More on How Occupy Wall Street and Liberals Will Lose

by A. Jay Adler on October 31, 2011
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Nothing that has occurred since my post on Thursday argues against its sad prognosis. Much argues for it. City governments are becoming less tolerant of the occupations, some of which are exhibiting more problematic behavior than earlier, with defiance of local ordinances and clashes with police growing in number and location. This makes the occupiers appear more troublesome and troublemaking than constructive, and more of a growing annoyance and disruption to daily life than a righteous cause. This gets reported, as by USA Today, with its Middle American reach – never mind the Fox Newses – and the perception grows.

Worse, the occupiers and their more institutional liberal champions, who should know better, in response to municipal efforts to control their activity, are losing focus. Countercultural left protest has been historically, constitutionally unable to separate legitimate causes from adolescent utopian rebellion against systemic authority. Give such protesters a chance to feel victimized – oppressed – by government and by police, to pretend they live in the crisis of pending authoritarianism, and they forget the important mission with which they began and they turn instead to railing against police and general injustice. Then they lose.

The inciting cause of the occupations is a great and just one: a national income and wealth gap that is already, literally, criminal, aided by the criminality and criminal negligence of the institutions of finance capitalism. This is the crime and the injustice that can unite people across many cultural and political divides. This is the opportunity that OWS originators, against their own marginal status and slack self-awareness, stumbled into.

Now, however, in the unfortunate injury to Scott Olsen at Occupy Oakland, the left’s adolescent legions have found one more opportunity to rail more baggily against authority in general, to cast working class police and municipal governments as tyrants, not Wall Street as plutocratic wizards of greed, and they are losing sight, in the same old acting out, of what is their true and just cause. Not just college kids and anarcho-libertarian utopians who think they have actually achieved something just by occupying public spaces and declaring no pig more equal than any other pig (and they, if that’s all the non-political end they seek, might better sit some years in a Zendo, except that takes mental discipline, too) – no, older, wiser, players in the game resort now to broadcasting this gambit from the liberal playbook of perpetual defeat:

The real people who gave their support to the Tea Parties – conservatives and the confused middle alike – resent and mistrust government as the liberal abstraction they have been persuaded to see in it. It is a distant, unrepresentative force that meddles in their everyday lives and reaches into their pockets like George III. They do not despise it as the guarantor of order and the protector of their locality. “Law and order” became a 60’s conservative catchphrase for a reason, and people value it no less now. Enough of them may be persuaded to see a common plutocratic enemy of economic justice and genuine and not cliché-driven opportunity, but not if it is overwhelmed by vague, angry disorder in the streets.

The corner has already been turned. The path to a surprise liberal achievement may still be close enough to find. But the Occupy movement will need to turn back fast, pretty much immediately, or a historic opportunity will have flashed and faded from view at very nearly the same moment, and the left will spend another forty years bemoaning the loss and finding causes for it everywhere but in itself.

AJA

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7 comments

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob October 31, 2011 at 6:09 pm

I think it’s a perspective problem that can be applied to many, if not all, social protest movements. Most people don’t actually realize how slow social change is and how long it takes to gain a toehold. It’s also subject to the eddys and flows of the period in which they live. I know if you asked John Lewis, he’d definitely say the civil rights movement is still being fought. But I think idealism like this, however glacial, moves the process along. Still, I wanted to grab that guy in the red shirt and force him to watch some footage from the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Then he would have shut up real quick.

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A. Jay Adler November 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Rob, I think perspective is a crucial term, as you frame it, and also – you would know from your legislative experience – as a matter of perceiving the goal and the strategy that attains it, in contrast to a general rage against the machine. Also, regarding John Lewis – oh, yeah. When egalitarianism means you can’t afford unique regard to unique accomplishment, it is empty and offensive. Then, when it turns punitive – how shall we rebuke the offender? – no one is spared for any reason, because there is no basis for special consideration.

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Rob November 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm

They need to learn the crucial lesson that raging against the machine is just part of the strategy that moves the process along. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s necessary. Instant gratification may work on their iGadgets, but in moving civilization forward, not so much.

And aside from perspective, pragmatism and a reality check, some of these folks need a reminder about how procedural maneuvers are routinely and cynically employed in legislative bodies to shut down discussion on issues they care about (then they scream bloody murder… as well they should). As another example, one often reads about process trumping substance in death penalty cases. And so on and so forth.

And seriously, not letting John Lewis speak was pretty pathetic. Considering his history, it’s also more than a bit ironic.

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Rob November 2, 2011 at 5:47 am

Upon reflection, I think some raw idealism is healthy for a movement. It balances out the more pragmatic nature of some participants. After all, I was once raw and idealistic. It was the learning experience in the process that disabused me of the notion that things change quickly. Didn’t take long to figure out, but it’s something I needed to discover myself.

How about we hope some of these folks reach a point of healthy pragmatism rather than destructive cynicism?

And upon reflection, that guy in the red shirt is still a dope.

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A. Jay Adler November 2, 2011 at 8:58 am

The idealistic/naive and pragmatic/cynical ends of the axis need to balance each other. And sometimes a holy fool is just a fool.

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