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Occupy Wall Street and the Dirty Hippies Narrative

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One of the defining aspects of the 2008 presidential election is that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party implicitly made, and won, a bet on the American people. The Obama victory would not have been possible, the deteriorating economy, widespread anger at the Bush administration and poorly run McCain campaign notwithstanding, if the American people had not been ready for the change Obama represented. The readiness, or lack thereof, of the American people is often cited to excuse away intolerant, even bigoted, behavior. Throughout the thirty or so years preceding 2008, we were often told that America wasn't ready for an African American or woman to hold, or even seek, various political positions, or that the American people were not ready for various progressive ideas. The Obama campaign demonstrated that the American people were ready for a lot of things, and largely proved the readiness fallacy wrong.

The Republican campaign in 2008, and much of the right wing activism since that time has sought to mobilize that minority of Americans who were not ready for an Obama presidency. In some cases, these arguments were personal aimed at exploiting perceptions of the President being somehow different from many Americans, but in other cases these arguments were political and economic. The anti-tax and anti-health care reform fanaticism of the far right, for example is, among other things, an argument that the US is not ready to become a modern advanced capitalist country. In general, the right acted on the assumption that many Americans fear and are not ready for change, of any kind, to mobilize the Tea Party and other far right activism.

The right wing reaction to the Occupy Wall Street movement, however, has sought to exploit this alleged fear of change in a qualitatively different way. The substantive messaging from the right has been confused with some on the right arguing that the demonstrators are too divisive during these bad economic times, others arguing that Wall Street is not to blame and that there are plenty of jobs for those who want them, and still others asserting that the occupiers don't have any clear demands. While the substance of these messages may be inconsistent, the real heart of the conservative critique of Occupy Wall Street is clear, that the occupiers are a bunch of unkempt young people who are not good hard working Americans and are looking for a free ride.

This critique, which could be called the "dirty hippies narrative" is offensive and misleading, but it is also almost quaint, harkening back to a bygone era when it was considered notable if men wore hair past their collars or if women wore dungarees. What is perhaps most interesting about this narrative is that it demonstrates that even though the year is 2011, the Republican Party still seems to think that attacking the other side for how they dress, wear their hair and the like is both a legitimate, and more surprisingly, effective means of building political support.

Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter and other right wing ideologues may be so obsessed with their myopic world views that they believe that Americans will dismiss important nascent social movement, offering a resonant and relevant economic critique, simply because they look funny to some. However, it is clear that much of the country has moved beyond that. This isn't 1967 when long hair and radical politics were something found only in a few urban neighborhoods and campus towns or when tattoos were only found on sailors; and the longer it takes for the right wing to realize that, the better it will be for Occupy Wall Street.

The growing support for Occupy Wall Street suggests that the American people are more interested in substance and real economic issues than with cheap shots about drum circles, long hair and hygiene. The right wing has all but run out of substantive arguments because the American people who are living through this economic downturn understand that the unemployed are not simply lazy and that the enormous disparity between wealthy and poor is not insignificant, natural or sustainable. Moreover, the nefarious activities in which the finance sector engaged leading up to the crash, and for which there have been almost no legal or regulatory repercussions, have been on the front pages of too many newspapers and too many websites for ordinary Americans to remain unsympathetic to those protesting these actions.

The far right, having no effective economic or political arguments they can use to minimize and demonize Occupy Wall Street has resorted to a riff on the readiness argument. They are again betting against the American people's tolerance for change and diversity, essentially hoping the American people are not ready for changing the way our economy works and that the sight of a few people who need could use a shower or who have funny hairdos will drive the rest of America back into the arms of Wall Street. The American might surprise the pundits again and show that they are ready for anything except more right wing attempts at division.

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