What I Think of Occupy Wall Street

I have started and stopped this post several times. Unlike having opinions about holidays or science fiction movies, articulating my opinions about Occupy Wall Street have been far more difficult.

As I’ve gotten older, my political passion has cooled greatly, and for the most part I’ve regarded that as a mark of maturity. When I think about what it means to be mature and rational, I’ve oftentimes equated that with having a certain lack of passion. This is a common thing. It is generally cool, after all, to be above it all, or at least seem as such.

Also, I’ve become increasingly more hesitant to categorize myself politically. While I do self-identify as a liberal, I recognize that as an extremely broad category with multiple and oftentimes contradictory definitions. I liked this, as I generally distrust idealism of any sort, and I generally don’t believe in aligning myself with a philosophy that could be outlined as a set of principles. For the most part I’ve envisioned my politics as enlightened rational but also passionless and distant. More than once I’ve thought that I would support a regime of benevolent, technocratic philosopher-kings who make dispassionate decisions based on rational analysis of data. I will admit that I would also probably support a regime of well-meaning computer overlords.

When I went to the original Occupy Portland march on October sixth, I thought of myself as mostly an observer satisfying my curiosity. I did not have a sign or anything to say, and envisioned myself being there mainly to take pictures and then come home and write about it. I was amused to see that there was a crazy-quilt of political ideologies at play: There were anarchists, people there who were opposed to the very existence of the Federal Reserve, and a guy who brandished a sign that said Al QAEDA IS CIA. They were exactly the sort of people that turn me off to any kind of political activism- loud, irrational, and unwilling to engage in any sort of debate because their conclusions must adhere to their pre-existing ideologies.

While I was the event, though, it became increasingly apparent that the lunatic fringe was precisely that- the fringe. The gathering was not one of crazed ideologues at all, nor was it completely dominated by a single demographic. I was surprised at the amount of older people, union members, and clean-cut folks I saw. I know this sounds superficial, but I was immensely happy to see folks who were not black-clad anarchy wackos.

Public events like this have two big things that they can do- the first is that they can galvanize the base, and inflame the passions of those who agree with the basic message of the event, and get them mobilized. The other thing that they can do, though, is change the broader political conversation and persuade people who have differing opinions or no opinions about a given issue.

In this regard, Occupy Wall Street (and Occupy Portland) has done both of those things remarkably well, and as a movement it has earned my respect and support. Starting with October sixth, I personally have been increasingly less jaded, less hopeless, and less removed from American politics and economics. The whole event did remind me that yes, I do have a sense of justice, yes, the financial industry has been hugely irresponsible, and yes, economic inequality is absolutely appalling. Not only did the Occupy movement remind me that I dearly believe these things, but that I should be angry about them. I am very much part of that core liberal demographic that popular demonstrations can awaken and galvanize. I was complacent, now I’m not. I was resigned to the right setting the agenda, now I know that does not have to be the case. I felt like things were unchangeable, now I know that’s not true. I am the galvanized base.

Which brings me to the second point- the Occupy movement has successfully gotten a good amount of people, media outlets, and politicians talking about issues of inequity and injustice. Prior to this there was mainly a lot of unproductive ideological talk about debt and deficits that wasn’t really about debts or deficits. The economic well-being of ordinary Americans was not really being discussed at all. Now, attention is not only on the problems of the middle and lower classes, but also the financial institutions who helped create them.

I’m hopeful. That’s hard for me to admit because it seems like such an idealistic thing to say or think (I can’t stand idealism) and it seems like such an immature feeling to have. Hope and hysteria seem to be twin poles irrationality. Nevertheless, though, I’m hopeful that the conversation really will change, that America can become more equal, and that problems are not intrinsic or entrenched, and we really can fix them.

There’s a lot of dumb things going on with Occupy Wall Street (like those idiotic Guy Fawkes masks, or drum circles) but positive change (like, say, separating consumer banking from speculation) only comes if it is demanded. Financial institutions have demanded plenty over the years, and have gotten it. Upper income American have demanded tax cuts, and gotten those. Occupy Wall Street is finally pushing the demands in the other direction- it’s finally pushing back against the small portion of the population that did much to damage the lives of countless people. We have massive unemployment largely because of rampant speculation on the part of a very specific class. It is right and proper to be angry at them.

Because of that, I support Occupy Wall Street, and sincerely hope that the signs and chants and marches and anger get translated into very real policy, because change isn’t coming by itself.

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