Why is a month-long slumber party in a public park more heroic or newsworthy than getting up daily and going to work? “I’ve been here a week and I’m lovin’ every minute of it,” a jagged-toothed, self-described vet leaning against a planter in Zuccotti Park told me on Sunday. One of the biggest decisions that he and his fellow occupiers have to make each day is whether to eat vegan or to scarf down some saturated animal fats in the Dunkin’ Donuts that regularly make the rounds, thanks to the bounteous food donations that pour into the park on an hourly basis. (The most critical decision, of course, is which local establishment to invade for your sanitary needs.)
Henry, a delicate, doe-eyed anthropology and interdisciplinary-studies major from the University of Alabama, came up to New York a week ago with the blessings of his professors, who are undoubtedly celebrating the long-hoped-for revival of 1960s student activism. The chance that his courses are so demanding that his open-ended leave of absence will jeopardize his grades is zero. “It’s obvious that the good guys are fighting the bad guys,” he said. “It’s a question of good v. evil. Bad guys serve themselves, seeking individual gain; they’ve forgotten what it means to be a good guy. You can be rich, but you shouldn’t try to get richer, because you make people poor by getting richer.” Henry was particularly exercised by the fact that a timber company had bought up all the farmland in his area, while three counties there lack hospitals.
Behind them, underneath the gangly red Mark di Suvero sculpture on the Broadway side of the park, a sad-faced young mime was performing with a carrot inside a stage marked off by clotheslines as people tossed around beach balls. In an adjacent stage, a young man from San Antonio was leading a group chant: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” On the sidewalk behind these theatrical spaces, a few people in what was billed as a delegation of Buddhist monks started down Broadway holding aloft a papier-mâché golden calf.
Other residents were less mobile. A colony-within-the-colony of gutter punks—those young moochers who travel up and down the West Coast with bedrolls and pit bulls, hanging out on city sidewalks and getting stoned—had spread out their usual cardboard signs on a blanket: TRAVELLING SOUTH. NEED MONEY. Someone put a dollar in the cup of a ski-mask-wearing “crusty kid,” as they call themselves.
Everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun and to be confidently self-important, which is even better fun. Showing up to a job is less enjoyable. But a lot more hangs on that insurance agent’s getting to his desk on time every day than on whether the residents of an encampment supported by the surplus wealth that floods through our society come up with a set of demands to present to someone TBD. Why should protest be privileged over the daily fulfillment of responsibilities that keeps society stable, especially when so many of the protesters are young people with lots of free time and few responsibilities?
Sometimes, to be sure, youthful protesters happen to get it right—as in Tiananmen Square—just as a broken clock is right twice a day. More often, they’re moved by a laughably incomplete understanding of the world. Having a hard time with your student loans? Have you checked out your college’s burgeoning diversity bureaucracy recently, and other costly accretions onto the basic function of a university? What about the role of government loans in giving colleges an incentive to inflate tuition?
Obviously, the extent to which a spectator is moved by the alleged heroism of protesters depends on whether he finds their message compelling. Every liberal pundit is reading into Occupy Wall Street the realization of his fondest policy wish list, just as conservative pundits saw in Tea Party rallies a resurrection of hardy yeoman ideals—even if the actual bearers of the messages seized on by these interpreters don’t always make sense. We forgive incoherence and delusion when it’s for our own cause. So maybe the Rothschilds don’t own 38 percent of the Federal Reserve, as a thin man who purported to be an investor told me at Zuccotti Park, but if his presence there can be used to justify an even greater redistribution of wealth, who’s to quibble about the details?
There are times when mass protest carries an undeniable dignity and grows out of an unbearable necessity; the civil rights marches and sit-ins in the 1950s South were one of those moments. But our culture’s glamorization of protest—most celebrated when the message is a leftist one—scants the unsung virtues of showing up and doing your job.