The rhetorical frames and unorthodox demonstrations used by the Occupy Wall Street movement continue to baffle the mainstream media here and elsewhere, but it’s just that disconnect with the authoritarian power structure that gives the movement its strength.
By its nature, change can seem, at first, unusual, even frightening, but the absolute wrong approach to the movement is to attempt to apply concepts like “hierarchy” or “organizational protocols” to it.
In this regard, the editorial page of The Oklahoman, one of the most conservative such pages in the nation, continues to get it wrong when it mocks the movement and depicts it as incoherent and rudderless. The very point of the movement, in its protests against economic injustice, is to discard the hierarchies and language that created the unfair system.
In a Sunday editorial (“Goal remains fuzzy for Occupy protestors,” Nov. 6, 2011), The Oklahoman makes an extended, tortuous comparison between the movement and a 19th-century short story by Herman Melville to argue these main points:
Ask the occupiers what they hope to accomplish. They’d prefer not to tell you. Perhaps they don’t really know.
Who’s in charge? They’d prefer not to tell you. Everyone is in charge. Nobody is.
What good does it do to hang around a park, beat drums and occasionally march to a designated site? They’d prefer not to say. It’s the doing, not the point of it, that matters.
Some occupiers have done their best to incite police reaction to their doings, all the better for news footage of how The Man is cracking the heads of the innocent.
Set aside the hasty generalization and stereotyping of the protestors and focus on (1) how the editorial finds it unusual that there’s not someone “in charge,” and (2) that it’s unusual that the protestors are “doing” something that has no point. What the editorial, and others like it, argue implicitly is that the movement is doomed because it’s not employing corporate structures, that there’s not, for example, something resembling a chief executive officer with a clear business plan in charge.
But the very point of the movement is to call attention to how the corporate structures have divided our country and other countries between the top 1 percent and a bottom 99 percent when it comes to wealth disparity. Why would you use a rigid hierarchy to make this point when the diversity of the movement-parents, workers, students, the unemployed, seniors-is what makes the movement significant in the first place?
The short story the editorial misuses in its extended comparison is Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” which was initially published in 1853. Bartleby is a clerk in a law office that eventually checks out of life by telling all who approach him, “I would prefer not to.” The point the editorial seems to make is that the protestors are as strange as Bartleby, but that misses the main message of the story. It’s a simplistic reading. The real point is that Bartleby’s protest, like the Occupiers’ protest, actually represents a sane and human reaction to an indifferent world dictated by the greed of Wall Street.
Bartleby’s death at the end of the story, then, represents the “death” of humaneness we all face when enslaved by rigid, corporate hierarchies that beat us all down, that make us less than human and that create an unjust economic system.
Viewed this way, Bartleby is a hero, and thus the editorial’s comparison is just the opposite of what it intends to argue. Those of us in the 99 percent should all “prefer not to” when it comes to the unjust dictates and systems of the country’s oligarchy, which represents just 1 percent of the population. The current economic system is not sustainable in a democracy.
As I’ve written before, the Occupy movement may or may not emerge as the specific catalyst for generational change, but it has started a conversation this country needs to have about its future. It’s a good thing those protecting the old guard can’t understand this conversation right now.