When a movement begun on Wall Street reaches middle America in less than a month, you know there's something significant going on. Though, as some commentators have taken to quoting Buffalo Springfield's signature song ("For What It's Worth"), "What it is ain't exactly clear. . . ." You can say that again.
Occupy Wall Street is made up of union members, latter-day hippies, anarchists, homemakers, socialists, students, street people, 9/11 truthers, youth, New Agers, and the un- or underemployed. Some are earnest, some are restless, some are just along for the ride, but all are said to be "frustrated"-just like the president claimed to be in an email sent to supporters on Sept. 1 and on several occasions since. How does frustrated work as a battle cry? Try it: Shout at the top of your lungs, "I'M FRUSTRATED!"
Lots of things frustrate us, from sticky jar lids to push mowers that won't start. "To frustrate" means to hinder some purpose-but that's just the problem. The "Occupiers" from Wall Street to Mulholland Drive have a long list of grievances but no clear purpose. That lack hasn't stopped them, though.
My little corner of the Midwest, an area known for conservative politics and family values, managed to whip up a few hundred Occupiers who met last week to hash out a plan. At the top of their agenda was an endorsement of the Occupy Wall Street statement. Next, plans for an Afghanistan war protest to take place at the local U.S. senator's office and a Peace Network protest outside Bank of America. Coming up: A guest speaker on "Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age." Finally, a list of "reasonable goals," including a possible request for a limit to be placed on incoming corporations to the city, support for programs promoting self-sufficiency, a plan for videotaping police brutality, and development of a "think tank" with clear messages and educational outreach.
The minutes read like an over-earnest 1 a.m. gabfest in the dorm, circa 1970. I appreciate their sincerity and commitment to non-violence, and, like so many Democrats, "understand their frustration." Some of the goals and grievances get my sympathy, and would even get my support under the right circumstances. The problem is a bag too small to hold all the complaints. It's as though someone passed around a sign-up sheet asking for everybody's ideas about "What's wrong with the world?" When G.K. Chesterton was queried on that question by the London Times, he famously replied, "I am." The Occupiers are not so succinct. Their statement is obviously modeled on the Declaration of Independence: a preamble followed by a long list of faults attributed to King George III. Here the villain is something loosely labeled "Capitalist Corporations," and complaints include "perpetuating inequality and discrimination," "poisoning the food supply," "holding students hostage with thousands of dollars of debt on education," even "perpetuating colonialism at home and abroad."
Blogger Andrew Stiles reports on an overheard conversation in a D. C. coffee shop. To the question of what's it all about, one young supporter observed, "Basically they're protesting . . . well . . . uh . . . capitalism . . . basically. . . . They basically want to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a socialist government, which I support."
That's the gist of it. Basically.
Many observers on the right are dismissing the movement for its lack of clarity and its grab-bag composition, but that's probably a mistake. In 1789 a few hundred members of the French Third Estate gathered on a tennis court when they were locked out of the General Assembly. They pledged to stand together until their various grievances were heard by the nobility and the crown. It was an orderly beginning that got a little out of hand, leading to Mme. Guillotine and a period known as The Terror. There's no guillotine in our future, but a movement this amorphous and angry will be impossible to control. Having already reached almost 700 cities worldwide, they have momentum. Where the Big Mo will take them is disconcerting to contemplate.