The Vain And Empty Rituals Of Protest On The Streets
Published on: October 18, 2011
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  • WigWag

    “Unfortunately for the left, the more “typical” a protest looks, the less important it appears. A march of 10,000 bankers up Wall Street would get more press attention than a march of 25,000 “usual suspects”: scruffy students, angry longers, semi-professional media hounds, veterans of multiple protests.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    It is axiomatic that unless protest movements are harbingers of meaningful political action, they virtually always come to nothing. Why Professor Mead pens an essay to state the obvious is hard to understand.

    It is too soon to tell whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will morph into a political crusade. The odds are against it; most movements like it, whether spontaneous or organized, end up fizzling out like a spent firecracker. The Tea Party phenomonon proves the point; after having a meaningful effect in the last congressional elections, it turns out to have been a flash in the pan. Despite all its passion and militancy it appears that it couldn’t prevent an avidly right wing Republican Party from nominating the man that they like least; Mitt Romney. Who would have thought just a few short months ago, that the Tea Party would have been so devoid of influence that its partisans would end up with no choice but to vote for a Massachusetts Governor who invented Obama-care before Obama did.

    My quarrel with Professor Mead is that he’s too hard on the young people who have been dedicating themselves to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

    Mead himself admits that that the anti-Viet Nam war demonstrations contributed to ending the draft and that the Civil Rights demonstrations were enormously effective in promoting voting rights and other civil rights protections. Surely Professor Mead knows that it was young people who were in the vanguard of both movements.

    The young people protesting against the Viet Nam war tended to be a pretty scruffy bunch, while the young people protesting for civil rights tended to be more well-dressed and mannerly; but for both movements it was young people as far as the eye could see.

    Most of the leaders of the New Left were in the early to mid 20s and the signers of the Port Huron Statement were all young people. When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, she was a middle aged 42, but the civil rights movement really found its grove when James Chaney, (21-years-old), Andrew Goodman, (20-years-old) and Michael Schwerner, (24-years-old) were murdered in Mississippi.

    There is something about the passion and creativity of youth that is hard to quantify. Just as a significant percentage of Nobel Prizes have been awarded for discoveries that were either made or germinated when the winner was very young, many of the most profoundly important social and political movements were started by young people.

    Professor Mead is wrong to dismiss the Occupy Wall Street movement because of the tender age of its most avid adherents.

  • Jim.

    I wonder what Bloomberg will do about the protests if the “Evacuate Wall Street” trend starts to become serious…

  • Toni

    Economists call non-monetary rewards you get from your job “psychic income.” Seems to me a prime function — maybe *the* prime function — of OWS protests is to provide protesters with copious psychic income. Standing up for hopelessly vague liberal goals makes the protesters feel good about themselves. They believe they’re literally demonstrating their own virtue.

    Perhaps getting arrested is meant to demonstrate the protester’s depth of commitment.

    Accomplishing something in the real world is beside the point. All the violence and destruction wreaked by anti-globalization protesters has had only one concrete result. G-8 and G-20 meetings are now held in back-of-beyond locations where access can be controlled.

    Truth be told, I haven’t paid much attention to OWS coverage. But I’m pretty sure the media aren’t straining themselves to discover whether these almost 100% white crowds are racist. Nor are they in high dudgeon over the very un-civil behavior of many protesters. The media would not be nearly so sanguine about flagrant misbehavior at a Tea Party protest.

    Media double standards are truly loathsome.

  • Luke Lea

    Is this WRM writing or one of his minions? Either way I suggest you listen to the first fifteen minutes or so of this diavlog on OWS by two journalists who have been studying it closely from the start and who give their balanced views of its strengths and weaknesses.

    My own take away (maybe not yours) is that this movement is a hell of a lot more sophisticated than anything my generation did in the 60’s. All of its weaknesses turn out to be its greatest strengths — its leaderlessness makes it impossible to co-opt; its agenda-less-ness makes it impossible to ignore the one big implicit demand at the heart of its being; and, above all, the General Assembly idea borrowed from the Quakers, the use of sign language instead of clapping and yelling, human mikes instead sound amplification equipment, the not privileging of celebrities, not liaisoning with the police, the easy come and goingness, do-it-yourself simplicity of the events — it all adds up to a kind of genius of the collective human imagination that I find breath-takingly beautiful. I wish I were young again.

  • Luke Lea

    Oops! Forgot the link to that Blogginheads episode. (A typo, but who thinks Blogginheads sounds better than Bloggingheads?)

  • JR

    I’m really disappointed in this critique of the protests against wall street. Yes, the purpose of the wall street protest is more complex than equal rights march because people in general don’t understand the financial system that is destroying democracy. The people in the middle class don’t use computer trading to profit off the margins. They may use their credit card to create more debt, but they do not realize what aggregate credit debt does to the money supply. The debt system of the past 30 years is coming to an end. People have a difficult time understanding how this system is responsible for lowering their standard of living. The corporate media pretends the financial system isn’t the cause of wealth inequality, unemployment, debt slavery, lack of capital savings, and risk accountability.

  • Jim.

    I don’t know. The Democrats are rallying in the RCP generic congressional race.

    While this circus (first seen in Berkeley in the 60’s) has certainly come to town before, it may have some meaning this time.

    They may be offering the same sort of redemption to the Democrats that the Tea Party did to Republicans. The Tea Party was a means of returning a fallen, spendthrift GOP to a state of fiscal rectitude. Could the OWS protesters return the Democrats to a state of populist grace?

    The OWSers are certainly wrong about 99% of America being hippy sympathizers. But they are right that 99% of America didn’t get what they wanted out of the backlash against Wall Street that we (perhaps naively) expected, post-Credit-Crunch.

    The GOP can take the wind out of the Democrats’ sails here, and nip any populist uprising in the bud, by proposing some market-driven solutions to Wall Street’s excesses.

    First, the GOP needs to reintroduce competition into Wall Street. No firm is Too Big To Fail – if you claim your firm is that big, it gets BROKEN UP, into pieces that are small enough to fail. This will have the additional salutary effect of introducing more decision-makers into the market, which leads to a healthier market.

    Next, the GOP needs to admit that if it can get a really good deal for the bargaining chip of returning the highest tax bracket to Clinton-era levels — the repeal of ObamaCare, AND long-term reductions and reform of Social Security / Medicare / Medicaid — then they’ll talk.

    At that point, the centrists will drain away from the OWSer-sympathizing camp (as the OWSers claim that these measures are insufficient, and lay out a truly socialist plan forward), and balance will return to the American political system (and the national budget.)

  • ThomasD

    Sure the tricorn hats and other paraphernalia were over the top, but the attention achieved by the demonstrations was not.

    The TEA parties spoke to a much larger audience, told them they were not alone in their beliefs, and succeeded in attracting support from many who otherwise would not have gone activist.

    Conversely the OWS crowd is what it is, a choir preaching to an already maxxed out dcongregation. And although some of their grievances are valid (and even shared with TEA party types) the overall approach, flavor, and ODOR, is that of the hard left. They have zero chance of reaching a broader audience, or stating a larger movement.

    But, then again, that’s not their intent. They are street theatre from the fringe, purposely kept under control, and intended solely to make Obama appear more centrist. Certainly they are not meant to start any sort of real bottom up movement – that’s the last thing the ruling class leftists like Obama want or need, a credible threat from their own left flank.

  • Mrs. Davis

    OWS are 20th century Ranters. They will have as much impact before they go dormant. And like the cicadas, they will return. Undoubtedly when young adult employment prospects again depart.

  • Yahzooman

    What an electoral bonanza!

    Whenever an OWS spokesperson (not spokesman, and certainly not leader) vents on camera, the GOP gains votes in Peoria, Peducah and Pewaukee.

    OWS does not reflect majority views. They are not the 99%, they are the radical minority.

    Democrat pollster Doug Schoen had a great essay in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. His take: “Our research shows clearly that the movement doesn’t represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse. Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence. Half (52%) have participated in a political movement before, virtually all (98%) say they would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals, and nearly one-third (31%) would support violence to advance their agenda. The vast majority of demonstrators are actually employed, and the proportion of protesters unemployed (15%) is within single digits of the national unemployment rate (9.1%).”

    This only reminds the electorate that our President is a community organizer with matching philosophy and goals for redistributing wealth. In 2008, the people overlooked those warts. This time, Mr. Obama can’t camouflage who he really is. The OWS crowd is helping to reinforce his true character.

    As an aside and completely off topic (sorry).

    Hollywood wants to make Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. The movie “Anonymous” debuts this weekend with that mission. I think those of us who are devoted to Williams Shakespeare should stand up and make a statement … something dramatic for the world’s foremost dramatist. How about Occupy Stratford-on-Avon!

  • Anthony

    WRM is correct, protests have taken on a very ritualistic, symbolic tone with very little costs to participants (historically compared). Yet, at bottom they (protests/movements)emphasize an awareness of injustice – a sense of feeling irked; and a large segment of the population, if not majority in some measure, feels both economically and politically irked.

    I think OWS as well as Tea Party are movements reflecting human impulse to assert one’s rejection of impotence. That is, “movements” act as instrumentalities collating miscellaneous and undefined grievances directed at perceived Establishment policies heretofore viewed individually as intimidating. An honest assessment would admit to “movements” springing up quite frequently all over world in last 12 months or more (the capacity of people all over the world to demand change).

    We humans are living in interesting/dynamic times. We must pay attention….

  • Hadlowe

    My impression is that the #Occupy movement is the flaccid and facile American version of this summer’s London youth riots. Both events are sparked by youthful sense of entitlement striking up against the hard Hobbesian realities of existence. The amorphous cries against Wall Street are the audible growing pains of a coddled and unfortunately aged youth realizing that life does not owe them a living.

    Prior to the advent of an Anglosphere golden age of wealth and decadence, this epiphanic moment would have happened much earlier in most of the protestor/rioters lives and they would have either had to change their views to conform with reality or be cast out of society as vagabonds. As it is, we as a society are wealthy enough to be able to afford to care for these twenty and thirty-something mewling infants. But society’s indulgences are costly and will not last forever.

    That is not to say the #Occupy movement is not without a point, that they are not the victims of injustice. The great injustice perpetrated on the #Occupy crowd is that their village elders did not teach them the first great truth of man; bread comes from labor.

  • GRUP

    1964 Democratic candidate vote : 61%. 1968 Democratic candidate vote : 42%. Keep up the good work ows, Nancy, Harry, Joe et al.

  • Steven

    I like the sound of the “Fort Worth Securities and Futures Exchange”.

  • ErisGuy

    ” the media mistakes a pseudo-event for something real and covers it”

    This is an overly-generous view of the media. The media cover events which suit their purposes and ignore others. (In Seattle, I’ve seen the media cover protests of less than a dozen people as if the protest were important!)

  • Garrettc

    Do not discount the TEA Party because it has not made significant inroads into the RNC part machinery. That takes time. Huge inroads are being made in the base machinery that chooses precinct chairs and runs candidates state legislatures and city office.
    From that base, you will see a real influence projected in the upcoming Senatorial races and further movement toward conserative values in the House.
    The simple fact is that TEA party rallys are generally small and local; they no longer attract the big media outlets, so giving the impression that the TEA Party has disappeared. Nothing could be further from the truth and the TEA Party likes it that way.
    IF the OWS crowd mors similarly, they will be a force to contend with. Polarization is not bad as it will finally force the parties to distinguish themselves.
    As noted above, this is the internet age, where small groups can self organize around concepts instead of leaders.

  • Richard

    There is a lot of 60’s nostalgia going on here, much of it by persons who weren’t there. Yes, the 60’s demonstrations did bring about the end of the draft driven ironically by those who were the beneficiaries of the selective service system loopholes. I might also point out, due to the size of the baby boom that by 1970, the pool of potential draftees had grown so unmanageably large and filled with “old” potential draftees (who were not wanted by the Marines or the Army) that something had to be done. In a different war, with different requirements and a government who believed in its own policies, the draft would not have been ended by demonstrations.

    Most of the Vietnam War protests were about the morality of the war. I thought the Vietnam War was stupid, but not immoral, and I began to see the madness of crowds take effect in those demonstrations. Most Americans were enraged by the protests and the main effect was to elect and reelect Richard Nixon.

    As I watch these protests and the political campaign, I see the same result shaping up here. What we are seeing reminds me of 1967. The “adults” are coming back next year and I only hope they are wiser this time than they were in the 70’s.

  • I’ve had the same thought about nostalgia. These young people were taught by professors who protested in the 1960s and 1970s and now they want to be a part of a similar movement. And since we essentially have racial and sexual equality, now they are demanding that everyone have the same income. It demonstrates the dangers of being obsessed with equality at any cost.

  • The point of these demonstrations is so that adolescents, or the adolescent-minded can play act at being rebels taking on the Evil Empire. They don’t have any real solutions to problems because the whole point is self-validation.
    The Tea party people by contrast are middle aged, middle class people who do want to solve problems. They are now busy gaining influence in the Republican party may trying to actually change things.

  • The key to thinking about the derivative and nostalgic nature of so many modern protests, just might be found in a contemporary folk song by one Joe Pug called “I Do My Father’s Drugs.” You can find a link and my ruminations on the song here:

  • boqueronman

    The problem for the OWS movement is it only contains marginal stakeholders in its active membership. The civil rights movement gave voice to a transformation that the majority had largely accepted. The anti-war movement, led by the tail-end Silent and leading edge Boomers, was, as stated by WRM, all about the draft of those very same young people. The OWS seems composed largely of professional protesters, nostalgia protesters, the overeducated unemployed, and a motley crew of searchers for either a joinable cause or a free lunch.

    The TEA Party OTOH appears to be an anti-government movement of the last remnants of what used to be called the bourgeoisie. The TEA Party is and has never been a unified national movement and as such takes seriously Tip O’Neill’s advice that “all politics is local.” Will the TEA Party be the seed to a committed effort at push back at the state and local level? It’s more likely than that the same old, same old OWS will leave anything more than a bad smell and lots of garbage.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Your point about the “who” of protestors is well taken. The audience has become more sophisticated and know that these events can be staged (as someone said about OWS, “This is what astroturf looks like”) and that some groups are more likely to engage in this sort of thing than others. The observer factors that in, consciously or unconsciously, and adjusts his impact-o-meter accordingly. And truthfully, the LACK of protest demonstrations has almost become as important as their presence. For example, protests were pretty much commonplace as ex-president Bush’s Iraq war groaned on. The lack of same during Obama’s term as he launched new wars has been conspicuous by their absence.

  • You are right about the ritual nature of this protest. Because the protest started out as a ritual exercise for miscreants, normal people are deterred from joining. This kind of protesters themselves are not very interested in something as unglamorous as participating in democratic process. They will go away once cold weather sets in.

  • How much are they paying demonstrators at the NYC sit-ins now? $22 an hour was the last rate I heard. I’m waiting for Mr. Soros to become a bit more generous — or desperate. Once the rate tops $500 an hour, I’m taking an overseas vacation to NYC, take in a show or two. If I’m feeling particularly Charles Bronsonish, I may ride the subway!

  • Steve

    THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS! We’ve been all over this topic on Common Cents!!!

    Common Cents

  • Rob

    This is hopelessly naive.

    OWS is textbook battle-space preparation for the Obama re-election campaign.

    Wall Street is the enemy. Guess who worked on Wall Street? The likely GOP nominee.

  • Claire

    Sleeping on cold concrete is not going to be fun when the weather turns on these kids. I don’t see the point of an “occupation.” Why don’t they go home at night, stay warm and clean and come back each day to protest, kinda like a “job.” Wait, I think I answered my own question.

  • Luke Lea

    I wonder if we are all looking at the same thing? I once heard an art historian say that when you look at the paintings in the Louvre in Paris, you don’t judge them, they judge you. Similarly, people’s first, instinctive reactions to OWS I find enlightening. I had no idea Politico was mainly populated by right-wing Republicans, for instance. In Mead’s case and in my own, too, no doubt, you get to see us stand naked in public for a moment. But don’t judge us — we’ll judge you instead. 🙂

  • Scott

    You never know who will rise up out of populist rallies what the rallies will lead to.

    There once was a young Austrian artist who lived a bohemian lifestyle in Vienna. He loved painting and tried getting into the Academy of Fine Arts twice, but he was rejected both times. The fellow ran out of money, became homeless, and ultimately moved into a homeless shelter for a time.

    After WWI, he got involved in politics in Munich. He eventually started giving speeches at local rallies. He rose quickly through the political party ranks and the draws at his rallies grew exponentially. Within about two decades after living his life as a homeless artist in Vienna he was elected to be the Chancellor of Germany. Then he was giving speeches at rallies in Nurnberg to hundreds of thousands of people as he was preparing to conquer Europe first, then the world.

  • KLSmith

    I like tricorn hats.

  • Stu in SDGO

    A personal anecdote that helps elucidate the OWS smokescreen: back in the ’80s, outside the main gate at Naval Weapon Station Concord (CA), there were a handful of “protestors” operating a left-wing anti-nuke magazine stand across the street. After calmly asking them a few pointed questions one day, I found out the following:

    1. They were being paid by a “San Francisco philanthropist” (i.e., left-wing foundation) to be there. Nothing spontaneous about it.

    2. They were there 7x24x365, rain or shine. Nothing spontaneous about their presence!

    3. They had no earthly idea what they were doing/supporting/protesting (a mish-mash of proto-Marxist clap-trap: “the Soviets are peace-loving”).

    I ran into a similar bunch at a National Defense Industrial Association conference at APL/JHU also in the ’80s. Same lessons-learned, except a bunch of these guys were drunk at 10:00 in the morning!

    Behind the curtain of the #OWS protests, you will find ’60s radicals wishing to relive their youth, paid union thugs, brain-washed college kids with useless non-technical degrees, and a web of left-wing foundations and think-tanks aided and abetted by radicals in the media. The foundations (Open Society, TIDES, MacArthur, and Ford, among others) are paying many of these folks to protest; there’s nothing “spontaneous” about them. And they’re organized by the likes of Van Jones (an avowed Communist) and other left-wing radicals.

    The #OWS protests are a complete smokescreen. They are topic-shifting away from the emerging corruption scandals of the Obama Administration (green energy boondoggles galore, Fast & Furious, NLRB politicization, stimulus corruption, etc., etc.). Fortunately, ABC/NBC/CBS don’t control the news that Americans get anymore! The truth can’t be hidden. Let’s connect the dots between Brooks Asset Management, the DOE’s NH windfarm subsidy, the Zuccati park owners and the Democrat Party, and Bloomberg’s main squeeze. As corrupt as the day is long, and like I said, #OWS is nothing but a smokescreen.

  • Inigo Montoya

    An amazingly complacent commentary from WRM, picking nits off those who dare to object to the current situation and the Too Big To Fail alternatives being presented to all.

    I can’t tell if your commentary here is oblivious or nihilist.

    If you’re satisfied with what’s on offer, I’m amazed. If you don’t think they’re doing a good job of working toward political or economic solutions, offer better ones.

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