by Barry Edelson


The Occupation of Nowhere

A mere block away from the recently opened 9/11 memorial lies Zuccotti Park, where the most recent re-enacters of the American Culture War have made their encampment. The juxtaposition of the memorial, a place of uncommon moral clarity and unexpected tranquillity, with the physical and ethical chaos of Occupy Wall Street's brave but hopeless adventure, makes for a dizzying collision of ideologies, memories and versions of reality.

For those of us who were either children or unborn in the 1960s, for whom the "summer of love" was no more than a photo essay in Life magazine, it was startling to recognize instantly in the protester's squalid nesting ground the classical image of a sit-in from that faded era. How would we even know this? Quite simply, it's gotten into our blood. The battle to control the narrative of social trajectory, which has intensified in the digital age, has its roots in that decade of discombobulation and its hit parade: the Vietnam War, civil rights, political assassinations, race riots, the women's movement.
Occupy Wall Street
The unruly mob
It is hard to believe that little more than 10 years separated the death of John F. Kennedy and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, when one considers all of the extraordinary events that transpired in the interim, let alone the nearly 40 years that have flashed by since the latter withdrew in disgrace. Since that time, we have behaved fairly consistently like an exhausted country, increasingly averse to risk and inwardly focused, too disinterested to prevent the political classes from diverging into ever-more extremes of so-called thought, oblivious to the putrefaction of the body politic that would invariably ensue. At the same time, every major issue (and many minor ones), from the conduct of wars to the distribution of wealth, has invariably been framed in the divisions, and even the very words, of that earlier generation of conflict.

When the clash of ideas reaches down into the general populace, we fall upon clichés that we did not even remember were in our lexicon. "Even the anarchists have a right to march down the street and hate America," said the (Republican) president of the Arizona State Senate, pinning another badge of legislative honor upon that state government's already blighted recent history. If the Internet had existed during the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam, it would be a matter of a few clicks to find scores of nearly identical quotes from politicians and other pillars of society from that time. And there was the quote by a theater-goer irritated by marchers in Times Square last weekend, who suggested to a reporter that what the protesters should really be doing is looking for a job — yet another astonishingly trite response to a depressingly familiar clash of sensibilities. To understand just how trite, consider that when Bruce Hornsby penned these lyrics for "The Way It Is" in 1986 — "The man in the silk suit hurries by / As he catches the poor ladies' eyes / Just for fun he says "get a job" — this particularly foolish response to economic injustice had already been a cliché for decades. Indeed, none of the angry but one-dimensional protest slogans, nor the angry but one-dimensional retorts to them, would have any resonance for us if they hadn't been languishing in the attic of our collective consciousness for so long.

The ultimate prize for tone-deafness, though, always belongs to political candidates, for whom no depth of self-abasement is too great to bear in pursuit of higher office. No more pre-eminent economic expert than Herman Cain, a candidate of such little consequence that we will have to Google him in a couple of years just to conjure up his name, made himself history's latest poster-child for noblesse oblige by uttering one of the wealthy's oldest and most unoriginal canards: that the poor have only themselves to blame for being poor. Hey, look at me, I was poor and black, and now I'm rich and famous. How nice for you.
Occupy Wall Street
The unholy mess
Perhaps you would now like to explain how the pizza joints that made you so rich would manage to open their doors every day if all of your minimum wage employees walked out and became CEO's of their very own corporations. Or where you would have found customers to eat your factory-line pizzas if the unwashed masses got themselves a college education and developed a taste for something more palatable. It's not as if the exploitation of the poor, as workers and consumers, isn't precisely how someone like Cain gets to be where he is in the first place. Or as if a capitalist economy isn't predicated on the very notion that there must be both rich and poor, because it would collapse of its own weight without great masses of the non-rich to do all the heavy lifting and pay most of the taxes.

Indeed, the imminence of such a collapse in 2008, and the scarcely improved conditions since, have prompted the protest movements from both sides of the spectrum. Comparisons of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street no doubt cause true believers of all persuasions to gag over their morning lattes, but these parallels are being drawn for good reason. There is a great deal that unites these two camps, but they are approaching the country's severe problems from such an immense distance that the center ground is not even visible to either side. And so, with wearying predictability, demagogues will ensure that the two sides will never discover how much they share: a healthy contempt for the financial industry, a deep suspicion of the motives of many in the plutocracy, a profound skepticism that Washington has any solutions, and a total conviction that, even if Congress and the White House knew what to do, their board-room backers would never let them off leash long enough to do it. Instead, the attack dogs have come out in force to denounce Occupy Wall Street as anti-Semitic because of the moronic pronouncements of a handful of those whose sleeping bags happen to lie on the pavement nearby, just as the Tea Party was denounced as racist because, among any large group of white people silly enough to hang tea bags from their hats, you are sure to find a few who are stupid enough to say something ignorant about black people. (This division was explored more fully in an earlier essay.)

Sad, sad, sad. The charges and counter-charges of bigotry, the raising of long-dormant passions, the misdirection of energy and the pervasive belief that the center is too weak to hold, instills a sense of disintegration that is painfully reminiscent of that earlier decade of national self-doubt and social rancor.
Occupy Wall Street
The unclear thought
That we have so easily resorted to type does not bode well for the next few years. It is probably too much to hope that supporters of Occupy Wall Street, or at least those who sympathize with their general expression of dissatisfaction, will realize that the 1960s have not in fact returned, and that we would be in an even more dismal state of affairs if they did. It is also probably not reasonable to expect those who march in lockstep with the anti-government, anti-tax battalions that it isn't the 1980s either, and that Reaganism's response to years of perceived liberal excess is not applicable to present circumstances. Neither government intervention nor tax cuts alone is the one-size-fits-all solution to any national problem. Nostalgia for an imaginary golden era is often embraced ardently in hard times, but it doesn't offer much in the way of sustenance.

A Blip, Not a Watershed

Zuccotti Park is quite small, the size of a city block. The park is surrounded by the stone and glass faces of many tall buildings, and, and like most of the streets of lower Manhattan, it gets precious little sunlight. On a cool autumn morning a few weeks ago, with many of the protestors still huddled in sleeping bags, the hard pavement and deep shadows made it seem even colder and smaller than it was. A television news van was parked nearby, but no reporters were yet in evidence on the square. A ring of police officers stood a desultory watch around the perimeter of the park. It was hard to know whom to feel more sorry for, the police or the protesters.

In a fleeting glance, the difference between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party is obvious. It is not merely the shabbiness of their operation, but their innocence and hopefulness that set them apart. It is also what makes them an object of pity. By stark contrast, the Tea Party's anger was born of bitterness, steeped in cynicism, and easily co-opted by big money politics. Of course, both efforts are doomed to failure. Who could actually fulfill either of their wishes? Which of the Republican candidates for president who claims the Tea Party mantle is in favor of more bank regulation? Or will eschew corporate campaign contributions, notwithstanding Sarah Palin's incongruous attacks on "crony capitalism"? Among those who could actually win the nomination, there isn't a single one whose entire career hasn't been a wholesale sellout of everything the Tea Party stands for. On the other extreme, Democratic politicians proffering cautious, luke-warm support for the Occupy Wall Street campers is as pathetic a spectacle as we will see this campaign season. The protesters and the politicians might as well be from different countries and speak a different language, which, in effect, they are.

The unifying goal of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, if one can deduce it from their meandering messages, is to avoid being fodder for the capitalist cannon, and to make our system of government and economics more just and humane overall. How else can we explain the hodgepodge of issues that they represent? They feel insecure and discontented about all the things that progressive-leaning people always feel insecure and discontented about, but are clearly at a loss over how to do anything about them except draw attention to their worries. They have become, like their conservative counterparts, unwitting pawns in the cultural narrative war, and consequently a source of even greater profit and power for all of those who would excoriate them or advocate for them. They seem determined not be led silently like lambs to the corporate slaughter, but to go down screaming. Regrettably, that is probably the best that they can hope to achieve. In this world, it is only the cynics who are never disappointed.

October 22, 2011


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.