Leftists and hippies o’er the land have been up in arms as of late over a perceived media blackout regarding a multi-day protest of leftists and hippies in Wall Street. It’s been so ignored by the media, in fact, that there have been no shortage of stories about the blackout in the media. Funny how that goes.
Anyway, Wall Street has been occupied by these folks for over a week now, and by “occupied” we mean a bunch of people are camping out in Zuccotti Park, forming a little shanty town of blankets, signs, and tents, as you can see in online galleries like this one. As is often the case with these sorts of things, no one really agrees how many people are involved. The organizers themselves claim around 2,000 while the cops say more like a couple hundred. Much of the protester population is evidently very transient, so there’s that excuse.
What do they want? When do they want it? Who knows. In a profile of the protest that has gotten a lot of flak from protester supporters, The New York Times depicted an extraordinarily incoherent, “carnival” of random left-wing causes and interests, united only by a shared bohemian counter-culture. With dreadlocks, keffiyehs, bucket drums, and topless women a-plenty, the spectacle has been likened to Burning Man or a particularly campy anti-war rally. Their slogans have run the gamut from shrill anti-market rhetoric (“CAPITALISM DOESN’T WORK!”) to inane Internetings (“can i haz bailout to?”).
Apparently much of the impetus for the thing in the first place traces back to AdBusters magazine, who, back in June, explicitly called for a September occupation as a way to, uh, “help each other zero in on what our one demand will be.” AdBusters is actually based out of Vancouver, where I live, so I can say is more than par the course for them. One of their big problems with the ads they so consistently bust is that they’re always too crammed with subtext and pretext. Embracing spectacle for the sake of spectacle, or unstructured, avant-garde nihilism that openly subverts the corporate expectation that everything important has to have neat logos, catch-phrases and “objectives” is very much what they’re all about.
If I sound dismissive it’s because I am. The fact remains that most people in this world are profoundly apolitical, so I’m always greatly suspicious of any “new” movement that seems to arise overnight, claiming to be a leaderless mob of average citizens who have finally been pushed too far. A quick glance at the majority of Occupy Wall Street’s participants clearly suggests they’re the sort of people who were inclined to hold their anti-fat cat views long before there was any specific news event to justify a rally (which might explain why there wasn’t), and whose success at organizing reflects that substantial networks for communication and participation were already in place. If the press has been somewhat indifferent, I don’t blame them. “Boho leftists: they’re still around” is hardly a compelling narrative.
There have been some Tea Party analogies made, often by lefties who want this movement to be “their version,” but I think the analogy is even more apt than that. Numerous journalistic investigations have now proven quite conclusively that the vast majority of self-proclaimed non-partisan, leaderless, spontaneously-arisen Tea Party members and organizers are simply partisan Republicans who were active in politics long before Obama, or the stimulus, or whatever. To the extent they want to change “politics as usual,” they just want to push the discourse more to the right, as they, and their numerous partisan predecessors, always have. The adoption of new symbols and tactics, and a new veneer of righteous indignation and stagy alienation, are little more than colourful gimmicks to disguise a fairly boring status quo.
Something about the angry left has made them historically less powerful than the angry right (at least since the 1970s), though I guess that could be changing. The greatest success of the Tea Party, after all, was proclaiming its influence loudly and often enough to shift mainstream perceptions in that direction, and then actively working through the American primary system to cobble together a few high-profile candidate case studies as further evidence. That the TP was eventually willing to move beyond the realm of pure spectacle — even if its goals were nothing particularly spectacular — is a lesson worth noting for the Wall Street crowd. But until they do, they’ll merely serve as a reminder that obnoxiously ideological radicalism is not the sole domain of one side.