Few understood the power and limitations of democracy like Thomas Jefferson. The author of history's most recognized document gave us our unalienable rights, and created a groundbreaking government with powers delegated only with the consent of the governed. In addition to these momentous principles, Jefferson left us with a powerful, if not widely forgotten, notion: "Every generation needs a revolution."
Jefferson's idea is powerful not only because it seems to degrade the authority of his carefully constructed government, but also because it followed a vicious, violent, landmark victory in the American Revolution. Even amidst the anguish of wartime, Jefferson still recognized the importance of allowing people to question authority. It's no surprise it came first in the Bill of Rights.
So if Jefferson saw the death and blood of the American Revolution as necessary, what would he think of a peaceful, equally rebellious movement like Occupy Wall Street? My guess is he would sign on in a second.
Unfortunately, many influential leaders of the day do not share the mindset of our third president. Instead, they have tagged protesters as "un-American," and told them to "go home and get a job." And while a recent CBS News poll has a substantial amount of Americans, 43 percent, in support of the movement, there is still a significant lack of urgency to tackle the disastrous status quo.
The primary opposition to Occupy Wall Street is that the message is incoherent, and that protestors have failed to come up with specific demands in the form of legislation. Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post sees this as anything but a weakness. "We have no shortage of politicians in this country," he writes. "We need to be forced to answer questions that sound simplistic or naive -- questions about ethics and values. Detailed policy positions can wait."
After all, protesters are not too concerned with developing specific policies. For their demands -- from income inequality to a lack of financial regulation -- are part of the daily political discussion. Instead, protesters are more interested in shinning light on difficult questions of ethics: What do we owe to each other? What does a just society look like? And it bears mention that besides hopeless calls for tax cuts, the Tea Party, which many Occupy Wall Street opponents support, never presented any meaningful or realistic legislative goals.
Another widely supported attack of the movement is that it is costing the city of New York a lot of money. One estimate puts that figure at $2 million. But that $2 million is hardly a high price to pay for ending the tax cuts and loopholes that are costing the country trillions of dollars.
Moreover, if you take a trip to Zuccotti Park, the home of Occupy Wall Street, it becomes immediately clear how much the city has overreacted. The protestors are peacefully confined to one area with no obstruction of traffic or pedestrians. But the New York Police Department has decided to have 24-hour patrol of the area and barricade off every street within a few blocks of the movement. So to all those who complain about traffic and too much police attention, talk to Mayor Bloomberg, not the protesters.
Many also like to simply brush off the movement by saying it has accomplished nothing. My response: talk to any world leader, any member of Congress, or any global citizen, and they will know what Occupy Wall Street is. The President of the United States has even weighed in. If that's not an accomplishment, what is?
As it turns out, there are a few legitimate concerns being echoed by the local community. Health concerns and noise violations are often points of discussion. But it's the city of New York who is denying the protesters access to porta-potties. And it would not even cost anything: many privately funded organizations have volunteered to provide porta-potties.
The noise concerns are legitimate, and many have pointed to the fact that the constant drumming is in violation of federal noise standards. But those same federal standards are never upheld when it comes to construction and car horns, so why is drumming any different? After all, that area -- directly across from Ground Zero -- is hardly shielded from the daily circuses of traffic, construction, and tourism. We never heard noise concerns about that.
Any debate about Occupy Wall Street -- or any movement in general -- should not rest on questions of character. Any opponent who simply calls the protesters "dirty," "un-American," or "a hippy," is simply hard-pressed for a better answer. Instead, we should have discussions about motives and ethics. Is it just, for example, that over the past thirty years, 80 percent of the country's income has gone to the top one percent of Americans?
Thomas Jefferson was part of a generation that stands tall in our history for one reason: they asked the right questions. Surely they would see some of themselves in those camped out in Zuccotti Park.