state your name and #occupation

By now, #occupywallstreet has attracted so much commentary that, already, new commentaries are actually meta-commentaries, responding to ideas and criticisms of the movement currently circulating through the media and around the Internet. It becomes an anxious task to write about what’s happening: what can I say that isn’t being said already?

At the same time, the movement intends, I think, to fuel conversations about America, and about its own meaning as a protest against the current state of our society. That’s one reason to write about it. Another is that the commentaries seem to be on the verge of repeating themselves, because of a deadlock on the issue of whether or not this is an incoherent movement, incapable of making concrete, realizable demands.

When I first heard about the movement, I was skeptical of it for two reasons. The first was that the movement seemed to be making what I would call an “infinite demand” of the powers that be. The phrase comes from ethical theories about people’s obligations to one another: it is such a miracle to be sharing the world with other conscious beings that our obligation to them is, essentially, limitless. It follows that there can never be a sufficiently providential, sufficiently democratic, sufficiently just government, and that the demands of conscience will always make us discontented with what exists. I may not know exactly how to fix the suburbs, but I can still be moved by the Arcade Fire album The Suburbs. Naturally, there are also finite political demands: a different tax structure, single-payer health care, environmental protections, etc.

In general, I expect art and philosophy to make infinite demands, and protest movements to make finite ones. The two are obviously related, but it is still a useful way of thinking about the difference between, say, bus boycotts (goal: desegregating the bus system) and the Ralph Ellison novel Invisible Man. To the best of my knowledge, #occupywallstreet really has no specific finite demands. There is no piece of legislation that could be passed tomorrow that would get all the protesters to head home.

Rather than making demands, the movement is accomplishing something else entirely: it is making the American Left a much more visible and threatening minority than it has been at any previous point in my life. This is immensely important. Throughout my life, the far right movements in America, including the Christian Coalition and the Tea Party movement, have always been visible and threatening. They gained followers. They demanded “a seat at the table.” They affected political discourse. Libertarians and Christian conservatives have never been even close to a majority in this country, but they have wielded disproportionate influence.

As #occupywallstreet builds momentum, I have been overwhelmed with feelings of relief — as though, for many years, I had been walking paranoid through the cities of America, afraid to be as opposed to the political mainstream as I really was. Remember how lonely it was not to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? How lonely it was to completely reject the death penalty, restrictive abortion laws, and “Megan’s Law”? To support, without reservation, the Endangered Species Act and affirmative action? At one time or another, all of these positions were as American as apple pie, but they have all been demonized since. #occupywallstreet is specifically focused on the financial crisis, but its reach is much larger: it is rekindling, at least right now, a sense of community and solidarity within the American progressive movement.

I have seen many versions of the claim that the movement “is not leaderless, but full of leaders,” and many versions of the related claim that because the current financial crisis is explicable, the movement is therefore a cogent one. These responses are very well-intentioned, but they’re on the wrong track. The moment you decide this is a movement about income disparity, the whole focus shifts to some very practical questions about how to reduce that disparity, questions that most of the protesters would have no clue how to answer. That’s the great thing about a representative democracy: the protesters don’t have to answer such questions. Nor does the movement need advice and leadership. We have leaders aplenty; it is they who need to remember their democratic mandate and be more answerable to us.

There is no escaping the fact that American popular culture, from a political standpoint, has become something of a failure, and that #occupywallstreet is perhaps more like performance art than it is like a sit-in. That is not a trivial thing; it is powerful. The Rally To Restore Sanity, led by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, was ultimately sort of tragic, a huge monument to how much political meaning these two comedy teams had been forced to accept, and how little they could actually do to translate that faith into a grassroots movement. One of the (now pleasant) ironies of the #occupywallstreet movement is that it was organized partly by Adbusters, which, as a magazine, is not very successful. I subscribed to it for years, and every issue depressed the hell out of me. It made me feel sick (literally: every issue was about How They Are Poisoning You), disempowered, guilty, and isolated. This movement is doing just the opposite. Culturally, #occupywallstreet is an antidote to a nauseating surfeit of “aspirational” movies and TV shows: one photograph from an OWS article on salon.com shows the protestors occupying Times Square beneath enormous posters for Glee and The New Girl. Probably the closest thing to an artistically important “recession” movie we’ve had this year is Moneyball, about a man who triumphs despite having only $38 million to spend on his two dozen employees. We have no shortage of great American artists, but none of them, from Kanye West to Marilynne Robinson to Frank Gehry, have been able to produce art that truly responds to this crisis.

The movement will not produce the next Bob Dylan. It is the next Bob Dylan.

#occupywallstreet is not the Left version of the “Tea Party” phenomenon. Notwithstanding the right-wing coalitions that induced me to list it earlier, the Tea Party movement remains primarily a media event produced by Fox News; to call it a popular movement would be like calling the popularity of Starbuck’s a movement. This is a popular event, with a significance that preceded mainstream news coverage and that will continue to resonate whether or not the reporters go home. It is not akin to the rightist politics of the libertarian movement, because it is not a protest against the government. It is the government, our American democracy, in the process of being reborn.

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