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Eye on the News

Katherine Ernst
You Say You Want a Revolution
What do the Wall Street protesters want? You know, stuff . . .
6 October 2011

F. D. ROSEVELT KNOWS WHAT TO DO. So reads a patch of the cardboard-carpet corner of Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan home base for the “Occupy Wall Street” protest. There was a second “o” above “Rosevelt,” with an arrow pointing between letters “o” and “s,” lest you think the erstwhile revolutionary who inked the sign is a few bongos short of a drum circle. When “the world is watching,” though, you should probably make sure your ace spell-checker is on duty.

The cardboard carpet is both adorably predictable and a little creepy: BILDERBERGERS WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE; MY PARENTS WERE FORCED FED A PREDATORY LOAN THEY COULDN’T AFFORD! THANKS HANK PAULSON!; WHERE’S MY FORESKIN? END MALE GENITAL MUTILATION. On one side, Japanese tourists take pictures and Scoop Bradys like me take notes; on the other, drab students scribble more bon mots, play guitar, or catch some shut-eye on a sea of cruddy tarps. There’s the obligatory drum circle to the east, a little cigarette-rolling enclave in the back. The ambitious give out pamphlets around the perimeter.

I chatted with some of the throng. All wanted me to know they were speaking only for themselves, not the group. So what’s the endgame here? “Uh . . . that’s hard to explain,” said Moses, a nice young man. His answer was a nonsensical roundabout, but he used the phrase “socio-economic” a lot. He implied he was unemployed, so I inquired about a dream job. “To be a decent human being . . . to not live in reaction to a market.” Gotcha.

Becca, a sweet “organic gardener” from Brooklyn, was there to “end a capitalist system that treats people like cattle” and live in an America where everyone has “equal wealth.” She wanted a country with a “high tax,” a la “Sweden and Finland,” to ensure “personal well-being.” (Those Scandinavian examples both have a much lower corporate tax rate—26 percent and 26.3 percent, respectively— than the U.S.’s 35 percent rate, but let’s not get hung up on details.) Then the irony gods flexed their muscles as a friend interrupted Becca; she handed him her Visa card to order something over the phone. The revolution will not be televised, but it will be magnetized.

Most everyone is aware of how unserious Occupy Wall Street is. The New Republic mocks it. Salon laments its fecklessness, and then curses Fox News for noticing it. Mother Jones sheepishly dubs the childish schizophrenia “The Kitchen Sink Approach” in a piece on the movement’s inertia. Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times, who must’ve seen Zuccotti Park through beer goggles, concedes: “Where the movement falters is in its demands: It doesn’t really have any. . . . So let me try to help.” He then offers some straight-laced financial bullet points, some nice tax n’ trade talk, as though the protesters just needed Dad to take off the training wheels so they can speed off by themselves into adulthood.

As much as the Zuccotti kids like to compare themselves with the “Arab Street,” they’re really much closer, I think, to their cousins across the pond. A Q&A with some of those rioters on the BBC swiftly became infamous. What are you all raising hell for, asked the Beeb, after two young girls giggled over their “free alcohol!” “It’s the government’s fault. I don’t know,” admitted one. “Conservatives,” chirped her friend. “Yeah, I forget who it is. I don’t know.” They eventually settled on an answer: “It’s the rich people, the people that got businesses, and that’s why all of this is happening, because of rich people. So we’re just showing the rich people we can do what we want.”

There’s this running gag on the Internet where, whenever someone makes a mountain out of a molehill—“GRRR! Glee sucking this season!!! FML!!!—someone retorts, “#FirstWorldProblems.” Three simple words, but they illustrate one’s lack of proportion with comparative ease. When life is exponentially easier for you than it was for most of the world throughout most of human history— right up until the mid-twentieth century—boredom creates a vacuum. To be a hero, you have to create your own dragon to slay. But fighting real oppression, the kind ayatollahs dispense daily? Too brutal, too gauche. Mastering the intricacies of credit-default swaps so as to articulate an effective reform of the broken financial system? Way too tough. Better to create a dragon that can only be slain with performance-art zombie metaphors.

Indeed, any honest contact with this group brings to mind some textbook Eric Hoffer, True Believer stuff:

The permanent misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement. By renouncing individual will, judgment and ambition, and dedicating all their powers to the service of an eternal cause, they are at last lifted off the endless treadmill which can never lead them to fulfillment.

New York magazine polled “100 protesters who are in it for the long haul.” The numbers: 50 percent of the group is aged 20-29 (a whopping 60 percent are under 30), 66 percent are male, and 55 percent didn’t vote in the last election (you might want to try the ballot box first, guys). The real takeaway is this, though: 34 percent are “convinced the U.S. is no better than, say, Al-Qaeda.” In other words, a significant percentage of this tiny-but-loud group of protesters are chasing a dragon.

Despite the copycat protests springing up around the world and bravos from Congress’s fringes, that’s not a recipe for an enduring movement. The “endless treadmill” has a way of tiring even the stalwart. I asked Becca how long she thinks she’ll make the trek to Zuccotti. “Well, it’s getting really cold,” she mused, non-ironically.

Ah, just what every revolution needs to succeed: a fair-weather friend.

Katherine Ernst is a writer living in New York City.

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