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The disenfranchised majority kicks back

Occupy Wall Street may be incoherent, but it’s a long overdue reaction to an out-of-touch political class.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

Topics USA

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Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is so easily mocked. Like most popular protest movements, it includes uninformed and ideologically incoherent enthusiasts who, when asked ‘What are you rebelling against?’, might echo Brando’s, ‘Whaddya you got?’ Like most protest movements, it appeals to some wingnuts, ignoramuses and aspiring performance artists, and it attracts the usual professional blowhards: Michael Moore is as predictable a presence at an Occupy Wall Street rally as Sarah Palin was at a Tea Party extravaganza.

Is that all there is? ‘To be sure, the pot-smoking hippie contingent is represented’, the Boston Globe observes about Occupy Boston, one of a growing number of satellite protests. ‘Yet so are middle-aged, Izod-wearing Republicans who long for political conciliation in Washington.’ Students, Iraq War veterans, and small-business owners ‘find common ground’ here, the Globe notes, along with homeless people, for whom the officially sanctioned and guarded tent-city represents safe haven. A day after police arrested some 140 people who tried laying claim to additional territory in a downtown park, Occupy Boston is a small, dense, quiet encampment on a public square in the financial district, guarded by a handful of police officers with nothing to do.

Occupy Boston claims over 200 overnight tent dwellers, but the morning I visited only about 15 people lingered outside the tents; most were young, not surprisingly. Volunteering for prolonged residence in an urban tent-city is a young person’s game. It is tempting to assume, as many commentators do, that Occupy Wall Street is a predominantly youthful movement representing a demographic counterpart to the Tea Party, which consists mainly of older, white, conservative Republicans. But Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is only a month old and, unlike the Tea Party, has yet to be studied and quantified. We don’t yet know who makes up this nascent movement and we are only beginning to learn about the extent of its support. According to preliminary polls, 59 per cent of Americans nationwide and 67 per cent of New York voters agree with the protesters; 87 per cent of New Yorkers agree that it is ‘okay they are protesting’.

Predictably, the professional left is cautiously embracing OWS as a grassroots movement of ordinary, unfairly dispossessed Americans (although the embrace poses awkward problems for President Obama and other Democrats who need votes from the 99 per cent and money from the one per cent); the professional right condemns OWS as a mob of misfits and exhibitionists bearing pitchforks. Both sides cite anecdotal accounts of demonstrations to support their claims: the New York Times reports that an Upper East Side protest march to the homes of a few prominent gazillionaires (like Rupert Murdoch and David Koch) included ‘trade unionists, retirees, students, an activist brass marching band and a topless woman’.

If only the crises that gave rise to this movement were as risible as its most colourful or undressed adherents. OWS protesters don’t have the answers (neither do our political leaders), but their movement raises poignant questions about job loss, dramatic concentrations of wealth, the undue influence of corporate lobbying on legislation, and our grossly inequitable, irrational tax code. ‘Taxes are for little people’, the late real-estate diva Leona Helmsley famously declared, with lamentable accuracy. Helmsley’s boldness earned her a federal criminal conviction, but it represented an exception, not the rule. Consider the social-security system: work hard for below-subsistence wages and you’ll still owe a social-security tax; enjoy millions of dollars in investment income and you’ll owe nothing to social security, even though you’ll still qualify for benefits.

Liberals and progressives consider these and other tax-code provisions that favour rich people (especially rich people who don’t work for their money, including those who had the foresight to inherit it) as relatively covert forms of class warfare, along with generous bailouts for financial institutions not held accountable for institutionalised financial frauds. Conversely, conservatives characterise attacks on such policies as class warfare, which, they remind us, is anti-American. In the popular, right-wing view, liberals who question whether American ideals of equality, fairness and opportunity are reflected in American realities are described as Marxists or Nazis (epithets hurled indiscriminately) or, as right-wing radical Ann Coulter suggests, they’re allies of Satan himself. The OWS movement, like liberalism in general, is ‘demonic’, she asserts (although I’m inclined to give Coulter the benefit of the doubt and assume she doesn’t believe much of what she says).

Occupy Wall Streeters may take some comfort in the swift vehemence with which they’ve been attacked by the right. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain (who has promised to protect us from the imaginary threat of Sharia law and to veto any legislation over three pages long) dismisses the protesters as ‘jealous’ slackers who ‘play the victim card’ and want ‘to take someone else’s Cadillac’. People who aren’t rich have only themselves to blame, according to Cain. Millions of laid–off Americans unable to find work may disagree, but Cain’s appeals to rugged, independent individualism retain their emotional resonance, especially on the right, where the mere suggestion that successful entrepreneurs benefit from public works and ought to help pay for them is condemned as ‘collectivism’. When Massachusetts Senate candidate and architect of the new federal consumer-protection bureau, Elizabeth Warren, observed that ‘no one gets rich on his own’ – that entrepreneurs use public roads, rely on workers educated in public schools, enjoy the protection of public police and fire departments and owe something back to society in turn – columnist George Will hysterically accused her of ‘refuting respect for the individual’s zone of sovereignty’ and advancing an agenda ‘antithetical to America’s premise’.

Will’s suggestion that Warren is unpatriotic reflects the battle over patriotism embedded in debates over Occupy Wall Street and our system of wealth creation and distribution. Is it unpatriotic to characterise America as a plutocracy (putting aside questions about the accuracy of the charge) or to propose letting tax cuts expire for people earning over a million dollars a year? (A majority of Americans support higher taxes for the super-rich; still, Republicans are proposing to raise taxes on the middle class instead.) Is it unpatriotic to insist that absolute individualism is not an economic value, much less a realistic possibility? To shouts of ‘get a job’, protesters reply that there are few jobs to be had or that they are struggling to survive on low-paying, occasional, part-time or freelance work. Have they betrayed the American dream or has the dream betrayed them? Acknowledging that 14million unemployed Americans are not solely to blame for their plight means acknowledging systemic obstacles to upward mobility and recognising, as many do, that self-reliance is an incomplete, imperfect prescription for economic success.

The ideal of self-reliance is deeply ingrained in American culture and American notions of patriotism, but it is not uncontested. It has been distorted by adolescent illusions of solitary grandeur that prevail on the right, undermined by therapeutic notions of childlike individual helplessness that infect the left, and tested periodically by economic disasters. (In the Thirties, an unrealised vision of self-reliant citizens prospering in free markets gave way to the New Deal.) The current crisis, which a broken political system seems incapable of addressing, has so far been dominated by the confused and contradictory claims about self-reliance and relations between individuals and the state advanced by Tea Partiers. These proponents of limited government and individual freedom jealously guard their entitlements to Social Security and Medicare, while promoting Christian nationalism, opposing religious equality for non-Christians, attacking abortion rights and gay rights, and supporting a vast, incredibly intrusive, untrustworthy national security state. Occupy Wall Street is not alone in its incoherence and, in time, with the active participation of what’s left of the labour movement, it may help fashion an effective left-wing or left-leaning movement yet.

OWS is still likely to alienate many moderates, as protest movements tend to, partly because of its methodology (protest rallies are inherently immoderate) and partly because mass occupations of downtown areas greatly inconvenience people who live and work nearby and are among the 99 per cent that OWS claims to represent. Fledgling demonstrators are naturally unschooled in the art of political persuasion, and some have a lot to learn about civil disobedience. ‘I think it’s disgusting that (the mayor of Boston) said civil disobedience won’t be tolerated’, one 29-year-old protester fatuously declared. Civil disobedience isn’t meant to be tolerated; it’s meant to demonstrate official intolerance and injustice. Civil disobedience entails the wilful, public violation of arguably unjust laws and the willing, public submission to lawful punishment. Of course, it does not include uncomplaining submission to police brutality, which should be prosecuted. (Demonstrators in Boston and New York have made very plausible allegations of brutality.) But those who pretend to practise civil disobedience and object to being peacefully and lawfully arrested have more in common than they know with police officers who expect to break laws with impunity.

It’s too soon to tell whether Occupy Wall Street will mature and attract significant public support. A diminished American left has been in disarray for decades; it will not intelligently or effectively coalesce in a month. Besides, mass political movements are chaotic, theatrical, and unpredictable, and they often defy simple characterisations. My generation’s anti-war movement included swaggering young males and middle-aged housewives (who were behind Senator Eugene McCarthy’s surprisingly strong challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary). I avoided protest rallies and active participation in the movement back then, mostly because I dislike crowds, especially crowds of people who fervently agree with each other, even if I share their views. But in 1970, I participated in the national student strike anyway, out of fury and desperation over the fatal shooting of peaceful student demonstrators at Kent State College by the National Guard.

Millions of people are desperate today. For good reason, they feel ignored or dismissed by their government. Congress is dysfunctional, nearly everyone agrees, but so is our representative democracy. The partisan division of congressional districts, the presidential primary system and the Electoral College, which enabled George W Bush to become president in 2000 after losing the popular vote, ensure that many of our votes don’t count. Onerous new restrictions on ballot access, enacted by Republican state legislators with the ostensible goal of curbing voter fraud (a minor and unproven problem) may effectively disenfranchise five million people, especially young, minority, low-income and disabled voters. We shouldn’t be surprised if people take to the streets; instead, we might wonder what took them so long.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics USA

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