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Jim Sleeper Headshot

Behind The Snarking About OWS

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In Zuccotti Park a few Sundays ago a noose of news cameras tightened quickly around a willowy, long-haired woman, her parchment face lined with the gentle cares of an aging, slightly dotty humanities professor. She had begun dancing alone, shoeless and trance-like in a long, Indian skirt and simple top in the Indian Summer light.

No such circle formed around two college students I was talking with nearby. One, a tall, pale, boy from Syracuse, had taken a six-hour bus ride to join the occupation because he felt he'd "been had" by misleading information about his student loan. The other a solid, fine-featured University of Connecticut student, works summers and weekends in his Dad's construction business and likes Ron Paul because "He's the only candidate telling the truth about what the banks and big corporations are doing to us."

Either of the students might have stepped out of a fable of the early republic, and such young patriots far outnumbered the exotics and agitators paraded before us on zoom-in videos and in sinuous jottings. Everyone knows by now that anything reminiscent of 1960's hippies and agitators is ripe fruit for commercial media. It's a ratings-booster that whets a growing appetite for flailing the Ghosts of Left-Liberalism Past.

But it's not just about ratings and bottom lines. Republican presidential debates, and even "liberal" magazines' online comment threads, are drawing hundreds eager to rail at clueless dissenters, especially if they can catch them bickering with one another. What dark, swift undercurrent are driving this venom and some "journalists'" inclination to feed it?

Feed it they do, as Frank Rich noted briefly in his important New York Magazine essay, "The Class War Has Begun." Although many reporters have been surprised and nonplussed by the good vibes and "substance"-free living they find in the parks, a few act as if they can hardly wait for something worse to set in: Just look at all the indecision, the self-indulgence, the distempers, the slovenliness! It's 'Lord of the Flies' down there! But what a relief to see that these moralists aren't so pure, eh mates? The last thing any of us should feel is guilty!

So say Murdoch's imported minions and their American colonial emulators. The park occupants aren't the solution, they're the problem! Why blame America's distress on its deepening inequalities when someone doing a pointillist inspection of the remonstrants in Zuccotti Park can write that an organizer there was behaving as if "All occupiers are equal - but some occupiers are more equal than others" ?

So wrote another observer for New York Magazine, adapting the the ruling slogan of the pigs from Animal Farm, George Orwell's novelistic send-up of Stalinist totalitarianism, and hanging it around the neck of an OWS organizer who burst out, in a moment of exasperation, "Someone has to be told what to do. Someone needs to give orders. There's no sense of order in this fucking place."

With that, the account ends, but only after having informed us that the word "fucking" dropped from three pairs of lips! And that a long-time occupier from Tennessee "asked that his name not be used due to a felony marijuana conviction" ! And that a tussle over a tent showed that while "[a]ll belongings and money in the park are supposed to be held in common,... property rights reared their capitalistic head when facilitators went to clean up the park, which was looking more like a shantytown than usual after several days of wind and rain."!

Bingo! Presenting the occupation as a shantytown ruled by Orwellian pigs drew 7900 Facebook recommendations and more than 200 posted comments on the story's website. Never mind that I went down to Zuccotti Park again last Saturday night, October 29 -- in a driving, sleeting rain -- and found much bustle amid good order and spirits that still overwhelmed the jaundiced reports.

Still, a comment representative of many posted beneath the disparaging account just mentioned insists that "Reality is setting in for the protests! Sounds like the leaders are strong-arming money from the real earners. Sounds like the big government to me. Hey protestors-- Is this what you were looking for? .....Welcome to the real world." Another declares that "Either [OWS] will implode by virtue of its refusal to comport with reality; or many of the counter-productive... behaviors will continue to escalate until it must be forcibly suppressed.... It is, after all, the tragic nature of men (and women) to incrementally press the envelope until they arrive at their own doom, or are thwarted by an insurmountable barrier or unstoppable force."

The encampments may not be with us for long even if cops and the cold don't disperse them. But wasn't it really "the tragic nature" of "the real world" in the United States itself that prompted these occupations all across the country? Cherry-picked vignettes and posted jeers that miss this elephant are themselves testimony to that larger reality - and to the unreality in denials of it: The testimony is unwitting when its scribblers and their fans become obsessed with anything that keeps them from having to look in directions the protesters are actually pointing.

If, for example, critics of Occupy Wall Street are disgusted by its want of clear agendas and decisions, shouldn't they express more disgust at the dearth of clear agendas and decisions on Wall Street and in Washington? The incompetence and bad faith of those circles in our post-republican hell yawned abysmally at the whole nation's feet in the near-meltdown of 2008 and in the game of chicken that forced the idiotic debt-ceiling crisis last summer. Becoming preoccupied with kids in parks sounds like denial to me, and more than a little perverse.

The keen inspectors of the occupiers' foibles write up their reports as if the national and world authorities, policy intellectuals, and corporate managers and boards of directors who've led millions of Americans into sink-pits of casino finance, joblessness, homelessness, and fogs of war were clearer-sighted than youths not yet drawn into their subtlest corruptions, marginal souls never integrated into them, and elders who see through them after decades of enduring them, Are the hand signals at OWS assemblies any more quixotic than the daily gesticulating and bellowing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange?

And if "there's no sense of order in this fucking place," doesn't that more accurately describe a whole country whose pathological, multi-problem over-class has been rioting for decades, not just in the aberrational affronts of Leona Helmsley, Enron's Kenneth Lay, Bernard Madoff, deranged, priapic pastors and priests, and sleazy mortgage brokers and foreclosure artists of Cleveland and Queens, but also, and more tellingly, of the panjandrums of grand strategy in the Bush Administration, the Federal Reserve, and corporations whose practices the present administration and Congress have only sustained?

"Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert," wrote the great economic historian R.H. Tawney in 1926. He added pointedly that the arrogant assumption that marginal people's "distress is a proof of demerit... has always been popular with the prosperous."

Apparently that assumption is still popular in Republican debate audiences and among online commenters terrified of losing what little they have and desperately seeking targets that are easier to blame than the powerful interests that are actually taking them down.

If it's the occupiers' unsanitary dishabille and unsavory conduct that upsets their critics, might we compare the conditions in the parks with the sanitation, sanity, and law-abidingness in Congress, the major investment banks, and the New York Police Department?

My challenge isn't metaphorical. How do health hazards posed by the Wall Street encampments compare with those posed by members of Congress' sexual hi-jinx, their stealing, and their bought-and-paid for evisceration of public investments in health, unemployment security, and other protections against disease and stress? Don't get me started on crime rates among cops. I wrote for New York City tabloids for seven years. I'll hand that assignment to anyone who claims he's just telling the truth about Occupy Wall Street.

Shortly after assessing sartorial standards and basse couture in Zuccotti Park on my first visit there some weeks ago, I came upon a news report that students in an elite "Studies in Grand Strategy" program at Yale had been notified by the program of a special discount being offered them by a tailor from Bangkok and that they'd been advised, "Once you have a custom suit, it's really hard to go back." Considering the grand-strategic comedy of errors this country has been living through, I couldn't help wondering which group is wearing the clown suits.

But it isn't really so funny. Not only did Orwell write Animal Farm to revivify Stalinism's monstrous orchestrations of terror and deception; he reported them "on the ground" in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. After joining a democratic leftist organization to fight the fascist dictator Francisco Franco, Orwell watched Stalinist Communists, supposed champions of democracy, killing not only fascists but also leftists and democrats who sought a republic, not submission to Moscow.

"The Communist influence in Barcelona was not progressive but reactionary," he wrote, but leftist British newspapers wouldn't publish his report. So he wrote Homage to Catalonia, which also had trouble finding a publisher: Fascism was so obviously bad that no one wanted to hear that some of his opponents might be equally bad.

A writer of Orwell's integrity -- he sustained physical as well as professional wounds for it -- will report the truth, anyway, when both militant sides in a conflict are deeply wrong. But is this one of those times? Are the occupiers of Wall Street quite as bad as Stalin's Communists and Orwell's pigs? Why insinuate as much while affecting to report "just the facts" and leaving it to anonymous readers to make your disparagement more explicit than you were willing to make it?

For some fresh air, turn to Martin Wolf, a Financial Times columnist who's hardly an opponent of capitalism but isn't a sinuous scourge of its opponents, either, at least not when their insights are right and their anger clean:

Assessing OWS' emergence, Wolf asks, "Is this the beginning of a resurgent leftwing politics? I doubt it. Are the protesters raising some big questions? Yes they are..... If the traditional left offers no answer, can the free market right return to business as usual? No. People who believe in the marriage of democratic politics with market economics need to address what has happened...., because there are darker forms of politics waiting in the wings: Nationalism, chauvinism, and racism."

Maybe the self-appointed Captain Renaults who say they're shocked, shocked, by what they've uncovered in the occupations should expend less energy exposing feckless hippies and agitators and take a look in the mirror. "Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face," wrote W. H. Auden in the darkening interwar years, and the new carping is part of syndrome that's even older: OWS isn't quite the Continental Army wintering at Valley Forge, yet one can easily imagine today's detractors trying to demoralize that soggy, somewhat dissolute revolutionary army during the times that tried men's souls.

The Tories of those times lacked the media tools the occupiers' critics abuse now. But it's their heirs who've cast the filmmaker Michael Moore as more dangerous to the republic than the deciders he assailed; who've lambasted Ned Lamont, the anti-war insurgent against Senator Joseph Lieberman in 2006, as a vicious netroots crazy; and who've damned damns public-sector unions as the main causes of non-unionized workers' despair.

The reason some writers hawk scapegoats like these instead of telling the truth as Wolf does and Orwell did is that they're riding undercurrents that run so swiftly and deeply in their own lives and surroundings that they aren't quite conscious of them and so don't reflect on why they're giving them legitimacy and added force.

The French word for this predicament -- ressentiment (pronounced "ruh-sohn tee-monh") - denotes a public psychopathology in which gnawing insecurities, envy, and hatreds that have been nursed by many in private (and posted anonymously in comments online) converge eventually in scary social eruptions that diminish the participants even while seeming to make them brave participants in great crusades.

In such eruptions "the little-big man" seeks easy targets like civil servants or kids and kooks in parks and hungers to avenge himself against them for his exploitation at the hands of bigger powers he fears to face head-on. Ressentiment warps his reckonings with his hardships and opportunities. It shapes the disguises he puts on in order to pursue vindication without risking reproach until there are enough of him (and her, of course) to defy it together en masse, with a Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.

Ressentiment sometimes goads such mass movements into a fleeting brilliance, but they curdle and collapse, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on their own cowardice, ignorance, and lies. There's something really sad about frightened, grasping people who succumb to this. But there's something contemptible about those who knowingly channel ressentiment against the vulnerable few who are trying to call attention to its real causes.

"Journalists" who caricature such Americans, assembling peaceably to petition for a redress of grievances and to map out alternatives, can be nimble and rigorous in selecting their targets among the dissidents, poking their wounds, and serving them up like the ripe fruit for the high-ratings and appetites their coverage serves and reflects. Doing that makes them successful. But it also softens up their public for the destructive nationalism, chauvinism, and racism that Wolf mentions and that a look in the mirror might reveal in themselves. Let's hope that they'll get this message before they find themselves packing their bags to flee a society they've helped to ruin.