Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, er, . . . wherever

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement has been a big story in some circles. Not so much in others. For weeks, leftist activists protested that the mainstream media, having profligately covered every wacky utterance from the Tea Party, were ignoring this genuine social movement. That finally changed in the last week or so, as the movement swelled rather than shriveled, and a few prominent Democratic officials and a growing number of other left-liberal figures endorsed the phenomenon. The major liberal magazines, The New Republic (1, 2, 3)  and The Nation (1, 2, 3), are taking the movement seriously. Conservatives of course hastened to denounce it—as, for example, when Herman Cain (though casually admitting, "I don't have the facts to back this up") labeled the whole thing a plot by supporters of the Obama administration, and helpfully added, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Eric Cantor dismissed the protesters as "mobs," which New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused of "trying to destroy the jobs of working people in this city."

We may have been ahead of the curve. Already more than two weeks ago, students at Hampshire College put up a virtual occupation tent on the lawn in front of the Library, seen here in a shot from the start of the month. (One of the few times, of course, that our students ever endorsed any "occupation.")

Admittedly, graffiti on an engineering structure a few hundred yards away suggested less unity (or seriousness) of purpose.

In the meantime, the real movement has arrived here, as well: there will now be an "Occupy Amherst." Students protested at the University and downtown on the Common last week, as described in this story from the Collegian (which, incidentally features comments by my friend and colleague, economist Gerry Friedman). A major all-town demonstration is planned for Sunday, the 16th.

To be sure, it's easy to dismiss the protesters as a bunch of "trustafarian nitwits," but here is where it's good to be able to historicize one's own position. Much of the old left as well as political establishment had little respect for the hippies and yippies and other countercultural protesters of the 1960s—but even though that movement had more than its share of weaknesses, it ultimately produced or contributed to something more enduring and influential (after all, where is the old left today?). Whether today's movement has that sort of potential is very much an open question. (Personally, I was most intrigued by the analysis of Occupy Wall Street as a self-functioning ecosystem.)

Above all, the protests seem to lack deeper intellectual coherence as well as aims. A flier inviting residents to the Amherst "general assembly" basically asked residents to come and bring their suggestions. This is one clear difference from some of the protests of the so-called "Arab Spring," which, even if made up of diverse and opposing groups with no shared long-term vision, at least had some clear, shared, and verifiable short-term goals: toppling a government, altering the legal and electoral system, and so forth. Ditto for Israel's J14 movement, which eventually won social and economic reforms. It was interesting, incidentally, to see veterans of the Egyptian and  Israeli protest movements offer advice to people whom they evidently but charitably regard as well-intentioned amateurs.

I'm not sure I'll be able to attend on the 16th, as I have to be at the inauguration of the new Amherst College president. It may be just as well. The incoherence of political activism, I can take. (God knows, we're used to it.) I'm not sure how long I could stand the political and rhetorical style, though. As most readers will know, use of microphones and megaphones was banned at many demonstrations (in New York, for example, a permit is required). The activists therefore improvised, creating what The Nation's Richard Kim calls "an ingeniously simple people-powered method of sound amplification":
After the mic check, the meeting proceeds:
with every few words / WITH EVERY FEW WORDS!
repeated and amplified out loud / REPEATED AND AMPLIFIED OUT LOUD!
by what has been dubbed / BY WHAT HAS BEEN DUBBED!
the human microphone / THE HUMAN MICROPHONE!!! (jazz hands here).
The aforementioned Israeli activist had other advice. In essence, if you want to be radical, then be radical, and pay the price:
Wall Street activists told Eidelman that police had threatened to arrest those who used megaphones. Eidelman thought: Why not buy a few hundred megaphones and dare them to arrest everyone? Apparently the idea hadn’t been raised.
Kim's characterization of the human microphone: "The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once."

Only one of the three, if you ask me.  As New York Magazine put it,
As you might expect, the message can get a bit garbled, and basic sentences (AND BASIC SENTENCES!) can take three times as long (CAN TAKE THREE TIMES AS LONG!) to complete (TO COMPLETE!). And forget about clearly explaining complex economic arguments to the crowd. We're looking at you, Joseph Stiglitz. Also, as Michael Moore learned, jokes don't really travel well over the 500-person shouting telephone game. Watch our video for a quick primer on the human microphone that's repeated daily down in the crowds. Also, jazz hands!

Combine that with the pseudo-democratic ideal of operating on the basis of consensus, and you have a recipe for, well. . . just watch.

Here, Occupy Atlanta protesters were prepared to welcome civil rights hero John Lewis, who had followed protocol by requesting permission to address the throng. Then one young bewhiskered activist sought to block consensus on the grounds that, whereas Lewis had (to be sure, yes, yes) done much for the country, no one was better than anyone else, and Lewis and his remarks were not on the agenda of the general assembly. You really have to watch the whole thing to appreciate it properly. I confess that I can barely force myself to do so.

Conservatives, who shot and posted this video, of course had a field day. But even some leftists and liberals found the scene anywhere from silly to distasteful. Hip Hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons called the Atlantans "a bunch of (blank)heads." Former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young compared the protesters unfavorably with the civil rights movement of which he had been a leader: “There’s a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement.” “This is an emotional outcry. The difference is organization and articulation.” As for Lewis himself, he just politely said that he had wanted to help and was not offended by the treatment (though one wonders what he makes of the talkbacks on the article that reported this).

I have a friend with unimpeachable leftist and feminist credentials of long standing, and she once told me that she had only a few hard-and-fast political rules. One of them was: never again join any body that operates on the principle of consensus. One can see why (I mean: ONE CAN SEE WHY).

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