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Occupy: A Movement That Didn't Satisfy

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The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York last September and quickly spread around the country -- then, inevitably, in the age of instant information, the world. But just as quickly, it petered out.

Here in San Francisco, the protest began the same week the iPhone 4S came out and even at its peak, the number of protesters barely rivaled the number of those who stood in long lines at the Apple Store a few blocks away.

The same news cycle has returned a year later: The anniversary of the 99% against 1% movement coincided with the debut of the iPhone 5. While the headlines describing the Occupy movement seem discouraging: "1 year after encampment began, Occupy Wall Street is in disarray; spirit of revolt lives on," and "Occupy Movement: Spent after First Year?" the news for the iPhone debut was all rosy: "Apple: iPhone 5 pre-orders topped 2M in 24 hours."

On the other hand, noted USA Today, "As the last of its urban encampments close and interest wanes in a movement without an organizational hierarchy or an action agenda, it's unclear whether Occupy's first birthday will be its last."

Perhaps it couldn't be helped.

Critics and pundits alike said that there was no coherent demand, no collective goal. The movement slowly imploded instead by quarrels and quibbles that descended in many cases into fistfights and bottle throwing.

"What do they want?" network news anchors wondered aloud, their tone often a little incredulous, as if they're trying to understand some new games that rowdy children play.

On the far right, the voices were downright disparaging. Rush Limbaugh called them "spoiled brats" and last year's leading GOP presidential candidate, Herman Cain, dismissed them as being "un-American" and "jealous" of the rich. Bill O'Reilly even called them "socialists."

But this wasn't exactly a class struggle a la Marxism. One is hard pressed to find a placard that says, "Down with Capitalism, Long Live the Proletariat!" Such a sign would be in any case anachronistic. Besides, if they are socialists, then what do we call a government that bailed out private banks and automobile industries using taxpayers' money?

It was certainly far from being a revolution; it looked more like a collective revulsion at the wealthiest Americans, as the middle class watches its assets dwindle along with its fantasy of ever joining the ranks of the 1 percent.

What did they want? Their fair share, more regulation on a system that's seemingly rigged to benefit the super-uber-rich, a crash diet for the fat cats who own Washington and leave the rest far, far behind. They want the promise of opportunities and upward mobility, which now seem to have faded to the far side of the moon.

"Politics today is little more than money laundering and the trafficking of power and policy, fewer than six degrees of separation from the spirit and tactics of Tony Soprano," journalist and television personality, Bill Moyers, said during a keynote speech last year. "[Protesters] are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street has occupied America."

But as consumerism remains the rage, Main Street can't seem to do without her partner, Wall Street, even if the relationship is ever so lopsided, even if she is treated badly, battered and bruised like a long suffering spouse. Wall Street, even if temporarily occupied, bounced back quickly, strutting his stuff.

The Occupy Movement, alas, hadn't made a dent in the collective consciousness that could in time change policies. No discerning voting blocs emerged from the diverse crowd, and the left, long moribund and divorced from populist politics, struggles ineptly to harness the energy of the unrest.

Thus the Kardashian sisters continue to bicker on reality TV, and real estate magnate Donald Trump continues to fire his famous apprentices, and handsome bachelors continue to court voluptuous bachelorettes in opulent settings on our televisions nightly. We cry as poor, unknown singers find fame and fortune on stage in front of millions on shows like America's Got Talent and American Idol.

Of all of the signs on display at rallies in San Francisco last year, there was one that seemed to say something closer to the core of the rage. "Give us back our dream!" it said. After all, who wants to wake up to a stark new reality? Many among us, if we could, would be like Cypher, the character in the Matrix, who betrayed the rebellion as he preferred to return to the Matrix. Why? Reality, which Cypher had seen too well for himself, is a terrible, broken world.

In a sense, the 99 percent may bitch and moan about the economy and inept and corrupt politicians, but the majority of us couldn't tear ourselves from the old vision. We couldn't occupy anything but the couch nightly, after a long hard day to make ends meet. Marx, who thought religion was the opiate of the masses, obviously didn't own a flat screen TV and experience the power of America's fairy-tale-like commercialism.

In the meantime the country goes slowly underwater: The U.S. government in $16 trillion dollar debt. And an average American household is $117,000 in debt. Data from the latest census tells us that the dream is unraveling as millions of Americans are slipping into poverty at levels unseen in 14 years. One in four children -- or 16.4 million overall - lives in poverty.

Another 2.6 million people sank beneath the poverty line in 2010, rendering the number of Americans impoverished 46.2 million, the highest number in more than half a century.

The Occupy movement began as a rallying cry, but unfortunately it remained a litany of grief and failed to evolve into a coherent redefinition of America. It did not ask serious questions. The American Dream has been downsized; can we live with less? And if the bankers seduced us to buy a house beyond our means, packaging subprimes as norm, shouldn't we too take part of the blame for wanting to live in that grand home that was never within our reach in the first place?

The movement did not take ownership of America's new direction. It did not demand of itself as vigorously as it did of the state. Reform, after all, is both a national imperative and personal necessity. If our government can no longer do much for us, what can we do for ourselves, and for our neighbors, our country? If the government is inept, then the new movement needs to articulate a clear vision of an alternative. If disorganization and discord defined the occupiers, what chances do they have to bring change to the rest of the country?

Since World War II, the Ozzie and Harriet version of America was seductive, and so is the premise of endless expansion and ascendancy. But the exceptionalism that once defined us has become a deception. It is propaganda, like the self-esteem movement based on self-regard, rather than true achievement. There's no such thing as exceptionalism that lasts generation after generation in our turbulent world, especially without constant and honest reassessment and a national direction and project. Empires rise and fall at high frequencies these days.

So we are the 99 percent. And we are mad as hell at the 1 percent and a system rigged to favor the rich. All true. But now what?

Andrew Lam is editor of New America Media and the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," which won a Pen American Award in 2006. His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in 2013.