Occupy Wall Street Shrugged
What are we to make of the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Certainly the agitators behind this movement are far-left ideologues. But my sense is that the rank and file is not so explicitly ideological, and the overall message they have been sending is vague and incoherent. Part of what is driving the movement is Tahrir envy and Tea Party envy: left-leaning kids see other groups rising up in successful mass protests, and they don't want to be left out of the fun. But the actual precedent for the movement is a series of protests and tent camps that sprang up in Israel over the summer, You see the same combination: inchoate economic discontent, organized behind the scenes by the far left, but with a purposely vague message that allows the protests to attract a larger audience, mostly drawn from the college-educated middle class and upper middle class.
The same goes for Occupy Wall Street. It is perhaps best understood as a form of children's theater for middle-class college kids.
The Washington Times got its hands on some internal documents agonizing over the monolithic composition of Occupy Wall Street, which is dominated by 20-year-old white middle-class college boys. I strolled through our local branch, Occupy Charlottesville, and found a small group instantly recognizable as standard-issue lefties from the local university, all carefully dressed in the uniformly eclectic, I-want-to-be-a-nonconformist-just-like-everyone-else style of the campus "counterculture," which has of course become the new establishment. (If you want to be really radical in this group, show up in a suit and tie or a Carhartt jacket.)
Deeply ignorant of the actual workings of the economy, they have been indoctrinated with leftist ideas in school and regaled with highly glamorized stories about the student protests of 1960s. So this is their chance to put on a show and live in a little temporary microcosm of their leftist ideal. The most unintentionally insightful comment I've heard about the movement is that it defined less by ideology or by a specific agenda than it is by the "the identity they are trying to construct." It's all a kind of fashion statement, like wearing Birkenstocks.
Or put it another way. There are Civil War re-enactors and World War II re-enactors, and now we have 1960s re-enactors. As with all such re-enactments, it's on a much smaller and less impressive scale than the original. In the 1960s, as the famous song had it, by the time they got to Woodstock, they were half a million strong. But as Dana Milbank observes, by the time they got to Occupy DC, "they numbered only 53." Outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London, nine out of ten tents are empty at night while the protesters go home, presumably to a warm bed and a shower. In Zuccotti Park, protesters are at times outnumbered by curious tourists and the media that arrives to give them glowing coverage.
But if this is basically a form of street theater, it has been acting out some stories that weren't in the original script. A protest against the evils of capitalism has been churning out some cautionary tales about the troubles of socialism.
There is the creepy groupthink of the "human microphone," which involves a giant crowd repeating in unison every word a speaker says. And even some lefties who showed up expecting a leaderless rule by "consensus" are discovering that some Occupiers are more equal than others. When the organizers attempted to suppress the disruptive noise of the drum circle (a standard accoutrement at this kind of event), the drummers complained that they were being railroaded.
To Shane Engelerdt, a 19-year-old from Jersey City and self-described former "head drummer," this amounted to a Jacobinic betrayal. "They are becoming the government we're trying to protest," he said. "They didn't even give the drummers a say.... Drumming is the heartbeat of this movement. Look around: This is dead, you need a pulse to keep something alive."
The drummers claim that the finance working group even levied a percussion tax of sorts, taking up to half of the $150-300 a day that the drum circle was receiving in tips. "Now they have over $500,000 from all sorts of places," said Engelerdt. "We're like, what's going on here? They're like the banks we're protesting."
I won't be the first to point out that Occupy Wall Street is not like the banks, nor are they like the government these people are protesting against. It's like the government they are protesting for, and the protesters are now the ones who find themselves complaining about taxes and regulations and overbearing government.
In a microcosm of the pressure-group warfare of the welfare state, factions are beginning to tussle over the distribution of hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to the movement. Some protesters have responding by holding onto the donations they receive rather than sharing them with the collective. Funny how that works. My favorite you-can't-make-this-up quote is from Pete Dutro of the organizers' finance group: "The vast majority of the people here don't understand how money works." That's an interesting admission to make about a movement whose core issue is how money works.
Not surprisingly, Occupy Wall Street has become a magnet for thieves and con-men. As one organizer complains, "Stealing is our biggest problem at the moment."
Then there are the bums. Originally, from what I can tell, street people were actively recruited by the Occupiers as a way of adding to their somewhat anemic numbers. But the naïve young hippies who make up the bulk of the movement are quickly discovering what the rest of us, with the benefit of actual life experience, already know about "the homeless."
Over at Occupy Boston, a protester complains, "It's turning into us against them. They come in here and they're looking at it as a way of getting a free meal and a place to crash, which is totally fine, but they don't bring anything to the table at all." Another report concludes with a similar sentiment.
"We have compassion toward everyone. However, we have certain rules and guidelines," said Lauren Digioia, 26, a member of the sanitation committee. "If you're going to come here and get our food, bedding and clothing, have books and medical supplies for no charge, they need to give back," Digioia said. "There's a lot of takers here and they feel entitled."
These kids had better watch out. If they start thinking that like this, pretty soon they might find themselves at a Tea Party rally.
But the story that caps off everything is the spaghetti Bolognese incident. I'll let the New York Post tell the story.
The Occupy Wall Street volunteer kitchen staff launched a "counter" revolution yesterday-because they're angry about working 18-hour days to provide food for "professional homeless" people and ex-cons masquerading as protesters.
For three days beginning tomorrow, the cooks will serve only brown rice and other Spartan grub instead of the usual menu of organic chicken and vegetables, spaghetti Bolognese, and roasted beet and sheep's-milk-cheese salad.
They will also provide directions to local soup kitchens for the vagrants, criminals and other freeloaders who have been descending on Zuccotti Park in increasing numbers every day. To show they mean business, the kitchen staff refused to serve any food for two hours yesterday in order to meet with organizers to air their grievances, sources said.
The first thing to notice about this story is the snobbery of these enlightened, egalitarian progressives. Spaghetti Bolognese is fine for folks like you and me--you know, good respectable bourgeois--but we can't have the actual grubby poor showing up to demand some of it. So let's serve them gruel and fob them off on the local soup kitchen. I mean, don't they know their place?
Yet you have to sympathize with the cooks who have been besieged by moochers. Behind the hypocrisy, there are real lessons to be learned: lessons about the relationship between productive people and freeloaders. About the need for police to protect decent people from criminals. About how con-men and power-lusters always take over utopian schemes for their own benefit. About the taxing power and unaccountability of central authorities.
The spaghetti Bolognese incident sums it up. The workers who provide the goods everyone else lives off of are going on strike to protest against their exploitation by freeloaders. Has anyone noticed that this is the basic plot premise of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged? Yet that is the story line they are unintentionally acting out. Call it Occupy Wall Street Shrugged.
There is something repugnant and undemocratic about this movement, summed up in the very word "Occupy," a term that implies force and violent repression. The left likes to express sympathy for resistance to "occupation" in the Middle East. Shouldn't there now be a resistance against the Occupy Wall Street occupation? Certainly, if you are unfortunate enough to live near Zuccotti Park, you're starting to think about it. No wonder the Occupy movement is wearing out its welcome in cities across the country.
But perhaps there is a purpose to letting this street theater go on. The spaghetti Bolognese strikers and all the rest are acting out lessons that the rest of us learned from reading Atlas Shrugged, and from paying attention to the horrific 20th-century record of socialism. Perhaps they, and the rest of the country, will learn something from the experience.