Universal Translator

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maybe OWS Will Just Have to Pass the Baton

Via the Washington Monthly, I learn that Andrew Sabl decided to visit Occupy Wall Street personally, and that his first-hand impressions match up pretty well with what I’ve been able to glean by keeping abreast of news accounts and reading the General Assembly minutes the protesters put up on their website.

Arguing that “[t]he [concerns] of Occupy Wall Street are both valid and popular . . . .  The people occupying Wall Street are total flakes.  The second fact in no way discredits the first,” Sabl goes on to draw an analogy between OWS and Kevin Costner’s character at the very beginning of Dances With Wolves, whose “impotent flamboyance” causes Confederate Troops to break their cover in an attempt to kill him while simultaneously inspiring others to actually fight the battle that Costner’s character cannot. 

Just so, Sabl argues, with Occupy Wall Street:  they’ve managed to draw out the 1% who would much rather focus on “the deficit” and “out-of-control government spending” than on things like “the economy,” “income inequality,” and “jobs.”  And while OWS’s fetish for having no leadership, no structure, no organization, no formal demands, and no allegiance to any actual political group will forever prevent it from being able to take effective action on its own, that doesn’t preclude other, more formally organized groups from doing so.

More below the fold.

Part of what makes it so difficult to discuss what OWS is actually doing is that one has a tendency to keep slipping into familiar language that is not quite accurate.  For example, you might notice that I substituted the word “concerns” for another word in the Sabl quote above.  This is because Sabl several times mentions the popularity of OWS’s “demands” – notably, income inequality, Wall Street’s influence in Washington, and the general way in which our system currently is rigged to benefit the very wealthy, very connected, very few among us – that are more accurately labeled “concerns,” or “gripes,” or “complaints.”

In facts, as Sabl himself acknowledges just a paragraph later, “[w]hile it looked for a while as if [OWS] might formulate demands, they have now come down in favor of never doing that, on principle.  They have come to see the protests as ends in themselves.” (emphasis in the original).  It is all one with the protesters’ resolute refusal to have anything to do with things “that might give them any [actual political] power:  alliances, membership lists, the authority to endorse, or withhold endorsements of, anyone or anything.”

Which brings us to what was – for me – the centerpiece of Sabl’s article:  the fact that Occupy Wall Street is in no way comparable to the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement . . . although many of its supporters will tell you otherwise.  I blame this misperception on (i) Hollywood’s efforts to romanticize the past, and (ii) a general lack of actual historic knowledge by the American public – and, in particular, the young American public.

For example, a week or so ago I cross-posted this piece – arguing that OWS eventually will have to engage in the regular political process if it wants to effect any actual change itself – over at Daily Kos.  Although I didn’t think anything I was saying was controversial or, indeed, anything other than obvious, the post drew not a few complaints from people who interpreted it as an attack on OWS and who told me (again) that I just didn’t understand the power of the movement.  For example, I received this feedback:

I don’t see why it has to evolve into anything systematic.  If it builds enough informal street momentum, the hacks who are our politicians will trip over each other trying to figure out how best to pander to it (like the pugs are doing with the teabaggers).  The great leaps forward that occurred in the sixties sprang from vague ideals expressed by the marchers and folksingers.  We shoot ourselves in the feet when we start defining things too much.  What our (the left’s) approach to politics has lacked since the 80s is general idealism, simple statements ordinary people relate to.  OWS is providing that, even if all that’s it [sic] saying is “get the rich bastards off our backs.”

Everyone will eventually decide for themselves who they want to vote for (or if they want to vote), then those who want the votes can try to win them.  (emphasis added)

See, decades of watching movies like Taking Woodstock has led people to believe things like this – that the 1960s were marked by “vague ideals expressed by the marchers and folksingers” -- that simply are not true. 

The “60s” – which culturally encompasses a period beginning in the 1950s with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and runs until the early 1970s and the continuing anti-Vietnam War protests -- had two great movements:  the Civil Rights Movement, and the Anti-War Movement.  As for the latter, nothing could be further removed from being a “vague ideal” than the notion the United States should get out of Vietnam right now.

As for the former, the idea that “equal rights” were nothing more than vague ideals expressed by singers and marchers is just as wrong.  I’ll let Sabl explain:

SCLC, CORE, and SNCC marches, freedom rides, and sit-ins always had a clear target:  the Jim Crow laws and practices that the protesters were decrying (and often flouting).  When they marched on Washington, it was in support of civil rights legislation and, admittedly more vaguely, economic change.  With a view to actually getting what they wanted, they gathered as many allies as humanly possible – perhaps a few more.  In contrast, OWS proudly calls itself a “post-political movement representing something far greater than failed party politics.  We are a movement of people empowerment, a collective realization that we ourselves have the power to create change from the bottom-up, because we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians” (emphasis in the original). . . .  I’m all for construing politics broadly, to include union campaigns and grassroots organizing as well as the corridors of power.  But OWS doesn’t like union or grassroots politics any more than the legislative kind.  There’s a fine line between participatory democracy and collective narcissism.  OWS has not only crossed it but made it a rampart, and they’re standing on the wrong side.

And it is the prevalence of that “collective narcissism” and refusal to participate in even the least formal of our established political processes that causes me to shake my head in wonder and dismay at some of the things I hear being mouthed by the OWS protesters.  For example, I note the fact that the commenter who spoke of “marchers and folksingers” seems to be blithely unconcerned even with whether people who are concerned about OWS’s issues vote at all.  How on earth do these people think they are going to change anything in this country if they regard the very act of voting as somehow inherently suspect, as a potential “selling out” to “politics as usual”?

Lord, save me from the politically pure in heart, for they will not sully their hands to pull a ballot lever.

* * *

In the end, Sabl concludes that someone undoubtedly will take the baton of economic reform from OWS and run with it toward some concrete political goal . . . but it won’t be OWS itself.

And that sounds about right to me.  I’ve suggested before that perhaps the most important thing to arise out of the OWS movement won’t be any specific reform, but instead just the Occupy brand itself.  After a period of fierce competition between the various Occupy groups springing up around the country, and after they have whittled down their inchoate sense of outrage to a few very important but concrete proposals, perhaps then some other organization will grasp the nettle that is the hard job of actually getting something done politically and move forward to accomplish something.

But whoever eventually takes the lead on these issues, it doesn’t appear right now that it will be the people Occupying Liberty Plaza Park today.

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