Monday, October 10, 2011

OWS and My Place on the Sidelines

I need to turn this blog back to a stricter focus on the concept of breaking points, and I need to see that my voice curves around the theme. Primarily, that means being less shy about my righteous indignation. The best of my opinions tend to come of situations wherein I have roughly equivalent ire for both sides of an issue. So it is with the Occupy Wall Street protests. In being essentially asked to choose between the two camps, I feel I’m expected to align myself either with a population of self-righteous assholes who hold to the counter-intuitive view than anyone under the age of thirty-five who has a college degree shouldn’t be taken seriously or with a massive cluster fuck of activists who have no organizational skills or sense of proportion. If absolutely compelled to take a side with one or the other, of course I’ll take the cluster fuck, but as with so many of these things, I really wish there was another option. That is, I wish there was another position to take aside from on either team or on the sidelines.

The majority of the criticism I have been seeing levied against the Occupy Wall Street movement has been predictably cynical and obnoxious. It generally follows the line of reasoning advanced on the national political stage by Hermann Cain: that many thousands of disaffected, disenfranchised people protesting in lower Manhattan and across the country are unfairly targeting their anger at financial institutions and the status quo when they should be blaming themselves for problems such as poverty and joblessness. I encountered one passive-aggressive commentator who identified the movement as being “pro-sloth” and expecting compensation for laziness.

I am increasingly finding myself drawn toward the uncomfortable belief that some people simply cannot be reasoned with. More than that, I may find myself trending towards the worse assumption that people in general can’t be reasoned with when they are being challenged to understand the motivations of ideological opponents. Why is it that otherwise intelligent people take up the most simplistic, intellectually deficient explanations when people they disagree with become highly visible? Hermann Cain aside, I don’t imagine that most conservative observers of the Occupy Wall Street protests are stupid, and yet they are prone to the most foolishly arrogant characterizations of an entire movement. It appears to me that instead of putting forth the effort to observe the participants closely, such people compensate for the discomfort of not understanding them in the slightest by claiming that they understand them perfectly, and that their movement is so simple a thing to understand that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.

That, of course, is bullshit. And yet at the same time there are good reasons not to take it seriously. Much of the media has focused attention on the obvious flaw in the movement that is its lack of a coherent narrative. That is a profoundly serious problem, and though it should be sufficient grounds for criticism on its own, a secondary consequence of that fact is that it makes the movement easier to criticize on irrational, irrelevant, hyperbolic grounds. The fact is that the movement’s opponents will undercut its significance without a second though no matter what, but a lot more is gained if the fight is over the actual message, and not over the personal character of all of the disorganized individuals jostling to express a message that is unique to them and their friends.

I did enough protesting in college that I know that this is just exactly what liberal activism in the twenty-first century looks like. I think it was because I already had a decent mind for branding that it pissed me off when I was twenty and within it as it does now, when I’m twenty-six and watching from the outside. I attended rallies that I thought were in opposition to the continued occupation of Iraq, but as I wandered the crowd I found that they were apparently also about Israel and abortion and gay rights and socialism and drug policy and 9-11 conspiracy theory. And every secondary cause that was represented at every such rally distracted attention from the one thing that everyone had supposedly come together for. It is impossible to take a movement seriously if it is little more than a breeding ground for diverse, disconnected ideas that just happen to originate from the same side of the political spectrum.

Since I’ve already entertained one or two uncomfortable notions in this post, here’s another: Liberalism, precisely by virtue of being liberal, is a weak political cause. We are receptive to other views, and despite the fiery passion of very many liberal activists, most of the ostensibly liberal elements of the political establishment are deferent and eager to compromise. And why shouldn’t they be if their constituency can’t commit to one clear, unequivocal demand without cluttering their advocacy with a chorus of secondary considerations? Why, if the firebrands on the ground are willing to give voice to any ideas that are broadly termed liberal, shouldn’t those in power, who must necessarily be more moderate, be willing to give voice to any ideas that are broadly termed rational?

Unity is one thing at which conservatism, ideological monstrosity that it often is, beats liberalism hands-down. It’s a vulgar kind of unity – the kind that’s achieved by excluding certain opinions, sometimes the most reasonable ones – but it certainly is effective. Down on Wall Street, there’s a protest going on about a million different things, even according to its own participants, but those who are ideologically invested in disregarding it can all agree, even though it’s insanely idiotic to do so, that the noise is coming from a bunch of entitled slackers who would simply rather shout than work. Unfortunately, I anticipate the unified party gaining more ground in this contest.

Don’t get me wrong, if I could so much as afford a bus ticket I would be down there with the Wall Street protesters without a moment’s hesitation. But I know that I would be as angry at the crowd as I would be at the invisible enemy I’d be there to combat. It would be like college all over again, except the cause is far greater, so the lost opportunity is much worse. I’m sort of glad that I’m too poor to protest about how poor I am. I don’t want to be in that ambivalent position again. I’m sure that history would repeat itself exactly and one moment I’d be fantasizing about using his own black handkerchief to suffocate one of the anarchists who crashed a reasonable protest, and then the next I’d want to tear the furs off of the old lady berating us for our indigent, youthful naiveté, hold them up in front of her face and try to convince her that she’s a caricature of herself. Within a crowd of thousands, I would be as lonely as ever, pining as I have done before for a group that does not exist, which would disavow itself of poisonous or plainly irrelevant ideas, and yet engage its opponents intelligently and with self-respect.

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