There is an righteous anger in the land and OWS is its bright, elemental flame. But flames have no voice, and their meaning is left to the viewer to interpet. That is the nature of the beast. In OWS’s strength lies also its potential weakness. The latest “pepper spraying incident” is a perfect example. Let me explain why.
OWS refuses to be just another mainline protest or movement. They want to be the new thing, the anti-establishment model for the future. I admire them in this and my comments may just be the thoughts of an aging observer who grew up during the Great Counterculture revolt. So be it. The problem simply stated is that if you don’t fight to control how you are publicly percieved somebody else, the corporate media, usually your enemies, will be happy to fill that vacuum. You usually will not like their protrayal.
Over at Salon, GLENN GREENWALD makes the case, at least for now, for letting OWS be OWS and not having it co-opted by politics as usual. We need to shake up the oligarchs who now command public policy in the US.
I disagree with the prevailing wisdom that OWS should begin formulating specific legislative demands and working to elect specific candidates.
…[Lets compare the US today to] “emerging market” oligarchies [think Russia, South Korea ] … [They decide] at the outset of the crisis, [that] the oligarchs …. [should be] among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or-here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique-the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. …. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk-at least until the riots grow too large.
That last phrase is the essence of why I hope OWS, at least for now, remains a movement that refuses to reduce itself into garden-variety electoral politics. What is missing from America is a healthy fear in the hearts and minds of the most powerful political and financial factions of the consequences of their continued pilfering, corporatism, and corrupt crony capitalism, and only this sort of movement – untethered from the pacifying rules of our political and media institutions – can re-impose that healthy fear. When both parties are captive to the same factions, then – by design, as AIPAC has so effectively shown – one can’t subvert the agenda of those factions simply by voting for one party or the other.
Moreover, what happens with fundamentally corrupted political systems is that even well-intentioned candidates – or discrete pieces of legislation that are good in the abstract – become infected and degraded when inserted into that system; if you believe that the wealthiest class anti-democratically controls political institutions (an indisputably true premise), then it makes little sense to expect specific new bills or even individual candidates inserted into that system to bring about much change…
All well and good, and I share his outrage and frustration with contemporary American politics of all stripes. It is an oligarchy as far as I can tell. The question is what to do about it?
No matter how useful OWS is in its role as the lurking menace, I would remind everyone what happened the last time we had such a lurking presence in our politics.
Perlstein, Rick (2008-05-13). Nixonland (p. 46,47). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Thus a more inclusive definition of Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.
“Nixonland” is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years.
The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name-but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.
If the apocalyptical fearmongering referenced here sounds familiar, it is because it remains one of the key memes of the Republican party to the present day. For all of the things Obama has done to strengthen the Democratic portfolio on “security”, it remains very much part of the Republcan playbook. “Law and Order” did wonders for Nixon and Reagan. If the frame becomes the cops versus the anarchists, OWS and Progressives will lose.
Still, the parallel is far from perfect. I think OWS is anything but a “bunch of dirty hippies” as Fox Noise so gleefully labels them. Their dignfied non-violence in the face of provocation and pepper spray is both courageous and admirable. The effort so far to brand them as countercultural traitors and anarchists has not been fully successful. There are, however, troubling indicators:
Support for Occupy Wall Street Drops
Q. Do you support or oppose the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Support: 33 (35)
Oppose: 45 (36)
Not sure: 22 (29)
Q. Do you have a higher opinion of the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Tea Party movement?
Occupy Wall Street: 37 (40)
Tea Party: 43 (37)
Not sure: 20 (23)
So the problem is how is OWS labeling themselves? Lacking pushback what will happen to their influence ? Their core issues will remain, but to what effect? Economic inequality and the destruction of the middle class should be in the forefront of the political debate we need to have. The danger is that it will be buried, again, beneath a cloud of pepper spray . The question of the role and behavior of the police in this crisis is an important one, but if it comes to the fore it is at the expense of the focus on economic inequality. If its OWS versus the police, even if they are seen as abusive , will it turn out well for efforts at reform and change?
Over at TPM, Josh has this take:
I’ve wondered about this for a week or two. And I haven’t known quite what to make of it or how to express it. It didn’t start with this pepper spray incident at UC Davis. But that sort of crystallized it further in my mind: the core message about economic inequality is being overwhelmed by a distinct story about (depending on your perspective) street violence and police brutality or excessive militarization of crowd control.
Last week I met a person heavily involved with OWS in New York. And I told him that something seemed to have changed in the previous couple weeks – basically that the dominant imagery had become about confrontations with the police rather than the core economic messages which had been more dominant previously. In most cases it didn’t seem to be the fault of the OWS protesters. It was peaceful or mainly peaceful protests getting met by excessive police responses. But still, at the level of imagery and message, the end result can be the same. And in this case, I’m not talking about the ridiculousness and movement-character assassination on Fox News. I’m talking about coverage that lacks that sort of committed bias.
The issue of police brutality and militarized or quasi-militarized policing is a legitimate and very important issue, entirely unto itself. But the the campus police at Davis or the NYPD for that matter aren’t what’s driving the rising inequality of American society.
OWS needs a narrative of its own devising, one that they can consistently convey , one which they control. To paraphrase Drew Weston (The Political Brain: The Role of Emotions in the Fate of the Nation)speaking in a related but different context:
Rhe first and most central task of any campaign is to capitalize on the partisan feelings of those who tend to identify with the candidate’s party’s position [I would substitute ‘Movement’s core position’]…That kind of disposition is only possible , however, when a [movement] has a coherent , emotionally compelling “story” – a narrative of what it means to be [or to stand with the movement].
Simply put, OWS may be at a crossroads. If they don’t get control of their own story, their opponets will keep trying and they may eventually succeed. That would be a terrible thing considering how much can be accomplished if OWS can keep their core issues before the eyes of the rational voters of all kinds this election season.
And now, there is this: