Batman Is In the House
The tentative consensus in the media regarding the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators is that they can’t be taken seriously unless they announce a coherent agenda, issue concrete demands and goals—until, in other words, they start acting like a political party, something our political system can understand, negotiate with, offer token concessions to, neutralize, or otherwise make go away. As always, The Onion puts it most eloquently: “Nation Waiting For Protesters To Clearly Articulate Demands Before Ignoring Them.” Though it should be pointed out that it’s been their very refusal to offer any such defining agenda that’s brought them what bemused and condescending attention they’ve gotten so far. (Well, that and the NYPD’s PR coup of Macing pretty girls on YouTube.) Instead they’re just silently persisting there, their numbers steadily growing, in a mute implacable way that’s starting to feel kind of ominous.
If, unlike most of the pundits who’ve weighed in on the subject, you actually take the trouble to poke your head in down at Zuccotti Park and talk to people, you’ll find they’re not just the usual feckless hippies but veterans of Iraq and World War II, clean-cut students, laid-off Ohio forklift operators, monks (Buddhist and Catholic), Manhattan office workers, and a lot of guys in hardhats. It’s definitely crowded and chaotic but it’s not squalid, unlike quite a lot of other places in Bloomberg’s city. Yes there are some people there who seem determined to embody every conservative caricature of the OWS movement: dogmatic anarchists, anticapitalists with iPhones, and yes the drummers, drumming defiantly, ceaselessly, annoying local residents and fellow protesters alike, and the drumming is not Gene Krupa, or even John Bonham. They’re the Left’s counterparts to the rednecks who bring guns and Confederate flags to Tea Party rallies. And there are also some people there whose mental illness is ineptly disguised as ideology. But then the Tea Party attracted more than its share of creeps and dingbats, too. This is one difference between a real democratic political movement and the scripted telegenic sham of a party; it’s messy and unorganized and you don’t get to keep people out. Yet, contra charges of incoherence, the signage and chants are all surprisingly on-message. There’s not much of the usual Free Mumia or Legalize Hemp slogans you saw at antiwar rallies. Their theme, for the record, is: economic injustice.
If you want to hear some perfectly reasonable, long-overdue reforms that the OWS protesters might ask for, journalist Matt Taibbi, who may be the only person not employed on Wall Street who has any idea what actually happened in the economic crisis of 2008, proposes his own short list over at Mother Jones [http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/10/matt-taibbis-advice-ows]. I could give you my own wish list, too. I’d like to see the architects of the economic crisis made to pay for it instead of its casualties. I like the idea of restoring the firewall between commercial and investment banking. I’d like to see a more progressive tax structure, real campaign finance reform, and a reconsideration of the absurd interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that grants corporations the same legal status as private individuals--albeit sociopathic ones who are immune from any criminal penalties. Oh and maybe we should do something about global warming before we lose another major city?
Here’s the problem: none of that is ever going to happen. The President of the United States is not about to inconvenience his biggest campaign donors with increased taxes, regulation, or oversight, much less subject them to the indignities of justice. I think most of the protesters in Zuccotti Park are there not because they want to see these or any other reforms pushed through, but because they no longer believe reform is possible in our political system. You don’t end up sleeping outside under a tarp to make your views known if you thought writing a letter to your congressman would work. The Tea Party formed when a critical mass of fiscal conservatives felt that the Republican Party had abandoned their principles. The fact that these demonstrations are happening at all seems like a symptom of the same loss of faith among progressives in the Obama administration. The Tea Partiers, good Americans and true believers, did everything they were supposed to do—they organized, formed a party, ran candidates, won elections, and now they get to feel coöpted and betrayed. OWS is not making the same mistake. The American political system, which endured for two centuries because of the capacity for self-correction ingeniously built into its constitution, has become increasingly inflexible. And when something’s grown brittle it can easily break.
Everyone in the responsible media regards those dreadlocked anarchists’ call for the end of global capitalism as too unserious and irrelevant to bother addressing. But the collapse of capitalism seems less like a joke to me than it does a foregone conclusion. It’s currently happening on the front page of the New York Times. Capitalism as currently practiced appears to have crashed the global economy. I don’t actually understand what happened in the economic crisis; I just have the same gut feeling the rest of America does: Someone did something that was illegal, or should have been, and they got rewarded for it, and we have to pay for it. That is not fair. That is not right. I am not a Marxist, because I assume it would at some point have to involve reading Marx. I’m not even especially hostile to capitalism; I just can’t help but notice it’s not working. It works really well at inventing and selling consumer doodads: iPads, BMWs, Glocks, Hitachi wands, cupcakes, wax lips. It works markedly less well as a template for every major human institution—governance, education, health care--most of which are predicated on values other than avarice.
If your house is suffering irreparable structural damage, you can either draw up blueprints for a new one and bulldoze it yourself, or, I suppose, you could insist that everything is basically fine, you just maybe need to put down a new hall carpet, and continue to live in it until the morning you wake up unexpectedly in the basement. The despots of the Middle East had several leisurely decades in which they could’ve instituted reasonable, moderate reforms. Instead they ignored their peoples’ sullen grumbling, regarding them as a shiftless, ignorant, disorganized rabble who couldn’t be trusted with power. By the time their whole populations took to the streets, and things got scary enough that they suddenly scrambled to offer some token reforms, it was much too late. The former rulers of those countries are still probably stunned to find themselves in exile, jail, or hiding in depressingly unluxurious bunkers.
I don’t know if it’s too late yet for reform in America. But lot of people in this country are desperate, hopeless, and angry. The main reason the Tea Party hasn’t joined up with Occupy Wall Street is that those two groups seem not to have realized that their arch enemies—Big Government and Corporate America, respectively—are literally the same people. If they ever do figure this out, they might well put aside their mutual distaste and form that invincible coalition that political philosopher Charles Daniels called “the cowboys and the hippies, the rebels and the yanks.” More likely the Tea Party will continue to mock OWS as a bunch of spoiled whiners and the protests will disperse when the serious cold sets in. But if those feckless hippies were to become the nucleus of a truly popular middle-class movement, and I were a CEO on Wall Street, I might start planning a long junket in a warm country with no extradition.
I don’t think Occupy Wall Street knows what they’re doing, but whatever it is, it seems to be working. Their refusal to issue concrete demands is, if nothing else, an effective psyops tactic. Mainstream politicians and media cannot seem to believe, or accept, that no one is in charge. Dan Rather is claiming a shadowy Svengali named “Grim” is pulling the strings. (“Grim,” whose full nom de guerre is “Grimwomyn” is my contact at the Occupy Wall Street Journal, where the editorial process is “by consensus,” so Grim can’t even tell me whether my cartoons are going to run or not.) Newt Gingrich has exposed something called the Media-Democrat-Industrial complex, led by cabal of journalists including Matt Taibbi, as the movement’s true ringleaders. (I know this is not true because I asked Matt whether he would let me in on the MDI inner circle if he were a ringleader, and he promised he would). Their mounting hysteria reminds me of those high-strung henchmen in movies or comics who are confronted by some grimly silent vigilante, and inevitably break down screaming: “Whaddaya want? Why don’t’cha say something? Talk, dammit!” These people fundamentally misunderstand their position. Once Batman shows up, it’s past the time for making deals.