Wishin’ and Hopin’
When I was 15, I was hoping for revolution. I remember reading To the Finland Station and being thrilled by Lenin’s long road back home to St.Petersberg, as the revolution began. I swooned over Alec Guinness’s speech in the movie Doctor Zhivago, as the hero’s brother, a devout Red who explained the inevitability of the Bolshevik coop.
By the time I was 18, I lost that feeling. It didn’t make sense to me, though a rebellious cool was generally accepted among my peers. Things really weren’t that bad here, and revolutions usually didn’t work out. The movie Bananas may be the smartest observation Woody Allen ever made; it may be his only really smart observation.
Be sure that a skepticism about the value of rebellion in any way made me a Young Republican then, nor a Tea Partier now. I think that Occupy Wall Street has a good heart. But camping out in parks, stopping traffic and waving an incoherent array of signs is not the path to power.
Adbusters promoted the Occupy movement with inspiration from Egypt and Tunisia. On Wednesday, the group posted Tactical Briefing #19 proclaiming that this is “our existential moment.” The picture shows a man walking on water, away from a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Perhaps the group is taking a cue from religion: proclaim a miracle and hope people buy it.
More to the point, it’s ironic that Adbusters seems to think you can put up an ad for revolution and one will materialize.
And so today, scruffy bands of wanna-be freedom fighters went downtown here in New York, to the financial district, to shut down Wall Street. The organizers predicted 10,000, which is rather small by mass-movement standards. By the look of things they had several bands of several hundred each. Counting crowds is hardly a science, and is not even an art. No matter where you go in the world, both sides exaggerate the scale. The news media doesn’t help, because bigger always means a better story.
I watched them on TV, searched out clips and photos on the web and talked to people who’d been downtown today. I didn’t see or hear anything suggesting than the established order is about to be overthrown. Besides, the New York police are really good at this sort of things, and they have almost 35,000 in uniform. I say that although I know it’s heresy in the left-leaning crowd.
The rhetoric is so exaggerated that it’s not likely to ignite anything much at all. I know that there is a furious battle among bloggers over percentages — the 1%, the 99%, the 53% — and it’s all besides the point. The trouble is that the 99% in the United States are not living in misery. Most Americans work, continue to live in the homes we own, eat take-out, see movies, consume fast food and drive gas-guzzling cars. And most do all of those things happily. It is an insult to the Egyptians and many others on the planet to compare poverty here to poverty there. Read a couple books about the third world before swooning over how cool Tahrir Square looked on TV.
Of course, the United States and Europe is not in good shape. Unemployment is persistently high, foreclosures are unconscionably high, confidence in the future is down. The banks showed that crime can pay, but it’s clear how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future. But I don’t see the value in fighting Tea Party lies with a bunch of other lies, much less moralizing about greed. What does that even mean?
I’m an optimist. I have the conviction that the left could convey its message that progressive reform is in the best interests of maybe 70% or 80% of Americans.
The Washington Post yesterday wrote a political analysis of the vibe between the protesters and the mainstream Democrats, who “share similar concerns about political inequality.” It’s an Associated Press story, which puts it a peg below the vaunted staff writers at the Post, but I think it’s right. The Democrats have to be elected and their sense is that protesters don’t look appealing to voters. They’re not. The political repression or economic inequality in this country, such as it, has willing victims. That’s the Rubik’s Cube of American politics.
Back in February, the New York Times ran a short feature about attitudes in Wisconsin in the midst of the battle between Gov. Scott Walker and the state workers’ unions. I’ll quote from an interview in the article.
His problem sounds like envy, not of revolutionary cool, but of other working people. The article notes that the schools and the city government are among the top employers in his county. It continues:
I was struck by this article in the Times when it was published. Hahn’s voice is much closer to the blue-collar and lower-middle class people I’ve known all my life. They don’t like the banks, and they don’t like their bosses. But it is foolish to pretend that they are impressed with the left-leaning politics of the universities and intellectuals. Nothing in their temperament, tastes or politics suggests that they might be inspired by the happenings on Wall Street and in other cities.