After spending two days at the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street campout, I have yet to encounter anybody with a serious platform, or to glean any coherent sense of why they are there. The terminal vagueness which is the hallmark of the demonstration was best articulated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in 2004’s Team America, in which a disgruntled and effusive Tim Robbins puppet complains that, “the corporations sit there in their… in their corporation buildings, and… and, and see, they’re all corporation-y… and they make money.” This is a sentiment I have heard repeatedly from attendees, almost verbatim. It is always accompanied by derisive gestures toward the skyscrapers towering overhead, whose construction, I am informed without irony by the union members who have now got in on the action, is a source of well-paying union jobs.
When I try to transcend the inchoate vitriol and ask What Should Be Done About All The Problems?, indignation turns quickly to silence, or frustration — or both.
In truth, those camped out in Zuccotti Park are running a commune more than a protest. They have established a small communitarian village, which is punctuated by a small cabal of the angry, the insane, and the ignorant. Nothing I have seen is representative of a serious movement, and even less is indicative of any substantive thought. John Maynard Keynes is nowhere to be seen; instead, Occupy Wall Street has become an irresistible magnet for performance artists with generic grievances, and those who consider Stéphane Hessell’s absurd pamphlet, Indignez vous!, to be a serious rallying cry. So prevalent are these types, in fact, that a significant portion of those in attendance might as well be wearing t-shirts announcing, I’m Only Here For The Drum Circle And Organic Arugula.
The upshot is that a stranger walking past the scene would – does – have trouble ascertaining precisely what it is that the protesters are after. Within twenty yards, I saw, often self-contradictory, signs against nuclear weapons, tax loopholes, the tea party, cuts to government spending, and the bailout; and for the legalization of drugs, high-speed rail, free college education, redistribution of wealth, and confiscatory taxation. It is telling that the most coherent signs in the park are the ones advertising the table offering free quiche and lentils.
“For the first time in my life,” a number of hand-drawn signs announce, “I feel at home.” No doubt. And to walk into the middle of the park, into the heart of the commune, is to gain a key insight: Like the sheep-like disciples that Brian inadvertently picks up in Monty Python’s movie (“I say you are [the Messiah], Lord, and I should know; I’ve followed a few!”), many of the people here are simply looking for a movement, any movement. They are looking for an expression of something that will cast them as the brave little guy fighting against an unjust world, and — perhaps more importantly — to say, “I was there.” How many Facebook profile pictures have changed in the last fifteen days, casting the protagonist as an endless advocate of justice. “We are the 99%,” the signs read. Not really — they are a thousand people in a public park. The 99% are swarming around them, getting on with their lives.
Joseph McNamara, at the Hoover Institution, has seen the Occupy Wall Street protests and is worried about an “American Autumn.” He even goes as far as to suggest that “the world may be on the brink of unimaginable political and cultural revolutions.” As someone who has been down to Zuccotti Park, I can say fret not. The perennial nature of this sort of thing should be noted, but even as Leftist protests go, this is a damp squib, the importance of which has been dramatically overstated because of its famous location and the ubiquity of media outlets looking for a narrative. Far from being the Lexington of the Left’s revolution, Zuccotti Park has become the stage for something quite different: It is the first posthumous Grateful Dead concert, with a sprinkling of Brechtian aestheticism thrown in for good measure.