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Occupy: the sad reality and the mad fantasies

Far from being clear-eyed, Occupy Wall Street is a blank slate on to which every opportunistic op-ed writer is scribbling his or her pet concerns.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics

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Many liberals, especially liberal pundits in the major media outlets, present an idealised account of the Occupy protesters. Their vision of what the protesters represent says more about their own hopes and agendas than the reality of Occupy. The disjuncture between the two has become more apparent with reports of conditions in the various encampments around the US, which culminated in evictions in New York and other cities last week.

This division between on-the-ground reality and editorial fantasy began soon after news that Occupy Wall Street protesters had taken to Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. The first reports generally described a relatively small group of unconventional people, mostly young, who were engaging in street-theatre acts that put forward various complaints and concerns – some, but far from all, about Wall Street.

Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times described the 100 or so people, mostly from outside New York, as participating in ‘the opportunity to air societal grievances as carnival’. Bellafante noted that their cause ‘was virtually impossible to decipher. The group was clamouring for nothing in particular to happen right away’. Some voiced concerns about corporate personhood; others raised the death penalty, the drug war and the environment.

Other reports told a consistent story. Joanna Weiss in the Boston Globe wrote: ‘It is hard to take a protest fully seriously when it looks more like a circus – some participants seemed to have taken a chute straight from Burning Man.’ Lauren Ellis in Mother Jones criticised the lack of a clear message, describing the approach as ‘First make noise, then decide what all the noise is about?’. She also noted that the protesters consisted of ‘the usual suspects’ rather than ‘a wide swathe of Americans’.

These writers’ impressions of the group – especially their lack of political focus – have been confirmed by the pronouncements of the protesters in various media. Kalle Lasn and Micah White of Adbusters (the Canadian magazine that launched Occupy Wall Street) recently wrote that the protest was fuelled by a ‘primal cry’ from young people that ‘their entire lives will be lived in the apocalyptic shadow of climate-change tipping points, species die-offs, a deadening commercialised culture, a political system perverted by money, precarious employment, a struggle to pay off crippling student loans, and no chance of ever owning a home or living in comfort like their parents’. Similarly, the ‘New York City General Assembly’ of OWS has a wide-ranging list of 23 complaints in its declaration, including the claims that corporations have ‘poisoned the food supply’ and ‘deliberately declined to recall faulty products’.

It is worth noting that Bellafante, Weiss and Ellis are not right-wing cranks – all write from a liberal perspective. Bellafante, in particular, recognises in her article that there are important issues at stake, but questions OWS’s response: ‘The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practise it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face.’ In other words, these are serious issues that deserve a serious opposition.

Liberals generally could have adopted that line – but they didn’t. Glenn Greenwald was one of the first to rally to the OWS cause. Writing in Salon, he cited Bellafante’s article as evidence of the ‘condescending, dismissive and scornful’ coverage by the establishment media. In a formulation that would be repeated by many others on the left, he wrote: ‘Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power – in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions – is destroying financial security for everyone else?’ The first reporters heard babble, but Greenwald discerned a simple, clear message.

More and more liberals began to circle the wagons around OWS, to the point that it became socially gauche to point out any weaknesses in the group’s make-up or message. Frank Rich in New York argued that: ‘For the first three weeks, the protests were alternately ignored, patronised, dismissed, and insulted by politicians and the mainstream news media as a neo-Woodstock for wannabe collegiate rebels without a cause.’ But that view became unacceptable among liberals – and any attempt to examine the group critically thereafter would immediately be labelled patronising and dismissive. Rich argued that OWS ‘started to connect with the mass public’, citing a 54 per cent approval rating in Time magazine. ‘Apparently some of those dopey kids, staggering under student loans and bereft of job prospects, have lots of parents and friends of all ages who understand exactly what they’re talking about.’

Pundit after pundit now began to adopt the Greenwald formula: ‘OWS is really very simple, it’s all about X’, they would say. However, X varied according to the pundit: for one it was income inequality; for another, corporate lobbying; others would have a different favourite issue. For example, writing in Forbes, Adam Hartung claims ‘protesters are screaming for innovation. They clearly want more investment, particularly from banks, and more hands-on management of growth to create jobs.’ Oddly enough, of the myriad demands I’ve heard or read about emanating from OWS, Hartung’s are news to me.

Moreover, the ‘central message’ that a pundit had managed to boil down just so happened to be something that he or she had been arguing in favour of for a long time. But now op-ed writers could point to a ‘movement’ that reflected the anger of the masses as the reason they should now be listened to. As one observer put it, OWS ‘lent urgency and weight to what may have seemed like dry policy discussions’.

What liberals have really been doing is projecting their own concerns on to Occupy, and in the process they have lent the group more coherence than it really has – as well as dragging the discussion in their own desired direction. Their formulation – ‘what the protesters really want is X’ – also had the advantage of seemingly freeing them from having to justify the outbursts coming from Zuccotti Park and other campsites. Instead, pundits launched into debates on growing wealth disparities and other pet topics, all justified by a obligatory, throwaway reference to Occupy.

Meanwhile, the real Occupy was becoming more settled-in at the occupations. There, the protesters did not engage in the kind of political debates on the opinion pages. Process, not ideology, is what mattered. Bureaucratic committees spent their time on running the site – cleaning, feeding, etc – and setting up rules on ‘safe’ behaviour. Many claimed to be creating a new society, based on ‘inclusive’ and ‘non-hierarchical’ operations. The pundits were fine with OWS on the media sidelines. They didn’t spend much time discussing the merits of ‘twinkle fingers’ and goings-on at the encampments. They were the ideas people and didn’t really need the occupiers, whom they saw as a useful expression of populist outrage – more moral conscience than think-tank.

However, the real world of Occupy kept breaking through. Reports came in about homeless people moving in for the free food; and, given that there were no clear ideas to claim allegiance to, the protesters had no good grounds to kick out the homeless (and indeed, some welcomed them). As the weeks went by, all the news was about problems: noise, sanitation, drugs, sexual assault, even deaths. ‘The movement began as a protest of major economic and political issues,’ reported the Washington Post, ‘but lately the most divisive issue has become the protests themselves. The Occupy Wall Street encampments that formed across the country to spotlight crimes committed on Wall Street have become rife with problems of their own.’

Reports of health-and-safety issues gave mayors like Michael Bloomberg in New York the pretext to evict the campers last week (after weeks of dithering). Again, this put the protesters rather than the pundits back at the centre of attention. Evacuating the OWS encampment raises questions about the group’s ability to sustain itself, since so much of their energy and identity was bound up in maintaining the site. A ‘Day of Action’ in New York City that followed the eviction did not draw the crowds hoped for (the group claimed around 30,000, but 10,000 is more likely; but whether it was 10,000 or 30,000, it’s a far cry from ‘the 99 per cent’). The protesters are now hoping to draw sympathy and support from circulating videos of police violence against them, such as the use of pepper spray on students at the University of California at Davis this past weekend. As my fellow spiked writer Nathalie Rothschild has pointed out, protesters now appear to ‘have adopted an unflattering victim mentality’.

In their response to the eviction, liberal commentators were in consensus: whatever the future of OWS, it had made its impact already by changing debate. OWS has been ‘a stunning success in changing the nation’s public discourse’, says Harold Meyerson. ‘A small, non-violent protest has been amplified into something bigger and more compelling’, writes Eugene Robinson, ‘not by the strength of its numbers, but by the power of its central idea’. (There it is again, that central idea that only the liberal pundits can divine.)

It is true that OWS has taken up a lot of media space – but that’s because the media has been going on about it all the time, not because people generally are talking about it. An increase in the Google trending for phrases like ‘income inequality’ is more evidence of how liberal pundits have used OWS to promote their own ideas, rather than the proof that the topic has gripped the nation. Furthermore, while the conversation has certainly changed, it hasn’t been for the better: America has gone from obsessing over deficits to now bitching about the fat cats who earn too much. A debate about how to grow the economy and produce jobs is still being avoided.

Indeed, opinion polls show that OWS is really a media-driven fascination. A Gallup poll published on Monday found that ‘barely half are following news of the protests closely and, accordingly, half or more say they don’t know enough about the movement to have an opinion about its goals or methods’. Only about a quarter say they support OWS, and the same percentage also approve of its goals.

The two sides – the campers and the liberal pundits – feed off one another. The protesters would have remained obscure nobodies if the media did not promote them (especially since, as Eugene Robinson noted, their numbers remain small). The pundits would hardly get a hearing for their re-hashed ideas about taxing millionaires and other token gestures if they didn’t have the protesters to point to and say ‘ooh, look at how angry people have become… you better adopt my policies quickly or all hell will break loose’.

It’s hard to decide which side is worse: a group that lets out an incoherent temper tantrum devoid of political ideas, or a group that opportunistically uses that outburst to claim their lame ideas were right all along.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics Politics

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