Tuesday, January 24, 2012


January 24, 2012:

What happened to Occupy Wall Street? Winter weather, presumably. Or maybe the movement was as evanescent as its message was vague. I wrote a piece about it that ran in the January issue of Town & Country in which I explained why it struck me as useless and ill-thought-out--actually not thought out at all--and I'm still processing the reactions I got from my friends. My friends are liberal, and they disagreed with me. Even though the movement accomplished nothing concrete, they said, it did raise consciousness about the income gap, which has been growing steadily for more than thirty years. Well, OK. But the income gap has not only been growing for thirty years, it has been reported on during most of that time, if you cared to look. Economists call it the Great Divergence, and the best piece I've read on the subject ran in Slate as a series about a year ago, or maybe a year and a half. It was written by Timothy Noah and he explained pretty thoroughly the congregation of factors that has caused it. He also made it clear that the phenomenon--as is true of most social phenomena once you get into them--has complicated causes, many of them global in scale, and only one of which is the greed of what he calls the Stinking Rich, and that you cannot hope to solve the huge economic problems the country faces simply by lopping off their heads, guillotine-style.

In any case the Great Divergence is a huge problem, it affects our future as a nation quite deeply, and it deserves better than a half-assed living-in-tents movement that wanted mostly, it seemed to me, to feel good about itself, to see itself as a true democracy in which everyone had a voice, a la the ancient Greek city states, in which citizens met en masse to make critical decisions. That system produced Athens, whose citizens met en masse and sent Thucydides into exile for not making it to Sicily in time to support the Athenian army there, even though bad weather made it impossible to him to get there in time, and met again to condemn Socrates to death for asking inconvenient questions. They want, in other words, to come off as virtuous. What crap. Come on, people. Do you really think sitting around on park benches discussing whether or not they should even have an agenda is going to accomplish anything? No message ever emerged from these wannabe rebels. Put them up against the blacks who put their lives, their lives, on the line in Selma in 1965, or the citoyens who stormed the Bastille in 1789 or the citizens of what was not yet the United States who starved and died in the snows of Valley Forge to form, de novo, of all things, the first modern republic. Or, most recently, an object lesson in what a real movement looks like, the Islamic citizens who fighting for their lives in Syria right now to depose the Assads from their dictatorship. Put them up against these people and they look simply pathetic.

This country is on the road to becoming second-rate, if not third; it has already lost its place as a leader in all kinds of measures, not just in income equality but in medical care and, most importantly of all, in education. In economic opportunity we have flat-lined. The percentage of our children who live in poverty is a national disgrace. Millions of kids have no chance at all of ever improving their lives, the number of people in prison is a nightmare. And we think Occupy Wall Street is a movement. No it's not. It has no program, no agenda, no legs, no discernible leaders. Indeed, it abjures leaders. Get real.

By which I mean, if you want to change things there are established means to do it. Those means are political, and politics is unavoidably dirty, complicated, Machiavellian. It entails working with people you don't like and don't agree with to come to some kind of flawed compromise that gives each side something and takes something away from each side. It requires you to meet and greet, to think long and hard about complicated issues, and to harbor, somewhere in the back of your mind, a dedication to the common good. So run for office if you really want to change things. Or serve on a local government committee, find out for yourself what it's like to be under attack from people who mistake your motives, what it's like to have people in the community call you at all hours wanting something or complaining about something, all of which you will endure as a public service and for which you will be paid nothing at all.

Do that and I'll begin to take you and your opinions seriously. Or present me with a set of ideas, a program, you're willing to die for. I'll take that seriously, too.