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Occupy Wall Street: 'Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?'

10/29/2011 05:58 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2011

When MSNBC's Rachel Maddow recently asked the journalist and commentator Frank Rich on her show if he believed the "physical manifestation of discontent" was imperative to the Occupy Wall Street movement's cause, Rich replied that it was "not always that important" since the movement was polling well among Americans.

I disagree. The ideas that inform the direction of the movement arise from the actions of the movement itself, (not from pundits or armchair commentators no matter how sympathetic). It is the activism in the streets that is the most important thing. Bringing together people, occupying public space, holding General Assembly meetings, conversing with, and learning from each other, those are the true sources of the sea change in attitudes we're seeing.

The organic connection of thought and action will evolve on its own terms. Opinion polls, even those that indicate widespread support for the OWS movement, are tertiary at best, epiphenomena at worst.

OWS, so long as the direct action of street demonstrations prevails and continues, is at this moment growing into something that none of us can see at this time. It's all about the future. And it is this mobilization of ideas and activism focused on the future that gives OWS its strength and ties it closely to the aspirations of the Arab Spring and the social movements that are now building in Europe.

OWS has clearly taken the bankers and their political servants in Washington and in the corporate media by surprise. Tangible effects of the movement can already be seen in the authorities in Oakland backing off from their repression. Even the big banks are rethinking their latest gouging of their "customers" in the form of added fees. It's beginning to sink in to the skulls of our corporate overlords that tear gas and rubber bullets, even thugs on horses or camels, cannot slow the movement's momentum.

Obama did us a favor by showing us definitively that the Democratic Party is useless in a time of real crisis (even when controlling both chambers of Congress). It's just as beholden to the interests of the top 1 percent as the Republican Party (save the Republicans' retrograde culture war baggage).

The OWS movement that has spread to over a thousand cities and includes growing numbers of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans among its ranks cannot be brushed off with the usual devices we've grown accustomed to from the corporate media. Labeling the protesters "socialists" doesn't mean anything since the big banks got their fat federal bailout. Calling them "anti-capitalist" is also a joke since they're not critiquing "capitalism" but a form of corporate domination over our nation's politics and governing institutions and over our most important policy choices affecting everything from energy to education, health care to housing, trade to "security," the environment to civil rights.

There's something happening out there where almost everyone you meet can tell you a horror story about how the big banks have mistreated them or a friend or family member. From the shoe store clerk at the mall to the nurse or teacher, even police officers and firefighters, are all catching on to the scam that Wall Street and its servants among Democratic and Republican politicians have perpetrated against us. If an honest opinion poll were taken today, disgust with Wall Street would not be 65 or even 75 percent but closer to 100 percent. You can feel it out there. Few people have internalized the crisis to the point of blaming the victims (even though you hear that point of view coming from all facets of the corporate media). Out in the real world people are showing a spirit that hasn't been around since the 1930s; a genuine feeling of solidarity like we're all in it together and to hell with the elites that stand in our way. The illegitimacy of a rigged economic system is beginning to sink in.

Back in the early 1930s Americans widely picked up on the song: "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime." The management of Republican-backed radio networks even told DJs to lay low on the song, and in some cases tried to ban it from the airwaves. The songwriter, E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, explained it this way:

The prevailing greeting at the time [1930], on every block you passed... was "Can you spare a dime?" "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" finally hit on every block, on every street. I thought that could be a beautiful title if I could only work it out by telling people, through the song, it isn't just a man asking for a dime. This is a man who says: I built the railroads. I built that tower. I fought your wars. I was the kid with the drum. Why the hell should I be standing in a breadline now? What happened to all this wealth I created?

The Occupy Wall Street movement echoes the spirit of solidarity and questioning of the status quo that Yip Harburg captured back in 1931. What's happening in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere where the OWS movement has taken hold is the beginning of a new ethos. We don't know where it is heading or how it will play out, but we have an interesting few years ahead of us.

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?