The protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement have been getting criticized for not being focused enough, or not providing a list of demands, or not having leaders, or any number of other things by the media. But this can be forgiven, because the media are now at least paying attention, rather than just completely ignoring the protest. What surprises me is that the media (at least so far) haven't realized the frustration the protesters feel is the real story here. Call it free-floating rage, if you will. Or, even better, call it an updated Howard Beale moment.
Beale was a character in a movie called Network, which was about the news media itself. While somewhat dated, it still has a lot of good points to make about the industry's idiocies which are undoubtedly still true today. But that's not what the movie is remembered for. It is remembered for one soliloquy by Howard Beale. Or, more accurately, one rant. From the Internet Movie Database, we get the full quote:
I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad -- worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, "Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone." Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot -- I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, "I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!" So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!" I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell -- "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"
This was worth quoting in its entirety because, right there in the middle, Beale admits he doesn't have all the answers. He can't even identify all the problems, which he also admits. And he certainly can't tell you what to do about it all ("I don't want you to write your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write.").
Occupy Wall Street could be this generation's Howard Beale moment. They don't have all the answers, they admit. They don't know what you should do about things. But they're tired of being voiceless all the same. They are, in fact, mad as hell.
What I find fascinating is that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have so many similarities. Not in their goals, perhaps, but in their structure. The Tea Party is almost impossible to define. It resists being pinned down. Depending on who you listen to, it is either an outgrowth of Ron Paul Libertarianism, a spontaneous tax revolt, a response to another "Howard Beale" moment (on CNBC), or a false-grassroots well-funded attempt to bottle all this lightning and bend it to the will of the real movers and shakers in the Republican Party. The only thing that really can be said with any degree of accuracy is that it is not one specific group, but rather a movement -- not centrally-run, not something that has one identifiable leader. Which, at least so far, also describes Occupy Wall Street.
There may even be some overlap between the groups, as astonishing as that sounds. The Tea Party has always had quite a mix of folks in its ranks. Some are racists, to be sure, some are cranks and whack jobs, but while its fun to put those folks on display in media reports, a whole lot of other Tea Party supporters are just average Americans who are fed up and felt they weren't being heard. A whole lot of people who are not racists and cranks identify with the Tea Party, and my guess is that a goodly amount of them are also fed up with how Wall Street is treated differently than Main Street. Polls show a majority of Tea Partiers favor raising taxes on the most well-off, for instance -- which appears to run counter to the Tea Party's whole reason for being. It's not too big a stretch of the imagination to see that some Tea Partiers may actually wind up supporting Occupy Wall Street as well.
The Tea Party has had an amazing amount of success for a movement, that's one thing that is crystal clear. They didn't exist a few years ago, and now they hold something like 50-60 votes in the House of Representatives. That is an almost-unprecedented rise in power for a group which has never had a central leader, or a "list of demands" that they all can agree on. The Republican Party is now held in thrall to the Tea Partiers. Republicans have learned that if they don't actively court the Tea Party voters, they can quite easily be removed from office -- even if that means losing the seat to a Democrat -- by being "primaried" by a Tea Party candidate. Again, this rise in influence is astonishing for how wide it is and how quickly it happened.
Whether Occupy Wall Street can walk the same route is no sure thing. This whole thing could fizzle, or the media could get really bored with it and move on to the next "big thing," which might kill the message. If one were to have had the power, beforehand, to schedule an "occupy" event on New York City's calendar, one might have chosen late spring to begin, rather than heading into winter (or, to put it another way: how many people are going to stick this out when it starts snowing?). There are all sorts of ways this could fizzle. The odds are heavily stacked against Occupy Wall Street actually succeeding (or actually changing anything), it must be admitted.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible. The feelings of frustration in this country are intense, and reach into every county in the land. People just don't believe that either political party stands up for them or even cares a whit about them on all the days on which there isn't an election. Republicans will tell you to your face that they're for the wealthy and for letting Wall Street do whatever it wants to do. Democrats will tell you to your face that they're against all of that, and then they'll turn around and vote to let Wall Street do whatever it wants to do. At least the Republicans don't lie about it.
My guess is that there are a lot of people in America who are indeed mad as hell and they certainly don't want to take it anymore. They know they don't have all the answers, and that they probably don't even know what all the problems are. This doesn't lessen the feelings of powerlessness and voicelessness one whit, however. They're tired of all the politicians who tell them "I'm on your side" to get elected, and then refuse to produce once in office -- from both parties. They are interested in seeing a group of people who is at least doing something about it that the country is noticing, even if that group doesn't have all the answers either.
To put it another way, there are a lot of Howard Beales out there right now. Occupy Wall Street may be onto something big.
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