Thursday, November 17, 2011

Zombify Wall Street

This is a post in two parts. Part I approaches the Occupy Wall Street movement as a largely un- or misinformed person, talking like I know what I’m talking about. In other words, it’s a commentary/discussion of OWS before the author did any research whatsoever. Knowledge about the movement was limited to brief conversations with other people and general, if light, media awareness. Part II is a reflection on Part I based on subsequent research.

Part I

As a mathematic equation, I understand Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as follows:

Variety of People+Varying Degrees of Anger/Dissatisfaction+Extensive Media Coverage=OWS.

Notably this is only one element (hunger for brains) away from a zombie occupation.

Humor aside, having a hunger for brains seems like it might be an improvement for the protestors. As it stands, they don’t appear to have a hunger for anything besides doing “something” about the 1%.  Indeed, the title “Occupy” is apt: all the protestors seem to be doing is occupying, camped out in front of building were other people come to work.

I am, of course, being unfair. OWS is at a protesting disadvantage because it’s not protesting anyone or anything in particular. There is not a particular company, government body, or individual who has specifically earned OWS’s ire. It’s protesting “the way things are.” It’s not so much protesting the 1%, that top tier of economic society where all the wealth is. It’s protesting the fact that such an imbalance exists. And since there is no particular business or person to be mad at, OWS has settled on the most obvious physical manifestation. In New York, that’s Wall Street. In other cities protestors have decided upon city hall or some other equivalent representation of “the institution.”

And let’s be honest, when we talk about the imbalance that has brought occupiers to the streets, I think we all carry a little chip on our shoulders. If it’s really true that 1% of the people in our country have most of the wealth (and I honestly don’t know, I just have seen signs to that effect), then I can certainly see that some protesting is in order. Or at least a strongly worded letter. Because you and I and everyone else want some of that money, need some of that money. And if the current economic or government or social system is encouraging this type of imbalance then we should encourage change in those systems.

The problem then, is not that the occupiers don’t have a valid complaint. In fact our country was founded on a pretty similar complaint. The problem is that OWS has identified a predicament without proffering a solution. Imagine, for example, if the Continental Congress had issued their grievances in the Declaration of Independence without later establishing a working and lasting resolution in the Constitution. A solution is one of the reasons we had the American Revolution and not the French Revolution (yes, I know about the gross historical inaccuracies here. It’s only for illustration).

Obviously the analogy is asking a lot from the protestors who appear (from pictures) to be a mix of honest, hardworking, recently unemployed, average Americans and vagrant hippies. But it’s not necessary for the protestors to channel the Founding Fathers. Some indication of some sort of leadership or clear goal or demands would suggest more is going on behind the eyes than a dull throb of angst, simmering occasionally to anger.

I guess, in summation, that I agree with OWS that there is a problem with the balance of money and power in our society and I think it’s fine that they’re waving around signs saying so. But I don’t trust or expect them to do anything lasting about it. And so, frankly, I expect OWS to go the way of Elian Gonzales, a vaguely remembered event that used to be a big deal.

On the other hand, if OWS develops a hunger for brains, I think we’ll be talking about it for years to come.

Part II

Okay. So I want to spend as little time as possible apologizing for anything I wrote above that is inaccurate, insulting, or otherwise an indication of gross ignorance. The ignorance was intentional and is intended to demonstrate a possible attitude an average “mind-my-own-business” American may have to OWS. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to think anymore about anyone’s attitude toward OWS.

I am simply blown away by how much is being said and written about OWS. To the point where I don’t really know what to say that hasn’t already been said, it would seem, hundreds of times over.  And this is after seven weeks (ending November 4).

I’ve faulted OWS pretty heavily for the lack of a clear message. And I am far from being the only one. But after learning more, I’m less certain that’s a bad thing. The movement is very, very young. Yes, it is made up of a wide collection of people with amorphous views all united behind generalized dissatisfaction with the current economic situation. And no, they don’t know what exactly to do about it. And as far as I can tell, no one is really talking for OWS; everyone is talking about OWS. But, I have been convinced that all this is just fine for right now. I am convinced that it is more important for OWS to focus on surviving than it is to focus on clear demands.

I did a Google Trends search, which allows you to look at the frequency with which terms have been searched on the engine and, as you might expect, “Occupy Wall Street” skyrockets in the end of the third quarter of 2011, coinciding with the OWS’s first activities in mid-September. Just for perspective, I compared the result with searches for “Facebook,” “Google,” and “Wikipedia.” OWS didn’t measure up (Facebook has the commanding lead).  The most interesting comparison I made was to “Tea Party,” which had a similar meteoric rise in early 2009, coinciding with the movements February 2009 protests. Both also rapidly tail off. Fortunately for the Tea Party, interest has continued to some degree and so has the Party itself. It’s too early to tell whether, OWS will have a similar continuing existence, or if it will fade into obscurity.

If it does fade, it will not matter what OWS demands. And survival may be a struggle. With the winter coming on fast, Occupy Wall Street may be forced to stop occupying Wall Street. It remains to be seen how much the solidarity and loyalty of the organization depends on its literal visibility on the streets of New York and other cities. What form will the movement’s strong social network presence take? Can a leader or a group of leaders emerge from the morass? Difficult times are ahead.

But like a rough stone rolling, each obstacle that OWS manages to overcome will help to refine and define the movement. If it survives, it will prove that it is worth listening too. And I have no doubt that if it survives, the movement will have a found a clear voice.

And it will say “BRAAAAAAIIINS….”

Just kidding.

Glen Ellsworth

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