most people want to work for their riches. Contrary to hoodrat opinion, it’s difficult to claim authenticity when you’re ballin on somebody else’s budget, eating steaks and shrimps at Ruth’s Chris and paying the bill with your government-funded EBT card. The problem, however, is that the riches we seek are that much more elusive today. If you’re in the lower 99% — the LOWER ninety-nine percent— you stand to work longer and harder, and benefit less. And, in the twilight years of your life when, like my parents, all you wanna do is chill and eat and see the world, you may be forced to work just a few years longer. The French tore the roof off the mother when they heard the retirement age was being raised to 62. We’re toying with raising it 70!
Occupy Wall Street has the potential to wake the proverbial sleeping dog — the real majority. It may stop us from engaging in intra-class warfare to see that we are all puppeted by corporations and corporate interests. OWS may succeed in helping us realize that our bosses are cruising the Mediterranean for two weeks, and gallivanting off to New York on Wednesday for a weekend shopping trip, while we struggle to make ends meet. And it may challenge us do more than merely bemoan our reality. It dares us to actually do something about it.
Of course, there exists a social hierarchy to which opportunities for upward mobility naturally correspond. But when movin’ on up is no longer within reach for common folks, and when affluence is flaunted as it has been of late, then resentment and rebellion take root, and hopefully revolution blossoms. Remember in 2008 when the CEOs of Detroit’s “Big Three” (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) flew to Washington, DC in corporate jets to ask for bailout money? It was the ultimate form of disrespect, and showed a cavalier disregard for common people. It showed just how out of touch with America that corporate America had become. The People lived through the recession too, only without the luxury of government-sponsored “capital injections” to keep them afloat. There was no such thing as “too big to fail” for individuals and families. If your mortgage didn’t get paid, eventually you didn’t have no crib. Smell that, ladies and gentlemen. It is capitalism at its finest.
I support Occupy Wall Street because the mission is to empower common people to take back their autonomy and their identity, to be more than consumers of mass marketing and mass distraction. I hope OWS ushers in, as Cornell West recently noted, “…A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.” And I hope it happens before my conscience starts tugging at me to Occupy DC, because I’m really not that girl. I like protests, but I don’t really do tents like that.
However, I will if I must.
I won’t plug in, turn on, and cop out. I won’t sit on the sidelines of my own destiny.
Check this out for more info: It’s the Inequality Stupid