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Occupy the Soul of America: Why OWS Is a Spiritual Movement

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OCCUPY WALL STREET
AP

It happened, as we guessed it would, at midnight when the TV crews had gone home and the weary activists would put up the least resistance. In retrospect, it seems to have been inevitable. As I reported in my last post, even before the chaotic eviction last night, it was getting cold, folks were falling sick, squabbling over turf, stuff was being stolen, nerves were fraying. The mood in the Wall Street camp was coming to seem less like Eden before the fall and more like the trenches of the Somme.

That was the bad news. The good news is that Occupy Wall Street is not going anywhere. It is here to stay. The demonstrators have returned home now to their central heating. And that is probably a good thing. What New York's Mayor Bloomberg will have a harder time shutting down, however, is the spirit of the place, which is the spirit of resistance to business as usual.

The sleepover in Zuccotti Park is over for the time being, but the genie is not going to be stuffed back into the lamp any time soon. The thing about genies, however, is that their capacity for mischief is as great as their power for doing good. Moreover, genies typically limit their beneficiaries to only three wishes. Aladdin knew exactly what he wanted. Does Occupy Wall Street?

Critics of the activists call them anarchic and unfocused. They bemoan their failure to spell out concrete political goals, and to implement a strategy to achieve them. What I suspect really gets under the skin of the chattering class, however, is not that the Occupiers have no goals, but that they refuse to limit their to-do-list to the three wishes typically allotted by the genies of politics-as-usual. It's as if some runt were to go up to the Santa Claus at FAO Schwarz, and, when Saint Nick asked him what he wanted for Christmas, instead of asking for a Lego set or the latest video game, he were to demand the whole store lock, stock and barrel.

Limiting your agenda to a few modest and "achievable" objectives is what pragmatic politics is all about. What the critics have missed, however, is that OWS is not a political movement, or rather, it is a lot more than just a political movement. It is a cry of collective pain and a wake up call for a nation asleep. When is the last time your alarm clock limited itself to a few polite and measured chimes?

What is more, the time for begging the fat cats on Wall Street for a few crumbs fallen from their lavish table is through, and so is the time for requesting the Washington circus masters to throw some chunks of raw meat our way. This is what the protesters understand. OWS is not just saying -- tax the rich, give us a little financial reform, affordable health care, a living minimum wage, or what have you, and everything will be OK again. It is saying -- "Enough is enough!"

And that is a hard message to pigeonhole, or to dismiss, for that matter. It presents a problem for would-be-debunkers. By refusing to define itself, or to limit its agenda, the Occupy movement weaves and evades its critics like a Kung Fu Master, who can appear, paradoxically, everywhere and nowhere, and ends up exhausting the opponent, who never succeeds in landing a punch.

I'm not sure this is a deliberate strategy on the part of the Occupiers. More likely, it is the unwitting result of the sheer bigness of what they have got to say -- namely, that it isn't working anymore, none of it. Politics, polarized, gridlocked, unresponsive, drowning in lies, sold to the highest bidder is not working; the economy, terminally in debt, addicted to greed, heartless, gambling away our collective futures is not working. Education, medicine, religion, you name it -- there is not a single institution in America today that is effectively serving human needs.

So what is Occupy Wall Street asking for? Even the activists themselves can't say. Is that because they are befuddled about their aims? I think not. The occupiers understand -- as the pundits do not -- that the failures that we are dealing with are systemic and profound. And it will no longer do to tinker around the edges. It will no longer do to take three aspirin and see me in the morning, because, let's face it, the doctor is as sick as we are, and -- guess what -- he doesn't have a clue.

So we had better find ourselves another doctor. Or as Albert Einstein put it more philosophically, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

In other words, we are going to have to try something new here. And what that new thing is nobody can yet say, because it has to arise from a new place, not the usual calculations of political expediency. Moreover, it is going to have to develop organically from within the societal body and not be implanted from the outside by some hierarchical movement and its prefabricated list of demands.

That is why I call Occupy Wall Street a spiritual rather than a political movement. By spiritual I don't mean religious. We are not talking about a belief system, or a dogmatic program for universal salvation, but a no-holds-barred searching of our collective soul.

OWS is not about supplying readymade answers and political solutions, but about asking the right questions. What kind of world do we want -- one where big money rules and the gap between the rich and the rest of us expands exponentially, or a society based on caring and mutual help? How do we move as a nation beyond our addiction to war, the greed of a predatory financial system, the marginalization of the poor and increasingly the middle class, the systematic destruction of the ecosystem for the short term profit of a few?

These are not easy questions, and it is a tribute to the Occupiers that they offer no easy answers. They understand -- what those in power have so far failed to grasp -- that what America needs now is not yet another farcical battle for political power, but nothing less than a struggle to reclaim the soul of the nation. And that can only come from below, from the ninety nine percent, not from the leaders who have failed us so spectacularly.

The media indicts the occupiers for being "politically unsophisticated." But this ostensible weakness is their greatest strength. Nobody has yet told them what is possible and what is impossible to accomplish. Nobody has told them that they need to trim their message to fit into a slot on the Nightly News. Nobody has told them that they have to define the issues in the partisan "us versus them," cat-fight terms which are trumpeted in the mainstream media. Maybe that is why you don't often hear the Occupiers trashing Tea Party members, but acknowledging their shared victimization by a system whose only ethic seems to be to fleece everyone equally.

The pundits dismiss the protests as being idealistic and without impact on the real world. What world do these commentators inhabit? In barely a month and a half since the occupation began, our national discourse has been substantially reframed. Taboos like income inequality, corporate dominance of society, capitalist greed and the crimes of empire are now being openly discussed in living rooms and on editorial pages across the country.

If nothing else, by laying the blame squarely at Wall Street's door, OWS has offered a compelling counter-narrative to the right's simplistic tirades against bloated government and the sins of regulation. It is not government that is the root of all evil -- it's the money, stupid -- the same big money that buys and sells our politicos like steer at a livestock auction. In a recent poll, 54 percent of Americans agree with the occupiers, double the number that approve of the Tea Party.

Moreover, the escalating disarray in the Republican presidential arena may be due, at least in part, to the tectonic shifts in public discourse catalyzed by OWS. Candidates are scrambling to appear not unsympathetic to protester concerns, while at the same time holding on to right wing shibboleths like freezing tax rates, and deregulating the financial industry. A Houdini-like feat which may prove to be beyond even the shape-shifting prowess of slippery Mitt, who charged that the protesters were fomenting "class warfare," then backtracked a week later allowing that he "Worried about the 99 percent... I understand how they feel."

Notwithstanding the unstable sands of Mr. Romney's sympathies, it is clear that the occupiers have pricked a raw nerve, and that they are not going away anytime soon. While many of the encampments are down for the time being, their spirit of outrage and, oddly enough, of hope and faith in the power of democratic discourse, will doubtless morph into other forms in the months ahead.

So long as the movement avoids the temptation to over-define themselves, and spell out their agenda in partisan terms -- as the pundits glibly advise -- they will retain the spiritual authority to speak to all of us, not from a narrow political soapbox, but from the immediacy of their suffering -- which is our own suffering, as well.

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